How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 17
Chapter 7: Metaphorically Speaking
Part 1: Things That Don’t Go Bump in the Night
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[A National Public Radio reporter] said that for some people “Medicare was literally their lifeline.” That is a shocking misuse of literal…. The correct thing to say would be, “Medicare is their virtual lifeline.” [A literal lifeline is]… a rope or a cord on a boat to which sailors can cling to prevent them from falling into the water. [The reporter meant that] Medicare is like a lifeline; it is a figurative lifeline. —From a listener’s letter to NPR.org, published March 29, 2005
Baby boomers’ almost comic fear of aging reminds me of that silent movie scene in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from the hand of a giant clock, literally pulling time from its moorings [emphasis added by the editor]. —New York Times–syndicated columnist Maureen Dowd, “Recline Yourself, Resign Yourself, You’re Through,” April 13, 2005
Let us focus for a moment on the difference between literal expressions and nonliteral expressions. By so doing, we will begin to understand how the truth of poetry is genuine and necessary, and we will perhaps not embarrass ourselves by having our grammatical lapses called to the attention of the entire English-speaking public.
The untidiness of nouns
How well I remember sitting in Miss McCluskey’s cozy classroom at Dundee Elementary School, wrapped in the schoolroom scents of floor polish, eraser dust, books and paper and Miss McCluskey’s talcum powder, and mesmerized by her passion for parsing sentences. How wonderful to have such power over words, assigning the parts of speech to their proper places in sentences such as “Jane gave the ball to Jim” and “Jane gave Jim the ball.”
It was all so easy then, learning that a noun is “a person, place, or thing,” and the things were always stuff you could handle or eat or touch or see or at least wrap your mind around, like marshmallow, cow, apple, Cincinnati, and Mother.
Just when you thought you’d mastered the concept, you got promoted to the next grade and they threw stuff at you like this:
Jane was gripped by excruciating fear.
Some of my fellow pupils in Miss Rubelman’s class, the future social scientists, actually spared a thought or two for poor Jane and her terror. Why was she so afraid? Was she in an airplane plummeting toward a shark-infested sea? Had her boyfriend, Ned, found out that she was really at the amusement park with Victor when she’d told Ned she was visiting Monique at the hospital? Or was it existential angst wrought by the uncertainties of contemporary society?
A majority of the class cared nothing about Jane and her problems or about the meaning of excruciating. It was almost time for recess.
But a few of us had already diagrammed the sentence, as follows:
It was as easy to identify the noun — the object of the preposition by (In this case, fear) — as it would have been if Jane had been gripped by a gorilla. Even so, a noun such as fear — not a person, not a place, not exactly a thing — didn’t fit neatly into the little noun-world we had learned about. Suddenly nouns weren’t so tidy. In fact, the whole noun business got out of hand in a hurry. Nouns could be collective, concrete, countable, uncountable, animate, inanimate, mass, proper, and any number of other things — gerunds, infinitives, and on and on and on.
This, I believe, is where the entire population of the world separates itself into two groups: (1) people who care about nouns, in any form, as well as verbs and conjunctions and subordinate clauses, and (2) people who realize that it’s just going to get more complicated from here on out and it’s probably time to become interested in the opposite sex. I, alas, was One who Cared.
The people who want to know more about the subjunctive mood, and why “if he were at the party” is different from “if he was at the party”; the people to whom it matters whether to use which or that, as in “It was the pollen that made my eyes water, not the mold, which makes me sneeze” — these people study Latin because verb conjugations aren’t enough for them, they want noun declensions too. These people are doomed to forever probe the Nature of Things, if for no other reason than to line them up in sentence diagrams.
These people eventually become English majors. You read about them in the newspapers, running their cars off the road while proofreading billboards: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette shou—!” And as the EMTs carry the crash victim’s mangled body to the ambulance, he or she moans, “As a cigarette should. Not like a cigarette should….”
But this would come later. In elementary school, the future English majors/car-crash survivors were reveling in our discoveries about nouns. A noun could actually be not just a single word —
Jane found a cat
Jane found a haunted house in which lived a family of lizards that could speak in Cantonese
Better yet, nouns could be things that weren’t items but were instead ideas, feelings, concepts, and other intangibles — “things” that can’t be touched, seen, smelled, tasted, or heard. Instead of thinking about her cat, Jane might be thinking about…
The nouns dichotomy, good, evil, separating (here, a gerund), method, future, and desire describe “things” — real, actual, important things — that cannot be discerned by the five physical senses.
The five senses: their usefulness and their limitations
We depend so keenly on the five physical senses that the absence of any one of them is tragic. We pity the blind and the deaf, and those whose sense of touch is lost through paralysis.
The senses of taste and smell are less important; we don’t depend on them for survival, as our primitive ancestors might have. Most of us buy our mushrooms at the grocery store and get our drinking water out of a tap or a bottle. We trust that the grocery-store people don’t stock poisonous mushrooms and that Evian water is pure and clean. Most of the time, our assumptions are justified.
There are people in this world who have virtually lost the use of all five senses and have yet managed to convey the rich, internal, spiritual life they are experiencing. Such people are rare, and few of us would voluntarily surrender any of our five senses as a path to spiritual purification. Certain individuals do, however, practice sensory deprivation — on purpose — by spending days or weeks in caves. Sometimes the reason for this isolation is to develop what the practitioners consider “spiritual senses” — ways of perceiving that are independent of the five physical senses.
I hope that you’ll be able to grasp this concept in the comfort of your home. Cave-dwelling isn’t for everyone. There are inconveniences, such as, for example, the proximity of bats.
My apartment is in an active ninety-year-old church, which is clean and well kept, with modern offices and classrooms and a magnificent sanctuary. But all of us here deal with the occasional bat. People will be chatting in hallways or gathering in their classes when — inexplicably to the clueless observer — everyone screams and runs in some random direction, inevitably smashing into each other in their panic. Bats can be very startling.
This is especially true if a couple of them fly out from behind your shower while you are showering in it. It’s even worse if the bathroom door is closed and they keep flying around in that erratic sonar-guided way they have, so that you have no idea where they’ll end up or which way to dodge. I speak from experience. One minute I was showering, the next I was naked in the living room, having gotten there without traversing the distance in between, making me the only human being who has ever, literally, made a quantum leap.
As useful and necessary as the physical senses may be for informing you of the presence of bats, they (the senses, and no doubt the bats as well) are incapable of perceiving abstractions — intangible things — ideas, beliefs, and emotions such as fear, love, happiness, and disgust, as illustrated in Table 1.
Sometimes people make the mistake of classifying tangible things as real and intangibles as unreal. A parent will comfort a child who wakes up in the night, frightened by a dream or an unexplained noise, by saying, “It’s all right. It was only a dream,” or, “It was only your imagination.” Yet it is these intangibles — imagination, dreams, and others, such as love and vengeance — that propel us through life.
All language is, of course, metaphor. A word is only a symbol of the thing or action it represents. And, as we shall discover, virtually every word in every language — even conjunctions and prepositions — originates in metaphor.
Lesson 17.1 Assignment
Find at least ten examples of metaphors in this lesson. E-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.