Three notes: 1, on metaphor

(I have three notes I’d like to post as a way of clearing decks before the year gets any further. Each of them requires further elaboration which in turn requires me being able or willing to get into my office, but I feel it’s still more appropriate for me to post now and edit later – it’s taken the whole holiday period to find enough mental space to process them to this rudimentary stage, and I have a bad record of picking up pieces that just require a small edit.

In this first piece, which like yesterday’s MacCaig posting, arises from a couple of Facebook posts, the missing element is a quote from Tony Hoagland’s interesting and engaging book of essays, Real Sofistikashun, which he sent me just before the Xmas break, and which I read gratefully and with not a little resentment at those parts where he put something much better I had been struggling to phrase for myself. I’ll pop the quote in next week, he said, hopeful as ever.)

“What connects thinking and poetry [Dichten] is metaphor. In philosophy one calls concept what in poetry [Dichtkunst] is called metaphor. Thinking creates its “concepts” out of the visible, in order to designate the invisible.”

-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 2, p. 728 (August 1969) (translation by Wout Cornelissen)

In a post on the Hannah Arendt Centre website, Wout Cornelissen remarks on Arendt’s concept of ‘poetic thinking’: 

‘Although she uses the term itself exclusively in her essay on Walter Benjamin (1968), a description of the underlying phenomenon recurs in The Life of the Mind, more specifically in its two chapters on metaphor. Arendt describes the function of metaphor as “turning the mind back to the sensory world in order to illuminate the mind’s non-sensory experiences for which there are no words in any language.” (The Life of the Mind, vol.1, p. 106)’

The implication here is that the rationalist assumes it is the function of the vehicle to illustrate the tenor, to rescue the thinker from their tendency to abstraction, but, as Tony Hoagland has remarked in his collection of essays, Real Sofistikashun, for the poet it may be the vehicle’s potential to supplant the tenor that makes the whole process interesting. 

Indeed, it may be the suspicion that a fundamentally metaphoric mode of thought underlies rather than illustrates the premisses of the philosopher that the poet brings to the discussion – that bodily act of turning from the implied darkness of the mind’s supposedly wordless interior (where else in the world are there such things as words?) toward the apparent brightness of ‘the sensory world’ seems to echo Plato’s image of the cave rather.

Nonetheless, metaphor establishes a complex relationship between its two elements because, although it asks us to think of one in the terms of the other, we are not ‘normally’ in any doubt which is the real one and which the figurative. To that extent a dominance is inherent, with all the usual issues of the ‘real one’ seeming normative. To that extent, God help us all, there is an hegemony inherent in metaphor.

The removal of simile’s qualifying ‘like’, however, plus the frequent usage of metaphor in poetry to defamiliarise the reality it describes, rather than, as in other discourses, to familiarise the less apparent, brings it close to a subversiveness, a way of re-seeing. The question is how close. 

The thesis that what things resemble could somehow overthrow what things are might give us pause, but it’s possible that it is precisely tampering with this power relation that takes us beyond resemblance and into the resonance of symbol, and it is the poet’s ability or lack of it in calibrating these fine distinctions which defines this as very much a craft skill, that is, a skill based on calculating degrees of risk and dealing with failure.

It is this capacity to wield metaphor as a type of volatile meta-language, what Pavese spoke of as the ‘image narrative’, that distinguishes the work of poets like MacCaig or Graham.

MacCaig uses metaphor as a harmony to (or an undercutting of) the surface narrative of his poems: the movement from sound imagery in ‘Sounds of the Day’ to a metaphor based on touch (the bracelet of icy water around the wrist echoing that at the end of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’). Graham’s images reflect his sense of profound difference if not fracture between self and representation:’I am up. I’ve washed/The front of my face…’

In both cases, it is the tension between tenor and vehicle which the poets are deploying, a sense that the wordless realm Arendt refers to is both within and without us, and that language itself is the metaphoric bridge between the world as tenor and the mind as vehicle.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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