A few days ago I found myself chatting with the fine Grahamstown poet Dudu Saki about (naturally enough!) poetry. He feels that sometimes people don’t understand his work because he writes figuratively, using similes, metaphors and other devices, rather than using a straightforward narrative.
But isn’t this precisely what poetry does? Not for the sake of obscurity but rather to suggest an unusual relationship between one thing and another. If employed skilfully and creatively, metaphor has the potential to reveal new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding, that plain statement cannot achieve.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”, advised Emily Dickinson, and she was right. Just as sunlight refracted through a glass prism reveals a spectrum of rainbow colours, so language directed through the prism of poetry often shows something previously unseen, unsuspected.
And metaphor is a major part of the linguistic prism. This is how Dudu Saki expresses it:
I have not found my voice
Maybe it lies
between the lines of my poetry
Perhaps behind the images
lies my voice…buried
Perhaps across the lines my voice drowns
I am numbed by the silence
of a voice in a void
A silence to which I still recite
the empty absence of a voiceless youth
loud with empty words
(from Do Men Wear Clothes, Aerial Publishing, 2008)
Of course, we all use metaphor every day: a beloved child becomes “the apple of one’s eye”; road rage is the descent into “a red mist”; depression is “a black dog”. These are familiar figures of speech – so familiar, perhaps, that they risk lapsing into cliché. But they are simply what Robert Frost called “saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another”.
And this is what much poetry attempts all the time. It needs to be done well, of course, and it does assume a willingness (and ability) on the part of readers/listeners to do a little imaginative work of their own. But it’s what sets poetry apart for me; it’s a kind of magic and why I have said so many times that I need actually to write a poem before I can know what I think.
A technique closely related to metaphor is ‘apostrophe’, in which the poet directly addresses something not human. Keats’s ode ‘To Autumn’ is a famous example. Is this so very difficult to understand? Perhaps, but I really do think it offers rewards beyond the obvious.
Here is an ‘apostrophe’ by the American poet Edward Hirsch in which he addresses his craft as if it were a lover.
Don’t desert me
just because I stayed up last night
watching The Lost Weekend.
I know I’ve spent too much time
praising your naked body to strangers
and gossiping about lovers you betrayed.
I’ve stalked you in foreign cities
and followed your far-flung movements,
pretending I could describe you.
Forgive me for getting jacked on coffee
and obsessing over your features
year after jittery year.
I’m sorry for handing you a line
and typing you on a screen,
but don’t let me suffer in silence.
Does anyone still invoke the Muse,
string a wooden lyre for Apollo,
or try to saddle up Pegasus?
Winged horse, heavenly god or goddess,
indifferent entity, secret code, stored magic,
pleasance and half wonder, hell,
I have loved you my entire life
without even knowing what you are
or how – please help me – to find you.
(from The Essential Poet’s Glossary, Mariner Books, 2017)