Discussion Guide

Some Advice on That Device

A Mix of Metaphors in the March 2013 Poetry.

"The immediate necessity is to tabulate A LIST OF DON’TS for those beginning to write verses," intoned Ezra Pound in "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste," which appeared in the March 1913 issue of Poetry. A hundred years later, in honor of Pound's essay, the March 2013 issue offers some new tabulations of negations: "Stop with the allusions to dead poets," urges Reginald Dwayne Betts. "Never give cursory eye to a luminous poem," instructs Jill Alexander Essbaum. And Vanessa Place writes: "No more metaphor, no more simile."

This last prohibition is formidable—akin to forbidding brickwork from construction projects—and like a good poem, it invites interpretation. Is Place's proscription tongue-in-cheek? Since she slyly mocks Pound's rules in her poem (disallowing "polyglottal ventriloquism," which sums up The Cantos rather well), might she intend us to question her own suggestions in turn? Do you believe that all-purpose rules for good writing exist, and when you encounter such guidelines, are you inclined to follow or to flout them?

As if to prove that poetic advice is never absolute, Essbaum makes the opposite point of Place's, asserting the necessity of metaphor: "A metaphor is not an oyster fork, a utensil to be employed on rare and singular occasions," she writes in "A Poem Should Not Be Mean But Behave: Good Breeding for Poems." She describes metaphors as "regular, usual implements of the table."

By that measure, many of Poetry's March 2013 contributors are quite well-bred: flocks of metaphors fill the issue. In "Save the Candor," Amit Majmudar uses the condor as a metaphor for candor, hinting that, just as the bird of prey is facing extinction, so is honesty perishing in America:

Few have got it
on their lists and

fewer still have
caught it singing,
this endangered
North American

candor, cousin
of the done-in
dodo, big-eyed
Big Sur tremor-

Yet even as the poet laments the disappearance of the "candor" and its song, he writes a singsong poem. Its trochaic dimeter beats like a drum ("fewer still have / caught it singing"), and its lines hum with rhymes ("fewer"/"candor"/"Big Sur"/"tremor"/"tenor"). The tremor-tenor is not merely the "candor" but the poet himself, who continues a long tradition of linking poets with birds, as in John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" and Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush."

Tradition aside, why might Majmudar draw a connection between the "candor" and the poet? Does he mean to compliment poets, suggesting they represent a rare surviving example of truthfulness? Or might he be indicating something darker: that poetry, like "candors," is at risk of extinction?

Any niche
as fragile as a
candor’s renders

its extinction

Poetry's niche is fairly fragile too; in this issue, Joshua Mehigan points to the indifference of the outside world to the art form. And yet even as Majmudar sounds a death knell for honest expression, his poem's strengths—its music and its metaphor—argue against poetry's demise.

Majmudar crafts his metaphors partly through wordplay: "condor" differs from "candor" by just a vowel, and he concludes the poem by referring to "the yellow-bellied bittern" that will fill the candor's branches once that bird has flown. "Bittern" is only a consonant away from "bitter" (while "yellow-bellied" hints at the human quality of cowardice). What's the significance of establishing metaphorical connections through minute orthographical adjustments? Might Majmudar intend to implicate the subtle means that diminish candor itself? In each instance of wordplay, the poet says two things at once—"condor" and "candor," "bitter" and "bittern"—and a poem that overtly claims to describe one thing suddenly describes two. His elegy for honesty thus seems slightly duplicitous. Or do Majmudar's metaphors enable a more complex candor?

While Majmudar's "Save the Candor" links poetry with candor and condors, Dan Brown's "Judo" compares it to a martial art. The poem reads in full:

I.e., the kind of verse
That doesn’t try to force
People to their knees
(Seeing as it sees
To people’s being thrown
By forces of their own).

To ground his metaphor, Brown applies the vocabulary of Judo—"force," "to their knees," "thrown"—to poems, and thus imbues each word or phrase with several meanings. "On your knees" refers not only to a position of weakness in Judo, but also to the moment of prayer, reverence, or shock that can accompany reading a powerful poem. The "forces" are not just physical but also mental, and "thrown" refers to emotion as well as to motion. With its casual and circuitous diction—"i.e.," "seeing as it sees"—and its parentheses, Brown's poem goes for the jugular, but subtly: it's verbal art as martial art.

This issue also includes David Barber's "Aria," which compares shame to a stain; Amy Gerstler's "Bon Courage," which compares a forest to a door; and Rachel Jamison Webster's "Dolphins at Seven Weeks," which compares purpose to a flower. In each poem, metaphor permits the poets to describe two things while seeming to describe one, sacrificing a simpler truth for a more nuanced one—a delicate move that surely belongs to the ranks of poetic judo.

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