July 10, 2007


A carrying across, translates Alicia Ostriker, who says that all metaphor is erotic. Her essay is even structured like a metaphor, so that the writing enacts the idea. ("A Meditation on Metaphor" can be found in the excellent By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade, which contains among its wonders another fantastic essay, "Silence," by Jorie Graham) .

I'm struck by the centrality of metaphor in poetry -- but also in our lives. Metaphor defines a central human question: can we change our natures? (And, too, do we even have a stable nature that can be pinned or penned?) Mark Doty writes, You could say that all language is metaphoric, since the word stands for the thing itself, something the word is not.

Its an enactment of idea into verb: a place where thought becomes image (most of the time). Indeed, when one locates the images of a poem, one also stumbles onto the metaphoric properties of the poem too.

Metaphor is also the place where idea becomes argument. Out of two things arise a third, a thesis, a subjectivity, a new lens through which the reader observes the speaker. Dear Dr. Freud. It's all so voyeuristic.

But metaphor is also that place where the writer invites the reader into the poem -- the writer changes the reader's perspective too. This is the place of communication and union: of communion between the reader and the speaker. Metaphor constitutes the most psychologically precise moment(s) of the poem.

A sloppy metaphor is a sign of undeveloped intelligence (a place to push on the writer's own thinking) in the poem.
The more angled the parts of the metaphor (by which I mean the more unusual the two parts of the metaphor), the more interested I am by the intelligence, the more energy accrues in the poem, the more metaphor acts as an engine for the poem's propulsion.
Here are six principles of metaphor, according to Mark Doty, from his essay "Speaking in Figures." Follow the link to read him in his erudite entirety:
And here's a favorite poem whose engine is metaphor:


When you walked in with your suitcase, leaving
the door open so the night showed
in a black square behind you, with its little stars
like nailheads, I wanted to tell you
you were like the dog that came to you by default,
on three legs: now that she is again no one's,
she pursues her more durable relationships
with traffic and cold nature, as though at pains
to wound herself so that she will not heal.
She is past being taken in by kindness,
preferring wet streets: what death claims
it does not abandon.
You understand, the animal means nothing to me.

—Louise Glück, from Descending Figure

I love that the poem's engine, the erotic heat of metaphor, pulls so tightly against the tone (controlled rage, an anger that is both precise and consuming?) and, of course, against the subject matter. Glück's may be THE break up poem of the century.

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