The Confidence of Metaphor

Metaphor lives in film today more than in literature.  Father Berrigan writes that he and his brother

stand like the fences
of abandoned farms.

Like it.  Why didn’t he just write a poem about the fences of abandoned farms?

Because he feared that no one would get it.

It is much easier to imagine a filmmaker showing an old fence. No voice-over, no “like.” Just a juxtaposition, perhaps, with a photo of an old fighter. I think of the rats on the London bridge overlooking Parliament in the original House of Cards.  No one needs to tell you that politicians are like rats.

The culture is educated in the visual, and gets it.  You can speak to it in film in a way ten thousand times more sophisticated than the way you may in poetry.


Poetry and Unfamiliar Language

Poetry is neither word painting nor the use of unfamiliar locutions for their own sake.  It is the charming and precise conveyance of ideas.  That poetry may use words in unfamiliar ways happens because poetry sometimes deals in ideas that have never been put to words before.


Poetry and Science

Poetry is the art of recognizing peculiar structures in nature.  You don’t understand the structure, you just recognize it.  Some people spy out the four leaf clover; you, poet, spy out the four leaf relationship, the four leaf justification.

It is very difficult to do this.  Years later a scientist may come to describe and understand the relationship; when this happens, it is appropriate for the scientist to quote the poem at the beginning of her article on the subject.


In Paradise Regained, Milton writes:

Upon my head, long the decrees of Heav’n
Delay, for longest time to him is short

I : 55-56.

He’s captured the notion of the immeasurability of time.  When Kant comes to describe this in Critique of Pure Reason, it would be appropriate for him to quote those lines.


The Rhythm of Lovelace

I don’t like this scansion of Lovelace’s To Althea, From Prison.  The lines all have four stressed syllables, I think, rather than alternating four and three.  At least, they sound better when I read them that way.

When LOVE | with UN | con FIN | ed WINGS
Hov ERS | with IN | my GATES

doesn’t work.  It’s got to be

When LOVE | with UN | con FIN | ed WINGS
HOVers | with IN | MY GATES

. Maybe the stress in 17th century English was on the ERS in Hovers.  But today that just sounds ridiculous.  And anyway, moving from tetrameter to trimeter sounds terrible and must have four hundred years ago.  The lines read so much better with four downbeats each.  And it’s not hard to find four downbeats in the line so long as you stop worrying about retaining the iambs and embrace spondees.

The same is true for the rest of the poem.

We recast this reading of the next two lines,

And MY | div INE | Al THE | a BRINGS
To WHIS | per AT | the GRATES

, to get

And MY | div INE | Al THE | a BRINGS

. The double downbeat at the end echoes the double downbeat at the end of the first two lines.

The next two lines,

When I | lie TANG | led IN | her HAIR
And FET | tered TO | her EYE

, become:

When I | lie TANG | led IN | her HAIR
And FET | tered TO | HER EYE

And the last,

The BIRDS | that WAN | ton IN | the AIR
Know NO | such LIB | er TY

, becomes:

The BIRDS | that WAN | ton IN | the AIR
KNOW NO | such LIB | er TY.

I find this scansion very satisfying.  The alternating of regular and irregular meter while preserving the number of downbeats puts the meter slightly off balance without making it messy, saving us from the monotony of consistent meter without losing the music that meter lends to the poem.  Photographers are suppose to frame a subject off center in the picture to drag the eye across the image and avoid cancelling its power through symmetry.  This scansion does that.

It works even better in To Lucasta, Going to the Warres:

Tell me | NOT,  SWEET, | I AM | un KIND,
THAT FROM | the NUN | ne RY
Of THY | chaste BREAST | and QUI | et MIND
TO WAR | and ARMS | I FLY.

TRUE, a | new MIS | tress NOW | I CHASE,
And WITH | a STRON | ger FAITH | em BRACE,

Yet THIS | in CON | stan CY | is SUCH
I COULD | not LOVE | thee, DEAR, | so MUCH,
LOV ed I | not HON | or MORE.