Why Must We Dream in Metaphors?

Why Must We Dream in Metaphors?

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Why Must We Dream in Metaphors?


The poet Willis Barnstone begins a poem with this line: "Why must I always see the death in things?" My poem would begin, "Why must I always see the metaphor in things?" If I have any intellectual strength it is in seeing connections between unlikely ideas, theories, and concepts. I sit in classes, in front of the television, in front of books and my brain constantly tries to see how what I donít understand relates to, is like, compares to things I already know about. Part of the poetic process is to be on the lookout constantly for these metaphors, these comparisons between unlike things constantly, as (in a metaphorical sense) a mechanic might hear a car coming down the street and from the noise of the engine discern a kind of secret knowledge, an awareness, that is lost on other hearers.

The strong arm of metaphor has led to statements like, "Thatís why schema theory is a kind of Swiss army knife" or "using consultation is like deciding whether to fix your own transmission". Also: good teaching is very often about finding metaphors that give students another way of relating new material to what they have already more or less experienced. The other day I was trying to explain how I expected a paper to be structured, and I found myself saying, "Remember when you came home late from a date and you built an argument to show your parents that coming home late was a perfectly reasonable, even inevitable occurrence given the circumstances?" Even telling stories about my teaching is a kind of metaphor: that is, Iím saying that my experience as a white male teaching in a small high school will be like the experience of my students.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) spend much of their book talking about where metaphors come from, how they function in conversation, what their tie to underlying social structures might be. However, I read the book hungrily looking for some information about why metaphors serve a purpose that nothing else seems to for me. Finally, near the end I found this statement:

The reason we have focused so much on metaphor is that it unites reason and imagination. Reason, at the very least, involves categorization, entailment, and inference. Imagination, in one of its many aspects, involves seeing one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing­­what we have called metaphorical thought.

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Metaphor is thus imaginative reality. (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 193).
Imaginative reality. That holds some promise for understanding what I am trying to do, often, when I write. They continue, "Metaphor is one of the most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended fully (p. 193).
How does any of this apply to my own writing? I think my poems, to the extent that they do work, operate on this principle of reality/imagination as a larger way of saying something that cannot be said. For example, in a poem called "Ars Poetica" I try to explain why I write: the most famous Ars Poetica was written by Horace centuries ago. This poem captures a real event: the present, by my three year old son, of a blank piece of paper. I stopped by the metaphorical implications, the reality and the imagination. What is going on? Several things. I had quit teaching, and was off to a computer sales job, which symbolized, for me, the ending of the part of my life where poetry and talking about writing were major parts. The piece of paper he handed me was a real object, something in his life that brought him pleasure, allowed him to draw and make something. He was giving me that gift. Of course, he was also handing me a metaphor: the piece of paper represented writing to me, a creative place that had brought me pleasure and meaning in the past. The poem, then, as a letter to the future continues the metaphor. That is, by saying that the gift I will have to give him in the future is not only the retelling of the story, but also the literal gift of having a poem written for him, the words stand as a metaphor for out relationship. They say, "Do you see how we were then? Do you see how you felt about me, and I about you? Do you see how your giving me a picture was a real event but that my imagination about who you would be, who I would be, and who we were then go beyond a mere accounting of facts?"

Love poems are the hardest for me to write: As Lakoff and Johnson say, metaphors are a way of talking about what is impossible to say. Water, moving or still, has been a device for poets before words were written. There is water moving in us, water falling on us, water which gives us life. When we give life, it essentially water which allows that. The poem "Water Music" is an attempt to say what is essentially un-sayable. Sixteen years of marriage, two children, separation, patience and forgiveness, macaroni and cheese, laughter and angry words. To even use the word "love" in this context is weak beyond saying. To say how grateful I am, and how profoundly knowing the woman I am married to has changed who I can be, goes beyond names. The metaphor I chose are the names of the bodies of water we have seen. The mighty Wabash, the Ohio, and the Connecticut all connect larger, special places. Trueís Brook in Meriden, New Hampshire, and the little Goose Pond just near our house in Canaan are more intimate, more ordinary, and are moving still without our seeing them, even as we have moved on, to somewhere. The metaphor tries to say, our love is like water. It is everywhere. It is inside us, and our children, and we cannot, no matter how far away dismiss the simple fact of the slow, beautiful power of water.

Finally, I want to talk about the poem "What I Know". As this piece was written, it soon became apparent to me that having finished a draft of it, I knew more than I had before I began it. There are a couple of metaphors here that surprised me: I particularly like "the rosary of miles" and the metaphor of the Wabash hanging, because of the intense humidity, in the air even though we had left it behind us. When I was working on this poem with the poet Ralph Burns he pointed to that line and said, "Iíll bet that was a nice surprise, wasnít it?" When the imagination is primed (and here I want to write ëlike a hand pump on in an old farm kitchení) and at the ready, it is able to take the reality of a long, hot car ride and see that it is not just a car ride, but, as the poems tries to say, a metaphor. This car ride is not a car ride. This journey through late-summer Indiana cornfields is not a trip, and is a trip. There is a semiotic flavor to recognizing in a abandoned homesteads the things I have left behind, to seeing my children in the car as literally behind me, to connect that to my memories of being a child in the station wagonís backseat.

We live by, as Lakoff and Johnson say, metaphors. They show us connections that we would not have seen otherwise. They make our lives richer. As my favorite writer William Stafford, in his essay A Way of Writing says, "Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can offer. They have the whole unexplored realm of human vision."

Ars Poetica


Early morning:

stumbling downstairs,

tightening my tie,

pissed-off going to work,

I met my

three year old son,

smiles and seriousness,

and blond hair

who told me

he had an early

Christmas present for me,

ran downstairs and up

to hand me a blank

piece of paper.

He said, "Itís for Christmas,

but you can open

it, and you can use it

to type on or maybe draw

and you can

even do it at work."

So, Thomas,

for early Christmas,

I hand you this,

answer to the

silent demand for

something written or drawn,

to make you

stop someday,

late to work ,

and see yourself at three;

something simple

as a white piece of paper:

even this.

Water Music

(for Linda)

For sixteen years we've loved

beside the water: the Atlantic at Swampscott

the long sunset bay at Charlevoix,

the stream rushing

between boulders at True's Brook,

the muddy Connecticut, Goose Pond's

cold clarity, Newfound and Mascoma

the Wabash at Vincennes,

the Ohio at Rising Sun.

The sky is dark or brilliant,

shorelines ice or hot sand or cool granite,

the rivers like blood, like children, make their own path.

The names we have given water, in and out of our veins,

the waters rising and turning over,

the love between us all say:

"Remember the water:

it has changed and can never be the same,

it has always been the same and will never change."
What I Know
The way the green corn smudges into the sky

Still lit at 8:30 on a Saturday August night

Crossing from Vincennes to Bloomington.

The way back seat children tired and restless

Make small noises, the rosary of mileage

Through fingers, small houses abandoned

Beside rusting corn dryers, the windshields of

Junked dumptrucks glint

Through ragged screens of poplars.

If I lived here in the close distance of farms

I could tell the stories of wallpaper

Darkened by hands coming down stairs,

A roof that has leaked for years, only in the heaviest rains,

Not enough to drag the ladder from the barn,

Curtains moved in silence just before midnight.

The gas gauge leans towards E through towns

Whose Quik-Marts have closed at six.

Two hours ago we threw sticks

Into the Wabash at Vincennes,

Watched trains shuttle across a railroad bridge

Back and forth into Illinois.

Now the eighty degree

River stalls, hangs here in the air,

Colors condense to white, gray, and green,

Conversation hushes in speed and open windows,

Hair pulses unevenly at sixty miles an hour.

The closed lines of counties part, open themselves

To make this singular home

Moving up Route 36 in darkness.
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