Exploring Metaphor

Laser Lightbulb #8 by Veronia Aguilar

Sarah Howe explores the powerful, fundamental, enchanted world of metaphor. An invaluable resource for anyone studying poetic language, as well as any writers wishing to develop and push their own metaphors.

I want to say how abject-lovely you were.
But love is a lightbulb you put in your mouth,
and you can’t take it out without breaking the glass…
—    Fran Lock, from The Mystic and the Pig Thief (2014)

Hearing Fran Lock read from her long poem, The Mystic and the Pig Thief, I remember there was one point that stood out for me with a sort of hallucinatory clarity: when the love between the two characters is described as a lightbulb held in the mouth, tender and terrifying at the same time. The moment that had struck me so forcefully was, of course, a metaphor – a metaphor of the most classically set-up sort we’re taught to detect at school, where the poet compares two things by saying in effect ‘A is B’: ‘love is a lightbulb…’ At this point it’s usually helpful to mention a closely related figure of speech, simile, which frames an overt comparison, ‘A is like B’. By contrast, metaphor is more condensed, and in some ways more slippery, doing away with the ‘like’ or ‘as’ that flags a simile. In other words, metaphor asserts a radical identity between the two colliding things: they’re not just similar, but equal. We might say (after Ruth Padel) that a simile sits on the fence of a comparison, whereas a metaphor jumps over into that other world. How do poets exploit this linguistic sleight of hand, which talks first about one thing and then slips another into its place?

Solid grounds

First, some nuts and bolts. I.A. Richards gave us some useful terms for talking about the parts of a metaphor. He used tenor to refer to the subject a metaphor describes, while vehicle was his name for the thing that carries the weight of the comparison. So in Fran Lock’s metaphor, love (or a certain sort of love) is the tenor, while the vehicle is the lightbulb stuffed in the mouth. Richards called the vehicle’s particular properties or associations relevant to the comparison at hand the grounds of a metaphor. Here the metaphor’s grounds are pinned down by that second line, “and you can’t take it out without breaking the glass”. We can feel our way through the comparison’s appropriateness, following its different strands: the fragility of the bulbed glass, the latent violence of the action (which also happens to be a torture threatened in Hollywood thrillers of a Jack Ryan stripe), its silencing effect on the mouth, and the fact that once done, it can’t be reversed – just as one person can’t stop loving another by an act of will. Sometimes the grounds of a metaphor will hit you straight away with a feeling like surprise and recognition rolled into one, as when Jen Hadfield delightfully compares a prenatal polar bear suspended in its formaldehyde jar to a “softmint”. Sometimes we need to work a little harder.

Leaping across worlds

You can start to see how actively the reader participates in the workings of metaphor.The poet offers up the bones of the analogy, but leaves us to feel out its unforeseen aptness. From the Greek metapherein, a metaphor is literally ‘a carrying across’, implying a sort of physical movement between different fields of experience; Lorca called it “the equestrian leap that unites two worlds”. We often think about metaphor as a mental exercise in detecting the similarities between things, but unlikeness – the distance to be traversed – is just as important if a metaphor is to achieve the energy of that leap. It’s no good comparing things whose resemblance is already obvious, like a peach and a nectarine say. In his Defence of Poetry, Shelley claimed the language of poetry “is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension”. For Shelley, metaphor is the poet’s route into the unknown, a process of discovery. By offering new perspectives on the world, metaphor creates new types of understanding; it jolts us out of the habitual grooves and ruts of our language.

Dead or alive

You’ve probably met the phrase ‘dead metaphor’ before, as a way of describing metaphors so familiar we cease to hear them. You’re ahead of me if you’ve already twigged that ‘dead metaphor’ is itself a dead metaphor. It’s not too hard to bring these fossilised metaphors startlingly back to life: the American poet John Hollander liked to talk about “wringing the neck of the bottle”. The idea of dead metaphor points towards a deeper insight about the nature of language. In their important book Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnsonargued metaphor is not just a superficial ornament but a fundamental component in the way we think – not the playground of poets alone but equally indispensable for scientists and philosophers. Our everyday speech is littered with dead metaphors, as when we talk about a ‘table leg’ (we have a tendency to mapout the world in terms of our own bodies) or talk about the past being ‘behind’ us (we habitually think of time in terms of space). These basic metaphors vary from language to language: speakers of Aymara in Bolivia actually talk about the past as if it’s in front of them, on the basis you can see what’s happened already but the future is invisible. What’s important is not the local detail so much as the common human impulse to grapple with abstract concepts via things accessible to our senses: thinking about time in terms of the direction we’re facing, or emotional ‘warmth’ in terms of temperature, and so on.

Hot water

If you look them up in the dictionary, the etymologies – that is, the origins and family trees of words – will often tell you a whole other story about metaphor, part or wholly submerged by time. For example, the English word ‘idea’ comes down from the ancient Greek idein, ‘to see’, so way back an idea was literally something you saw in your mind. Not listening carefully enough for the metaphorical nuances of our words – the way they might tug in different figurative directions – can maroon us in the hot water of a mixed metaphor, as it were. Used well, metaphors can be an engine against poetic cliché, but we have to be alert not to reach for comparisons that have become too shopworn. It’s funny how certain metaphors seem to pass into the poetic zeitgeist. If you read enough contemporary poems, certain metaphors start to crop up again and again: a night city viewed from a plane as a circuit board, or a bruise-coloured sky. They haven’t quite softened into clichés yet, but then once upon a time it was fresh for a Renaissance sonneteer to say love was ice that burned. As poets we just have to keep pushing onward to new comparisons, new apprehensions.

Making sense of ‘image’

You might have heard people using the word ‘image’ to talk about a poem’s figurative language – its metaphors and similes. I think it points to the daydream-like vividness metaphors can produce. This use of ‘image’ might suggest metaphor is a primarily visual experience. But as poets and readers we should be aware of the ways metaphorcan activate our other senses too: the ghostly sensation of a lightbulb gobstoppering the mouth, the taste of glass and metal. Cognitive scientists armed with MRI scanners have discovered that the metaphors we encounter as we read light up the same bits of the brain as are triggered by our actual senses. Thanks to this wonderful quirk of wiring, reading about a ‘kick-ass poem’ will also flash through grey-matter regions usually dedicated to touch and movement. Look out for metaphors that appeal to more than one sense at a time, a phenomenon sometimes called synaesthesia. In his poem ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’, Robert Hass describes how “in the voice / of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief”. The comparison seems intuitive enough – we’re used to describing voices as ‘thin’ – but the arresting new component is the “wire”. I have a particularly visual habit of mind, but I find myself picturing the vibrating wire, stretched to the verge of snapping, as much as I hear the sound of its quavering tremolo. What seems at first a metaphor concerned with sound also has a visual dimension, and maybe also an element of touch: a “thin wire” is also something that can cut – like grief does.

Three exercises

“To be a master of metaphor,” wrote Aristotle, “is the greatest thing by far. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others, and it is also a sign of genius.” There is certainly an element of intuition and inspiration involved, but I’m going to go against Aristotleand suggestsome exercisesto help get you started with crafting your own metaphors. Genius here we come…

  1. Cliché busting

A good warm-up to get you in a connection-forging frame of mind, this task involves taking metaphors that have become all too familiar and revitalizing them. Try to come up with fresher equivalents for these stale clichés:

He’s a bad apple
To blow a fuse
The world is your oyster
They were sitting ducks
It’s music to my ears
She got on her high horse
To make a mountain out of a molehill
(This website has lots more, if you run out…)

For example, in place of ‘He’s a bad apple’ you might come up with:

He’s the hangnail you don’t tug but turns sore anyway
Hes the loose rung waiting to crunch under your foot
He’s the log that jumps out of the fireplace and chars the rug

2. Metaphor list poem

This exercise creates a poem made entirely out of metaphors for the word in its title. Start by reading ‘Prayer (I)’ by the seventeenth-century religious poet, George Herbert, which unfolds in a series of metaphors thateach take an idea as abstract and complex as prayer and make it tangible.

If you were to take ‘Poetry’ as your title, for example, you could begin by jotting down as many ways of continuing the sentence ‘A poem is…’ as possible.

A poem is…
a meteor
a machine made out of words
a message in a bottle

These three all belong to famous poets of the past (Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Paul Celan respectively). Challenge yourself to invent new ones. They can be as brief or as expansive as you like. Keep them concrete and try to use your senses – don’t forget touch and taste and smell, as well as hearing and sight. This can be fun to do with friends round a circle, bouncing ideas off one another.

Follow this associative chain for several minutes – nothing is out of bounds – then take the raw materials scattered around your page and start to shape them into a poem. Only now think about the order and progression of your images: will you give one per line, or weave them into sentences?

You can follow the same pattern for a whole host of subjects. Does the poem turn out differently when your starting point is something more physical, like water, or an acorn?

3. Metaphor lucky dip

This is the most challenging of the three exercises, so one to try once you’ve had some practice. If you invite a friend or two, you could make a game of it. Print or write out the words in these two lists, then cut them up and place them in two separate bags. Draw out a slip from each one and make a metaphor out of their combination:

ABSTRACT                                        CONCRETE
love                                                   tennis court
disappointment                                    London
faith                                                   mango
lethargy                                              ink
loss                                                   selfie-stick
sadness                                             gold watch
boredom                                            pair of scissors
frustration                                          paper umbrella
excitement                                         toy box
wariness                                             cassette tape
confusion                                           peacock feather
greed                                                scrabble board
nostalgia                                           sugar cube

Some pairings will go together more readily than others, but the element of chance is the point here. The task is designed to push you to make unlikely comparisons outside your normal comfort zone. The metaphors created by this exercise won’t necessarily have an immediate sense of ‘rightness’ to them, so you’ll have touse your ingenuity to bring out the relationship between the two things more gradually.

Begin by making a list of the CONCRETE item’s attributes, slowly pushing towards the ones most relevant to your particular ABSTRACT:

sadness + tennis court
tarmac or grass?
abandoned in winter
sagging net
rivalry of players
and so on

Follow where these associations lead, whether they gives rise to just a couple of lines or the kernel of a whole poem:

Her sadness was a tennis court,puddled tarmac
glinting in the winter sun, its fraying net sagged
with the players’ long absence, bronzed arms…

You could even try framing it as a negative metaphor, as when Wallace Stevens asserts that ‘The pears are not viols, / Nudes or bottles’:

His faith in him was not the paper umbrella you
pluck from a beach margarita and save for years
in a desktop pencil pot despite its fractured staves…

What difference does it make for the reader’s imagination to say something is not something else?

Thank you, Sarah! Enjoy experimenting, everyone!

Sarah Howe

Sarah Howe’s first collection, Loop of Jade, will be published by Chatto & Windus in May 2015. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 2010 and was a Foyle Young Poet in 2000. She is the founding editor of Prac Crit, an online journal of poetry and criticism. Her poems have appeared widely in magazines including Poetry Review,  PN Review and Poetry London, in anthologies such as The Salt Book of Younger Poets and Dear World & Everyone In It, and on BBC Radio 3 & 4. She is currently a Research Fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Her website is sarahhowepoetry.com

4 thoughts on “Exploring Metaphor

  1. Loved the article. Just one query: surely the first example of ‘love is a lightbulb you put in your mouth’ is a simile rather than a metaphor?

    1. i don’t think so – similes should have ‘as’ or ‘like, which in this case would be ‘love is like a lightbulb you put in your mouth’. so i think this is definitely a metaphor – am i wrong?

      1. Hi Robin and Annabelle,

        You’re right Robin – this line is an example of metaphor, directly describing that love is something (the lightbulb), rather than ‘like’ or ‘as’ something.

        Young Poets Network

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