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An Ode to Metaphor

This little essay was written for Metaphor and Meaning, a class at Gallatin taught by Stacy Pies. While the subject of “metaphor” is not typical for this site, the setting of this piece fits here. That is: the farm where I first started putting thoughts on the table.The Dancing Hummingbird: A Reaction to I.A. RichardsThree years ago, during these months of the fall season, I was living and working on a small organic farm. My hours were spent bottling and corking wine, picking olives from not-so-high-up in the trees, and cooking for the family into whose home I had wedged myself and my perspectives. There were a few weeks when the work was slow, and I could relax after lunch for a few hours. In the evenings too, the family would occasionally leave me to myself while they went to bed early, or when the boys were especially busy with their homework. So I ended up reading several large books while I was there, and writing many long letters as well. I have just scavenged out my old notebook from those days, stuffed with maps and photos, and in which most of the original pages have been ripped out, to be mailed away. The last page, however, remains, with a penciled list of birds, and then cheeses, beside my family’s names. Mary is a Peacock, I wrote, Katie is a Bluebird, John is a Rooster, Peter is a Red-Breast Robin (or an Owl), I am a Hummingbird, and Lizi will soon be a Swan. Mom and Dad are Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, for lack of creativity. I left a line blank and then wrote, Mary is Gorgonzola, Katie is Ricotta, John is Goat Cheese, Peter is Mozzarella (di Bufala), I am Pecorino, and Lizi is Parmiggiano. Mom and Dad are Brie and Cheddar.hbird2.jpg According to Richards, we mustn’t assume that if we cannot see how a metaphor works, it does not work. Believe me, I have a hard time seeing a Red-Breast Robin in my brother Peter these days, and I stumble over the way Brie and Cheddar don’t particularly go together, considering my parents have been married nearly thirty-five years. Still, reading the simple metaphors makes me laugh at the way I considered my brothers and sisters, and brings me to desperately want their company, even for a moment. Feeling this reaction in myself, I remember why I wrote the silly metaphors, at the age of seventeen. As Richards points out, metaphor need not be (in fact should not be) about visualization. “The language of the greatest poetry is frequently abstract,” he says, and not, as Hulme (and Aristotle) demand, “accurate, precise, and definite.” My family is neither bird nor cheese, nor ever was or appeared to be. But as I wrote them letters from the farm, I faced a strange dilemma: I was living a dance they had never learned. The olives and the grapes, the pastas and cheeses, the chickens and their eggs, the sheep and their lambs (newborns in November!), the dinners and cigarettes and sounds and smells of living on the farm, were all part of a natural and comfortable cycle, of life and work and pleasure. The cycle, or the dance, was one my family had never witnessed. To connect with them, to write them a letter they’d understand, I remember wanting to fit them in, to abstract them into figures of the dance that reflected their characteristics, so that I could write to them about myself with a perspective on what they would see and hear, how they might read what I wrote. Just as “words are the meeting points at which regions of experience…come together,” so I used metaphor to bring together parts of my life that would never meet. The words were the “means of that growth which is the mind’s endless endeavor to order itself.” I was relieved to read Richards’ statement, in slight contrast to what we’ve read until now, that “Words are not a medium in which to copy life. Their true work is to restore life itself to order.” Somehow (but with just this purpose), the imagination of my metaphors rendered me sane and connected, and with complete irrationality, kept me in order.

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