Help Me Write a Metaphor

I am writing an introductory paragraph to an essay about poetics. I am trying to craft a catchy metaphor to kick things off. Need help. Here’s the idea behind the content of the essay, then I will show you the current state of my metaphor.

Overall, the quick-and-dirty that I am trying to get across is that poetic speech calls attention to itself, and yet, at the same time, tries to work with enough subtlety that its use doesn’t completely stop dead the basic task of communication.

The content: In normal communication, the language we use is trying to be a clear window: we do not want the hearer to pay attention to the language we use, but rather to the meaning alone. Just as she would look through a clear window to see what is behind it, we want her “listen through” the language to hear the meaning, the message.

In poetic speech, however, we deliberately “fog” or “tint” the window.* Our language is crafted such that it calls attention to itself. Take this sentence from Chapter 17 of the Hobbit:

Winter thunder on a wild wind rolled roaring up and rumbled in the Mountain, and lightning lit its peak.

This is not a selection from a poem, but is rather just one sentence in a narrative paragraph. The wind is the first warning the protagonists receive that the Goblins and Wargs have arrived unexpectedly to join the battle in progress. Still, the sentence is strongly poetic, mainly in its use of alliteration (winter, wild, wind; rolled, roaring, rumbled; lightning, lit). The sonorant, liquid consonants beat forward, reaching a sharp but delicate crescendo in the unvoiced stops of the t’s in “lightning lit.” (In a comment I may say more about the poetics of this snippet.)

My point is that the alliteration slows the reader down slightly, calling her attention to the poetic device (the fog on the window, as it were). At the same time, the window cannot become so opaque that the poetic language stops the reader dead by distracting her completely from the meanings unfolding between her and the text: she either cannot or will not continue following the story. If the poetic language goes too far in calling attention to itself, communication stops. If the goal of everyday language is clarity, then the goal of poetic language is translucence, but not outright opacity.

The metaphor: At the start of the essay, I wish to compare the poet to a certain kind of criminal, the reader to a member of the public who hears of the crime, and the critic to a detective. I am thinking of cat burglars, or graffiti artists, or anyone else who commits an act that calls attention to itself, that seeks to send a message. On the one hand, this brand of criminal wants to accomplish a mundane task: she wants to steal something of value, or vandalize a public space. This mundane act corresponds in my metaphor to the simple act of communication. The criminal, like the poet, wants to get away clean with the task at hand (for the poet, the task is communication). On the other hand, the criminal wants the public not only to know that a crime has been committed, but to pay attention to the details of the crime: its difficulty, its elegance, its mystery, perhaps how it bears certain signature elements characteristic of the criminal. These elements call attention to themselves for the hearer the way that poetic language calls attention to itself.

Sometimes some of the witnesses will be aware that a crime has happened (something’s missing, a wall is tagged), but lack comptetence to see the artistry (no sign of forced entry; there’s no apparent way to get to that wall). The detective, though (our literary critic), has enough experience to help other witnesses see the elements that they might otherwise miss.

This is the background thinking going on behind my paragraph. All I want to do is to pique their interest in poetic language by capturing some of the romance and grandeur of the master criminal. At the same time, I do not want to bring in the grisly, darker side of the metaphor (serial killers harvesting trophies, and such). Also, it has to be quick and short. Here is my first draft:

The writer who employs a poetic device—say a metaphor, or a bit of satire—is like the criminal who commits a sensational crime. On the one hand, the act must be done covertly enough to accomplish its work. The criminal wants to put over her crime and steal on. On the other hand, the act must be overt enough to be recognized for what it is. Those who discover the crime—say a cat burglary, or a bit of signature vandalism—must “get it,” must have a moment of “a-ha.” The artist walks a tightrope: how shall she weave language that calls attention to itself as language, and yet do so in a way that operates on the reader before he becomes cognizant of the device? The reader, then, like the witness, is confronted with an act that is both showing and hiding itself. The critic, like a seasoned detective, has the task of determining whether the apparent elements of the poetry of the crime are intended by the criminal artist at all, and if so, to demonstrate them to the rest of the public.

It still feels clunky and a bit forced in some ways. In your view, is the metaphor working at all? Is the idea sound but my implementation flawed? In what ways is it not working? Are there elements of the metaphor that raise tactical problems that I’ve missed? What suggestions do you have for improvement?

*(The concept of poetic language as opacity I first found in Gian Biagio Conte and Charles Segal, The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets, Cornell Studies in Classical Philology vol. 44. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.)

2 Responses

  1. Hi Anumma, and thanks for your recent comments — I’m coming to this post of yours late, but since it involves revising a paragraph that *I* didn’t write, naturally I have time to devote to it!

    I like the idea behind your simile, but I think the foregrounding of “crime” — esp. “sensational crime” — is itself too distracting (and the explanation/examples go on just a wee bit too long, and similarly distract from the elegance of your conceit). Why not begin by calling the writer a cat-burglar, and cut/tighten the rest of those first few sentences?

    I look forward to following your blog in the future.

    • Flavia, thanks. That’s really helpful, and cuts right to the problems that I felt going on: top-heaviness, length, and the metaphor upstaging the point.

      And nobody commenter has to be afraid of coming too late to the party here. Characteristically, I’ve procrastinated this assignment long enough to benefit from your input!


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