METAPHOR : This is That
by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor, it is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.
-Aristotle, De Poetrica, 322 B.C.
". . . the reader must be made to understand the connection between the two disparate things that are being compared."
A metaphor, comparing one thing to another, is only different from a simile by the omission of “like” or “as a.” “My love is like a rose.” (simile). “My love is a rose.” Metaphor.
In order to be effective, the reader must be made to understand the connection between the two disparate things that are being compared. Here are authors who have made their connection clearly for the purpose of educating the reader.
“Language is a road map. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” –Rita Mae Brown
“Conceptually, the melting pot is a metaphor for mixing disparate cultures…” The Melting Metaphor: Only in New York
But when you’re writing fiction or poetry, metaphor has a life of its own. Tony Hoagland in real sofisticashun (Graywolf Press, 2006) calls metaphor “neurologically primal,” having a wildness so that we don’t know where it comes from. His metaphor for metaphor is that the head says, “Fetch me a metaphor,” and a moment later, the hand reappears offering up a metaphor. In that way, the poet isn’t in charge. The unconscious is.
Stephen Dobyns in Metaphor and the Authenticating Art of Memory says that metaphors exist to heighten the object of comparison.
Look at the way Cynthia Ozick uses metaphor to heighten the feeling of heat. “The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner.”
"A metaphor only works well if the two things being compared spring to the reader’s mind."
In The Butt of Winter Marge Piercy heightens the nauseating poverty of the lower east side tenements through metaphor: “Between the lower east side tenements, the sky is a snotty handkerchief.”
A metaphor only works well if the two things being compared spring to the reader’s mind. If the reader doesn’t know about the Sahara desert, then Robert Lowell’s metaphor, “a Sahara of snow,” wouldn’t bring to his mind the vast emptiness, the blinding quality of that snow.
Metaphors, Hoagland points out, can have an illogic to them, yet speak to the reader. A metaphor goes on a journey of imagination, like Jack who takes his family cow to market and instead of bringing home money for it, to his mother’s fury, brings home magic beans. The mother throws them outside and they grow into a beanstalk. When Jack climbs it, he has adventures that lead him to kill a giant and bring his mother home a hen that lays golden eggs.
"A good exercise in metaphor-making is to make a list, pairing a concrete object with a feeling . . ."
As an example, he cites a Laura Kisischke poem, “A Long Commute” in which she compares faith to a long commute with time to change the radio station, to relive the past, consider the future…” Then she makes the leap to a boy who must have been standing at a bus station, considering his future, the afternoon a bomb when off. Kisischke uses fantasy, imagining what could have been in the boy’s mind as he waited by the trash can at the bus station. Her metaphors don’t just serve to enrich realism, such as “Sahara snow,” but go off into the surreal, “bending realism,” as Hoagland says, “into its own shape.”
A good exercise in metaphor-making is to make a list, pairing a concrete object with a feeling such as:
Let your hand slip under the cloth and fetch you a metaphor, let it grow in the soil of your mind like the magic beans. Who knows what will happen when you climb that beanstalk into the heights of imagination?
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Shapiro is a regular columnist for Authorlink.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/