A Crash of Symbols — Using Metaphors to Make Connections
Let’s begin this post with a challenge I like to call Analogies. In the challenge, we combine two different items or subjects and consider ways that they are similar or related. You may recall that The Mad Hatter poses one such puzzle in the book, Alice In Wonderland: “How is a raven like a writing desk?” (though he does not provide an answer.)
Are you ready?
- How is depression like a bird feeder?
- In what way is love related to an un-mown lawn?
- How can heartbreak be compared to snowdrifts?
What analogies can you invent for these examples? (I’ll give you my own responses later.)
One of the distinguishing characteristics of writers of poetic prose and powerful poetry, is that such artists tend to think “like” they observe the world around them and, even unconsciously, contemplate “What is this like? How is (x) similar to (y)?” The best metaphors and analogies are usually those that cause finite objects to symbolize more infinite subjects. The poet William Blake famously wrote of this paradox:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
(Auguries of Innocence, lines 1-4)
I have often used the Analogy game to help me develop symbols and metaphors for my writing. I’ve even used it for a youth activity at church as we tried to invent parables and object lessons to communicate truth in a variety of ways. (Bonus analogy challenge: How is the love of God like lemonade?) One of the great things about creating and solving such puzzles, is that there can be hundreds of perfectly acceptable answers, and sometimes several that are deeply profound.
The trouble with deliberate metaphors and figurative language, though, is that they only work at peak efficiency when a reader “gets” them, and can mentally bring the two disparate things together into one. “Why can’t the author just say what she means?” is a frequent complaint when a reader fails to make the connection. In such cases, much of the original message might be lost, but should we expect everything we encounter to be immediately explicable? Should we only write to be immediately comprehended? There is much that we conceal and reveal in the process of writing prose and poetry. The true significance of what we write is either found through straightforward expression, as it is in non-fiction, or it is communicated through indirection and symbolism, as it is in poetry, fiction, and parables. I contend that there is profound pleasure in discovering deeper levels of meaning through repeated readings, and in creating multiple layers of truth through the use of symbols and metaphors.
The drive to think, “Like”, is not exclusive to conventional artists.
Ironically, it is sometimes clearly metaphorical images and themes that are readily understood and interpreted by our audience, while straightforward facts and details are misunderstood. The drive to think, “Like”, is not exclusive to conventional artists. Those who read for understanding of complex themes and deeper thought are artists of interpretation; worthy partners and companions in our halfbuilding. Often, our readers see more than we suppose. To them, our suggested meaning can mean even more than we suggest. That is the beauty and power of our cooperative halfbuilding — every detail can be ripe with significance as readers incorporate our content into their consciousness.
However, this can also lead to what we could call “excessive interpretation”. We often joke about literary criticism and analysis resulting in reading too deeply into texts. High school classrooms are said to be notorious for over-explication. (I suppose I was even guilty of it from time to time back when I was teaching Freshmen and Sophomore English.) You may recall that in Part 1 of this series (In Search of New Beginnings) I joined William Wordsworth in labeling this excessive explication “murdering to dissect.” In such cases, we run the risk of destroying the enjoyment we might receive from our reading. If we over-analyze a story, we might ask an author, “When Suzanne closes the window and curtains as she and Gustavo are arguing, the green curtains simultaneously represents her envy that he is still so devoted to his mother, as well as her hope for growth and renewal in their relationship; and her closing of the window is symbolic of her fear that he will leave her, and reveals a subconscious desire to restrain him, right?” To which, the author might reply, “Actually, she just didn’t want the neighbors eavesdropping, and the curtains match the sofa.” Sometimes decor is just decor.
Still, as we have addressed before, the deeper meanings that readers draw from their encounters with a text create unique halves. These private interpretations enrich the reader’s experience, even if they cannot always be directly traced and attributed back to the author. A poet or author cannot take credit for every brilliant insight that others may synergistically see in his or her work, any more than he or she should be held accountable for every unpleasant interpretation that readers may concoct in their fertile imaginations.
An additional fly in the ointment is that similes and metaphors and allusions can lose much of their power and clarity over time. We might still use them, but they can become cliches, or their significance and original meaning become lost. For example:
- If something is “selling like hotcakes”, it doesn’t mean the current menu at IHOP is particularly popular. In fact, this expression originated in the 1800’s, in reference to the popularity of fresh cornmeal cakes, fried in hot bear grease, at church bazaars and fairs. (Yummy.)
- If you do something excessively — “like it’s going out of style” — it’s rather confusing; does that mean you’re tragically uncool and behind the times (seriously, who dabs anymore?) or that you’re milking its current popularity before something takes its place? If you are “buying things like they’re going out of style” it makes even less sense — unless you had a crystal ball back in the 90’s and knew that flare jeans, oversized coats, and hair scrunchies were going to make a comeback.
- Thanks to a resurgence of the popularity of vinyl records, the phrase, “you sound like a broken record”, has been saved from obscurity. Otherwise, we’d have to find another way to describe seemingly endless verbal repetition — “You sound like a CD skipping” doesn’t have the same ring, and besides: CD’s are so last century.
- “That’s my 2 cents” might have originated in the two coins of the widow’s mite from Mark 12:42 in the Bible, but unlike the great value that Jesus gave them, we now use the phrase (ironically sometimes) to indicate that our offered opinion isn’t worth much.
As language changes and new associations are created, new metaphors and allusions and words are born. Just a few Pre-COVID years ago, who would have known what “social distancing” was; or could have defined “contact tracing”, let alone explained what it meant to “flatten the curve”? Only in a socially isolating pandemic could a term like “doomscrolling” be coined to describe hours of compulsively consuming bad news on social media, despite awareness of the psychologically detrimental effects of doing so.
Our metaphors and similes can create analogies that are fleeting or may last forever; the subjects we seek to symbolize may become irrelevant to future audiences. Fortunately, Truth is eternal and resilient. We can help our readers to see and feel it through the means we use to make it memorable and impactful.
Now let’s return to the three analogies I posed earlier, and consider a few connective interpretations:
How is depression like a bird feeder?
- A bird feeder contains a variety of seeds to nourish the birds who come to visit, but the act of provision can cause a mess and leave the feeder askew on its support pole; similarly, the burdens we carry emotionally and mentally as we deal with depression can become overwhelming and seemingly make a mess of our lives — leaving us off balance as we cling to our sources of support.
- I’ll take a quick shot:
A heart suspended by cable and hook,
of blackened and oily seeds —
askew, as wings beat all around and scatter me,
unbalanced and empty at last.
Strewn with shells on stone through seasons of refilling,
I neither feel nor count
the many days that bring the mouths to feed.
Filled again and again with dead seeds
I provide for others to consume and grow upon.
But then, one morning,
shoots arise amid the stones:
my own flowers will someday seek the sun.
In what way is love related to an un-mown lawn?
- The tall grass is green with life, showing that it has received plenty of light and water and nourishment, just like the cultivation of loving feelings and emotional investment causes love to grow and flourish. Tall grass can choke out the weeds that sprout up; but weeds, if left unaddressed, can also overcome the grass. Similarly, cultivated love can help to overcome the problems that sprout up in our relationships; but, if they are allowed to take root, the weeds of contention and resentment can harm a growing relationship.
- Let’s give this one a try:
Tom Rosenfeld ceased his mowing at the corner where the grass met the driveway and where a distant neighbor, Steve Campbell, was waiting for him. He allowed the engine to die and bent down to reach for the bag that trailed behind the mower, his eyes narrowing and his lips a firm line. “Morning” he said shortly.
“Hey there.” Steve replied amiably. He inclined his head toward the next lawn over. “Getting a bit thick over there at Brad’s, eh?”
Tom stood back up, his clippings bag in hand, and turned to look at the far pass he’d made. He nodded. There, at the edge of the property line, the distinction between the two lawns was even more apparent. Now that he had trimmed his down to the 3 inches “suggested” by the homeowners association, it only made Brad’s yard look worse.
“A’yup…” Tom grunted as he scowled and turned back to the HOA Vice-President. “I suppose he’s been busy, and hasn’t kept up,” he said with an edge to his voice.
If Steve noticed Tom’s unspoken hostility, he didn’t show it. “That’s a shame,” he murmured absently. “A real shame.” He ran his thumbnail down the edge of the executive padfolio he carried. “He’s been the best of us for the past few years.” His posture suddenly became more stiff and formal. “Well, I’ll see you later.” he said abruptly, and marched up the street towards Brad’s with firm purpose.
Tom went to dispose of his clippings in the community compost pile, so Steve was gone by the time Tom plodded up his neighbor’s driveway. As he approached Brad’s front door, he passed the open garage and noted the many yard care tools his friend possessed; a self-propelled mower, a weed-whacker, and a leaf blower rested next to a wall-mounted rack of more shovels and rakes and hoes than Tom could even identify. As he expected when he rounded the corner to approach the porch, a large and obscenely yellow Post-It note was attached to the door, with Steve’s contemptible scrawl upon it:
HOA Covenant, Section III.4 — Grass is to be kept trimmed to between 2 and 4 inches, maximum. Suggested length is 3 inches. This is a warning — Please comply within 1 week to avoid a fine of $30.00.
Tom glowered at the note and tore it down. He pressed the button for the doorbell, confident that Steve hadn’t even bothered to confront Brad with the citation directly, but instead had cravenly left the note and fled. As he waited for Brad to come and open the door, Tom surveyed the front yard. It had indeed fallen from its peak. After Brad had retired a few years earlier, his yard had become a matter of pride for him, and the one that everyone tried to keep up with. In fact, Brad had won the award for best landscaping last year from the HOA, so it struck Tom as disingenuous for the Homeowners Association, and Steve in particular, to be so swift to criticize. He heard the deadbolt slide behind him and turned back to the door as it opened. Brad appeared haggard, but a light of hope still shone in his eyes. Tom took that as a good sign.
“Morning, Brad. Hope I’m not intruding.”
“Not at all, no worries.” Brad smiled wearily.
“How’s Tammy doing?”
“She’s getting a bit better,” Brad replied. “Thanks for asking. The doctors say her lungs are getting clearer, and she’s been able to tolerate more solid food lately.”
Tom sighed and smiled with relief. “That’s great to hear.” He shifted his stance a little and awkwardly fiddled with the yellow paper in his hand. “You know, I just finished up mowing my yard and I wondered if you’d let me keep going and trim yours a bit.” He saw Brad’s eyes flick to the crumpled yellow paper that was clutched in his hand then back to his face again. He knew Brad had seen the lay of the land in an instant.
“Sure. That would be great.” Brad said, and he surveyed the grass beyond Tom’s shoulder. “Thanks. Since Tammy got sick, I haven’t been able to…”
Tom raised a hand to forestall the explanation. It wasn’t necessary. “I know,” he said with a slight grin. “I just hate to let Steve win, so you’re helping me out, too.”
“Well, if it’s doing you a favor, I don’t mind so much,” Brad replied, but he couldn’t resist making an additional request. “Just make sure you cut across the grain of the lawn, okay?”
Tom laughed. “Sure thing, boss.”
How can heartbreak be compared to snowdrifts?
- The emotional loss and pain of heartbreak can make one feel cold and numb — exposed to the elements and buried. The search for warmth is natural and necessary in both cases, lest the heart freeze up and cease to beat.
- Here are two of my skeleton sonnets, in different styles, which both employ this metaphor:
Propose your own analogies in the comments!
Read WR’s Poetry Blog from the beginning!
W.R. Gilmour (Reay) published a poem with Parousia Magazine, called the Centurion! Read it now!
Read WR’s “How to be a Truthspeaker” blog!