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What’s a Meta For?

“Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace metaphors,’ and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, ‘Why don’t you say what you mean?’ We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections - whether from diffidence or from some other instinct.”
—Excerpt from an essay entitled “Education by Poetry” by Robert Frost.

Whether a poet agrees precisely with Robert Frost, metaphors are a powerful tool in the poet’s tool chest. They can be used in passing, like in Sandburg’s “Fog” where the fog is coming in on little cat feet and sits on haunches. Well, actually, that’s a very short poem, so this small metaphor is the entire work. But metaphors can also be extended and become the basis for a much longer work. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare used that metaphor in one of his most famous sonnets. Metaphors and other analogies, their kin the similes, parables, kennings, and such, are sprinkled throughout the history of poetry.

So, how do we best put metaphors to use, and where do problems crop up? A metaphor is a strong equation. It is not like the simile that has “like” or “as” as buffers between the two sides. A simile has the poetic equivalent of the mathematical “Approximately” sign. Not so with the metaphor. It is an equals sign. There’s nothing wavery or squiggly about a metaphor. So, we need them for strong comparisons. My love’s eyes are wells that reach her soul. (Eyes = Wells) When it comes to metaphors, the poet is being bloody, brave, and bold.

One aspect of a metaphor is that the poet doesn’t have to show both sides. He can write one side of the metaphor in such a way that the reader or audience can infer the existence of the other side. Sometimes, they might even know what that other side is. Or sometimes, the other side has some of the facts hidden, where the reader can get the gist of the hidden side of the equation, but not all of it. Parts of the hidden side are only available to those who have the key to unlock the hidden side of the metaphor fully. For instance:

I Watch the Roses Bloom

A rosebud itself has a kind of beauty, 
a tight beauty, 
a beauty of potential. 
But it doesn’t even hint at the complexity 
of the rose in bloom. 

I watch the roses day-by-day 
as they unfold, 
revealing layers 
and new designs. 

A rose is God’s creation. 
Although we may water the bush 
or trim dead leaves 
or cut the older blossoms, 
a rose unfolds in beauty 
because God designed the rose. 
We can care for the rose, 
but take no credit when the blooms appear. 

Here in my garden are many roses. 
Some thrive and bloom. 
Some languish, 
with buds that never fully unfold, 
potential never fulfilled. 

Over here is my favorite rose. 
Its blooms are delicate: 
palest white tipped with cinnamon, 
layer upon layer of petals in intricate designs. 
It isn’t quite as other roses are. 
I found it wild within the wood, 
stunted and twisted some 
by the darkness of its niche. 
I brought it out and replanted it 
where sunlight nourishes 
and sweet rains can reach it. 
And now it blooms without my care.

A reader might gather from this poem that the author is actually talking about people, possibly women, and that he is a counselor, teacher, mentor, parent, or some such to these “roses.” But unless one knows the poet and whom he is influencing, one will not know the specifics of who the roses are and how he helped them bloom.

Problems can crop up in metaphors in a few ways:

  • Extending the metaphor too far. If you are comparing your love’s eyes to well, you might not want to say anything about how they echo when you shout into them. Hopefully, eyes don’t echo shouts as wells do, so you don’t want to talk about this in the relationship. Only cover the aspects that are equivalent between the two things being compared. (Or dissimilar in the case of an anti-metaphor, like the one Shakespeare used in that sonnet.)
  • Lack of clarity. Many poets use very cryptic language, which occludes one end or the other of the metaphor. This is especially a problem where only one end of the metaphor is visible. If the reader can’t tell you’re talking about an electrical generator, or dynamo, they aren’t going to be able to infer that you’re really talking about an energetic person.
  • Use a really obscure equivalence. If there are only three people in the world who understand a particular science well enough to understand how two things are equivalent, the audience for the poem becomes very limited. “Baby, you’re a real top quark,” might sound good, but how many people are going to know what attributes a top quark has and how it’s like a woman (or man) or how it’s different from being a strange quark? It’s okay to have these metaphors, as long as they are explained.

One of the things that I try to do is make sure that at least one layer of the poem and it’s metaphor, one side of the equation, is explicit and easily understood by the uninitiated reader. It might have a dozen layers and possibilities beneath that surface, but it must be like a deep lake when the wind is still. The surface is clear, and that allows us to see down to the next layer. Here’s an example:

Cherry blossoms fall, 
quickened by an April breeze, 
no longer needed.

On the surface, it’s about the petals of cherry blossoms falling when the wind blows. That’s easy to understand, isn’t it? But, does it mean something else, too? Is it about old people shipped off to nursing homes? Is it about girls discarding their virginity as the price of love? Is it about the shell of shyness many young people have in the presence of adults that slowly falls away as they become adults and feel more comfort among older people? It doesn’t explicitly say any of that, but it is all in there if you have enough imagination.

Going back to our last lesson, the best way to get good at coming up with new and interesting metaphors is to practice. Just take fifteen minutes a day, and think about how you can compare different things. Solving math problems and sex. A car and freedom. Driving and sex. Dragons and furnaces. Spaceships and houses. Whatever you come up with, write at least a short poem using the metaphor. Practice every day, and you’ll soon have metaphors coming out of your ears.


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