Metaphor as a Present Tense Manifesto
One Perspective on the Purpose of a Writing Practice
On Poetry (or Everything is Metaphor)
I believe we only experience our authentic lives in the moments that take us by surprise: when we confront an immediate unknown, where we are all recipience, in a space with no judgements or codifications.
We grow during the great leaps between old, familiar cairns that our past selves—or our past cultures—have built. We fly, untethered, through the subconscious, to land in familiar, conscious rubrics, where we then try to make sense of our experience. We borrow established concepts and words (with their onomatopoeic roots that are themselves metaphors) and set them together in new constellations—trying to map the inexplicable to the known.
Because we are compelled to try to make sense of our experiences, I don’t think we can avoid metaphor. It is what we do. I believe the poetic device is innate to human consciousness. A poem itself (in any form) is always the vehicle for the tenor of our experience. We are poetic artisans by nature.
If I see myself as a artisan, my work with poetry can be considered as much a tool for communication as it is an artform. Reaching back to tradition in order to find meaning in the present, and to try to come to some kind of personal understanding regarding the purpose of poetry, I look at the Greek word poeisis, and the Aristotelian dramatic concept of mimesis. I come away with the idea that poetry is a “made thing” that is imbued with the intention to copy the experience of nature.
But why copy nature? I think because, in order to create meaning, in order to communicate, we are compelled to reconstruct what we can’t point to: what’s past, or what’s present but beyond our senses.
Poetry as Art
Communicating our experience of the world to another human being is as much a leap of faith as it is of consciousness.
The lyric poet and the dramatist both use poetic devices in their attempts to represent and communicate the experience they’ve had of living in the world at a specific moment. But for Aristotle, poetry isn’t just about prescriptive meters, or captivating stories with tidy conflicts and reassuring resolutions. Poetry as an art form demands a representation that somehow provides access to another’s living (sub)consciousness.
Oscar Wilde wrote that art’s function is to create a mood. And if by “mood” Wilde meant a trigger to recreate a reader’s personal experience that is beyond words or narratable events, I agree with him.
I believe poetry, like all artforms, is a (perceived) shared experience. It’s the recognition one human has when viewing/hearing a “made thing” created by another human. In other words, it’s the experience of, “I recognize that aspect of being human. I see you, the maker. I believe I feel now what you felt when you made this.”
I don’t believe art is present in the artifact, but in the activity it catalyzes.
And as an extension of this, I believe that all art is necessarily awesome. Awesome in the sense that it is tinged with fear. If something conveys a true sense of living, it must also convey a sense of mortality: an ancient author’s. Yours. Mine. Art must transcend its own timelessness/artificialness. It must do more than (re)build monuments for the dead.
Art (unlike fame) is a gift from God or the gods. Or if you are uncomfortable with that: it’s magic: It is a work-around for human limitations, and a way to cheat death.
The Necessary Community
In my mind, if there is a venn diagram of the artisan and the artist, these two don’t sit side by side: the artist swallows the artisan whole. Poetry, as an art form, is not ornament or escapism. It’s a confrontation with our truths, and this is always transformative.
Wilde also said that art is as useless as a flower:
“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence.”
Here, I disagree with Wilde. Because a “made thing” is not a flower, but a human endeavor, I believe its use is a part of its essence.
Before Wilde, Immanuel Kant also pointed out the uselessness of art. Kant said that an artwork is “ intrinsically final”, but did make the exception that it is a tool for the cultivation of the human spirit.
The writer-as-artisan uses poetic devices as tools first. There are theories that verse was developed primarily as a mnemonic tool for passing information through the generations. But poetry and imaginative fiction also help us fulfill our need for creativity, for novelty. Writing is a tool that helps us exorcise our emotions. At some point, though, once we have mastered the tools — when we work with devotion — writing can help us communicate our unique experience so that others can recognize themselves—through our poetry.
Art is a paradoxical event where uniqueness meets commonality. Where our private, personal development happens alone and in connection to an artist, like spooky action at a distance.
Constructing New Perspectives through Art
Poetry, in verse or in prose — spoken or written—takes us out of our conscious selves, beyond our pre-packaged thoughts. As Robert Bly suggests in Leaping Poetry, and as Aristotle described drama in Poetics, we use metaphor and mimesis (which itself can be accurately described a kind of metaphor) to “leap” to an understanding that we can’t reach by any direct route. Poetry, by definition, exalts our experience.
Actually, “exalt” is one of those words that puts me off. I’m more comfortable with words like “challenges”, or “refines”. We can use the art of reading and writing to redefine ourselves, but it can also take us back to a state of unknowing to find a new starting point, a fresh (and free) association.
Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “My life resembles a work of art. Never does an artist start working on the same piece twice.”
The writing process can be a way to explore perspectives. Poem by poem. Or in terms of stories. We can choose to reject, for example, our families’ edited chronicles and their resulting false truths. We can challenge our culture’s meta-narrative prophecies like “damaged for life”, “people can’t change”, or “no one gets over that”.
Rex Jung is a neuroscientist who studies creativity. He defines creativity as what is “novel and useful” [emphasis mine]. By choosing to live a creative life, by choosing to seek out the poetic in the humdrum details of our daily lives, we can use writing to gain the perspective we need to become the person each of us wants to be: we can live deliberately.
We can cultivate attention and gratitude. We can create stronger connections with the physical realities of Earth, and with each other. If we look inward, but aim toward art—and if we are fortunate—we can transcend ourselves.
Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.
- Oscar Wilde
We construct our narratives. Which story are you choosing? Because this choice is who you are.
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