Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

Here's an attempt to take stock of our last few discussions. Please don't hesitate to make it more complete, or to ask questions, by hitting "Add Comment."

So we've been talking about

  • metaphors for poetry, on the assumption that it's through metaphor that we understand poetry to begin with
  • metaphors in poetry, looking to see how poets use metaphor creatively

Metaphors for poetry

  • a poem is a container
  • a poem is an utterance
  • a poem is a statement
  • a poem is a song
  • a poem is a solid object
  • a poem is a structure
  • a poem is a game

"A poem is an utterance," "A poem is a song," and "A poem is a game" are all examples of what Lakoff and Johnson call "structural metaphor." These metaphors structure our understanding of the concept "poetry" by conceptualizing poetry in terms of more clearly defined abstractions in our everyday experience.

Some of the metaphors in our list (container, solid object, structure) are versions of what Lakoff and Johnson call "ontological metaphor" - that is, they turn poems metaphorically into objects. Ontological metaphors conceptualize abstractions as physical objects. But when our understanding of an abstraction makes use of the "entailments" of an ontological metaphor, that metaphor is also a "structural" metaphor. Once we begin to talk about what's "in" a poem as opposed to what's "outside" it, or about the "form" of the poem holding the "meaning" of it, the container metaphor is structural as well as ontological.

It would be absurd to suppose that we could ever find the "right" metaphor for poetry. We have multiple metaphors precisely because no one metaphor seems to do. Every metaphor highlights some aspects of our experience of poetry, every metaphor downplays other aspects, and every metaphor hides some aspects.

In addition, many of the conventional metaphors for poetry overlap in what they highlight. For example, whether a poem is a solid object with no discrete parts (a stone, a globed fruit) or a complicated structure (upheld by mutually reinforcing parts, such as figurative language, rhyme, meter, paradox), its value lies in itself and not in an "idea" that it "conveys."

If we could find the "right" metaphor for poetry, it wouldn't be a metaphor. We would have simply defined poetry. But the evidence of the poets and critics themselves suggests that we will never do this. We can only understand poetry by likening it to other things in our experience.

Of course, poets and critics, for the most part, don't see it this way. And so we get poet wars and critic wars in which this or that poet or critic says the kind of thing Archibald MacLeish says in "Ars Poetica": Poems, to be poems, must be or do this.

Does that make poets' and critics' ongoing conversation about poetry futile? Far from it. One could certainly wish for the conversation to be more civil and accommodating, but its upshot is endless exploration of what various metaphors play up, play down, or conceal about our experience of poetry. In the end, we understand poetry better because of it.

Metaphors in poetry

Here's a quick (and incomplete) rundown of some of the poems we've read and the metaphors they've played with, followed by a few thoughts about metaphor in assigned poems we haven't had a chance to discuss:

  • "beware: do not read this poem" plays with the idea of poem as container and poem as mirror. It might lead on to think about how Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass plays with the metaphor "a mirror is a container" (literally, of course, it's a flat surface).
  • "Africa" plays with a host of orientational metaphors and also with the metaphor, "walking is acting" (thus, "striding" is good).
  • "Break, Break, Break" plays with "a poem is an utterance" in a poem in which the speaker expresses his inability to utter his own thoughts. To do this he must invoke the metaphor, "the sea is a person," thereby making a particular kind of metaphorical move we call "personification."
  • In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," we get a rich meditation on the speaker's relationship to history that uses the container metaphor. Here, a person is a river, a river is a container, and thus both people and rivers are containers - but not container objects. Instead, they're what Lakoff and Johnson call container substances. They have a surface and depths, but no enclosing sides. A bathtub is a container object, the bathwater a container substance.
  • In Keats's poem on the sonnet as a form, we get poetry as music and the poem as a living thing (in fact, a person, with a "naked foot"). Form is a container for meaning, but not a box-like container. It is an "interwoven" "sandal" that not only contains the foot but completes it.
  • In "open.ended" a poem is a container that contains containers, but it isn't a closed container.
  • In "I, You, We" a poem is an infinite space.