The Importance of Metaphor

Poetry is a manifestation of the human urge to make sense of chaos, to find unity and symmetry in external reality.

John Barr signinga book in 1991
A flashback to 1991 at a book signing.

The Little Oxford Dictionary says that a metaphor is when you apply a name to an object to which it is not literally applicable. Thus, “The classroom was a zoo.” “The snow covered our town like a white blanket.” “Mary is an early bird, Bill is a night owl.”

But I think that metaphor is much more than that. Poetry is a manifestation of the human urge to make sense of chaos, to find unity and symmetry in external reality. In a previous essay we saw how the poet, in using rhyme or other formal structure, displays an ear for likeness. In discussing metaphor, Aristotle credits the poet with “an eye for likeness.” My thought is that both are manifestations of the same instinct. Aural structures, road maps for the ear, are a part of that search, but the search for unity goes beyond the sound in a poem. Someone once defined human intelligence as the ability to see the similarity in disparate things, and that is where metaphor comes in. It discovers the unity in things thought to be unlike. In Garcia Lorca’s words (which are themselves a metaphor), a metaphor, by “an equestrian leap of the imagination,” makes an assertion of likeness where none was seen before. As the two things joined by a metaphor find a way to affiliate through sympathetic vibration, self reverberation, so metaphor is a kind of rhyming at the conceptual level. (A simile, by the way, is a metaphor without the self-respect to call itself a metaphor. So it temporizes with “like” or “as.” The distinction between simile and metaphor is not one of kind but degree, and at bottom not that either.)

“The greatest thing by far,” said Aristotle in his Poetics, “is to have a command of metaphor.” A metaphor is an inspired non sequitur; it joins things that have not been joined before. It is through metaphor that things of the world reveal themselves in new identities. Proteus, the Greek god who could alter his form at will, was the first metaphor. A poem’s power comes from saying one thing in terms of another, and that is the function of metaphor. In a strong metaphor there is an insurgent quality, as if the strongest of its kind would bring down governments or bring new galaxies into play. The work of the metaphor is the work of Genesis, the original Creation; it is man asserting his godliness. His Godheadedness. (In the human body is a second, hidden set of veins. These carry not blood but ichor, which flows in the veins of the gods.)

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