Metaphor: A Poet is a Nightingale
The transaction between the poet and the reader, those two instances of one reality, depends upon figurative language. 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.
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...