is a British citizen but permanent resident of New Jersey, where she is raising two daughters. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as The Harvard Review, The Atlanta Review, Rattle and Measure.
She was a finalist for both the 2005 and 2007 Howard Nemerov sonnet award and for the 2007 Willis Barnstone Translation Award.
She is Associate Editor of the Raintown Review, and Editor of the formal poetry e-zine The Barefoot Muse. She gained her MFA from Bennington College, and her first chapbook Swimming was published in March 2006 by Maverick Duck Press.
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Clarity and the Modern Metaphor
by Anna Evans
In the July/August 2007 issue of American Poetry Review Stephen Dunn exercises his eloquence on the subject of metaphor, a favorite subject of his, as I remember from a couple of years back. Recalling those days when I sat in the Advanced Undergraduate Poetry Workshop at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, I can reconstruct the exact configuration of his wince when a student’s work produced an example of tired, awkward, incomprehensible, or just plain risible metaphor. He used to say something like “A poet who uses metaphor is signaling the reader that brilliance is forthcoming, and it had better be!” In the article he restates this as follows: “When it comes to making metaphors, there’s a very thin line between virtuosity and indulgence.”
What a joy to come across a poet achieving that virtuosity with an original, lucid metaphor such as this one, from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s “A House Is Never Empty”: “When my husband is wherever husbands go/ the house a wrapper we forgot to throw away.” It is difficult to imagine how this could be improved. “Wrapper” is appropriate both physically (as the inanimate object that surrounds something of more importance) and culturally (the disposable nature of contemporary McMansion type housing.)
But an infallible touch is rare. The same poet in “Half-light” (Southern Poetry Review 45:1) offers as the first line “The twilight is a red snapper.” Really? Why? The only thing that clearly links that condition of light or state of mind with a prized food fish seems to be a pink color. The name “Snapper” may imply a certain ferociousness, but the fish is not noted for that.
Now, it’s okay these days to make the reader work a little for a connection. Amy Newlove Schroeder’s “Bride Saddle with Stirrup” begins “Galloping into the noose-wind, under the hole-gathered sky.” At first sight I am confused, then I imagine the speaker’s hair whipping around her face and neck, and the sky empty of birds. But what if the reader works and gets nothing? Many people today seem to feel a poet should never be held accountable for his or her metaphors—the poet is making intuitive leaps and if the reader can’t follow (dull, pedestrian reader!) he or she should be quiet in the presence of genius. I disagree. As Mary Kinzie says, “Anything can, conceivably, be likened to anything else, but it is only accurate and deliberate comparison that will speak to readers beyond one’s circle and time.”
Accurate, deliberate and also fresh: unfortunately these days so much has already been written it may feel like all the apposite metaphors have already been drawn. At the other end of the spectrum from the incomprehensible metaphor is the over-used. “Downstream the willow lets down her green tresses” is the personification within another poem by Amy Newlove Schroeder, “Waterlights” (Ploughshares, Winter 2005/6.)
This poem also highlights another questionable development in modern metaphor with its ending: “I try to be the willow/ her pious hair/ throat of green whispers.” Can we really get away today with mixing images like this? Has contemporary poetry moved beyond rules?
In a way, of course, it has indeed moved beyond rules, because it has been forced to. Poetry is an evolving art form, but unlike in biological evolution, the poems of today exist as living entities alongside every poem that has ever been written. It’s not enough to assume that the evolved twenty-first century poem is newer, different, better; it has to be demonstrably so when held up alongside millennia of canonical verse.
Another way of looking at it (and yes, I’m using metaphor) would be to compare the contemporary writer of poetry to a drug addict in search of ever increasing thrills. Once it was enough of a fix to put together fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter cut with a single (then) innovative extended metaphor, as Shakespeare offers in many of his sonnets, including the still lovely “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” But today’s writer has to do more: acts of surprising or exciting language akin to the novelty of a designer drug. Form alone is rarely sufficient to generate any excitement. In fact, often it does the complete opposite.
It should be no surprise therefore, that the contemporary poet, eager to be part of this excitement, can easily go too far. But how far is too far? Are extended metaphors passé? Should we all be mixing our metaphors like exotic chemical cocktails whose constituent barbiturates and amphetamines are impossible to identify? Are you fed up with this metaphor yet?
In the same APR essay, Stephen Dunn confirms that “one of the common errors of the fledging poet . . . is a reflexive love of the extended metaphor.” Surely, if it was good enough for Shakespeare it should be good enough for us. Looking again at that sonnet, however, we notice that Shakespeare’s metaphor shifts subtly throughout the poem. Firstly the loved one is compared to a summer’s day, but in the next four lines, rather than hammering on about that, the poem moves to examining some more general aspects of the sun, and natural beauty:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
In the next four lines we have a new shift: the loved one is no longer a single summer day, but an “eternal summer” which turns out, in the epigrammatic couplet, to be immortalization in poetry.
So perhaps the problem with extended metaphor is not in the idea but the execution. Properly done, the metaphor itself evolves, becoming something related but other over the course of the poem. Clumsy metaphor continues beating dead figurative language with the stick long after the poetry has become a ghost.
There is another key difference between the metaphors of traditional poetry and those of contemporary poetry, and it is a fitting one, given the speed at which we are expected to digest information in this technological era. Modern metaphors evolve more quickly. Here’s the opening of Edward Hirsch’s “In Spite of Everything the Stars”:
Like a stunned piano, like a bucket
We begin with the image of the stunned piano, ebony and ivory keys juddering, then the creamy milk is flung into the air like the silver confetti thrown at the bride in white. Finally we have the drawing together—all these things are ways the stars surprise the sky. The beautiful thing about these lines is that each image individually is a suitable simile, but because they are linked on so many levels—by the colors of black and white, by the act of throwing, by surprise—the figurative language is driven towards its evolutionary peak.
There are a couple of other ways in which modern metaphor has apparently been speeded up. In the first technique, a single word, typically a verb, carries the full weight of a metaphor which is only obliquely hinted at in literal terms. This is the first stanza of Tracy Smith’s “The Searchers”:
He wants to kill her for surviving,
“As if life pools there” conveys in one swift packet of code the ideas of life as water and blood, of life as women’s fertility, perhaps even the visceral lifeblood of unfertilized womb or miscarried fetus. At the same time, the literal meaning is merely that she is bunching the material of the skirt as one might push up the folds of a tarp to contain a spilled liquid. In this kind of construction, many metaphors can be implied in the space of a few lines without the danger of over-mixing the broth because each one is oblique and associative, rather than explicit.
In the second technique, an object or state in need of elucidation is followed by two or more distinct epithets, each of metaphorical weight. The effect is to create a mini-list poem within the poem. Here are the opening lines of Amy Gerstler’s “The Soul Looks Down on the Body”:
Dung heap. Poor cooled shell.
Although no overt attempt is made to link these epithets, the associations are there: we move from the disgusting dung heap to the pitiable shell, to orange peel which is another form of shell and/or trash, to husk and crust (sonically linked as well as semantically,) then a short hop to bark, which is a tree’s armor, and from thence to a vehicle with its metallic connotations. It all adds up to brilliance a reader can follow.
This brings us back to our reader who, promised a metaphor, is expecting brilliance. How can we ensure, given the relaxation of the rules, that he or she gets it?
Fiction writers are taught early on that the most important thing they need to do is keep their reader in the story. To be caught up in a novel or short story is to suspend one’s disbelief. In other words, we know that rabbits can’t talk, that boys don’t really go to wizard school, or that vampires don’t really exist, but the fiction is so convincing that as readers, we are prepared to knock that side of our brains on the head and go along with it. Fiction writers also know that it doesn’t take much to cause belief to come crashing back down to the ground with a thud: too much exposition, intrusive speech tags, even a phrase of tonally wrong slang—all these can kick the reader out of the fictional world the writer has created, and suddenly we’re asking the real questions we want to avoid: what language do rabbits speak? how does magic work? vampires, for goodness sake?
Perhaps because poetry has a much weaker relationship with market forces than fiction, contemporary poets by comparison seem hardly to consider their reader. Or if they do consider the reader, they assume such a reader will automatically be a poet, and hence will be willing to cut them all sorts of slack. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy to a certain extent—if readers can’t find a habitable world in today’s poetry unless they are themselves poets, it follows that non-poets will be reluctant to read poetry.
In fiction the flaws that push a reader out of the story are unlikely to be solely down to plot (ever noticed all those coincidences in Dickens?) Fiction is hyper-realistic not realistic. All we require of its structure is that it is true to its own logic—if broomsticks fly in chapter one they can’t suddenly stop doing so in chapter seven without good reason.
Poetry, especially lyric poetry, tends to be surrealistic rather than realistic. Does this mean it needs no logic? Certainly some poetry is constructed along those principles, but I would argue that to have meaning to a broader spectrum of readers and potentially lasting value, even surreal poems need an internal logic. Surrealism, in other words, is not an excuse to make unbelievable metaphors. Galway Kinnell’s classic The Book of Nightmares consists of ten connected poems set in various real and nightmare landscapes with a speaker who ranges from introspective to verging on insane, and yet, every metaphor is exquisitely crafted so that it links to its subject on many levels:
I, like you, only sooner
Another fine example is Brenda Hillman creating a surreal situation in her poem “Below, Below,” which is itself a metaphor, or perhaps an allegory, but nevertheless finds its own logic:
In the corner of the heart
A word I’ve heard many times recently is duende, the title of Tracy Smith’s new book which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Duende is of course not new; it’s a term originally used in South America for a demon, and appropriated by Federico Garcia Lorca to represent the dark muse of spirited and original poetry. In search of duende, poets take risks with language and push metaphor further than our ancestors conceived or dared. This we must certainly do, but in constructing our metaphors we must also not lose sight of the reason we use metaphor. As Stephen Dunn says, metaphors “should arise out of necessity. They should be reached for when something crucial can’t be said straight out, when only analog will do.” Even in these days of surreal lyricism and accelerated imagery we must never lose sight of that fact: metaphor is analog and analogs require a connection. If more than one analog is provided there should be a strong connection not only between the subject and the analog but also between the different analogs. Trust me: your reader will thank you and may just think you are brilliant.