Articles for Teachers & Students

Metaphor: A Poet is a Nightingale

by Edward Hirsch

The transaction between the poet and the reader, those two instances of one reality, depends upon figurative language—figures of speech, figures of thought. Poetry evokes a language that moves beyond the literal and, consequently, a mode of thinking that moves beyond the literal. “There are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry,” Robert Frost confesses in “The Constant Symbol,” “but chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriority.” Poetry is made of metaphor. It is a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things: A is B. The term metaphor comes from the Latin metaphora, which in turn derives from the Greek metapherein, meaning “to transfer,” and, indeed, a metaphor transfers the connotations or elements of one thing (or idea) to another. It is a transfer of energies, a mode of interpenetration, a matter of identity and difference. Each of these propositions about the poem depends upon a metaphor: the poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets (William Carlos Williams). A poem is a well-wrought urn (Cleanth Brooks), a verbal icon (W. K. Wimsatt). A poem is a walk (A. R. Ammons); a poem is a meteor (Wallace Stevens). A poem might be called a pseudoperson. Like a person it is unique and addresses the reader personally (W. H. Auden). A poem is a hand, a hook, a prayer. It is a soul in action.

When Paul Celan wrote, “A poem . . . can be a message in a bottle,” he didn’t think literally that he would be dropping his poems into the Seine (though he was writing them from Paris) and that someone might find them floating ashore on the banks of the Chicago River (though I was living in Chicago when I first read him). What did he mean then?

The language of poetry, Shelley claims in his Defence of Poetry, “is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.” Shelley is suggesting that the poet creates relations between things unrecognized before, and that new metaphors create new thoughts and thus revitalize language. In his fine book Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield remarks that he would like to change one detail in Shelley’s phrase, to alter “before unapprehended relations” to “forgotten relations.” That’s because poetry delivers back an archaic knowledge, an ancient and vitally metaphorical way of thinking, now mostly lost. The poet, by creating anew, is also likely to be “restoring something old.”

The oldest English poetry, for example the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and poems written in other old Germanic languages, has a number of poetic tropes that enable the poet to describe things at an angle, without naming them, and thus invite the listener to imaginatively construct them. The most widespread are known as kennings; these occur in compounds, such as calling the sea swanrad (“swan-road”) or winegeard (“home of the winds”). The word ken, meaning “to know,” is still used in Scottish dialects, and indeed such figurative language is a way of knowing.

What especially concerns me here is how the reader actively participates in the making of meaning through metaphor, in thinking through the relation of unlike things. How do we apprehend these previously unapprehended or forgotten relations: in ironic tension, in exact correspondence, in fusion? The meaning emerges as part of a collaboration between writer and reader. Out of this interactive process comes the determination to what extent a metaphor works, where it breaks down, to what extent a poem can be a message in a bottle, or a machine made out of words (Williams), or a derangement of the senses (Rimbaud); to what extent “a book is a cubic piece of burning, smoking conscience—and nothing else” (Boris Pasternak); to what extent, as Shelley writes,

A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer
its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced
by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they
are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.

The singing of a nightingale becomes a metaphor for writing poetry here, and listening to that bird (that natural music) becomes a metaphor for reading it. One of the premises of Shelley’s metaphor is that the poet “sings” in “solitude” without any consideration for an audience and that the audience—“his auditors”—responds to the work of an “unseen musician.” They can’t actually see him because they are physically removed from each other. And yet they are brought into mysterious (visionary) relation.

The philosopher Ted Cohen suggests that one of the main points of metaphor is “the achievement of intimacy.” Cohen argues in “Metaphor and the Cultivation of Intimacy” that the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor are brought into deeper relationship with one other. That’s because the speaker issues a concealed invitation through metaphor which the listener makes a special effort to accept and interpret. Such a “transaction constitutes the acknowledgment of a community.” This notion perfectly describes how the poet enlists the reader’s intellectual and emotive involvement and how the reader actively participates in making meaning in poetry. Through this dynamic and creative exchange the poem ultimately engages us in something deeper than intellect and emotion. And through this ongoing process the reader becomes more deeply initiated into the sacred mysteries of poetry.

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Originally Published: January 23, 2006

COMMENTS (7)

On August 23, 2007 at 12:28pm ned clay wrote:
thank you for the comfort!

On November 12, 2008 at 4:07pm Jordan Dodderer wrote:
“The achievement of intimacy,” is "deeper than intellect and emotion." I believe this may be the key to Hirsch's argument thus far, and it is also proof of earlier conjectures in some of the posts. Earlier Maggie wrote of heavy underlying sexual tones. I think that it is even more apparent here. The metaphor brings two things together as one. The result is a new identity, a new idea, and a new philosophy. The philosophy moves beyond the intelectually, and it isn;t merely expressive either. The metaphor takes on a new life of it's own through the intimacy of the work. Perhaps, this intimate relationship is what transfers to the reader, and that is why we, so easily, fall for poetry.

On November 12, 2008 at 5:32pm Kristin wrote:
I agree with Jordan and Maggie that Hirsch puts a huge emphasis on sexual undertones that signify relationships between literary metaphors and those who appreciate reading them. I feel that intimacy is a deeper achievement that intellect and emotion. If a person is just interested in facts and figures, they miss the deeper, more figurative aspect that could ultimately further their own knowledge. Likewise, if someone is just interested in the emotions of a relationship, they miss what is right in front of them. Sometimes too much emotion can over-complicate relationships. Similarly, overthinking what one says ( looking for the who, what, when , where, and whys) complicates relationships. I think that intimacy is truly achieved when together, people can encompass intellect with emotion-when people can understand people are the way that they are for a reason, and can be emotionally okay with it.

On November 12, 2008 at 7:29pm Maggie wrote:
Truly, reading is what one makes of it. Anyone can read poetry or literature--read the words and yet completely fail to understand their meaning. For example, when I was nine years old, I became determined to read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I worked diligently at it until I reached the end of the second section, whereupon I quietly slid the book back into its place on the shelf. Certainly I was able to read the words, but because I had absolutely no idea what they meant, I was bored to tears by what I now consider to be a great work of literature. However, at our age, the question is no longer whether or not we are able to understand what we read, but whether or not we are willing to understand it. As Hirsch says, the author and the reader must meet halfway for there to be any real significance to a work of literature; otherwise, the reader has wasted both his and the author's time.

On November 12, 2008 at 7:51pm Candace :) wrote:
Figurative language sculpts poetry and creates the bond between the reader and his or her senses. Figurative language is extremely attractive in any writing, because it paints an image in the reader's mind, making the poem more intimate. As Jordan initially said, this intimacy reflects the sexual undertones in which Hirsch seems to emphasize. As a reader, being able to connect with the writer through a poem is exciting. However, the way Hirsch praises this intimacy makes it sound as if the relationship between the reader and the writer is that of the relationship between man and woman. I don't agree with this connection because this type of love or passion requires every sense- touch, smell, see, hear, and taste- and poems only allow the reader to hear the words and see them as they are imagined in the mind. Only using two senses is not enough to have the extreme feelings in which Hirsch claims there to be between the reader and the writer through the poetry. I still agree that the figurative language and how the poetry is a metaphor introduces the intimacy, yet this intimacy cannot be compared to that of humans.

On November 12, 2008 at 8:23pm Chelsea wrote:
"the poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets." I feel the connection with Hirsh's belief here. I believe that writing poetry is an escape for people who do not feel comfortable with speaking openly about their secrets. I also agree with Candace that figurative language encourages the bond between the reader and their senses. In order to fully understand what the poet places behind them you have to read more than the words, you have to read and think what the poet wants you to think of his poem. I love reading poems with strong use of metaphors especially things in which I can relate to because the more I can relate the more I can feel the connection between myself, the poet and the poem.

On November 12, 2008 at 9:09pm Emily wrote:
METAPHORS! I love them. Of all of the figurative language this is the most wonderful an complex. Not every reader will find the same meanings to the metaphor, and some readers will not even pick up on them at all. It is like unlocking a secret message when realizing the underlying meaning of the words. Anyone can read the shallow statement, and pull from it, what is truly there. It takes thought and intelligence to pick up on the true hidden message the author leaves. Metaphors are like a language of their own.

“the achievement of intimacy.”

But yes, I have picked up on the sexual undertones also. I agree with the others.

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 Edward  Hirsch

Biography

Poet and author Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry. Over the course of eight collections of poetry, four books of criticism, and the long-running  “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post, Hirsch has transformed the quotidian into poetry in his own work, as well as demonstrated his adeptness at explicating the nuances and shades of feeling, tradition, and craft at . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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