The use of metaphor is not pretentious. Most folks use metaphor, most of the time, in ordinary circumstances – metaphor is hardly limited to poems or wordsmiths. When we look at something familiar but see something different – the metaphorical mind engages. Advertising is grounded in metaphor, where images are often used to counterpoise logic (vintage cigarette ads will provide examples), and we seldom ask ads to explain themselves. Advertising traffics in pathos, which, while it appeals to the emotions, does so in logical ways. The Spanish poet Federico Lorca suggested other forms of logic (words used to reason) are available and frequently used to understand or make sense of persons, places, and things – and of events and experience. Lorca named one other kind of logic Hecho Poético. Poems are not puzzles to solve. They are facts. Poems are modes of experience grounded in common sense, mother wit, connected to mood: indicative, ordering, questioning, wishful, conditional.
Reflecting yesterday afternoon on my morning post, “On the Coast Starlight,” in which I suggested thought, if we are to try to compare it to anything, seems more bird-like than the train of thought first found in Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 “Leviathan,” I thought, to force thought onto a track where ideas are coupled one after another in forward motion toward some predetermined destination results from printing press technology, as McLuhan has shown. Thinking like a train does produce advantages, but the linear notion of thought may put us in a cage. Then it came to me that a reader might have commented that I seem birdbrained.
Since I’ve had comments and likes off for recent posts, no such reader was able to suggest it, so I’ve come forward to suggest it myself. (Readers intent on comment, like, or dislike, btw, will find an email address at the bottom of the Toad’s About page.)
But why we have come to disvalue flightiness to the extent we have, I’m not sure. Birdbrain, according to Google Ngram, is a word product of the second half of the 20th Century, while bird-witted has a more storied past, with interesting spikes of usage in both the 1720s and the 1820s.
I readily agree that my brain seems to be more bird-like than train-like. But upon discussion with Susan, she informs me that only the hummingbird is able to fly backward. Trains, of course, can travel forward or backward, but not at the same time. Yes, but trains can’t leave the track (except to switch to another track), and two trains running in opposite directions on the same track – well, in a quantum train world, perhaps a train may indeed run forward and backward at the same time. In any case, the intelligence of birds is not in question. The question is whether to think like a bird offers the human any advantage over thinking like a train. But we are only speaking to the metaphors, of course, because of course trains don’t actually think at all, and people don’t and can’t and will never think like birds any more than they’ll be able to fly like a bird.
It’s probable that in the era of trains, people did think more like trains than bird-like, while before artificial locomotion was mass produced, people thought more like other animals think. Now, people no doubt think more like automobiles. And we might update Hobbes to suggest an automobile of imagination.
The poet Marianne Moore, in her poem “Bird-witted,” leaves no doubt that to think like a bird is to think like a human:
parent darting down, nerved by what chills the blood, and by hope rewarded - of toil - since nothing fills squeaking unfed mouths, wages deadly combat, and half kills with bayonet beak and cruel wings, the intellectual cautious- ly creeping cat.
The last stanza of “Bird-witted,” from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, Penguin, 1982, p. 105-106.
Photo: Susan and Chicken, Culver City, circa 1952.
1. Build box fill with content space controls design states theme bounces against thesis walled margin defined area filled with persons places things painted drawn and quartered in actions still within lines.
2. Build tables cells macro plots instruct how to within what build city filled roads on roads place persons places things actions ruled within scheme bordered function.
3. Shape controlled text how said informed what said syllabus sawhorse lay round flat stones for flat feet map outlined argument billed old metaphor electronically melting build light to power body sun swayed body.
4. Old metaphors corrupt case cold call book disappeared in closed pit wings line empty library shelves body of fabrication strip-milled pall-mall plumbing hidden in alley walls.
5. Build statement paper small hamlet few houses number pages lines words characters define beginning finite end create punctuation to manage tasks a men an age.
6. Align build assign venture run meet-and-greet purpose audience use rows columns fixed to stage con persons places things rotate rows to columns columns to rows persons to things places to persons things to places sketch arranges profile persuades.
7. User friendly unalloyed no-frills click here look ma no hands silhouette of idea.
If Walden, the pond, as Thoreau tells us (“The Ponds” chapter), sports some, but not many, fish, “…pickerel…perch and pouts…breams, and a couple of eels. Nevertheless, this pond is not very fertile in fish” (174), Walden, the book, is well stocked with metaphorical fish; some, when pulled to the surface, monstrous tropes: “A lake…is earth’s eye…The fluviatile [of a river] trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows” (176). Thus we see the earth as a Cyclops, a one-eyed monster, the eye stretched into an imperfect circle, trees for lashes and eyebrows, hills for forehead. And the eye, at a certain time of the day, the sun, another eye, gazing into its waters, contains fluid a kind of “molten glass cooled but not congealed” (177). The picture we see here is not the standard product of the bucolic water-colorist; more like a Salvador Dali painting.
The face of the earth is dotted with these Cyclopes, but these eyes are protected against blindness, as Thoreau explains in yet another figurative device, the riddle, which he uses to sieve his pond. What is a mirror which no stone can crack? He gives us the answer: “[The lake] is a mirror which no stone can crack” (178).
Yet we’ve already been introduced to the lake as a mouth, so now we’ve to add a mouth to our Cyclops’s eye: “By this fluctuation the pond asserts its title to a shore, and thus the shore is shorn, and the trees cannot hold it by right of possession. These are the lips of the lake on which no beard grows. It licks its chaps from time to time” (172). What a face!
The metaphorical mouth surrounds the eye-trope, the eye sits in the mouth, and the eye is sometimes blue, but often, in places, “of a yellowish tint,” or again, “vivid green…verdure…Such is the color of its iris.” (167). And at the bottom of this eye, “logs…like huge water snakes in motion” (188).
Thoreau finishes “The Ponds” chapter with a metaphorical flourish: “Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her” (188). No doubt.
- A Sixth Way of Looking at Walden: Deliberately Seeking Simplicity
- It is told in sounds in Thoreau’s Walden
- Epizeuxis, epizeuxis, epizeuxis! in Thoreau’s Walden
- Reading Directions for Thoreau’s Walden
- Mapping a Reading of Thoreau’s Walden
- Unpacking the Aphorism to Pull Out the Pith
- On Thoreau On Clothing
- An Economy of One’s Own
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].
Plato considered poets dangerous and banned them from his Republic, and Il Postino (1994) illustrates his point, yet also shows that we are all poets, all who use language – to love and berate, to tackle and persuade, to testify and exhort. The movie, from the book Burning Patience, by Antonio Skarmeta, a fiction set on an island of Pablo Neruda’s temporary exile, is about the democracy of language, how metaphor permeates our lives, and the consequences inherent in desiring more than our own voices can bear, even through poetry.
Is contemporary poetry outside the margins of popular US culture? Maybe, but the creation of metaphor is still the heart of language and language the heart of culture. In the film, this is ironically dramatized by Aunt Rosa. During her hilarious visit to Pablo to complain of his contributing to the poetic delinquency of Beatrice, she lets loose with an invective that ably employs a fishnet of metaphors to describe Pablo’s bad influence on Mario and Mario’s hypnotizing effect on her niece. The blame falls on the poet for stirring the emotions of the tainted republic of the island.
Poetry sleeps around, moving through Plato’s five regimes. Democracy gives way to tyranny; Plato should have banned lobbyists – then maybe the Republic, though awash in a bath of poetry, might at least have a decent health care system, not to mention an adequate water supply.