Thanks very much to Jim Cummins, Stacey Harwood, and BAP for inviting me to share a few thoughts on poetry this week. I’m honored. I have four posts lined up: three micro-essays and a rangier post I’ll divide into two parts. These vary in subject from sexual innuendo and the ethics of poetry-workshops to the search for Valery’s “La Poésie pure” in contemporary nonsense verse. But first, a return to the basics. Here’s a nuts-and-bolts piece on the pleasures and perils of mixed metaphor, which I offer as a kind of pallet-cleanser. (See? The urge to mix metaphors is strong!) I hope you enjoy.
We all work with metaphor on a daily basis, but it’s still fun occasionally to remind ourselves of why. The limitations of metaphor are the limitations of language. “Language,” Emerson observed in one of his most aphoristic metaphors, “is fossil poetry.” As limestone is composed of the skeletal remains of ancient marine life (mostly coral), language consists of words and word-fragments: “images” and “tropes” bereft of their “poetic origins.”
Though unable to trace the epistemological beginnings of most words, we imagine The Namers, the language-makers of prehistory, uttering the first vocalized representations of the world. Initially, these ur-words must’ve signified concepts like danger or objects like aurochs and fire. They also must’ve shocked both sayer and hearer with their onomatopoeic fidelity, how like they were the things they signified. Soon these grunts and clicks must’ve entered more philosophical territory, providing morphological figures for love and grief, god and beauty, heartache and song. These language-makers were our earliest poets.
Today, neologisms work in much the same way, shocking us with their paradoxical nature: how strange they seem at first and yet how right. Once adopted into common usage, however, these new words mellow from their primary into what Emerson called their “secondary use,” losing some of the surprise that made them worth repeating in the first place. In short, the more a new word is spoken the more literal it becomes. Remember, for example, how much fun it was in the early 2000’s to use “google” as a verb, or the first time you heard about someone “Google-bating”? Now “google” (lowercase “g”) doesn’t even register as incorrect in Microsoft 2010 spell-check, though “spellcheck” still gets a red squiggly line.
This issue of coinage suggests how slippery metaphors can be. If even the most seemingly concrete words are dead metaphors (“chair,” for example, or “bird”), can we actually differentiate between figurative and literal language? If such diverse animals as the Eurasian eagle owl and the Atlantic puffin belong to the same zoological class, aren’t they both “like” birds and thus like each other?
I wonder if there’s a way to take the pulse of a word, to see just how living it is, how charged with vestigial figurativeness. Certainly there are degrees of figurativeness among words, and these degrees are relative to time (how long ago the word was coined) and frequency (how commonly it’s spoken). In 2014, for example, we can safely say “chair” and “bird” without fear of metaphorical implication. But what about “dubstep” and “snowclone,” “corporatocracy” and “shopaholic,” “iPod” and “selfie”?
Poetry can function as a kind of a metaphorical sphygmometer, though a highly idiosyncratic one. As the art that most favors verbal or linguistic surprise, poetry—and I’m not using poetry and verse interchangeably here—embraces extremes, prizing either the truly dead dead-metaphors (fossilized literalisms) or the daring and head-popping living metaphors that transform both tenor and vehicle into something fresh and strange. Poetry rejects everything in between, particularly catachresis and mixed metaphor, though both devices can be used to great effect.
Consider, for example, “To take arms against a sea of troubles.” This line, along with its dramatic context, is so embedded in our canonical literature that it hardly registers as a mixed metaphor at all. Still, “arms” and “sea” are incongruous vehicles, smashing into each other as they transport the tenor (“troubles”) into the realm of the irrational; “troubles” is both like a sea and an opposing army. But the “mixed,” almost surrealistic quality of the figure adds to the conceit, bringing a mimetic dimension to the soliloquy by emphasizing Hamlet’s equivocal state of mind; he’s so “troubled” that he muddles (mixes) his metaphors.
And there’s the rub. Metaphors work not because of their equivalency (A=B) but their approximation (A is like B). Rational as the rest of Hamlet’s soliloquy is, in this moment Hamlet’s intuitive, unconscious mind takes over, his id: the rooky backwater where all metaphors begin. Disorienting the reader/audience with the uncanniness of the line, Shakespeare leaves us with the image of the prince, sword unsheathed, battling the waves of the swelling tide.