On Writing, Poetry and Metaphor

I read an article over at WriterUnboxed.com today that has me thinking on the use of metaphor in writing. As a former writing teacher and lifelong poetry reader and writer, this is not something new to me – in fact, in graduate school one could argue that I spent entire semesters discussing it. I don’t believe that language can ever really exist separate from images and sounds in our minds – there will always be points of intersection as we read and experience any text. However, what I found in my experiences as reader, writer, teacher – is that the metaphors people use will be specific — inspiring sometimes to many, and sometimes only to ourselves. Why does poetry seem to be the medium that contains the most powerful, the most universal metaphors for human experience? To answer that once again, I had to look back at some of my favorite books on poetry and the insights I took from them.

Do you need to be a student or an “academic” to read these? Absolutely not. You just need a passion for language and experience — for that which makes us human.

How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry 
Edward Hirsch 

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He makes you conscious of where the readers exists in relation to the poem and how active and involved the reader becomes – how the reader acts on the poem and it in turn acts on them. “Poetry is a soul-making activity, and the reader in part authors that activity by responding to a form of the poem, its way of shaping itself.” (31). He takes an intensely personal route to understanding poetry, saying “read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night” at beginning and conclusion of his text.
Nine Gates: Entering The Mind of Poetry
Jane Hirschfield 
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She makes you conscious of how you can look at poetry through a series of “gates” or devices that open up the mind of poetry to the reader. She makes one contemplate what is means for poetry to have a mind of its own, much like Hirsch invited the thought of how a poem itself is acting upon a reader. Hirschfield sets out the six energies that exist within poetry – organizing things that I already knew existed in text and understanding them as alive and central to a form or shape – or larger concentration or mode. I was most influenced by her chapter on translation. “In the act of true translation, as opposed to the act of parsing out meaning, there is a moment when all prior knowledge of a poem dissolves, when the words that were are shed as a snake sheds its skin and the words that are take on their own life.” (61). She speaks here about the self and the other in a poem, and how a translator much lose sense of two separate beings and become one. This is not unlike the process students go through when reading and writing poems; they originally approach the text as an “other”, and hopefully we (as teachers) are giving them the tools to use to bring that text into something that is understandable and therefore, no longer an other. However, in the case of translation, as Hirshfield says, “the issue is to what extent a new version can mirror the original, to what extent it must find some differing paths toward the same destination.” (65).
More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor
George Lakoff and Mark Turner
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“One major mode of poetic thought is to take a conventionalized metaphor and extend it” (67). The image this conjures up in my mind is one of a flexible bending muscle in the brain; by introducing conceptual metaphor in our classrooms this is what we are asking students to do. We are asking them to take unconscious, but well known cultural, conventionalized metaphor that they hear and see and think of daily, and think about it in terms of poetry. By having students build a schema or organization system for a poem in order to understand it through first the images they see, and then the metaphorical associations these images or icons stand for and map to, they will be extending the language from the literal to the poetic, and their minds from the conventional to the abstract.

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