Writer’s Log, May 16: Why Metaphor?

Or, as my long-suffering, fact-loving, sixteen-year-old sophomore likes to say: Why, metaphor?! As in, Why are the adults in my life trying to shove poetry down my throat when they know I couldn’t care less, and what’s more, enjoy wearing my self-righteous disdain like a badge of honor? Actually, that’s mostly the subtext for what he actually says, which is, “Poetry sucks, Mom. No offense.”

None taken, love. There’s no need to point out to him that his prefrontal lobe is still developing, and his ability to draw connections between feeling and cognition is a work in progress. But it’s a cruel twist of fate that when most people are first introduced to the kind of literature that really showcases all that literary devices have to offer, they’re in high school and, quite literally, unable to fully appreciate what they’re encountering. Even when I was a sophomore and fell head over heels in love with Anna Akhmatova and Elizabeth Bishop, I felt more like I was seized by poetry than that I really understood it. It was as if some hidden, hibernating thing within me uncoiled itself and came to life. Not unlike first love, I was left attempting to connect to in maudlin, ineffectual strokes that left me more frustrated than before.

Yet what’s important about both my son’s and my experiences is that we didn’t necessarily have the wisdom to stick with it, to know that more, indeed, would be revealed. Nor do most teenagers. And because so many turn away after these first, flummoxing experiences, many of us arrive at adulthood insecure around or unwilling to use literary devices in our work. It’s impossible to fully address the neglect of all these devices in one post, but to take metaphor as an example, the failure to push beyond this stunted exposure shoots just about every writer in the foot. Even those who’ve evolved enough as readers to appreciate metaphor in someone else’s work will still shy away from experimenting with it on the page, as if they don’t trust it in their own hands.

Which is a damn shame, because if we look at metaphor closely, its powers are extraordinary. Whereas literal descriptions offer a standardized, baseline understanding, metaphor weaves in sensory and experiential connections, allowing our understanding – and, not incidentally, our empathy — to expand and deepen. Metaphor, in other words, is the great connector. When used well, it offers us the chance to consider that the deepest understanding is not that which is divorced from the senses and experience; it’s that which incorporates the fact that sensory and experiential understanding – qualities of understanding humans are infused with for a reason – are not weaknesses to avoid, but vital and indispensable elements that must be brought along when striving towards the keenest possible insights.

And it’s certainly not just a way to make your writing seem prettier, the way we might decorate the margins of our high school notebooks with derivative flowers. When we choose our metaphors, we are choosing these deeper comparisons, and the context of what we are communicating is everything. Comparing the green of someone’s eyes to grass, for instance, as innocuous and simple as that metaphor might be, is vastly different than comparing that green to the color on a freshly minted dollar bill. The trouble for most, though, is knowing that you need to trust your experiential and sensory understanding to create effective metaphors; you can’t muscle through them, in other words, with the rabbitty, logical, organizational aspects of the mind you’re used to using exclusively. Doing so is ineffective and, quite frankly, lazy. You’ve got to open yourself up to what nudges at you when a description comes to mind, what calls or winks in from the edges, asking to be seen.

Art: Pablo Picasso, Violin and Guitar

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