26 October 2016
Metaphors: What are they? I must be honest: I don’t really know. I don’t understand them. I never have. I probably never will. This morning, I determined to find out what a metaphor really is. So I Googled metaphor and came up with the following definitions.
- A metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.”
Well, that is pretty clear, isn’t it?
- A metaphor is “something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.”
No doubts there.
- “Metaphor is a figure of speech which makes an implicit, implied or hidden comparison between two things that are unrelated but share some common characteristics. In other words, a resemblance of two contradictory or different objects is made based on a single or some common characteristics.”
I know exactly what they mean. Or do I?
- “In simple English, when you portray a person, place, thing, or an action as being something else, even though it is not actually that “something else,” you are speaking metaphorically.”
No misunderstanding here.
- “A metaphor is a figure of speech that refers, for rhetorical effect, to one thing by mentioning another thing. It may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities between two ideas. Where a simile compares two items, a metaphor directly equates them, and does not use “like” or “as” as does a simile.”
Slightly clearer, but not as clear as daylight.
I turn to my blog for help and read that “The egg of my skull / shows hairline cracks: / tiny beaks pecking / fine-tuned sparks of song”. “This piece,” Tanya Cliff writes, “offers a unique and beautiful perspective on the theme (of birds).” I think I can do without the dull, dry definitions set out in the definitions above and understand metaphor as “a unique and beautiful perspective”. This functions for me. Thank you, Tanya.
Two more sequences, this time from October Angel: (1) “she gathers her evening gown / and walks among ruined flowers” (Meg Sorick’s choice) and (2) “a snapdragon opens / the frosted forge of its mouth / and sprinkles the sky / with ice-hard shards of fire” (Tanya Cliff’s choice). I can understand the first in terms of “a unique and beautiful perspective” since the picture of the October Angel is clear in my mind. In addition, evening / evening gown / ruined flowers are particularly evocative. The second sequence is much stronger as anyone who has seen the snapdragon flowers braving the ice and frost will testify.
After thinking about these three examples, I think I can now understand metaphor a little bit better. I would define a metaphor as “a brief verbal sequence that creates a new reality that offers a unique and sometimes beautiful perspective” on something that we have long known and accepted but now, thanks to the writer / poet, see in a different light.
This personal definition allows us to distinguish with ease between dead metaphors and clichés like dead as a door nail or avoid it like the plague while allowing us to enjoy the permutations that spring from the innovation of the true metaphoric sequence. The metaphoric sequence also allows us to distinguish between a two word metaphor and a series of metaphors that are thematically linked.
From my own poetry, ruined flowers would be an example of the first while the longer sequence a snapdragon opens / the frosted forge of its mouth / and sprinkles the sky / with ice-hard shards of fire would be an example of the second. Iterative thematic imagery, a form of sequenced metaphor chains, then links the whole work, be it poem or longer piece, within an associative semantic field of parallel meanings. This also illustrates the idea of differentiating between the inorganic and organic conceit, where the inorganic conceit is the example of a single, independent instance while the organic conceit is woven into the fabric of the oeuvre.
If I now apply my own definition back to last night’s conversations, when mathematics turned to metaphor, I was able to grasp a new and beautiful perspective (the scientific one) on something that I had long known and accepted. My thanks to all who inspire me to write and commentate and particularly to those who participated with me in this discussion: Chuck Bowie, Tanya Cliff, Meg Sorick, Kevin Stephens, and John Sutherland.