Ruthpadel.com EXTRACTS FROM SILENT LETTERS OF THE ALPHABET
CONTENTSChapter One Metaphor and Saying Otherwise
- Image and Silence
- The Grass Divides
- The Magic of Distance
- The Art of Hint
- White Space
- Where the Voice Belongs: the Beckett at the
- Silent Pianos
- Hooked Atoms, Harmony, Holding Together
- Syllables and Silent Letters
- Echo and the Poetry of Relation
- The Viola Voice
- The Space, the Silence and the Beast
- I Say I Say I Say: the Bond Between Language and Communication
- At the Screen Door
- The Crossing Flow: Unnamed and Unnameable
- What’s Love in all this Debris?
from pages 12The Magic of Distance
Metaphor is not poetry’s monopoly. It is one of the big natural adventures of all language. Science and philosophy depend on it too. "Our ordinary conceptual system,” says the linguist George Lakoff, “in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." Jonathan Miller deals with language as theatre director as well as scientist. “Finding out what something is,” he has said, “is largely a matter of discovering what it is like. The most impressive contribution to the growth of intelligibility has been made by applying metaphors.”
William Golding pictures the beginning of this process in The Inheritors. His doomed Neanderthal discovers metaphor as a conceptual tool which helps him make sense of his changing world when invaded by homo sapiens.
Lok discovered ‘like’. He had used likeness all his life without being aware of it. Fungi on a tree were ears… In a convulsion of understanding Lok found himself using likeness as a tool as surely as ever he had used a stone to hack at sticks or meat. Likeness could grasp the white-faced hunters with a hand, could put them into the world where they were thinkable and not a random and unrelated irruption.
George Eliot, however, reproaches Aristotle for his unalloyed enthusiasm for metaphor. Why didn’t he temper his praise with a lament, “that intelligence so rarely shows itself in speech without metaphor - that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else?”
Where does this leave poets? On a flight to Russia in 1983, the Irish poet Paul Durcan looked down at the Caucasus mountains.
“They look like tents,” he said to his colleague Anthony Cronin. “Paul, would you ever stop saying things are like things?” said Cronin. “They either are, or they’re not.” Durcan has not used the word ‘like’ in a poem since. What are you doing when you connect mountains and tents by “like”? You see mountains more freshly when you compare them to something else, but what happens if (moving from simile to metaphor) you take the “like” away? If, as George Eliot points out we are doing, you say they actually are something else? How much does “like” matter? Keeping it, you stay on some fence between a momentary shift of perspective and a permanent transformation. But to poets at least, dropping it can feel violent and daring. You are committed to strangeness. You have jumped into the permanent, into the other world.
Some sense of another world is crucial to poems, and it is particularly metaphor which helps gets you there. Poems can work fine without metaphors, yet metaphor seems central to poetry. Why?
I think because metaphor and poetry have in common a kind of outward restlessness. Adrienne Rich suggests that poetry never rests on “the given” but will always move on from “the found place, the sanctuary.” Metaphor does that too. Both poems and metaphors open new possibilities of seeing. In Keats, the nightingale’s song opens for the listener “magic casements on the foam/ Of perilous seas.” Poems open windows, make you look out and see new, and metaphor is a potent way of doing that. Seeing new, making you see more sharply what something is by calling it something else, is metaphor’s speciality. It is what Durcan was up to above the Caucasus.
Emily Dickinson pictures poetry as a house with more windows and better doors than prose.
I dwell in Possibility,
A fairer House than Prose -
More numerous of Windows -
Superior - for Doors.
Maybe what metaphor does for a poem is let you look out from its structures (a “stanza” is a “room”) while enjoying being in them. Like a modulation in music, a metaphor moves you away from the poem's home key. Like poetry itself, its possibilities disorientate; metaphor can make you suddenly and enjoyably a stranger in your linguistic world. We might take Dickinson’s windows and doors as metaphors for metaphor, because metaphor is what you have to use if you want to reveal what metaphor does.
Most people, though, picture metaphor as a form of travel. Lorca called it “the equestrian leap that unites two worlds.” Standard metaphors for metaphor evoke both a distance between two things and physical movement across them. Metaphor is energy and movement. Movement out and also movement between. The Greek word metaphora comes from meta, “across”, and pherein, “to carry”. Its Latin equivalent is translatio, “translation.” Both mean “carrying across.”
The history of unpacking this metaphor for metaphor begins with Aristotle. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines metaphora by the related word epiphora (also from pherein), which by his day had the abstract meaning “application” but which originally meant “carrying towards”. Metaphor, he says, is the epiphora of a “foreign” word (allotrios, “alien”, “other”) carried over to a “home” place, oikeion, the word’s “normal”, “original” meaning.
Alive inside this definition is the movement of sea trade, the chief source of ancient Greek prosperity. Metaphor’s energy is the energy of relationship. Metaphor enriches by moving between home and foreign, self and other.
When I first went to Greece in 1970, I saw Aristotle’s definition in action. I was a classics student but trying to learn modern Greek, in that state of learning a language when you are abnormally sensitive to images which native speakers take for granted. Everywhere on the streets I saw little three-wheeled vans which said METAPHORAI, “metaphors”, on their fronts. I asked the driver of one of them what his job was, what he did. “I carry things,” he said, “from one place to another.” Here was Aristotle’s definition of metaphor, with the same mercantile undertones (wheels, though, rather than sails), loose on the Athenian streets.
Those vans are long gone (Greece has moved on) but they gave me my visual image of metaphor. I. A. Richards took Aristotle’s image further by calling the two elements of metaphor a “tenor” and a “vehicle”. I just remember those vans and see three things in one: a common mode of transport, a box to be shifted and a new place to take it to.
Seamus Heaney’s essay “Mossbawm” describes how he hid as a boy in a hollow tree where he felt “at the heart of a different life” and saw his “familiar yard” differently, “as if behind a pane of strangeness”. Heaney writes wonderfully about creativity and here he links it with a shift in the relationship between the security of the familiar and “the challenges and entrancements of what is beyond”. He is putting at the heart of creativity a procedure which belongs to metaphor, of seeing “home” from a foreign perspective. Metaphor is not only a momentary conjuring trick which turns one thing into another in a single poem, but a more permanent form of magic, a principle of translation which lies at the core of creativity: seeing the world otherwise.
Heaney encapsulates this process in his poem “Making Strange”.
- I stood between them
- the one with his travelled intelligence
- and tawny containment,
- his speech like the twang of a bowstring
- and another, unshorn and bewildered
- in the tubs of his wellingtons,
- smiling at me for help,
- faced with this stranger I'd brought him.
- Then a cunning middle voice
- came out of the field across the road
- saying, ‘Be adept and be dialect,
- tell of this wind coming past the zinc hut,
- call me sweetbriar after the rain
- or snowberries cooled in the fog.
- But love the cut of this travelled one
- and call me also the cornfield of Boaz.
- Go beyond what’s reliable
- in all that keeps pleading and pleading,
- these eyes and puddles and stones,
- and recollect how bold you were
- when I visited you first
- with departures you cannot go back on.’
- A chaffinch flicked from an ash and next thing
- I found myself driving the stranger
- through my own country, adept
- at dialect, reciting my pride
- in all that I knew, that began to make strange
- at the same recitation.
The poem is located beside something which was once a foreign thing built on home ground, an American airfield erected next to the Heaneys' farm during the war. It relates a moment long afterwards when (as Heaney has explained) the poet picked up, from what had become the local airport, an American colleague, the Jamaican-born Louis Simpson. Outside the pub they ran into a Derry farmer, the poet’s father as it happened. In the local dialect, “making strange” meant to react defensively, so the title itself modulates between a local meaning (what the poets; father was doing) and other wider meanings.
The poet is standing where poetry emerges, between the home and the foreign. Like trans-lation - the “carrying across” whose Greek translation is metaphora - the voice of poetry is about betweenness, about crossing boundaries (middle voice, across the road). You hear the reliable home territory pleading, but you have to make departures, adventure into the foreign. This is about the mystery of being drawn to making a poem. The process involves magic (adept, the alchemist’s word, more mystical, less of a trick than MacNeice’s sleight of hand) and distance. Dialect is language that belongs to one place, but also means “speaking across, speaking between,” from dia, another Greek preposition for “across”. Once magic and distance are in place, the poet can get to work.
This is metaphor at work as a creative principle, an outward urge. Writing a poem, you re-see all you knew. You see strange, make strange, and find yourself suddenly driving the stranger through your own country.
But you cannot go back on this alchemy, of translation, of crossing into new territory, or into a new way of seeing the old. Somewhere, metaphor involves a “not,” and there are several aspects to the negatives around metaphor. The simplest way of defining it is to distinguish it from simile and say it “compares without saying like”. Aristotle says one way of making it is not to give a word one of its “home” attributes. My sister was once planting seeds in little window-pots with her three-year-old son and said “It’s like gardening, isn’t it?” He looked up at her. “Then it’s not gardening,” he said.
Metaphor also draws attention to negatives - to what is not there. “The unreality of the seen brings reality to the seeing,” as Octavio Paz’s poem Blanco says. Heidegger, in his essay on Hőlderlin, says the image “lets the invisible be seen.” Dealing in the not seen and not said, metaphor works through implication and hint. It asks the reader to bring their own baggage to the table and see things that are not immediately apparent.