Friday, June 1, 2012

Ramblings: The Metaphor

 One year at university my Linguistics progamme demanded that we study all different types of figures of speech and be able to pinpoint them in any type of text. The exam consisted of a list of quotes and we were asked to name and explain the figure of speech. So, of course, I learnt all of the definitions by heart 24 hours before the exam, got about 99% right and then proceeded to forget a lot of them after the fact. This exercise only really matters to those who are actually going to continue either teaching Linguistics or literary analysis, or, maybe, to those who are going to write excellent forms of literary compositions.  I've written a lot of poetry over the years, more than anything else really, but I doubt that I will let anyone read many of my poems, mainly because of the fact that I studied so many brilliant poems through-out the years and never thought that mine would come anywhere near the brilliance of them. I still don't think they will. I wrote my last poem in 2010, sitting by the bay on Long Island, and I doubt that I will ever write one again (although I should probably never say never). The last ones sound more like song lyrics than poems anyway (but then again, they are so very close in nature, lyrics and poetry). I always blamed my writing of poetry on my laziness to write stories, and I always blamed my giving up on poetry on the existence of figures of speech, mainly the metaphor. Why? I'm still trying to figure this out myself.

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines the metaphor as "a figure of speech (more specifically a trope) that associates two unlike things; the representation of one thing by another. The image (or activity or concept) used to represent or "figure" something else is known as the vehicle of the metaphor; the thing that represented is called the tenor. For instance, in the sentence "That child is a mouse," the child is the tenor, whereas the the mouse is the vehicle. The image of a mouse is being used to represent the child, perhaps to emphasize his or her timidity.
Metaphor should be distinguished from simile, another figure of speech with which it is sometimes confused. Similes compare two unlike things by using a connective word such as "like" or "as". Metaphors use no connective word to make their comparison. Furthermore, critics ranging from Aristotle to I. A. Richards have argued that metaphors equate the vehicle with the tenor instead of simply comparing the two."

That doesn't sound too difficult does it? The definition basically gives you the right to compare one thing to another, by the use of an image, so therefore not directly implying that one thing is like another. Take the following words for example: "camera" and "dinosaur". In the phrase "The camera is an old as a dinosaur" you can deduce that the camera in question is very old. In the phrase "The camera is a dinosaur" not only do you deduce that the camera is very old, but it also implies that the camera is very rare and most possibly unique. (Well it does for me, because I just randomly came up with the phrase by looking at a photo of one of Don McCullin's Nikon camera's I have on my wall). That is the whole point and the beauty of the metaphor - it allows the reader to imagine the object or the scene, rather than telling them exactly what it is. In my opinion that makes it one of the most important figures of speech in the world of literature (and by this I really mean the world of anything that is written, from pulp fiction to song lyrics via classical literature). The metaphor gives you the freedom to imply something is like something you would never really compare it to, while creating a conduit for your imagination to run through. Pretty cool, no?

That's what I thought too. There are no real limits to a metaphor, because technically you can correlate one thing with something that it has nothing in common with, and get away with it. Similes can get pretty boring, because the overuse of the word "like" can become heavy and unimaginative, in the same way as the overuse of the words "nice" and "good" can be associated with laziness. The English language is so amazingly rich in vocabulary and figures of speech that it is a pity not to make use of it on a daily basis. I don't want you to tell me that the colour of my sister's skin is the same as the colour of a lily - I want to imagine that it is. The best part of reading a book or a poem is that you can create your own image of the world that is drawn out for you by the writer. In Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the line "and on thy cheeks a fading rose" leaves you to imagine the colour of the rose and how this coincides with the colour of the person's cheeks. In Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart the line "I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye." implies that the person the narrator is peering at has an eye that resembles a vulture's. A vulture circles it's prey and lays in wait for it to die at the hands of another before it feasts. Got the chills yet? Exactly the atmosphere that Poe was aiming to instill in your mind.
All of Shakespeare's plays are chock-full of metaphors and images, you pretty much can find at least one in every scene. For example, in Othello (my most very favourite of all Shakespeare's plays) Iago says to Roderigo “Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners”, implying that we have free will and decide our own actions, and are not determined by a higher being in our destiny. Outside of the fact that Iago is evil personified, this was a pretty bold statement for the time, and I pretty much agree with it. Although I assume that he just used this to justify his own evil actions in his own eyes and in the eyes of others.

There are many times that I ponder upon the idea that an intensive study of literature is not always the best course of action for a writer. You learn how to dissect a piece of writing and find meanings that may or may not have been put there on purpose. You learn how to find recurring themes, and hidden meanings, and thoughts that may not convey themselves to you on the first reading. You learn about structure and metre and cadence; about different rules in poetry through-out the ages, but you don't learn how to actually write your own creative pieces (although you do learn to write excellent literary studies and criticism). Maybe this is only my own problem, but after writing freely for years I suddenly found myself searching through my poems for hidden meanings. I would look at lines and decide that just because they didn't contain a figure or speech found in one of Byron's poems they should be thrown in the garbage. Or I would sit at my desk for hours, surround myself with candles and scratch out an image that would just sound contrived or, even worse, way too similar to something one of my favourite authors or poets had written. Instead of just writing what I felt, the words that were running through my brain, I would push them away and try to come up with something that never actually sounded genuine. So I gave up for a while. I stopped analysing literature like that (and started analysing human beings and real life situations to compensate), and eventually stopped writing poetry. Actually, I stopped calling what I was writing poetry, and started to pretend to myself that the poems I was writing were all actually song lyrics that would never be put to music. All because I was terrified of never getting a metaphor right. I thought I was fearless, but I suppose that's just a cover. In reality I feared the image created by words. Or more accurately, the inability to create an image with words.

But in retrospect, that is just so silly... We create metaphors every day, in everything we do. My writing is full of metaphors, I made them up without thinking and/or realising. Metaphors come naturally. They just exist. Sometimes I still wonder if Shakespeare and Keats and Byron sat there for hours and hours stumbling over one line, or if they just wrote and wrote as they saw the images in their heads. I do the latter, and will continue to do so because that's the only way it works for me. I know that Plath would work on a line for days and days until it sounded perfect to her, but I don't have the patience for that. Maybe I should, who knows, but I'd rather actually be able to produce something rather than throw whatever few words I managed to eke out into the garbage.

Saying that... I just read two lines of a poem that I wrote in 2005. I think I will be going back to writing poetry again in the near future. Thank you metaphor for being so complicated but so simple at the same time. A Rubik's cube of words.

"Twinkle, twinkle silver shadow
My bottle sparkled with a grin"

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