January 2017: "Wild Oats"
In this installment, I wanted to talk about a few stanzas from the poem "Wild Oats," by WS Merwin. When you click on the link, you'll go to the Merwin Conservancy page where the poem is archived.
Do enjoy reading the entire poem. Then I'd like to direct your attention to the second-to-last stanza:
I have to keep telling myself
why I am going away again
I do not seem to listen
In this stanza I enjoy the metaphor created by the speaker describing himself as another person. It's not uncommon to hear someone speak of "telling themselves" this or that; here when Merwin adds –
I do not seem to listen
– he extends the metaphor of himself as a separate person just a little bit further, as one who is also not listening, or being at odds with himself, to convey the sense of his internal resistance to "going away." I find it effective and fresh, with a bit of humor.
What are your thoughts?
And a related writing prompt for the month:
Thinking about Merwin's poem, do you ever talk to yourself or think of yourself as being in some way "of two minds"? How would you convey that in imagery or metaphor? You could also think back to the previous Metaphor and More (December 2016) to write about the mind-body connection (or separation), and how that might make a person feel like two instead of one, at times.
Until soon, all best wishes for your reading and writing!
December 2016: Similes and Metaphor
Hello, and best wishes for the end of 2016 and the beginning of the new year! I hope 2017 brings you much creativity and enjoyment of existing pursuits as well as new endeavors.
One new thing I am doing is creating a website, where I will be listing my classes and archiving these metaphor discussions. Since it's not quite ready, one thing I wanted to let you know about is that, in addition to teaching at The Loft, I do one-on-one creative writing mentoring, tailored to the goals of the individuals I work with. You can e-mail me if at any point you'd like to know more, and I will also let you know when I officially launch my website.
Okay – on to Metaphor and More!
Today I wanted to look a little more at simile by giving you a link to a blog piece at the Poetry Foundation website titled "Similes and the Moving Van of Metaphor," by poet A. E. Stallings. In this piece, Stallings starts with some humor, punning, and interesting thoughts about etymology pertaining to metaphor. Then she goes on to talk about simile and what she appreciates about it. As we talked about in Mastering Metaphor, simile and metaphor are not competing with each other for greatness in the writer's toolkit – one isn't superior to the other, but it's useful and interesting to pay attention to their different uses, so that you may employ them with intentionality and impact. Stallings writes that she senses a misguided tendency in the writing world to view metaphor as superior and simile as more "prosey, discursive, dull" – and then she goes on show us some examples of simile used effectively.
I like how Stallings describes simile as a comparison of two things that create "an interesting dissonance that continues to vibrate." I think the fact that, in simile, the comparison is pointed out to the reader through comparison words such as "like" or "as" does create an echo between the compared things and our awareness of it as a comparison. In other ways, however, I think I consider metaphor as more of a vibrating "dissonance" – that is, a dissonance between the compared things themselves simply because the tenor is being stated directly in terms of the vehicle (e.g., "that child is a flower") rather than the two parts remaining more separated by simile's use of comparison words (e.g., "that child is like a flower"). How does it feel to you? There is a technical term, "cognitive dissonance," which is what we experience when we encounter metaphor – the discomfort we feel when our minds are asked to reconcile two different ideas. When thinking about a metaphor, our brain senses something discordant and quickly scans through all the characteristics we know about the things being compared to see how they could be seen as similar. I think cognitive dissonance may often be stronger with metaphor, but not always.
But I do get what Stallings means – "… to put it visually," she says, " it is as if the simile sets up two pictures before our eyes that we can continually go back and forth between, noting similarities and differences, whereas in the metaphor, the image of the metaphor almost replaces the original one it overlays."
I think Stallings is saying that because simile calls our attention to the comparison, we are more aware of the dissonance than we are in metaphor, where we are immersed in a blend of the two things being compared. That's a great point, but I don't know if that is true for me – in metaphor, I don't get the sense of the vehicle replacing the tenor. I still feel the blend, and I think metaphor may actually make the dissonance ring inside me a little louder via the fact that the two parts are being directly equated; but perhaps simile creates more of an intellectual dissonance and the metaphor creates more of an emotional-intellectual dissonance? What do these differences feel like to you? I think all of this is interesting to contemplate.
Stallings gives some examples from the Odyssey and Langley's "Gorse Fires," which she describes as "a condensing of the end of the Odyssey to almost nothing but its amazing similes," and you may find these interesting to read. At any rate, may we all, as Stallings says, become " enamored of the simile and its possibilities–of syntax, dissonance, irony, commentary, complexity, allusion, disillusion."
As part of this discussion I thought I would also show you what I think are some effective similes in a poem called "Mind-Body Problem," by Katha Pollitt.
I find the following similes interesting:
… made me tyrannize and patronize it
like a cruel medieval baron, or an ambitious
English-professor husband ashamed of his wife –
her love of sad movies, her budget casseroles
and regional vowels.
Here, the things that are being compared are the manner in which the speaker "tyrannizes and patronizes" her body and the way a "cruel medieval baron" treats his subjects or "an ambitious English-professor husband " treats his wife. That is, the two "things" being compared are each a complex of attitudes and behaviors.
I think this use of simile is very good. If it were changed to metaphor, the effect of the speaker's reflection on her life would be diminished, I think. Or it might make it sound too severe. It also wouldn't make as much sense, grammatically, unless it were rewritten, and it might be difficult to rewrite without making it awkward or destroying the effect.
Here is another example of simile from the poem:
we might even have come, despite our different backgrounds,
to a grudging respect for each other, like Tony Curtis
and Sydney Poitier fleeing handcuffed together,
instead of the current curious shift of power
In this simile, she suggests that even though she and her body have had their differences, perhaps they could have found more common ground and bonded under times of duress. (The reference is to a 1958 crime film called "The Defiant Ones," starring Tony Curtis and Sydney Poitier, about two escaped prisoners who are shackled together and must cooperate in order to escape.)
Again, the simile, with its comparison word, is perfect for this context, I think. Taking out the "like" and rewriting it has metaphor would eliminate a bit of the sense we have of the speaker's reflection and sense of wonder:
we might even have come, despite our different backgrounds,
to a grudging respect for each other –Tony Curtis
and Sydney Poitier fleeing handcuffed together,
And one more simile from the poem:
in which I find I am being reluctantly
dragged along by my body as though by some
swift and powerful dog.
I find this a very powerful simile, and I think it is more effective for being a simile rather than a metaphor. Consider it if it were written as a metaphor:
in which I find I am being reluctantly
dragged along by my body,
a swift and powerful dog.
I think that the original, which calls our attention to the comparison, reflects the speaker's wonder –and astonishment – at time, aging, and how quickly it all goes by the time you're in middle age. Perhaps it also reflects her ability to perhaps be in denial part of the time. (We can always still say it's "as though," when we don't want to face up to our own mortality.) Rewritten as metaphor, I find myself more focused on the ways in which the speaker's body might look or act like a dog rather than the allusion to the body's time clock.
It's also interesting how, in each of these examples, the simile is part of an extended metaphor of the speaker and her body being two separate "individuals"– individuals who are somewhat at odds with each other. We can say that the body is being personified – which is curious, because we think of our body as being part of our person, but the body without the mind is different from what we think of as our self – we don't normally think of the body as having a life apart from the rest of us, which is how she describes it here. This brings up some great philosophical points for all of us to contemplate!
I hope you enjoyed reading this poem.
As you think about the end of 2016 and the beginning of the new year, what might you write using simile? Perhaps it could be something such as "The end of the year is like…" Or
"My anticipation of the new year is like…"
Have fun, and all best wishes for your writing and everything else in the new year!
I hope you are well.
In this month's installment of Metaphor and More, I'd like to take a look at Grace Paley's very short story "Mother." You can find it at this URL:
Before reading my commentary below, please read this story and gather your thoughts/make some notes. Here are some questions for you to think about: What kind of emotional situation does this story present? Think about how the story is written; what effect does this create for you? Where do you think you identify some metaphor-like effects?
Here are my thoughts…
This piece strikes me, overall, as a portrait of the speaker's remembering her mother – and to some extent, both parents. She recalls particular memories and details, but it's the way the piece is written that creates an impressionistic portrait of the daughter remembering and having feelings about those memories. The author creates this portrait of memory through metaphor-like effects.
The speaker goes into some detail about individual anecdotes/memories, but also paints with broader strokes in some places. For instance, the first paragraph recalls some details of a particular memory, but the paragraph ends with what I consider the "broader strokes" in a portrait of the mother: "She had begun her worried preparations for death." I also like how the first paragraph sets up a motif for many of the memories – with the mother standing in various doorways. And this is an interesting image – almost like a photograph, in that a doorway is like a frame.
In the second paragraph, the speaker describes a memory jogged by the image of her mother standing in the doorway of a different room than the one described in the first paragraph. One could speculate that this memory might be from the speaker's adolescence or young adulthood since she is still living at home but is involved in politics.
We can note some metaphor-like effects in the way there are diminishing transitional elements between paragraphs. After the final sentence of the second paragraph, "We guessed it all," the third paragraph begins with "At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch." We don't know how much later this statement was spoken or what took place between it and the event described in the previous paragraph. This abrupt transition replicates, in a metaphor-like way, the shifting memories of the speaker and the way memory works, generally – memories can reflect various time periods, and things can be juxtaposed and related in unusual, not always obvious, ways (though they may make perfect sense to our below-the-surface consciousness).
Transitions seem to disappear altogether as we move to the fourth paragraph: “Then she died”; the juxtaposition of paragraphs is now felt even more strongly. For me, this is a portrait of the daughter's impression of how it feels, at least in retrospect, like things happened so quickly, underscoring the sense of a longing to see her mother again. The movement between the last sentence of the third paragraph "What will become of you?" And the fourth paragraph, "Then she died," works very much like a metaphor (and like strong enjambment in poetry) in that the movement between these paragraphs compares a certain aspect of the mother's presence with a sense of her absence.
The fifth paragraph begins with a sentence that feels like a natural transition, after expressing the loss of the mother: "Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places…" And the rest of that sentence shifts into continual present with the participle "looking" – "at the window looking up and down the block, in the country garden among zinnias and marigolds, in the living room with my father." And even though we get a bit of a transition with that participle, the abrupt shift from the fifth paragraph to the sixth creates a metaphor-like effect, comparing that juxtaposition to the abrupt shifts of memory itself: "They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart…" and on through the rest of the paragraph. This transition from talking about remembering to an actual memory, and the way it is put in present tense as if it is just unfolding, works in a metaphor-like way for the speaker's moments of remembering and her state of mind. It does strike me as a portrait of memory, with these verbal structures on the page replicating the way one may reflect on time and remembering and then go into another specific memory. For the daughter in the story, it is almost as if she is there with her parents. She can see the chairs, hear the music, see the expressions on their faces.
She pulls back from that specific memory and reflects on past and present again in the seventh paragraph, which is a single sentence: "I wish I could see her in the doorway of the living room."
Then there is another abrupt shift from that paragraph to the eighth, giving us a specific memory again: "She stood there a minute. Then she sat beside him. They owned an expensive record player. They were listening to Bach. She said to him, Talk to me a little. We don't talk so much anymore." Perhaps the short sentences are employed to reflect her mother's speech, and/or reflects the way memory comes in.
The ninth paragraph is remembered speech from the speaker's father, or what she imagined he would have said, even if she doesn't remember exact words. Note the abrupt shifts, the non sequiturs, between some of the things the father says in that paragraph: "Listen to the music, he said. I believe you once had perfect pitch. I'm tired, he said." I think this likely reflects how she is stitching together remembered bits.
And then we have a final shift – from that paragraph to the last paragraph of the piece: "Then she died." Again, for me, this shift creates an impressionistic, metaphor-like effect for how little time the speaker feels she had with her mother, how she misses her, and perhaps how she feels her mother chafed against some of the things that happened in the family – how she worried about her daughter, how she longed to talk to a husband who didn't always want to talk. These shifts and juxtapositions create emotion without spelling it out.
I find this to be a powerful portrait of remembering, and I hope you find it interesting. If you have some thoughts about it that you'd like to share, feel free to e-mail me, and you could also let me know if you would like to share them with the whole group.
All best wishes for your reading and writing and everything else!
Greetings from the end of September! Hope you're all doing well and having a good start to your autumn season.
Beginning with this installment of Metaphor and More, I would like to invite you all to respond to these postings, if you feel like it – but absolutely no obligation at all to do so. To protect your confidentiality, I am still not showing the individual e-mail addresses, however; so if you feel like responding with a comment you can just reply to me, and when you do, please let me know if it is okay to share your thoughts with everyone else, and then I will do so. This list goes to all students who have taken Mastering Metaphor with me through The Loft and a handful of others who have heard of the list and were interested in joining. Also as always, please be sure to tell me if you want your name taken off this monthly discussion list.
Okay – down to talking about metaphor!
This month I wanted to look at a passage from a work of fiction – Katherine Anne Porter's novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which is set during the first World War. I was recently reading a discussion of this work, in an article in the May/Summer edition of the AWP Writer's Chronicle (publication of the Associated Writing Programs) titled "Double Vision – The Clarity of Narrative Distortion." The author, Scott Nadelson, talks about how some fiction writers’ way of portraying a character's varying mental and emotional states can have some interesting metaphor-like effects. In the article, Nadelson talks about Pale Horse, Pale Rider, among other short works. The editors of the AWP Chronicle were very gracious in sending me a PDF of his article so I could share it with you. It is attached.
I wanted to look at a few paragraphs in one particular passage of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, one of several in which the main character, Miranda, who has contracted the flu, is going in and out of dreamlike states of consciousness. (During World War I, as you may know, there was a great flu epidemic.) Her boyfriend had come by and, not finding her, had left a note for her. Here is the passage I wanted us to take a look at (pages [space] from The Collected Short Works of Katherine Anne Porter). It begins with a nurse reading out loud the note Miranda's boyfriend left for her:
"Here, I'll read it," said Ms. Tanner. "It says, 'They came and took you while I was away and now they will not let me see you. Maybe tomorrow they will, with my love, Adam,'" read Ms. Tanner in a firm dry voice, pronouncing the words distinctly. "Now do you see?" She asked soothingly.
Miranda, hearing the words one by one, forgot them one by one. "Oh, read it again, what does it say?" she called out over the silence that pressed upon her, reaching towards the dancing words that just escaped as she almost touched them. "That will do," said Dr. Hildesheim, calmly authoritarian. "Where is that bed?"
"There is no bed yet," said Ms. Tanner, as if she said, We are short of oranges. Dr. Hildesheim said, "Well, we will manage something," and Ms. Tanner drew the narrow trestle with bright crossed metal supports and small rubbery wheels into a deep jut of the corridor, out of the way of the swift white figures darting about, whirling and skimming like water flies all in silence. The white walls rose sheer as cliffs, a dozen frosted moons followed each other in perfect self-possession down a white lane and dropped mutely one by one into a snowy abyss.
What is this whiteness and silence but the absence of pain? Miranda lay lifting the nap of her white blanket softly between eased fingers, watching a dance of tall deliberate shadows moving behind a wide screen of sheets spread upon a frame. It was there, near her, on her side of the wall where she could see it clearly and enjoy it, and it was so beautiful she had no curiosity as to its meaning. Two dark figures nodded, bent, curtsied to each other, retreated and bowed again, lifted long arms and spread great hands against the white shadow of the screen; then with a single round movement, the sheets were folded back, disclosing two speechless men in white, standing, and another speechless man in white, lying on the bare springs of a white iron bed. The man on the springs was swabbed smoothly from head to foot in white, with folded bands across the face and a large stiff bow like merry rabbit ears dangled at the crown of his head.
The two living men lifted the mattress standing hunched against the wall, spread it tenderly and exactly over the dead man. Wordless and white they vanished down the corridor, pushing the wheeled bed before them. It had been an entrancing and leisurely spectacle, but now it was over. A pallid white fog rose in their wake insinuatingly and floated before Miranda's eyes, a fog in which was concealed all terror and all weariness, all the wrung faces and twisted backs and broken feet of abused, outraged living things, all the shapes of their confused pain and their estranged hearts; the fog might part at any moment and loose the horde of human torments. She put up her hands and said, Not yet, not yet, but it was too late. The fog parted and two executioners, white clad, move towards her pushing between them with marvelously deft and practiced hands the misshapen figure of an old man in filthy rags whose scanty beard waggled under his open mouth as he bowed his back and braced his feet to resist and delay the fate they had prepared for him. In a high weeping voice he was trying to explain to them that the crime of which he was accused did not merit the punishment he was about to receive; and except for this whining cry there was silence as they advanced. The soiled cracked bowls of the old man's hands held before him beseechingly as a beggar’s as he said, "before God I am not guilty," but they held his arms and drew him onward, passed, and were gone.
Nadelson writes that this passage shows the use of different kinds of narrative distortion – "mental distortion, as Miranda drifts in and out of consciousness… A distortion of time, as memories rise at overlap… and sensory distortion, seen first as Miranda witnesses a dead body carried away by two orderlies." After quoting the passage he goes on to say that "Along with the fog comes a syntactical blurring, one sentence tripping into the next, twisting and extending as Miranda's mind slips into fevered dreams… Coherence and frenzy, chaos and order, life and death: we see it all at once, as if caught together in a single photograph."
So, through language and juxtaposition of images, Porter shows Miranda going in and out of lucidity into more of a dreamlike state due to her illness by creating a metaphor-like effect – that is, by juxtaposing and sometimes intermingling a more expected type of description with a more surreal and dreamlike narrative, often with fewer paragraph breaks. In this way, Porter mingles a more traditional narrative with one that includes unexpected shifts and images, and this transports us into another reality as we read (or, perhaps, another "reading reality"), much as Miranda is transported into a different reality through her fluctuating states of consciousness because of her illness. This is similar to the way traditional metaphor states one thing in terms of another – the way it gives us an "immersion" experience. (As we talked about in Mastering Metaphor, you can understand this by comparing "That child is like a flower" [simile, where we are overtly invited to consider the comparison] with "That child is a flower" [metaphor, where we are immediately steeped inside the comparison].)
In his article, Nadelson talks about the way Porter (and the other authors he discusses in the article) creates a kind of distortion "that becomes a passageway to their narratives' underworld of subtext.… they accomplish what poets do with metaphor" (page 22). Nadelson describes this "narrative distortion" as follows:
"By blurring or confusing the sensory experience, we urge our readers to pay close attention. We may seduce them into a narrative with a surface that at first appears lucid, but one may ruffle that surface, doubling their vision with sometimes contrasting, sometimes contradictory, sometimes bewildering sensory experiences, we expand their scope of view: they can step back from the plane of the literal and glimpse the figurative complexities suggested by event and consequence." This is also what metaphor does. In another part of the article, where Nadelson talks about similar effects in Grace Paley's story "Mother," he writes, "This, of course, is what metaphor does, and also subtext: what we see on the surface is complicated by what we can intuit beneath."
Nadelson goes on to conclude that "Porter, like Hawkes and Paley, muddies the surface of narrative in order to lead us into the more complex, more mysterious terrain beneath. Distortion of the work of all three writers becomes a passageway to their narratives' underworld of subtext. By clouding our vision or doubling it, by showing us two things at once – steam and the horror it masks, past and present, dream and reality –they accomplish what poets do with metaphor, suggesting connections that allow us to see their characters' struggles from a fresh vantage point. By blurring the senses, or time, or states of consciousness, they make us leave closer squint to see more clearly."
Though I've quoted several passages from it, I encourage you to you read Nadelson's whole article, or at least the part about Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which is on pages 22 –26. Again, feel free to comment back to me about any of this, if you like, and if you do, let me know if I can share your comments with everyone else – and it's perfectly fine if you just want to respond to me and not the whole list; but if you do feel like sharing with everyone, they will benefit from your remarks as well.
Until next time, all best wishes with your reading and writing!
August 2016: A Poet Is a Nightengale
In past discussions, we have talked about how a metaphor is ultimately completed in ourselves; Jane Hirschfield writes, “Metaphor is only tasted and understood when carried into the self.”
For this installment of Metaphor and More, I invite you to read the article “Metaphor: A Poet is a Nightingale,” in which poet Edward Hirsch talks about how metaphor is also a transaction between the poet and the reader. As you read, think about how your favorite metaphors – ultimately completed inside you with all your own unique experiences and meaning fostering it – are also transactions between you and a writer. Taking this a step further – if you are looking at one of your own metaphors, who or what else might you be in transaction with?
Greetings! Welcome to Metaphor and More for July. For this installment, I wanted to look at a poem of James Wright's called "Gambling in Stateline, Nevada." I'd like to discuss the metaphors in this poem, particularly some that are constructed around interesting verbs and verb phrases.
Here's the poem:
Gambling in Stateline, Nevada
The great cracked shadow of the Sierra Nevada
Hoods over the last road.
I came down here from the side of
A cold cairn where a girl named Rachel
Just made it inside California
And died of bad luck.
Here, across from the keno board,
An old woman
Has been beating a strange machine
In its face all day.
Dusk limps past in the street.
I step outside.
I finger a worthless agate
In my pocket.
Before going on to read the rest of my commentary below, reread the poem another time or two and think about the metaphors. You might even want to jot down your thoughts.
Some of My Thoughts on the Poem
I like thinking about what Wright accomplishes with the verbs he uses to make some of those metaphors! In the first stanza, he creates a metaphor with the word "Hoods." That word denotes the action of covering (perhaps protectively, as a hood covers a head) "the last road." Or perhaps it is a hood in the sense of a shroud. The word "Hoods" creates a personification of the "cracked shadow," in that he gives the shadow the ability to take this action; I find this word also imparts emotion through the idea of the hood or shroud coming over the road. I think it's also interesting that the shadow is "cracked." So, all of these word choices add to the tone and emotions of the piece while creating a fresh metaphor. The sense of "hood" as a shroud has even more impact when one considers the second stanza, which mentions "a cold cairn" and a "girl" who "died of bad luck" – perhaps a reference to an old grave, maybe that of a girl who arrived with some people who took a gamble on a better life in the American west. Perhaps we all gamble in this business of living.
I find another striking metaphor in the third stanza where a machine – a slot machine perhaps? – is personified as having a face, and that metaphor is extended through the lines that describe the woman's actions: "An old woman" who "Has been beating a strange machine/In its face all day." With all its buttons, dials, and markings, the machine could well look like it has a face; and to someone who walked into the room and didn't know what was going on, it might look like the woman pushing on the buttons is beating it up. Or perhaps she actually is beating on the machine if she happens to be losing money! But it's a fresh metaphor, and seeing something like this as if we had never seen it before is one of our goals as creative writers – to see with fresh eyes, without our usual labeling, categorizing, and sometimes even dismissing of a thing as simply ordinary; to look at a thing as if we had never seen it before and describe it. If it helps you to do this, you can always take the role or viewpoint of someone who may never have encountered the thing in question, as Craig Raine does in his poem "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home," which we looked at in Mastering Metaphor.
Wright creates metaphor using another verb wonderfully in the fourth stanza of "Gambling in Stateline, Nevada" where he writes "Dusk limps past in the street." We may each have a different image of this particular dusk based on that metaphor/image (again, a personification) and I think that is not only fine, but good; his word choice is delightfully rich. It could be that by choosing "limps" he is painting an image of dimness – that it is very close to dark. Or perhaps on this night, the western sky is not particularly vivid – the color is not particularly saturated. Or perhaps he just wants to indicate that the dusk is passing slowly or unevenly – it limps rather than strides or strolls. The tone of his word choice relates to other words in the piece that indicate a tense, sad, or otherwise difficult situation. It makes us feel as if the day – or perhaps the speaker's spirit – after being witness to evidences of loss and violence, is limping away. It is an uneasy scene, with a speaker who is aware of numerous smaller or larger misfortunes.
As to the quality of this dusk, the short, end-stopped lines (i.e., short sentences, especially the first three lines) of the final stanza give me the feeling it was close to dark already. These lines are striking in that they represent a change from the previous lines and, moving from one line to the next, give the effect of dusk passing quite quickly: This. Then this. Then this. Notice how each line gets shorter, replicating, in a metaphor-like way, the waning light.
Dusk limps past in the street.
I step outside.
The speaker notices the dusk in the first line (which is interesting – he takes the time to look at the sky and, presumably, notice its colors). Then he steps outside. Then he notices the sky is going dark. This lends to the idea that the limping may refer to the dusk not being a particularly lingering or lengthy one in the first place, or that his timing was off – he missed out on the best part of the evening sky.
It's interesting to think about how all the images, metaphors, and the word choice work together in this piece, and where the idea of gambling and "luck" come in. Going back to the second stanza, where the speaker describes the grave site, the "cold cairn" of "a girl named Rachel" who didn't have good luck in that she died. Then we have the woman beating the slot machine "In its face all day" – imparting a sense of frustration and loss. The final two lines of the poem are interesting, especially in the context of the entire stanza. Near the beginning of the stanza the speaker steps outside, perhaps gambling on being able to see a richly colored sunset, but doesn't get there in time. For him, the agate in his pocket is "worthless" – so in the end, he can't get what he wants from nature, either. The speaker's mood and circumstances seem to be projected onto the landscape, giving us the sense that even nature is broke – or at least that the speaker might feel it is. These images and metaphors paint a portrait of a situation where the speaker, and perhaps others, feel out of luck, empty and/or impoverished (materially, emotionally, spiritually), and are unable to access even nature's riches.
But the poem is written with an "objective" tone. We don't exactly get the sense of a speaker wallowing in his misery; however, with the word choice in the phrase "worthless agate" I get a sense of what might be the speaker's disgust at his own lack of luck, and how little he has of monetary wealth in the human realm, although an agate is a thing of great beauty, made by nature over a great deal of time. It's also interesting that the speaker says "I finger a worthless agate" (italics mine; another verb) – perhaps a self-calming gesture? Or is it his lucky rock that he carries around, but which doesn't happen to be working right now and so is dismissed as "worthless"? It seems to be the only thing in his empty pocket – suggesting that, up to now, anyway, he has valued it enough to have at least that one thing. It perhaps also suggests he may have appreciated it as an example of nature's beauty, in spite of the fact that it isn't helping much on the material level of life.
Of course there is room for interpretation here, and you may have other thoughts about these things.
We can think about how the things mentioned in "Gambling in Stateline, Nevada" might indicate that this piece is also about perspective – how things seem to us under a given set of circumstances, and how they might be looked at differently. And of course we can also think about how all of this works with the idea of "gambling" – that what is a gamble for us has to do with where we stand in relation to other things, including what we want or need.
I hope you have found this interesting, and I encourage you to continue to think about what is going on in terms of metaphor in this piece and other works that you read.
Until next time, all best wishes with your reading and writing and everything else!
P.S. As always, please let me know if you wish to be removed from this e-mail list.
This month, I thought we could take a look at metaphor and nonsense poetry. First, here's one definition of nonsense verse – this from Literary Terms: A Dictionary:
"Nonsense verse: A type of light verse in which sense is subordinate to sound, and absurdity is sought for its own sake. Among the most famous practitioners of nonsense verse are Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, the author of the following lines:
On the Coast of Coramandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods,
Lived Yonghy Bonghy-Bo.
(Lear,"The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo")
(– Beckson and Ganz, 1983, p. 164)
Next will be looking at a classic nonsense poem that has captured the delight and imagination of many over the years – "Jabberwocky," [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42916] by Lewis Carroll. Please read the piece before continuing.
One of the chief ways that nonsense poems such as this one create metaphor and metaphor-like effects is through sound. Reread "Jabberwocky" aloud, and think about the sounds, especially of the made-up words – how do the sounds reach beneath your consciousness to a deeper, intuitive comprehension?
Already with the first two lines –
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
– one might sense something portentous and a little bit ominous… and this feeling is extended in other phrases, such as "mome raths outgrabe," " The frumious Bandersnatch," " vorpal sword," and "manxome foe." Caroll uses "neologisms" – newly coined words – as well as something called "portmanteau." The Merriam-Webster dictionary [http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/portmanteau ] describes this as a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms (as smog from smoke and fog). Read down the page when you link to this definition, to see how Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice (of Alice in Wonderland) the portmanteau of the words in "Jabberwocky" –for example, how "slithy" comes from a combination of "lithe" and "slimy." So this sense of familiar words combined into one also helps us bring meaning to the new word.
Another Definition of Nonsense Verse. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has this definition of nonsense verse:
"Some readers consider that any poetry which tells a fantastic story or which describes a fictive world in which the natural laws of the world as we know it do not operate (comparable to the prose example example of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland) is nonsense verse. And there are certainly, in the world's poetries, ample numbers of bizarre, fantastic, mythic, or surreal stories in verse which describe some autonomous world which clearly operates according to a set of laws which have their own internal logic.… These certainly have their interest. It is however naïve to believe that nonsense verse does not 'make sense'; much of it does, in its own way. 'Nonsense,' a modern critic has remarked, 'is not no-sense.' Rather, we must say, nonsense verse is verse which does not yield the same kind of denotative sense that sentences do in ordinary language or prose or even most poetry where the words chosen are of known lexical meaning (as recorded in dictionaries) and are arranged in normal syntax. Nonsense verse may in fact yield sense in only vestigial, disconnected, or centrifugal ways, or it may yield sense in unexpected, unpredictable, or hitherto unknown ways. But these are shard-sense or new-sense, not no-sense, which would be the verbal equivalent of a series of random numbers. Users of language live in meaning and will create sense wherever conceivably possible.
"Still, the term 'nonsense verse' is more properly reserved for verse in which the dislocation is less that of plot or fictive world than of language itself. Nonsense verse is most often constituted by unusual words – e.g., neologisms, portmanteau words – or unusual syntax or both."
(– The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Preminger and Brogan)
We come to realize that a nonsense poem such as "Jabberwocky," with many made-up words and a variety of rich sounds (a few of which may seem unusual to our ears), employs onomatopoeia – words that sound like the thing they are conveying – though, since the words in "Jabberwocky" are made up, we don't always know precisely what they are conveying in a denotative sense, and yet we get the meaning from the context. Think of "whiffling" in these lines:
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
– we get the sense of a huffing, snorting, and/or wheezing creature.
And in this line: " The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!" the "snicker-snack" reminds us of the sounds of a sword fight. And in this line – "He went galumphing back" – we get the sense of a large animal perhaps made awkward from his wounds, ambling away awkwardly but as quickly as possible.
We also understand the joy in the sounds made by these nonsense words: " O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” (For practice: What nonsense words could you make up to express a sense of joy like this?)
But separate and apart from individual instances of pure sound-sense, we can think about how, overall, the sounds in "Jabberwocky" work in a metaphor-like way to tell this story and convey character, action, and emotion. Again, we don't always know what is being talked about, and somehow nevertheless we do! We experience danger, a rich, portentous setting, a sense of movement, battle, and triumph.
In one sense, nonsense poetry is based on the nonrational, but it most certainly taps into something deep within us that makes sense. And we could say that there is a bit of the nonrational in every metaphor – for metaphors compare often rather unlike things that are related in some way, and the mind must make a leap to accommodate that oblique association. This is what gives us a sense of freshness and even a feeling of transformation when we read a metaphor.
Here is what Robert Wallace says about the nonrational in poetry in his book Writing Poems:
"A good poem, read again and again over the years, seems always fresh, saying more each time than we recall, showing itself to us in ever new lights. Passing centuries may not dim this mysteriously self-renewing energy. We are not mistaken in believing that such poetry comes from, and keeps us in touch with, a fundamental power deep within the psyche, or dark rivers from time-beyond-memory carved in stone."
For Your Thinking and Writing:
Whether you next write a nonsense poem or one with conventional language and syntax, think about how the words you choose can add meaning purely through their sounds, perhaps also creating metaphor-like effects or supporting metaphors in the piece.
For Further Reading:
More links to discussions of Lewis Carroll and "Jabberwocky":
Poetry Foundation – https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/lewis-carroll
Alice in Wonderland site – http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/poem-origins/jabberwocky/
Interesting Literature – https://interestingliterature.com/2016/01/22/a-short-analysis-of-jabberwocky-by-lewis-carroll/
May poem from Edward Lear: "The Quangle Wangle's Hat"
I always encourage you to simply play around with sounds – in your journal or in your shaped pieces – it is both fun and an excellent practice, and it may lead to a whole piece that uses sound as a strategy.
Until next time, best wishes for your reading and writing!
Beckson, K, and Ganz, A. (1983). Literary terms: A dictionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Preminger, A., and Brogan, T. V. F. (Eds.)(1993).The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Wallace, R. (1982). Writing poems. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.
April 2016: "Ars Poetica"
Perhaps because it is April, National Poetry Month, I have been thinking about a category of poems called ars poetica – poetry about writing poems. Probably all of us have read some of these kinds of poems; in this installment of Metaphor and More I'm going to take a look at a few of them and the metaphors they employ.
First, a couple more in-depth definitions. The Poetry Foundation, states that ars poetica is " A poem that explains the art of poetry, or a meditation on poetry using the form and techniques of a poem. " You can link to this definition in the Poetry Foundation glossary here:
You can also find a discussion of ars poetica at the Academy of American Poets under this link:
I got to thinking about all this while musing about white space and remembering Sharon Bryan's poem "White Space," which I reread and realized might be an example of ars poetica. The poem can be found at the Poetry Daily website, under this link:
There is no "I" mentioned in Bryan's poem– we don't overhear the speaker talking directly about the process of writing, and yet through the personification of words and white space, we understand we are hearing a story about writing. I think I first really began to feel the commentary on the writing process with these lines, talking about words:
since everything they did
was meant to point
to something beyond
The poem feels like a comment on the dance between letters, words, and white space, and we can ask, how does that dance come together? I like the personification of the components and this way of talking about the mysteries of the writing process without mentioning the writer. And the form of the piece shows us some of the things that poetry is about. There are lots of things going on in this piece, and the personification alone is very interesting.
A couple of other examples of ars poetica from the Poetry Foundation:
1. "Ars Poetica," by Archibald McLeish. This well-known poem can be found under this link:
I think this poem is wonderful because it describes the nature of poetry through a series of metaphors. What do you think about the lines "A poem should be wordless/As the flight of birds"?
For me, that speaks to how poetry employs words but the meaning is beyond words – which is really to say it is describing how metaphor works – creating a meaning beyond and above the sum of those parts of the individual words – that is (continuing to read through the poem to the end), "A poem should not mean/But be." And in the last section, third stanza from the end, he also describes the importance of images:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
I think it's interesting how he describes silence, stillness, and meaning in the different parts of this piece…
2. Another is "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe," by Elizabeth Alexander, which you can find at this link:
Poetry, she tells us, is often in the small things, in the everyday things, like dirt in the corner or something overheard on the bus; not always the larger events or passages in our lives. In the final two stanzas, the speaker says:
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
A question for all of us: When we each think or talk about poetry, where in that discussion do we "hear ourselves the loudest"?
3. Here's another one from the Poetry Foundation, by Rita Dove, that you might enjoy taking a look at (and you can search for many more at this and other websites) –
Think about how the poem as a whole serves as a metaphor for writing.
4. And finally, I wanted to show you a couple of poems that are in the ars poetica vein, being about writers and writing, from Linda Pastan's new book (2015) Insomnia. I have this book out from my library right now and am enjoying it a lot! The first piece I wanted to show you is called "The Poets."
They are farmers, really –
hoeing and planting
get strict rows ripe with manure,
coaxing each nebulous seed
to grow. Year after year
of drought or rainstorm,
locust or killing frost, they bundle
their hay into stacks
of inflammable gold, or litter
the barn floors with empty husks.
At the market they acknowledge
each other gruffly and move on,
noting who has the more bountiful
harvest, whose bushel baskets
are laden with beets and tomatoes,
tumescent with fruit.
Under the sheen of success
or the long shadow of failure,
with a labor for remains
the same: their own muscular
beanstalk rocketing skyward
from a single bean.
– Linda Pastan
In this poem, I love how the couplets look like rows of planted crops in the field, and how that supports the metaphor of poets as farmers. And I think it really speaks to how people who keep writing are people who really need to write – whether they experience the "sheen of success" or "the long shadow of failure" – they have the need to tend that "muscular/beanstalk rocketing skyward."
William Stafford (1914 – 1993) is a wonderful poet, and one I encourage you to look into if you haven't already. He was known for his daily routine of writing in the early morning, which Linda Pastan alludes to this poem:
Remembering Stafford on His Centennial
When you said there was no such thing
as writer's block if your standards
were low enough, everyone laughed
and I laughed too, but you meant it, didn't you?
The point is to follow the winding path
of words wherever it wants to take you, step
by step, ignoring the boulders, the barbed wire
fences, the rutted ditches choked with ragweed.
How complicated such simplicities are.
Forget the destination, you taught us,
forget applause; what matters is the journey.
And started one yourself, each morning.
So, whatever form your writing journey takes, I encourage you to keep following that road! And while you are on it, perhaps you might try writing an ars poetica poem yourself! What metaphors might you use for your process of writing poetry?
May you have had a wonderful National Poetry Month, and may you celebrate poetry and metaphor every month! And as always, please let me know if you'd like to be taken off the list.
Best wishes until next time,
March 2016: White Space
Having passed the equinox, we are leaving the "white space" of winter behind… (it may feel more or less like white space depending on where you live and how much the foliage and weather change). This month I am e-mailing you a link to an essay I wrote on white space and metaphor that was published at the Poets Quarterly website last summer. I included language from this essay in some of the lesson units of Mastering Metaphor, but I go a deeper into some of these ideas in the essay. I hope you will find something that is useful to your writing and that you will enjoy looking at some of the quotes and poetry examples. You might also enjoy knowing about the Poets Quarterly website if you don't already, and reading some of the other current or archived articles. Or perhaps you'd like to contribute an article yourself sometime.
The main page is www.poetsquarterly.com and my article is "White Space as Metaphoric Frame."
One thing I will say about the Li-Young Lee quote in the final paragraph of the essay – I know what he means when he says "prose means mostly in one direction" – I believe he is thinking about the way we use grammar and syntax in sentences. And I don't disagree with what he's saying, but I want you to also keep in mind that prose can be expressive on many levels at once, and that it does interact with white space as well (sometimes we aren't as conscious of it in a page of prose, unless something else about the prose challenges our expectations); prose can incorporate many aspects of poetics, which can create layered meaning or "manifold presence." And yes, there is prose poetry – a whole topic unto itself! But I just wanted to emphasize that prose can be expressive in poetic ways, but Lee is making a point about how some of the unique features of poetry can create multifaceted meaning.
I hope you are enjoying spring in your part of the world. As you go about your days, I recommend paying attention to the different kinds of transformation that takes place during a change of season – transformation being something we can also experience through literary metaphor. What metaphors might you be experiencing with your body as you experience spring? Are you experiencing some elements of winter at the same time you're experiencing some elements of high spring? How do you experience that blending of elements? How might you put that down in words or lines?
Happy spring, and I'll be back with another edition of Metaphor and More at the end of April.
Many best wishes,
PS – As always, please let me know if you wish to be taken off the list.
I am recently back from co-teaching a haiku workshop at the Song of the Morning Yoga Retreat Center, located next to national forest land on the Pigeon River, just outside of Vanderbilt, Michigan. The high was 3° the day after I arrived, but the landscape was beautiful, and inspiring for thinking about images.
For this month's installment of Metaphor and More, I wanted to look at a couple of haiku that happen to include winter imagery, and I'll talk about how simple accumulation and juxtaposition can work in a metaphor-like way. Here is the first piece, which is a good example of accumulation of image and idea:
– kate s. godsey (Modern Haiku, volume 46.3, autumn 2015)
The only concrete image in this haiku is in the first line – "snowflakes." The other two lines contain abstractions – the second line, about the notion of "perfection" (a foreign concept to nature, since everything is perfect!), and the third line, an abstraction from our human concepts of time – "instant."
When we move from the first line to the second, we get the idea that each snowflake is perfect. And implied, through the word "each ," is something that most of us have probably learned – that every snowflake is unique. So here we may get the sense that each snowflake is perfect in its uniqueness.
Then, with the addition of the third line, "instant," the piece unfolds in at least a couple of different ways. One thing it does is give the sense of how instantly the snowflakes appear and vanish. This then leads us into an awareness of the moment and how we can be present to it as a "perfect instant" – which I think is actually one of the great things about haiku – that haiku themselves do this, and being "small" (short, that is), each is itself like a unique snowflake.
So it's wonderful how we can take each line separately and see how each adds meaning – in the first, we have the image of snowflake; in the second, we have the idea that each is perfect and unique; and in the third, we have an awareness of time through the word "instant," which might make us think both of how the snowflakes appear suddenly and how they last for only an instant – which can also be a metaphor for our lives as well.
I wanted to bring your attention to how the accumulation of these lines bring in these different comparisons, and so work in a metaphor-like way. For example, we might construct an implied metaphor something like this:
snowflake = moment; or
snowflake = this perfect and transitory life
These metaphors aren't stated blatantly– nowhere in this haiku does it say "this snowflake is a moment" or "my life is a snowflake," but these thoughts and/or feelings are implied through accumulation. This is how, as Jane Hirshfield says, "…not everything will be given -- some of a poem's good weight will be found outside the poem in us. All image in this way involves the mind of metaphor: it is only tasted and understood when carried into itself." (Jane Hirshfield, 1997, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p. 115.)
I also wanted to look at another haiku, one which is a good example of the power of the juxtaposition of images:
to my daughter
– Carolyn Hall (Modern Haiku, volume 48.3, autumn 2015)
This piece juxtaposes two primary images – the unsent letters to the daughter and the winter wind. Considering just the juxtaposition alone, we see how it lends a feeling – an emptiness, a wistfulness, a poignancy. Perhaps there is a difficulty in this relationship, or perhaps this parent discovered that she simply forgot to send the letters. In either case, an opportunity for a specific kind of communication at a particular time was missed. The juxtaposition of the images leads us to register a comparison on some level, which, if we were to consciously think about it and write it out might be something like
unsent letters = a cold or empty feeling (or a sharp feeling)
Again, we don't know the exact circumstances, but we get a feeling from these lines. Perhaps the decision not to send the letters has made the speaker sad, so she feels more sharpness of the winter. Or perhaps there were some consequences for not sending the letters that felt like a sharpness. At any rate, this shows the power that the simple juxtaposition of two images can have.
Haiku is a whole genre of its own that takes practice, just as learning any form of writing takes practice, but, if the form interests you, I encourage you to try reading and writing haiku. But it can also be wonderful just to practice writing images each day in a few short lines – something you see, hear, feel, taste, smell, or touch – this can be a powerful practice.
Jennifer Burd teaches "Mastering Metaphor" through the Loft Literary center and writes a monthly blog, "Metaphor and More."