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Like a polaroid picture

7 Jun 11 | Re: How to build up and release poetic energy

Yet another great thing about having bought a lot of ropey albums in the 1990s is that you occasionally stumble on a gem like Dubstar’s St Swithin’s Day. This is a song which was written by Billy Bragg, so I presume it’s a cover, but I have not heard the original. Of course we all find it hard to think of St Swithin’s Day without remembering that terrible play Bart Simpson wrote that time, that was so bad that (1) it could be used as torture and (2) it seemed to somehow contain reported speech even though it was a play. But this song overcomes that obstacle and manages to be sweepingly lovely and wistful and also include a poetic device that I had never thought of, which is a reverse simile.

Billy Bragg writes, and Sarah Blackwood sings:

And the polaroids that keep us together / Must surely fade away / Like the love that we spoke of forever / On St Swithin's Day.

Usually, you’d say “Our love has faded away just like a load of old polaroids” (and one day soon all the polaroids will be faded, so the Bragg lyric just gets more poignant); but in this reverse simile you swap it round: you put your point of reference first, and then you compare it to the thing you’re really talking about. This gives the whole image a nice little sting, I think because you can spend a long time describing object A and then bring everything you’ve said about it to bear on object B all at once. It gives you a dam that you can use to build up poetic pressure, and then let it go in a big burst. Like a poetic capacitor.

Now that I think of it, Dante does this all the time. He’ll often start a canto by banging on about, say, the shipwrights of Genoa for twenty-one lines, painting an elaborate picture of the tar that boils in their barrels before saying “ anyway, this looked a bit like that” and depositing the accumulated farads of poetical energy into an immediately vivid description of one of the Bowges of Hell.

This is definitely the best way to deploy your similes, I’m going to say. On the one hand you have Dante and Bragg, and on the other you have back-of-the-envelope ham-fisters like Robert Burns plugging away with “My luve is like a red, red rose”. No competition, really.

Posted by AUNT HELGA at 20:44

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