About That Maple Syrup in Vermont

James J. Kilpatrick
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Posted: Jan 10, 2006 11:34 AM

A few weeks ago an e-mail came from Faithful Reader. He had just fathered a simile and, like most fathers, he was proud of his creation: It read:

"The words coursed through his fingertips to the keys of his computer board the way maple syrup flows from a pitcher in Vermont on a cold December morn."

He apologized: "Terrible! I know." And he handed an apple to teacher.

Alas, he may not have begotten a "terrible" simile, but it was not a good simile. To switch metaphors, he had baked a chewy cookie. It had lumps in it. Six prepositional phrases! One inapposite verb! My reader's confection was just bad enough to prompt a few comments on this most familiar of literary pastries.

What are the rules for writing a good simile? First, a good simile must be composed of elements that are both familiar and plausible. Second, it should be so tightly packed that it contains no unnecessary words -- indeed, no unnecessary syllables. Third, a good simile should have an easy swing to it. Like the lines Hamlet wrote for his players, similes should fall trippingly from the tongue.

Here we have a simile that meets only the first requirement: All of us are familiar with fingertips, keyboards and maple syrup. We can readily imagine frosty mornings in Vermont. But on such a frosty morning, would the syrup "course"? To course is to run freely, pass rapidly. The usual image of maple syrup -- at least to this non-Yankee -- is of a sticky-sweet fluid with a viscosity lower than molasses but still pretty thick.

What is a "computer board"? The technical term intrudes upon the bucolic image. Our syrup is flowing, the author informs us, "from a pitcher." Why the pitcher? Why December? In a simile, every syllable counts. Less is more! Perhaps this author's words might better have flowed "as slowly as syrup on a winter morning in Vermont." This is still not a good simile. It has one element of alliteration, but it lacks a second alliterative element to maintain a parallel construction.

If we had gone gropingly to "a winter morning in Montpelier," we would have gained that second element, but would most of our readers have understood from context that Montpelier is in fact the capital of Vermont? Suppose we cause the gentleman's words to flow "as slowly as silver maple syrup on a snowy morning in Vermont?" Nahhh! Contrived! Too much alliteration! Not original! There must be writers' days when words run like rabbits, and days when words run like rusty robots. Every writer knows such variant days.

The elements of a good simile must be familiar elements. Are we describing something soft? Then perhaps we have something as "fluffy as thistledown," or "soft as a puppy's paw," or as "soft as a strokable cat." John Updike wrote of a situation that was softening "as slowly as a pat of butter." Longfellow saw waves "as soft as carded wool."

On the other hand, other writers have spoken of convictions gone limp as a bath towel, of arms as limp as old carrots, of words as gentle as a pigeon's coo. Wordsworth saw a distant ridge "soft as a cloud." Another writer scoffed at ideas "as limp as calamari."

Notice that with the possible exception of "calamari," all these similes rely upon plausibly familiar elements: ears, cats, clouds, coos, strokable cats, old carrots and carded wool. If it is not necessary to include a word, it is necessary not to include it. Tell me, how many words would you use to say how loud is "loud"?