Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 26 January 2009

Thinking poetry


Sappho 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?

  1. of the nature of or involving a figure of speech, esp. a metaphor; metaphorical; not literal: a figurative expression.
  2. metaphorically so called: His remark was a figurative boomerang.
  3. abounding in or fond of figures of speech: Elizabethan poetry is highly figurative.
  4. representing by means of a figure or likeness, as in drawing or sculpture.
  5. 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 "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
erect a

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
thinking poetry.

I am now twenty-nine and
safe for six more years.

15 December 1988


Rachel Fox said...

Maybe you're just been to the wrong poetry readings! Or maybe you just don't like them (as Billy Connolly might say...they're your Brussel sprouts!). I have been to some I've hated and some I've loved...but then I do like vocal communication at its best and whilst I do enjoy reading poetry quietly (and thinking long and hard about it) I do also enjoy being in a crowd of people whilst they are reading or enjoying the sounds of well-chosen words being delivered to listeners. I like it when a whole room enjoys a line or a phrase together, when they laugh or sigh or wince or shift uncomfortably on their chairs. I think it's a shame for poetry to not be allowed to be indoors and outdoors, home and away...depending on each individual poet and reader/listener's taste on that particular day. You can think on your own or in a crowd. I think.

Marion McCready said...

Another mammoth post, Jim!
My wee trip up to StAnza last year really brought home to me the public / vocal nature of poetry, up till then it was largely a fairly private experience between myself and the page / computer screen. The words on the page is surely just one dimension of poetry not to be divorced from musicality of the reading.
I guess Rachel's right, it depends on who you hear. Listening to Kenneth White read last year was an amazing experience and it's wonderful to have his voice in the back of my mind when reading his poems on the page.

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

This is a fascinating post, Jim, with an awful lot in it to take in (which of course isn't unusual for your posts).

I do like picking apart poems and trying to read more into them (I did it the first time I read 'The War and After' in a previous post), and I suppose I like to try and include a few bits of figurative speech in my own poems. I certainly don't pick my words as carefully as you do - at least, not often - so I think that's something I'm going to be conscious of for the next few poems I write.

Should I have understand the ABC=man as a message, or were you just using those images as illustrations of ones everyone should recognise? I went to a fascinating lecture a few years ago about pictorial symbols and recognition, which talked about things like the fact we all recognise that a box with rabbit ears on top means a TV, or we use an old-fashioned dial phone as a phone symbol, even though the actual objects are outdated.
But with language, I suppose it's less likely that the images we all recognise will be outdated - they just turn into clichés instead!

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Isn't language itself a metaphor?

People mistake language for thought because people routinely mistake the metaphor for the real thing.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, I have been to only one poetry reading in my life. All my other experiences of hearing poetry have been via the TV, radio or Internet. I listened to the inaugural poem and all I could tell you was that the reader was very nervous and it had something to do with a song. Oh, and it was too long. Perhaps it's just me but I cannot absorb poetry at the speed of speech. I can enjoy the sound of it as a separate thing, like enjoying looking at a nice car but driving that car, experiencing that car for myself would be something else entirely.

I get your point, Sorlil, that you can take a poet's rendition of his own work with you. I do get that. I find it can also work the other way. It was years after I got to know Larkin's poetry that I actually heard the man read his own work by which time I was very familiar with the work and I didn't need to try and understand it there and then. Meaning is only one aspect of poetry I know and in some respect I feel like a musician in an orchestra playing a new piece. At first all I can hear is my melody and it's not until that becomes second nature to me that I can sit back and enjoy the work in its entirety.

Catherine, I was looking for a symbol I could use to say how we understand the word 'figurative', i.e. letters = pictures although not necessarily a literal figure even though that's what I used. It's very much the point that Glenn makes about mistaking language for thought. Poetry begins with thought, gets converted into words and those words get converted back into thought by the reader. Of course something is lost in translation. A better quality poem will retain more of the original intent than an inferior poem.

And, Glenn, having read a lot about metaphor recently I was struck by just how metaphorical language is. The word 'struck' in that last sentence for example. I take a physical action to describe a change in mental perspective. It's fascinating and I get lost in it but I love to dabble.

Dave King said...

An absorbing post, Jim. So much I could say, but I don't want to write anothet post. You began by saying poetry (metaphor?) says one thing and means another and I was thinking why can it not mean both? Which, indeed, you did get to suggest towards the end.

I think the "test" that good poetry should leave you in a state different from the one in which it found you, is, even if obvious once stated, worth persuing. I am sure there is mileage in that.

That abstract thought can only be used poetically by means of metaphor is also interesting. Of course, some would say good poetry eschews the abstract - and indeed, metaphor could be said to render it concrete.

I loved the word "envaguening" - and the concept even more. Is it your word?

We used to have poetry readings locally for which the poems to be read were pasted up around the room - and occasionally available on sheets. The best of both worlds!

McGuire said...

Your dissection of your poem 'The War and After' really brings this essay to life. It opens the poem up too. Lot's to ponder - i.e. the death of a soldier, the abscene of those gone, replaced by a memorial statue, then that statue blends into the common background, where it is pissed upon by a dog.

An interesting poem, minimalist par excellence. It reminds me slightly of Charles Simic. He had a sutble minimal style, everyday scenes and images given a strange kind of profundity. Like your poem.

I get lost in metaphors perhaps to a fault, perhaps it muddies my poems, I think I can get too abstract too quickly, and the metaphor just baffles the reader.

I'll be rereading.

Unknown said...

I wanted to immediately comment that I agree with you about poetry, and it's true that I like to read and think about poems privately. But hearing them read by the poet can sometimes add another perspective. Like if its read that way, it can have yet another level of meaning. And I do like to get the perspective of the originator. I guess readings are fine as long as you still have private access to the poem afterwards.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, you seem to be preparing notes here for another blog so go for it. I like to see people thinking about stuff. And if they carry bits off to their own blogs then even better. I got 'envaguening' from Beckett by the way. It was his practice to strip away details from a work to broaden its scope. I wrote a whole post about it: The need to be vague in which I talk specifically about how he started with Krapp's Last Tape set in a specific year, 1986 to begin with, but ended up simply saying that it was set in the future so, of course, reading the text in 2009 it is still set in the future.

I've not read much of Charles Simic, McGuire, so I can't cite him as an influence but I'll have a look to see what of his stuff I can find online; you've piqued my curiosity.

And, Jakill, I think that really is the point, as Dave said too, having access to the written text either before (as in the case with myself and Larkin) or afterwards as in the recent case of the inaugural poem. I just don't think that poetry works solely as a spoken medium. Music can but even then there is nothing I love more than to sit with a score and listen to a piece of music at the same time. It is amazing what you start to hear.

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Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Sasha, it's always nice when someone thinks what you're doing deserves a pat on the back like this.

Art Durkee said...

Anyone, especially a poet, who trusts words to be what they seem to be is heading for danger. Words are at best symbols. In the Zen sense, they're the finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. Words are always symbolic. If you take it far enough, of course, all language is metaphorical. All of it serves to describe or represent reality but without being able to do more than that. Words have severe limitations, and can betray one at any turn.

I always find it fascinating how many poets put their faith in words as though they were implements of religion or ritual: tools for utter clarity and certainty. Any poet who has lived long enough with words knows that they can't be trusted, and that some experience and feelings do not fit very well into words.

Except obliquely and by suggestion, perhaps. Which is where both Samuel Beckett and Gerard Manley Hopkins come in.

The mystical traditions in which words are said to have power—naming something is to create it—it is also said that getting the name wrong can lead to disaster. So it's always baffled me when poets are lazy and imprecise about the words they use—at any time, not just in their poems, but also in the rest of life. I find it hard to cut some poets much slack when they get sloppy about using their tools, or in their criticism.

The use of naming-magic to bring something into creation is relevant to poetry, although it's not much fashionable to talk about it nowadays, in our too-rational culture. At the core of language there are word-kernels, bright things of light, that are somehow indeed connected directly to the fabric of reality. Finding and using those words creates changes in the reader, and evokes in the reader a real experience, not just an intellectual or emotional virtual-experience. I am currently reading through George Mackay Brown's Complete Poems, which I finally found a copy of last week; it's both stimulating and powerfully influential. There's a hardness in the way GMB used words that more poets could stand to learn; it's very close to that skaldic, bardic, ancestral kernel of word-usage.

is it metaphor or evocation/creation? Sometimes there's a finer line than most contemporary poets imagine. The ones that go deep, like GMB, get closer to it than the rest, I think.

McGuire said...

Charles Simic is well worth reading, surreal, but not alienatingly so, well worth a gander.

Metaphor is a strange thing, people often confuse it with similie. I use metaphor quite a lot but in the spirit of bukowski, sometimes I feel, I should abandon metaphor and 'write' plainly (perhaps dully) but I often feel metaphor can often cloud that which could be said in clear and direct terms. I suppose that's the old fight between prose and poetry. Or prose/poetry, is prose poetry that which tends to eschew metaphor?

(p.s. i you haven't read my recent post already, i would appreciate it, it's a bit of an experiment I wrote a while back and I've been picking at it for a while now. Always appreciated yir time, when you have it.)

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