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Speaking in Figures

Written by

Mark Doty
Contributor Page

Year

2014

Here's one of those stories everyone swears is true, though they always seem to have happened to a friend of a friend, and are never quite verifiable. I heard it from my friend Genine, and I'm not quite sure where she got it. A man was telling his therapist about a fight he'd had with his mother. They were standing together in the kitchen, arguing, and then, he said, "My mother put the icing on the cake." The therapist said, "Oh?" "Yes," he said. "She put the icing on the cake?" "Yes." The therapist persisted: "But how did she put the icing on the cake?" "She put the icing on the cake." And so it continued, until they realized they were talking about a literal cake; the mother was holding a knife covered with butter-cream frosting.

 

Just this summer, in Prague, I had the opposite experience. Considerately, restaurant menus often offer English translations beneath the Czech listing, but the translations are often dodgy. "Beef consommé with faggots," for instance, took us aback, but nothing was as hard to figure out as an appetizer called "smoked language." Then one of the diners at our table decoded the dish, which was tongue.

The therapist assumes language must be metaphoric; the dogged but well-intentioned menu translator assumes it must be literal. I tell these two little bits of anecdote because they point to the absolute centrality of figurative speech. You could say that all language is metaphoric, since the word stands for the thing itself, something the word is not. In her evocative memoir, The Names of Things, the Egyptologist Susan Brind Morrow points to the origins of letters in the observation of nature, how the scuttle of crab claws on sand, for instance, influenced the hieroglyph for "writing." To use words at all is to use them figuratively; we breathe metaphor, we swim in metaphor, we traffic in metaphor—and the verbs in those three phrases illustrate my point.

Poetry's project is to use every aspect of language to its maximum effectiveness, finding within it nuances and powers we otherwise could not hear. So the poet needs to be a supreme handler of the figurative speech we all use everyday, employing language's tendency to connect like and disparate things to the richest possible effects. In poetry, figuration is at its most sophisticated: condensed, alive with meaning, pointing in multiple directions at once.

And it's crucial to notice that simile and metaphor are not simply decorative devices, like frosting on the cake of sense. Far from being just ways to make meaning seem more attractive, figurative speech itself means, and means intensely. It's one of the poet's primary tools for conveying the texture of experience, and for inquiring into experience in search of meaning.

With this in mind, I'd like to propose some principles of metaphor, in an attempt to name the ways in which figurative speech creates meaning.

1. To say what we see is to speak figuratively.
The first project of simile and metaphor is to describe, to say what something is like. Unless we restrict ourselves to mere measurement, we cannot do so without resorting to comparison. In the hands of a poet like May Swenson, in a poem like "Little Lion Face," these comparisons become a sensory—and sensual!—universe in themselves. Just in the first two stanzas, her dandelion blossom is a miniature version of a great cat's face and a "silk sunwheel."

2. Figures work together to form networks of sense.
Of course the metaphors that Swenson chooses are accurate to the look and feel of dandelions, but as we notice the relationships between these figures it quickly becomes clear that the poet's enjoying a metaphoric game here; the act of picking the flower is standing in for something else. And just what that "something else" is becomes clear in the fourth and fifth stanzas, which would seem over-the-top for even the most avid lover of flowers!

3. Figuration is a form of self-portraiture.
Swenson's poem is about picking a dandelion, and it's clearly a love poem as well. But I'd propose that its intense involvement in rich, descriptive speech also creates another subject, which is the character of the perceiver. It's a kind of perceptual signature, a record of a way of an individual way of seeing. This is one of the central things which poetry is: a vessel of individuality, a distillation of the way one person experiences the world, knows herself in time and in place.

4. Metaphor introduces tension and polarity to language.
The figurative often introduces rich and unexpected language into a poem, shifting the elements of its vocabulary. In Swenson's case, consider "your barbs hooked to my hand, / sudden stings from them / were sweet." "Barbs," "hooked," and "stings" probably wouldn't have entered into this love poem if the vehicle of the dandelion weren't there, and the poem's wiser and more complex for their presence.

5. The distancing aspect of metaphor may allow us to speak more freely.
"Little Lion Face" is decidedly a poem of female sexuality; the vehicle provides a bit of a "veil" here that allows Swenson to explore a heated, charged experience, one I doubt she could have inscribed directly. And there is a certain pleasure, isn't there, in pretending the poem's only about picking a flower? A delight in a (thin) disguise?

6. Metaphor is an act of inquiry (not an expression of what we already know).
I can't prove this, not having access to Swenson's process, but I can feel the power of the result. "Little Lion Face" has that unmistakable quality of discovery, the sort of energy generated when an idea (and a concomitant set of emotions) unfolds before the writer. That unfolding is made possible by metaphor; it is the working out of the relation between dandelion and lover, which engages the poet's imaginative energy; I can't imagine that Swenson knew, consciously, that her dandelion would propel the poem's investigation of erotic energy, withdrawal, and renewal.

In this way metaphor becomes a kind of argument, a "thinking through" of what's implied in a relation between things apparently unlike. And the reader can feel this active engagement of mind, especially because Swenson's embodied it in the thrilling sonic structures she's built. Listen to the cascade of long O sounds in these lines from near the end: "Oh, lift your young neck, / open and expand to your / lover, hot light. / Gold corona . . ." Those are the Ohs of pleasure, but I'd argue that they are also the pleased exclamations of discovery: Oh, my metaphor has yielded meaning! Oh, I've made something complicated, full of feeling and tension, something almost as mysterious and alive as experience is.

Read the others:
Mark Doty on "In a Station of the Metro" by Ezra Pound
Mark Doty on "Archaic Torso of Apollo" by Rainer Maria Rilke
Mark Doty on "A child said, What is the grass?" by Walt Whitman
Mark Doty on "On the Skeleton of a Hound" by James Wright
This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets and was adapted from a lecture Mark Doty gave for at the Online Poetry Classroom Summer Institute. Copyright © 2007 by The Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.