Thursday, February 26, 2009

Metaphor: The Mundane Made Beautiful And the Foundation of Language Itself

We won't talk about my naughtiness here. This was due for my writing about literature class at nine tonight. I wrote a paper for the assignment earlier, but hated it - I'm not sure this one, which I started around one this afternoon was much better.

And if you actually read this, yes, I absolutely love Adrienne Rich, while John Keats is still my hero - and I don't care if his words don't bring a tear to your eye, they certainly do mine.

“Here I am, naked on the stage, my sweat is my blood shed to entertain.”

Metaphor is nothing less than the very essence of transcendent lyrical expression – primitive, pure – fundamentally human. At its base, metaphor is simply “a figure of speech based on an unspoken or implied comparison” (Brereton 2064). But metaphor is so very much more than this, it is the core of expression that is intended to evoke an emotional reaction. It is far more effective than simile, because rather than making a simple comparison, it takes ownership of the imagery in conjunction with what is being described by the metaphor. Metaphor immerses the reader into the core experience of the writer, avoiding altogether the hard reality that the imagery is meant to describe.

But metaphor is also so very much more than that. Metaphor is also the core embodiment of cognition and the creation of language itself. It is fundamental to how we think and how we view the world around us. In “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor” Professor Lakoff takes metaphor far beyond the context of literature and even basic language:
Moreover, these general principles which take the form of conceptual mappings, apply not just to novel poetic expressions, but to much of ordinary everyday language. In short, the locus of metaphor is not in language at all, but in the way we conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another. The general theory of metaphor is given by characterizing such crossdomain mappings. And in the process, everyday abstract concepts like time, states, change, causation, and purpose also turn out to be metaphorical. The result is that metaphor (that is, cross-domain mapping) is absolutely central to ordinary natural language semantics, and that the study of literary metaphor is an extension of the study of everyday metaphor (Lakoff).

The implication then, is that metaphor is fundamental to the thinking that governs our use of language. “Hurry! We're running out of time.” This is a very basic example of metaphor that quite often shapes our thoughts even if it's not actually verbalized in a given situation. Or when one has a head cold, “I'm dying,” is what many people are thinking, even if there is no one around to express that to and even though most people know full well that within a matter of days they will feel just fine and very much alive. We are thinking metaphorically, without even considering that that is what we're doing. Indeed if you were to ask people, most would probably question the idea that they think metaphorically at all.

Lakoff is far from finished though. “ The metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary. The mapping is primary...” (Lakoff). People create imagery based connections – imaginary connections, if you will, before they ever describe what they've seen. This is quite probably why, when witnesses to a crime are questioned, many of them will claim to have seen something different. It's not just a matter of perspective, it's a matter of metaphorical mapping. Different people create different images to help them remember, help them describe things. Is it all that remarkable to think that this may skew their memory?

This is why metaphorical poetry is the purest, most primitive form of human expression. It is the condensing of pre-reasoning and the virtually raw subconscious brought to the glorious light of day. By primitive, I do not mean mean to say simple – in many ways the most primitive workings of the human mind are among the most complex. It is the foundation for who and what we are, what makes us us, what makes us human. It is like the difference between raw garlic and garlic that has been processed into an odorless tablet. The complexity of the raw garlic is in the power of its flavor and odor. The complexity of the odorless tablet is in the refinement, the process that takes it from this overwhelmingly flavorful, strong smelling clove, into something that's barely noticable. In it's finished form, the tablet is really rather simple – it's the process that's complex.

Take the line; “Here I am, naked on the stage, my sweat is my blood, shed to entertain.” The first time those words escaped my lips, was during a improvisational poetry slam in South City St. Louis at the Way Out Club. I was in fact, fully clothed and my sweat was just that, sweat, yet that line was an absolute and fundamental truth. Just hours before I took the stage that night, I was interviewed on one of the St. Louis public radio stations. The interviewer had asked a great many, increasingly deeply personal questions, all of which I responded to with great candor. Too, my lyrics and poetry were heavily focused on exposing my experience of the human condition. At that point in my life, I was both the singer/lyricist for a band and also an actor in a small professional company and in a amateur company. At that point in time, I gave every bit of my life to the art that I was involved in.

I wanted to provide that example, because I could provide a literal meaning to the metaphorical imagery I used. But part of the wonder of metaphorical poetry, is that the reader is given the opportunity to take ownership of the literal truth of the imagery. So lets look at examples of metaphor from other writers.

What immortalized John Keats, was his ability to draw the reader full into his own experience of the world around him. Not just into what he observed, but into what he was feeling. Through his poetry, it isn't hard to imagine just what it was, his experience of the human condition. His adept use of symbolism and simile paint a vivid background, but it's his use of metaphor that exposes us to what his experience of that background was to him. In “Ode to a Nightingale” Keats paints a luscious, vibrant backdrop, the beauty of which manages to strike through the obvious suffering the poet (Brereton 1039). But the following metaphoric imagery betrays the paradoxical joy in Keats' experience of natural beauty, that countered his pain and fear of dying:
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain -
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Having read a great deal about Keats life, I know the why of his depression, but one need only read this single poem to know he was a deeply disturbed young man. The first two lines provide a clear insight into the poet's frame of mind:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

This is despair to bring tear to the eye of the most cynical stoic. Yet in the depths of this despair, Keats manages to express the ecstasy of his agony:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

And again, the expression of the beauty of his world, spikes through in metaphor, from the most primitive, hidden recesses of his mind. He knows the beauty is all around him, he knows he's surrounded by awe inspiring wonders. But he is unable to force direct expression of that beauty, symbols, simile and direct descriptives fail him. In metaphor however, he able to carry us into the beauty that is this bird, this song and ultimately, his joy of it.

Then there is the writing of Adrienne Rich, who more than anything, seems to wonder what it is to be something, someone else. In “Diving Into the Wreck” she is an underwater fairypeople, she's an explorer and she's the wreck she's diving into (Brereton 738). But of course, she must first remind herself what she is about:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.

For Adrienne its not the sum of the words, but words themselves that are the meaning. Her poetry is filled with “word” and “words” as metaphors. But back to the Wreck:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun

In the second and third lines, she is wanting to experience the thing, the wreck – not someone else's experience of it, the story of it. But in the forth and fifth lines, she gives us her first experience of it, or what we can believe is her first impression. Though it could just as well be her pre-impression of this thing, this wreck. Then she fully envelops herself, immerses herself into the experience:
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
She swirls through this metaphor where she is a underwater fey then two, then she is the wreck itself – blending her merman personas into one into the wreck itself. And the ending is simply masterful:
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

This flowing back, easing us out of this metaphor is truly wordsmithing at it's very finest. Rich has eased us into her world of words and beauty, taken us about this wreck, become this wreck and then eases us back out and into reality again. No abrupt transition, no blunt imagery, like that we see from Keats, her words begin in our world, the recognizable, mundane world. It's slowly that her words flow, water and we flow with them, into her head. Once we've spent a short time in her mind, we ease back out and finish with the unidentified myth from which this adventure began.

The power of words, the power of language is in metaphor. It allows us to be something else, someone else, somewhere else – to journey is someone else's mind. But more importantly, it takes us to the roots of our language, our history, our pre-history and into a time and place before we were really quite humans yet.

1 comment:

Stephanie Zvan said...

I hope your teacher appreciates having a student in class who's spent years writing. Seeing a number of friends going back to school in their thirties and forties, I find myself wondering how much of their educations is wasted on the very young.