Monday, June 26, 2006

The Power of Metaphor

In a novel that I'm reading, I found a reference to Donald E. Brown's list of Human Universals. He studied a large amount of anthropological literature and came up with a list of behaviours and ideas that are common to all cultures. Envy is universal, as are family, memory, sexual jealousy. Sibling rivalry and ambition are not - they are the inventions of particular cultures.

There are 352 items on the list (so the book says, I haven't counted) and they make for fascinating reading. One of the universals is metaphor, and another is figurative language (simile). They are not the same, although many people confuse them. Metaphor is when you say something is another thing. Simile is when you say one thing is like another thing. In a poetry course I once took, the tutor explained that metaphor is more primitive than simile. Metaphor is magical, while simile is scientific. Or as the autistic and very literal-minded narrator of Mark Haddon's novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" puts it,
"A metaphor is a lie. A simile is not a lie, unless it is a bad simile".

It occurs to me that the movement away from strict patterns of rhyme and metre in poetry was a move towards more natural speech. But the post-modernist move away from metaphor is something different. Metaphor and simile are totally natural. Try and describe something vividly without using either. It is very difficult. So the move away from their use seems to me to be a move towards a more academic, less natural form of language in poetry.

Incidentally I think the not-to-be-named editor who accused me of relying heavily on metaphor was wrong. I use simile far more than I use metaphor - I believe he was one of those who confuse the two (which makes me less inclined to value his opinion. If I can't trust his use of literary terms then how do I know what he means by "postmodern" or "semiotic" either?)

I sent out another batch of poems last week. This is the last magazine I am going to try with these poems. If none of them are accepted, I will just have to retire them and write some more.


paris parfait said...

Fascinating post and I bet you're right about that editor confusing the two meanings. If those poems don't get optioned by a magazine, you should put them in a book of your poems.

paris parfait said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dana said...

So the move away from their use seems to me to be a move towards a more academic, less natural form of language in poetry.

This is a very interesting observation. I think I'll stick with my metaphors (and similes).

Deb R said...

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this, Catherine!

Good luck with the poem submissions.