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A Mind for Metaphors

ISSUE:  Winter 2007
Drawing diagrams I measured
Movements of the stars;
Though her tender flesh is near
Her mind I cannot measure.

Sometime in the seventeenth century, the sixth Dalai Lama wrote this brief but revealing poem about the problem of people. The poem’s orderly division in two neat halves enacts the struggle to impose a form, or “measure,” upon the unknowable woman sitting right beside the narrator. We long to take the measure of someone else’s mind, but lack the tools for gaining the access we seek. Need to solve or settle your lover’s essential strangeness? Sorry, no measuring device exists. The devices and strategies we count on to chart the stars are quite useless under love’s circumstances. Does it matter that the brief life of the sixth Dalai Lama was as divided as this little poem? Dalai Lama by day, he was a lover of women, intoxicants, adventure by night. It would be easy to draw a connection between the life of his poems and the facts of his life. But one of the problems with people is that we all too often misinterpret. When poetry addresses the difficulty of knowing others, or even of knowing ourselves, what is at the heart of the problem? The tools we use, of course.

Fundamentally alone, reliant on our senses and on how we interpret what the senses provide, still we seek connection and contact, we crave the touch of those we love. Mistakes abound as we reach toward others. The eye has a natural blind spot, so we never stop reconfiguring what we see, and our revisions inevitably impose forms or narratives upon experience. Governed by a restless interior life, we interpret, reflect, and reenact a wealth of sensory information, comparing new impressions, revising older ones. To record these impressions is our human compulsion, our homage to the world as it passes through us and disappears. And besides, this comforts us. We structure and compose our lives, in part, to interpret and calm the chaos that assaults our nervous systems. We know, like Milton, that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” But a single sensation, a neurological perception of a stimulus, like an odor, lasts only an instant. It is episodic rather than narrative. Because no one apprehends sensory impressions in quite the same way as I do, you are mistaken if you believe you see what I see. But when we make language out of sensation, we reach across the boundaries between us. Representing the world alters it, even transforms it, and that transformation allows others to make sense of our sensations. So when I seek to represent the world, I turn intentionally toward metaphor.

Derived from a Greek word that means “carrying across,” metaphor brings something new into being by linking two known things, and by insisting upon the similarity embedded in difference. The connections we forge suggest how two things are alike, but the success of metaphor depends on essential difference. In other words, to make metaphor is to insist on a necessary error. In “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden makes such a gesture, endowing Yeats’s poems with their own life and agency in the lines “By mourning tongues / The death of the poet was kept from his poems.” Absent their maker these poems scatter across the world, take on new interpretation, are internalized and digested by new readers. And more than that: what Kafka says in a letter to Felice Bauer (“I am made of literature”) is how Auden transforms Yeats after death:

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Now the poet’s body is changed, utterly; witness Auden mapping it, laying out an electrified country that zone by zone fades and loses power. Here he underscores how the body shuts down even while Yeats’s poems live:

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Poetry asks its readers for a species of double vision, as two things become a third and yet continue to remain themselves. Etymologically, the word error, or errancy, is related to the Latin errare, “to wander” (which, according to Linda Gregerson, provides the source for the phrase knight-errant). Mental wandering, the mind at play, and the seemingly accidental associations that emerge from wandering: these are the tools we use to create the collage that corresponds to our selves. In this way, both metaphor and contemplation arise from the same fertile ground. Poetic leaping has long been recognized as conceptually illogical, even irrational. For evidence of this, look to Aristotle, who says those who make metaphor embrace a necessary madness. Anne Carson explores these ideas in her poem “Essay on What I Think About Most”:

Lots of people including Aristotle think error
an interesting and valuable mental event.
In his discussion of metaphor in the Rhetoric
Aristotle said there are 3 kinds of words.
Strange, ordinary and metaphorical.

“Strange words simply puzzle us;
ordinary words convey what we know already;
it is from metaphor that we can get hold of something new & fresh” (Rhetoric, 1410b10-13).
In what does the freshness of metaphor consist?
Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself

in the act of making a mistake.

Later in the same poem she extends the field of discussion even further:

. . . a poet like Alkman
sidesteps fear, anxiety, shame, remorse
and all the other silly emotions associated with making mistakes
in order to engage
the fact of the matter.
The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection.

Our lapses, our missteps, our omissions, our errors of the mind, all of these deeply engage us. But “fear, anxiety, shame, remorse / and all the other silly emotions” do not cease to be present in poetry simply because we aspire to understand ourselves. Indeed, self-understanding often conflicts with the contrary evidence the senses provide.

Through multiple encounters with flux and contingency in Berryman’s Dream Songs, but particularly in Dream Song 29, Berryman’s poems capture states of psychological confusion. In Dream Song 29, Henry is alert and worried, the poem emerging out of confusion, the weight and pressure of sorrow:

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.

It’s as if he’s emerged in terror from a psychotic state, a hallucination, or a dream, and now wonders what he’s said or done, whom he’s killed, or failed to save. He seeks the error that has yet to happen. He knows he’s the cause of some trauma, but cannot locate the event. In the middle of the poem, he struggles to interpret the images insistently present in his head:

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;

Dreams emerge into daylight not whole but filled with gaps in the narrative. How much is he responsible for remembering? What responsibility does he bear for the lives of other people in the poem? What kind of emotional work must he do in order to preserve those people he might unintentionally kill? What are his dreams telling him? There is a story trying to emerge in this poem, and Berryman’s achievement lies in how he thwarts its emergence. The sensory details in the poem support this confusion: a “little cough” here, “an odour” there, “a chime,” so that all memory-making filters through a complex and uneasy synesthesia. The past is at the edge of recall, is not easily manifested, and certainly not to be relied upon. No wonder Berryman’s poems so frequently adopt a role to play or a mask to wear. Under pressure, the face we present to the world depends on the course of the weather.

Critics and psychoanalysts who talk about the connection between dreams, free association, wordplay, and “hidden” truth often link creativity and chaos, as Adam Phillips does:

Our dreams and the poetry we write (and speak) verge on incoherence and nonsense; the moments when sense begins to turn, or fade, also define us. Going out of bounds might be as close as we can get to that recurrent fear of being other-minded which seems also to be a wish. The unconscious describes an apprehension that there are other minds—other, that is, than the one we easily recognize—going on inside us; that there is something inside us, and between ourselves and other people, that is forever verging on incoherence and nonsense.
(Promises, Promises)

Berryman’s Henry both knows and fails to know his own mind. The Dream Songs plays out this unreliability, suggesting that not only do we not know our closest companions, we do not know ourselves in a fixed or daylight manner. In these poems knowledge is momentary, and our only assurance is that the next poem’s truth will have mutated. Dream images: how real are they, how much weight do they have in our waking lives? How are the landscapes of dreams like the landscapes created by poetic metaphor? In their compression, weight, and symbolic logic, dreams are our nighttime errancy.

He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

As long ago as 1621, Robert Burton recognized that how we describe ourselves depends on the circumstances, on the audience, and on the shifts and tides in our emotional lives. While hallucinations and paranoid visions certainly take place on sanity’s far edge, Burton knows that emotional experience occurs over a large continuum. We are all subject, at one time or another, to wrong impressions: sometimes we misunderstand each other, sometimes all the “senses are troubled, [we] think [we] see, hear, smell, and touch that which [we] do not” (Anatomy of Melancholy). Going further along the spectrum of symptoms, Burton describes a series of patients who can no longer distinguish between the metaphoric and the material world: some are afraid that “they are all glass, and therefore will suffer no man to come near them: that they are all cork, as light as feathers; others as heavy as lead; some are afraid their heads will fall off their shoulders, that they have frogs in their bellies, etc.” One definition of madness: to believe one’s own body has the capacity to be utterly transformed, indeed, made metaphoric.

If metaphor is the necessary semantic mistake, the madness that connects us, then it might be useful to consider two contending theories of mind, one lately espoused by Daniel Dennett, one by the contrarian philosopher Galen Strawson. In brief, the argument looks like this: Dennett and others such as psychologist Jerome Bruner and neurologist Oliver Sacks suggest that we construct identity around the stories we tell about ourselves, and to ourselves. Writing in 1988 in the Times Literary Supplement, Dennett claims that “we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour . . . and we always try to put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. . . . The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self” (“Why Everyone Is a Novelist”).

Galen Strawson doesn’t mind the notion that some of us seek to create coherent narratives about our lives. Of course we do. What he disputes is the assumption that such a narrative-driven life is the best or most moral way to live—“best” because, as Dennett believes, it provides a structure by which we achieve mature personhood. Instead, Strawson seeks to operate under another framework, as an “episodic” personality rather than a “narrative personality.” He says: “If one is Episodic. . . , one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future. . . . although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms” (“Against Narrativity”). Genuinely disinterested in narrative self-fashioning, Strawson believes instead that episodic personalities prefer to live more exclusively in the present tense. I’ll leap here and suggest that an episodic frame of mind is also a lyric frame of mind. Reading a lyric poem, we experience an illusion of stopped time, of radical subjectivity. The subjective lyric “I” is not traveling on a straight road of progress toward a good life, but is more likely to be in the midst of momentary drama or crisis, to be, in fact, in the midst of a mistake. Or, as Adam Phillips says, “We are not continually making mistakes, we are continually making alternate lives” (On Flirtation). Or, as Randall Jarrell says, “And yet, the ways we miss our lives are life” (“A Girl in a Library”).

One further claim about the nature of both metaphor and perception comes from Viktor Shklovsky, in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique,” in which he advocates an art of “defamiliarization”:

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Perception: how do you represent it? Here is Anne Carson again: “Sokrates’ central argument, as he goes on to reevaluate madness, is that you keep your mind to yourself at the cost of closing out the gods. Truly good and indeed divine things are alive and active outside you and should be let in to work their changes. Such incursions formally instruct and enrich our lives in society; no prophet or healer or poet could practice his art if he did not lose his mind, Sokrates says” (Eros the Bittersweet).

Someone with a narrative sensibility might be inclined to see fragmentation or defamiliarization as symptoms of madness. But the nature of metaphor itself leads us toward an episodic understanding of a poem. John Berryman’s poems give us the experience of living in the midst of perception. This is a feature of his lyric personality. It’s the wellspring of both pain and the beauty that emerges from pain. Unreliable, momentary, subject to interpretation, not bound to be final and fixed from one version to another, from writer to reader, each poem is a translation of selfhood.

When we are feeling at a loss in a poem, metaphor comes to the rescue. Metaphor is instructive, tactical, and interactive; it succeeds when its audience sees it as both strange and true. We need metaphor to make the error that allows us to reach beyond ourselves. As a final example, consider Sally Mann’s recent photographs of the landscape of the American South. Using “damaged lenses and a camera that requires [her] . . . to use her hand as a shutter, these photographs are marked by the scratches, light leaks, and shifts in focus that were part of the photographic process as it developed during the nineteenth century” (from the PBS documentary). These “light leaks” around the edge of the image create an effect of haze known as “vignetting.” What are the implications of haze? Can haze suggest a method of perception? Mann’s images are scratched, blurred, tear-glazed. They compel us to look intently at subjects that can be difficult, at first, to identify. It’s like seeing with eyes that are flawed, and emotional; these photographs invite us, much as Berryman’s poems do, into a world damaged by the past and confused in the present. These photographs bear the marks of both their method and their maker. If indeed “The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection,” Mann forges a direct link between emotion and imperfection. In the same way, the lyric poem stands in the present with all the attendant errors of perception that immediacy and emotion permit.


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