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."