Metaphorical Thought

So far this semester we have been focused on concrete language and the image. I have damned near bullied you about this. “Don’t tell the reader about love, show the reader love so that the reader can feel it.”

If you get that down—always focus on the objects and the actions—then you are a very long way toward writing things that readers will respond positively to. And you will be writing in one of the main streams of American poetic language—the imagist and objectivist stream. Writers in that stream include William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Robert Creely, and many more.

But you can also do things with language that many others have done, things that the pure imagists and objectivists avoided. One of those is to work with metaphors. A metaphor is a kind of figurative image, as opposed to a literal image. A literal image is the thing itself—a car, a kiss, a river, a skyscraper. A figurative image is an image that invites comparisons of one thing to another. This is what metaphor means—to transfer, as in metamorphosis. I think of it this way, a metaphor occurs when we talk about one thing with the language of another.

In a simple form, metaphors occur when we say A=B, as in “Her words are a river.” This is an explicit metaphor. But we can go further and say “Her words flowed quickly.” This is an implicit metaphor. First, we should note that “words” do not literally “flow.” Second, we note that I did not literally say “Her words are a river,” but what I said was based on the idea that her words are a river.  For a list of other figures of speech, refer to this list.

We should emphasize that metaphors are not unusual in our day-to-day speaking. First, we use metaphors to convey basic ideas in politics: The politician says, “We are almost ready to take the ball over for a touch down,” thus transferring the idea of football onto the idea of lawmaking. The critic says that a play is a “knockout,” thus transferring the language of boxing on to the language of artistic achievement.

Second, our language is already metaphorical. There is a book by a linguist and a philosopher named Metaphors We Live By that discusses this in detail (Lakoff and Johnson). What they point out is that the very way we construct meaning is not literal but figurative. We say, for instance, “I have put my past behind me” or “My life has had some strange twists and turns” or “I don’t look up to him anymore.” All three of these sentences contain metaphors deeply placed in the language: time is a path with the future up ahead and the past behind; life is a path; social position is hierarchical, or high is good and low is bad (“The stock market fell today.”)

My point here is—do not be afraid of metaphors. You already use them even if you do not know it.

But what do I mean by “metaphorical thinking.” What I mean, and this may be different from what others mean, is that one way that a poet thinks is by transferring ideas and concepts from one thing to other things. Poets live for and look for these comparisons. Old love poetry is built on this kind of thinking—her milky skin, her rosy cheeks, her sun kissed hair—all that stuff.

There are a lot of ways to go about this. I once took a class in the poetry of Ezra Pound taught by Paul Christensen at Texas A&M and he pointed out how Pound keep repeating the idea of various shapes in his poetry. He might mention sea shell, then a woman’s hand fan, then a palm frond, then a peacock tail. Do you see how the same idea/shape is repeated in each of these? There was currently a commercial by Volkswagon that shows many pictures of things that are square or rectangular: buildings, boxes, windows, doors, etc. then it places the VW Beetle in front of one of the boxes.     This kind of thinking is pretty advanced. Another commercial recently did this with faces—an electrical socket, two apples and a banana.

You can start just by noticing how different kinds of THINGS are the same. A book is like an brick. A fat belly is like a blister or a pillow.

Next notice how different kinds of ACTIONS are the same. Reading is like eating. Running is like sleeping. Driving is like exploring.

Next notice how different LIFE PROCESSES are the same. Editing a poem is like weeding a garden. Going to college is like holding your breath. Getting married is like jumping off a cliff.

Next notice how different STORIES, PLOTS, CHARACTERS, CONFLICTS are the same. The girl whose stepmother is mean to her is a Cinderella. Driving to the mall is a trip into Hell. The older man falling for the younger woman is the story of Hades and Persephone. The overweight mother with lots of kids is the old woman in the shoe. The unmarried girl having a baby is Mary. The drunken man losing his wife and children and then quitting drinking and getting a new family is the story of Jesus’ death and rebirth.

What is the benefit of all of this crazy kind of thinking? First, it will make you different from everyone else. Most of the people in the world—certainly in the US—live their lives in very literal ways. They brush their teeth, drive their cars, play computer games, listen to music, take walks, have sex, eat, and none of it means anything. These people enjoy these things but they don’t really experience them. Second, you will begin to experience life in its many forms and patterns—you will see and make connections and patterns of life and your experiences. If you can feel that having sex tonight is like swimming, then the next time you go swimming you can feel it like it was like having sex. Your life doubles and triples in its experiences of each moment. [Warning: just as the good feeling multiply, so might the bad feelings.] Third, you will be able to think about life in much more clear fashion. For instance, if you realize that a guy you are dating is a wolf. You can make an informed decision about whether to date him and what the consequences are—if you want a safe life, you will avoid him; if you want a dangerous life, you might want to keep him around. Fourth, you might just write some really good poems.

How does this kind of thinking help you write good poems. It will give you a good title. It will help give you good individual lines and phrases. It will give you overall themes and topics to explore. It will give you the overall structure of your poems.

Lecture Assignment:  Practice turning abstractions into concrete language by making metaphors.  Write a list poem of 10 or 20 items, by saying “Happiness is . . . . .”  and then writing a image or metaphor.  Choose an abstraction such as happiness, sorrow, grief, joy, anger, failure.  “Grief is a flat tire.  Grief is a board game with missing pieces.  Grief is the First National Bank. ”

Lecture Assignment:  Take one of the items in the list and write a poem that extends the metaphor.  Grief is a flat tire.  Its stops you suddenly in the middle of a parking lot.  You are carrying all the good things life has to purchase, then you are out of air, blown.  Alone, unable to move forward.”


See “Metaphorical Thinking, Part II.”