Robert Frost is famously quoted as saying that poetry is metaphor, although I've also seen the quote attributed to Wallace Stevens. The view goes back much farther than that though. For Longinus, the 3rd century Roman critic, the essence of poetry was "metaphor," a word that comes from the Greek, metaphorika, a sort of cart to carry people around, a means of transportation. The poem has to transport us then. The end of the poem should leave us in a different emotional and/or mental state than the one we were in before we read the poem. Metaphors say one thing and mean another which could almost be a definition of what all poetry does.
There are many theories as to how metaphors work but I think the point of view expressed by proponents of Conceptual Metaphor Theory makes most sense when applied to poetry. They argue that "few or even no abstract notions can be talked about without metaphor: there is no direct way of perceiving them and we can only understand them through the filter of directly experienced, concrete notions". It's a fascinating subject.
You may be surprised to learn that for the longest time the prevalent theory as regards language was that metaphor used mechanisms outside the realm of everyday conventional language, i.e. it belonged solely to poets. And, as happens with many theories after they have been lying around for a few years, this theory has came to be taken as law. The word metaphor was defined as a novel or poetic linguistic expression where one or more words for a concept are used outside of its normal conventional meaning to express a similar concept.
One has to wonder how this state of affairs came about. My own opinion is that we think and communicate metaphorically without really thinking about what we are doing. When we give something a name like simile or metaphor, and thus categorise it, it might feel like artifice when we use an expression, to cite Wallace Stevens as an example, "Death is the mother of beauty," and I have no doubt that Stevens considered that expression carefully when writing 'Sunday Morning'. We read that as a poetic metaphor but I'm not convinced that we need that qualifier.
I think a lot of the time we use words – and use them correctly too – without really fully appreciating what we're saying. Let's take as an example, the expression "figurative language" – what does "figurative" mean?
- of the nature of or involving a figure of speech, esp. a metaphor; metaphorical; not literal: a figurative expression.
- metaphorically so called: His remark was a figurative boomerang.
- abounding in or fond of figures of speech: Elizabethan poetry is highly figurative.
- representing by means of a figure or likeness, as in drawing or sculpture.
- representing by a figure or emblem; emblematic.
Okay, in Chinese we know there exist pictograms, for example, pictogram 木 mu means "tree" and it looks a bit like a stylised tree. Doubling the pictogram 木 mu "tree" produces 林 lin "forest", while combining 日 rì "sun" and 月 yuè "moon", the two natural sources of light, makes 明 míng "bright". Two trees don't make a clump let alone a wood or a forest and I would've thought that the sun was bright enough without adding the moon to it. But I'm out of my depth here.
I think that we take the shape "figurative" and visualise it the first time we encounter it. Then we look at the context, the words surrounding it, and try and connect what we understand the word to mean to its new setting. So "figurative language" means, to me, words that require images to be understood:
It's a matter of constant adjustment based on the facts we have at our disposal. On its own, "figurative" is like a cog and a cog on its own is next to useless.
Now, remember those 5 definitions for "figurative", there's a word for that – polysemy and, no, I don't have a pretty picture of a parrot to go with it. It, like most "big words" has only one definition:
diversity of meanings
Words are not like numbers. When you try and figure out a sum you expect there to be one right answer. Sentences are more like algebraic equations where differing answers may well arise depending on the values assigned to the various variables. But the relationships between the answer and the various variables will always be the same.
The real issue is when do we know if something is to be taken literally? Let's consider my poem 'The War and After':
The War and After
You vanished in a second.
That was all it took.
I blinked and then
you were gone.
A bird landed where you'd been.
I shooed it away.
A man stopped to
eat his lunch.
I asked him: "Could you move, sir?"
Soon a construction
crew arrived to
monument but not to you.
A dog came along
and peed on it.
Wednesday, 20 August 2008
The first line could be 'You disappeared in an instant' or 'All of a sudden you weren't there'. They all amount to the same thing plus or minus something the line I finally settled upon has. To my mind each possibility contains the other two anyway. If you were trying to explain that first line to someone you'd probably try rewording before anything else and the odds are you'd opt for some variation on these.
The title suggests that we're going to be hearing about a particular war and, although that is the case, it's never identified. The same goes for all the characters, 'you', 'I', 'a bird', 'a man', 'a construction crew' and 'a dog'. So, although as far as the narrator goes this is a specific war, the reality is that really this is a figurative war. This could be any war because all wars are the same and all of them have aftermaths. By 'envaguening' the poem its scope is broadened.
So what happens? While the narrator is blinking someone disappears from his line of sight. Is it possible that there is a direct correlation between the blinking and the disappearance? Was the blinker responsible for the disappearance? Of course not, that would be unreasonable. And yet the narrator's subsequent actions suggest that there is. If I hadn't blinked (i.e. taken my attention away from you) you wouldn't have been taken from me. But in what way 'vanished'? Did 'you' disappear of 'your' own free will or were 'you' disappeared? Does it matter?
Not really. Because, despite the narrator's emotional reasoning, the blame rests firmly with the war. You can read the second line in two ways: firstly, that it only took a literal second for the disappearance or all it (the war) took was 'you'. So it doesn't matter. Whether 'you' had had enough and abandoned him or was a casualty of war either way a 'you'-shaped space was left in the narrator's life.
The fact is we cannot simply read this opening stanza literally.
Following that both a bird and a man try and occupy that space but the narrator frees it up. When a construction crew erects a permanent fixture he finds himself powerless to protect that spot. Some time later a dog cocks its leg up against the newly erected monument.
Here events move progressively through three stages. I considered making the bird a dove because of the obvious symbolism. If I'd said 'dove' then I could be accused of pointing my readers in a specific direction but it's enough to present the image of a bird landing to suggest the onset of peace, likewise a man stopping outside to eat his lunch. Of course birds don't flee a war zone but they do keep their distance. The thing is, at first the narrator can chase the bird away with ease; the man needs to be reasoned with (one has to assume that the poem doesn't contain the whole conversation) but the statue proves to be immovable. Whether he tries to stop the construction crew is not revealed because the end result is all that's important.
When someone dies it's not that uncommon to preserve their room and their things. Why? They're not going to magically reappear. And it's not that unusual for people to put up a plaque and leave flowers on the pavement when a loved one is killed in a road accident. So the narrator keeping watch over the last place they saw 'you' isn't so unreasonable even if it is futile. But to what end?
The spot is a constant reminder of his loss and of his negligence. Had he a lock of hair or some other token then he might not punish himself in this way. But the war has left him nothing. It's not the spot on the ground that he is protecting so much as it is the nothingness above it.
The dog at the end is another creature that could easily have been chased away but there's no point once the monument is in situ. There's no real evidence that the narrator is even there watching this desecration at this point. If he is then the image is perhaps even more powerful. To the narrator's mind the erection of the monument was the desecration. We don't learn what the monument is there to commemorate, possibly the soldiers who died in the war but it doesn't even serve as a headstone for the 'you' that vanished. Again, if it had been to commemorate lives lost, would I not have called it a memorial? Perhaps it’s a statue of the country's new leader. Perhaps he's to blame for the war in which 'you' was lost. Now wouldn't that be a slap in the face of the narrator?
The big question is: when do you know that something is literal and when not? Take the dog at the end. Dogs don't have a great many intentions in this life. It's their intent to eat, get rid of what they've eat, sleep and, if possible, breed. Most other things, like petting and pampering, are a bonus and not really a part of the canine hierarchy of needs if one of those exists. Maybe Pavlov did one. The dog is not defiling anything. It's simply relieving itself as dogs do. In other words it doesn't mean anything, nothing significant. It's up to the reader to imbue it with significance because the narrator stops a line short and makes no comment.
Lastly, there are things we accept when reading without any question, the concept of the omniscient narrator for example. So, who is this poem addressed to? If the 'you' is dead then is this a prayer? If they have simply left then with the advent of peace perhaps the narrator might have some reason to hope. This could actually be a letter.
The bottom line is that everything in this poem can be read both literally and figuratively. In fact you have to. This, to my mind, is good poetry where a poet makes his words work overtime. That said you have to know where to draw the line. There will be those who might have written 'instant' instead of 'second' or 'paused' instead of 'stopped' and, in the past, I've driven myself mad swapping synonyms. I'm nowhere near as obsessive these days.
Most people would not regard my poetry as ambiguous but I'm not sure that it's possible to write anything the slightest bit poetic that isn't open to interpretation.
I started off mentioning Conceptual Metaphor Theory and I'd like to return to it to finish. In her essay on the subject, from which I quoted earlier, Alice Deignan of the University of Leeds has this to say:
For proponents of Conceptual Metaphor Theory, thought has primacy over language. The theory was not intended to account for language in use, which is merely the surface manifestation of more important phenomena.
I read over these two sentences several times. I first read them months ago and they've been mulling around in my head ever since. I've always considered language, especially written language, to be very cumbersome. I find it very hard to translate what I'm thinking into words for some poor bugger to have to come along and try and convert back into thoughts. Thought is therefore the beginning and end of poetry. Poetry, I therefore conclude, should not be read, out loud or to oneself, but thought about. Of course poetry has to be read, out loud or to oneself (that is unavoidable), but the process doesn't end there.
I've been trying to find the right words to say why I object to poetry readings and I think that this is it, I'm not allowed time to think before I'm being presented with another one to chew on. As a social thing, getting to meet and socialise with other poets, I'm sure they're fine but I don't think anything can beat sitting on your own in your quiet corner, just you, the poem and your imagination.
The lexicographer collects examples of usage and groups them according to related uses and senses. We see that above with the word "figurative" and all the definitions are reasonable. In my poem the metaphor we're trying to figure out is never explicitly named. It is the negative space where 'you' last stood; 'where you'd been' is the closest I get to it pinning it down. If we had a dictionary of metaphors and looked up dove the top definition would likely be: symbol of peace and who would argue with that? But that is a very obvious metaphor. But what is the narrator feeling in the poem? Is it survivor guilt or does he have abandonment issues? The thing I've noticed myself about feelings is that I very rarely feel one thing without their being some touch of other emotions in there. When my mother died I was sad, of course I was sad, but I was so many other things. 'Sad' somehow feels insufficient.
I can, of course, tell you what inspired the poem. Regular readers of this blog will know already that it was written in response to a post by Jasmin Causevic, 'In the blink of an eye' but it was not about what he wrote; it was merely sparked off by the metaphor 'in the blink of an eye'. As for what the poem means … you're on your own there. All I can say is that twenty years on this little poem suddenly makes so much more sense:
It is true that every
seven years we change.
Turning fourteen I started
I am now twenty-nine and
safe for six more years.
15 December 1988