The Curse of Metaphors, November 2016

One of my bugbears about poetry is when poets construct a poem by finding a subject and throwing metaphors or similes at it. It’s as if poetry is just an excuse to string a long line of metaphors together, a bit like one of those terrible Christmas perfume ads that are a series of beautiful images that make no real sense. Metaphors can be transformative in the way they bring together unexpected ideas and create new ways of thinking, but they can become fetishised rather than being seen as one tool among many in a writer’s toolbox.

Using metaphors badly is a writing cliche even if the metaphors themselves are not. When they are used well, however, they can take you to an unexpected place. The poem in this week’s American Life in Poetry column (609), is a good example of this. It is at the end of a short poem called Lily by the poet Ron Koertge about someone adopting an old cat from a deceased friend or relative. This is the last stanza:

She lies on my chest to sleep, rising
and falling, rising and falling like a rowboat
fastened to a battered dock by a string.

What I like about the metaphor (or simile in this case) is that it is so un-catlike. Koertge isn’t afraid to take us in different direction, and so the very simple image that is used as the vehicle of the metaphor, and the precision by which it is rendered, has a much greater impact than if the poet had tried to somehow capture the essence of ‘cat-ness’. Instead he’s tapped into what is going on underneath the physical reality, that sense of the natural, gentle rhythm of life combined with our somewhat precarious attachment to it.

Another master of the original metaphor used sparingly was the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Amichai’s poems have a shadowy, haunting quality to them that is created through his choice of imagery and his refined, elegiac language, as well as the often breathtaking metaphors. In his poem A Pace Like That, he reflects on the lesson a slow-growing lemon tree can teach, contrasting it with his own nervous, frenetic existence. However, he ends with another reflection, that perhaps pre-empts the response of people to the initial desire to slow things down (which could be, well just take the time out and stop being so busy).

The longer you live, the more people there are
who comment on your actions. Like a worker
in a manhole: at the opening above him
people stand around giving free advice
and yelling instructions,
but he’s all alone down there in his depths.

In three short stanzas, Amichai has moved from lemon trees, through a Torah scroll, to a worker in an manhole. After the bucolic and old world imagery of the early parts of the poem, the urban and prosaic reference to someone in a manhole represents an extraordinary imaginative leap. Yet the metaphor captures in its image the sense of lostness that people can feel even in the midst of society.

I think the challenge that poems like Lily and A Pace Like That lay down is to be more circumspect about reaching into the bag of metaphors, but when we do, to make sure we pull out a really good one.

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