Three Ways to Write a Poem

Of Plain Poems, Figurative Poems & Metaphoric Poems

Call this post a rough draft; and there are more than these three (like Allegorical Poems) but these are the three primary ways a poem is written, I think. On and off I get queries from poets who would like my opinion on their poems. In a very general way, I can break down their poems down into three main types — the Plain Poem, the Figurative Poem, and the Metaphoric Poem; though almost all the poetry sent me falls into the first two categories. I don’t know whether these categories are original to me. I doubt they are, and I may be using the terms differently (if they’re already out there). But so be it. There are poetic masterpieces in all three categories, so I’m not going to argue that one is superior to another, but of the three types of poetry — the Plain Poem and the Metaphoric Poem are the kind I admire most. But first things first:

The Plain Poem

plain-chant 002When I first began writing this, I called this kind of poem a ‘Literal Poem’; but I decided ‘Plain Poem’ is a more poetic description, and reminds me of plain chant. Plain Poem also allows for some variation, some touches of figurative language perhaps, whereas the term ‘Literal’ invites too strict an interpretation. I have no idea what percentage of contemporary poems are Plain Poems, possessing minimal figurative language, but my hunch is that they represent fewer than one might expect, maybe only single digits. They’re very difficult to write well (or memorably). Perhaps Edwin Arlington Robinson would be its finest exponent in traditional forms. The fact of his plainness may, in some measure, contribute to his relative neglect. (It’s ironic that Ezra Pound preached the gospel of “everyday language and materials”, as Christopher Clausen put it, only to write a massive book, “The Cantos”, that becomes progressively all but incomprehensible.)

Richard Cory
by EA Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

RobinsonSome readers might object that Robinson uses a smattering of figurative language, but they’re of the colloquial, ‘every day’ sort. We don’t need editorial footnotes to understand “from sole to crown” or “fluttered pulses” or “glittered when he walked”. This is truly the language of the every day and the reader would have to stretch, or be a Helen Vendler, to read more into it than is there. The power of the poem isn’t to be found in any sort of figurative or metaphorical elusiveness. As with the majority of Robinson’s poems, it is what it is, but beautifully so. Robinson uses meter and rhyme to lend the poem direction, succinctness and to make the poem memorable. Until the very end the rhymes seem innocuous enough, and then the rhyme of bread and “put a bullet through his head” strikes like a thunderclap. As with many good rhyming poems, the reader is likely to anticipate the final coup de grâce, which gives the narrative that extra kick.

  • I’ve ready many passages of free verse poets, especially, posturing over the predictability of rhymes, but this bespeaks an ignorance of what good rhyme do. There are times when the predictable is exactly what the poet wants.

Another good example might be William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

There is such a reflexive determination to think that a poem has to mean something more than what it says. I’m not sure how much sweat and blood has been spilled over what Williams really meant. And yet, the haiku-like sublimity of the poem is self-evident and probably instinctively grasped by anyone who reads it (and needs no explanation or rationalization). This poem, wc williamsquite simply, means what it says. But what makes it so memorable? There’s no rhyme or meter, so something else is at play. In part, it’s very much its similarity to the best haiku. There’s no discourse or disquisition. In other words, a narrator doesn’t thrust himself, nattering, between the reader and the poem (an intrusion into the conversation that Williams can rarely resist). We are permitted to consider the facts as they are and draw our own conclusion — and that is how a poem is like a haiku. The next facet is the imagery. Williams has carefully chosen what to emphasize — the contrast between the red of the wheelbarrow and the white of the chickens, for example. As an experiment, substitute blue for red, or brown for white.

Red is an impish color when you think about it. It attracts attention to itself; (there’s a reason we call red cars “cop magnets”). The poetic juxtaposition of a loud color like red on a humble wheelbarrow gives it a sort of underdog status — like a red Volkswagon beetle — and endears it to the reader (maybe not universally but as a generalization I think this is probably true). After all, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. What other color could it be? (Unfortunately, my own wheelbarrow is blue, but I’m going to spray paint it red.)

And then there are the chickens. What if they had been brown? Nah. The white chickens make the wheelbarrow all the redder. The contrast is easy to imagine. But what if Williams had written white horse or, white house, or white tractor? When the reader imagines the scene, the chickens will always be smaller than the wheelbarrow; and this has the effect of making the red wheelbarrow a little bigger, and a little more important, and a little more there, like an ever present, reassuring background to the lives of the chickens. If Williams had written ‘white horse’, then that might have diminished the importance of the wheelbarrow. The white chickens give us a contrast in color and in size.

But what about a white house or white tractor? These two would have diminished the wheelbarrow’s ‘scale’ (for lack of a better term). Not only that, but we can imagine the lives of the chickens being dependent on the wheelbarrow, but not an inanimate house or tractor. The wheelbarrow is larger than the chickens, and is brought into the living ecosystem of the barnyard by being beside the chickens. In a certain sense, it’s given life by giving life.

And glazed with rainwater? Why this detail? Well, what if it had been coated with dust? My own feeling is that a coat of dust implies disuse. There are certainly farm implements (and carpentry tools) that get dusty, but that coating is always disturbed by use. I think it’s safe to say that a well-used wheelbarrow would seldom be covered by dust. The word glazed is one most commonly used in reference to pottery. When we glaze a piece of pottery we are finishing it. We are, one might say, making it beautiful and, to a certain degree, transforming it into a finished work of art or, at minimum, a usable implement. Williams choice of word is probably no accident. There’s also the sense that o much depends on the wheelbarrow that it cannot be spared even in the rain. This is an indispensable presence in a living and working environment.

But this poem is lightning in a bottle. Williams only pulled it off twice, I think. With The Red Wheelbarrow and This Is Just to Say. These two poems are justly famous and plain poems. They are plain (or very literal), easy to grasp, but in their choice of observation, like the best haiku, they successfully evoke a world of emotional associations. And this, perhaps, is the trick to the greatest poems of this kind — the art of evocation.

  • I haven’t discussed haiku, but these deceptively simply poems (and carefully literal) are some of the most evocative poems in any language.

Another example of a plain poem would be Frost’s Stopping by Woods:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Many attempts have been made to read meaning into this poem, but it is what it is. It’s beautifully simple and, in that simplicity, is profoundly evocative. This is poetry that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. The combination of rhyme and meter add to the memorability of the poem — a revelry in the “felicities of language” as Frost called it. William Pritchard had this to say:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant… [Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

There’s a certain kind of reader for whom plain poems are anathema. One of the more common criticisms leveled at Frost was that his poetry was that of the “simple, farmer poet” — as if that were bad thing in and of itself. In truth, the plainly stated poem, done well or even greatly, is an exceedingly rare accomplishment. The criticism itself says vastly more about those making it. They seem to think that the only good poem is the “difficult” poem. The 20th century is nothing if not the pursuit of obscurity/difficulty as an end in itself, and not just any obscurity, but the kind meant to evoke layers of “meaning”, elusive and implying depth, brilliance and perhaps genius. As a rule of thumb, the more ambiguous — the more interpretations available to the poem — then the better it must be. And while that sort of writing may be candy to the critic and academic, the precipitous decline in modern poetry’s audience suggests that the average reader has better ways to spend their time (rather than sort out a poet’s “meaning”). “Make it plain”, a reader might say, and the modern poet hears: “Dumb it down”. But that’s not at all what the reader is saying.

Greatness in literature has nothing to do with how “difficult” it is.

And perhaps the most remarkable 20th century writer of Plain Poems was Charles Bukowski:

we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
can
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.

my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’

and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw

one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother
smiled

Charles-BukowskiIn the process of writing this post, I read through about two dozen poems by Bukowski, and if he ever wrote a simile, I haven’t yet found it. I would judge Bukowski’s favorite rhetorical device to be the analogy. In the poem above, for instance, Bukowski is essentially drawing an analogy between the goldfish and the suffering experienced by himself and mother. Even then, Bukowski’s use of analogy is sparing and far from obvious. A reader may read a Bukowski poem, read a scenario which he or she has never experienced, and yet feel a commonality because the subject is nevertheless analogous to his or her own experiences. This, I think, is at the root of Bukowski’s genius — his ability to provide a context for experiences that make them recognizable and universal. In the poem Bluebird, Bukowski is again essentially drawing an analogy between his suppressed empathy and compassion and a symbolic bluebird he keeps locked in his heart.

The Figurative Poem

By this, I mean poems that use figurative language but are otherwise (or mostly) plain in their meaning. In other words, I would consider calling a Figurative Poem a ‘Plain Poem’ that uses figurative language. Figurative Poems, as I use the term, probably represent the vast majority of poetry. Nearly all of free verse is of the figurative kind. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are all figurative poems. They are by far and away the most popular and have therefore accumulated an ocean of bad examples. The term figurative (or figurative language) refers to rhetorical figure (a figure understood as any rhetorical linguistic device). A linguistic device most commonly includes, for example the simile — the favorite rhetorical figure of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry. As soon as you see a simile, you know you’re dealing with figurative poetry. Additionally, and unfortunately, it’s nearly always a sign of second or third rate poetry — almost without fail (the exceptions prove the rule, perhaps).

I know I’ve mentioned the following passage before, but I’m offering more of it because it first got me thinking about this subject (many years ago):

“Shakespeare’s style, as everyone knows, is metaphorical to excess. His imagination is always active, but he seldom pauses to indulge it by lengthened description. I shall hereafter have occasion to direct your observation to the sobriety with which he preserves imagination in its proper station, as only the minister and interpreter of thought; but what I wish now to say is, that in him the two powers operate simultaneously. He goes on thinking vigorously, while his imagination scatters her inexhaustible treasures like flowers on the current of his meditations, His constant aim is the expression of facts, passions ,or opinions; and his intellect is constantly occupied in the investigation of such; but the mind acts with ease in its lofty vocation, and the beautiful and the grand rise up voluntarily to do him homage. he never indeed consents to express those poetical ideas by themselves; but he shows that he felt their import and their legitimate use, by wedding them to the thoughts in which they originated. The truths which he taught, received magnificence and amenity from the illustrative forms; and the poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it, than the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description, and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to be captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forgot the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which its highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. [The New Shakespeare Society Publications, Series VIII Miscellanies Nos. 1-4 A Letter on Shakespeare’s Authorship of the drama entitled THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, by William Spalding p. 16-17]

This was published in 1876, so the language is Victorian and convoluted, and Spalding didn’t quite have the tools to express his ideas. That was to come nearly three quarters of a century later with Wolfgang Clemens and The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. Clemens showed how Shakespeare essentially absorbs the simile into a metaphorical language — the idea that Spalding is trying to express. (My dictionary calls metaphor a compressed simile, which is a good way to think about it.) For example, Clemens shows how in Shakespeare’s earliest poetry he hadn’t yet absorbed the simile:

The particles “as” and “like” not only make the image stand out from the text and isolate it in a certain way; they also show that the object to be compared and the comparison are felt as being something different and separate, that image and object are not yet viewed as an identity, but that the act of comparing intervenes. It would be false to exaggerate the importance of such a fact, because in Shakespeare’s let plays we also find many comparisons introduced with “like” or “as”. Nevertheless the frequency of such comparisons with “as” and “like” in Titus Andronicus is noteworthy, and this loose form of connection corresponds entirely to the real nature of these image4s. If we take, for example, passages such as these:

…then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.

…that kiss is comfortless
As frozen water to a starved snake.

we see that these images are simply added on to the main sentence afterwards, dove-tailed into the context, appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration. They occurred to Shakespeare as an afterthought, as “illustration”, as “example”, but they were not there from the very beginning as simultaneous poetic conce3ption of subject and image. [The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery p. 22-23]

Compare this to The Winter’s Tale:

Later, in the same scene, Camillo asks him to be “cured of this diseased opinion” (I.ii. 297) and retorts to Leontes’ false assumption of his “infected” wife “who does infect her?” (I.ii. 307). The disease-imagery links up with the notion of taint and stinging things. Shortly after Camillo’s question Leontes speaks the following words which also contain dramatic irony:

Leon. Make that thy question, and go rot!
Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
the purity and whiteness of my sheets,
Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (I.ii 325)

In the next scene this collocation of disease, of stinging and poison becomes more obvious. Note the following by Leontes:

There may be in the cup,
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider (II. i 39)

The dramatic and structural significance of this image should be noted. For it is the first time Leontes builds up a full image, all the more striking as Leontes’ hasty diction does not usually allow of the elaboration of images. The directness and realism with which this image; of the spider in the cup is presented and the way Leontes turns it into a personal experience, expressed by the laconic ending “I have drunk, and seen the spider”, bring home to us the brutal and naked force of Leontes self-deceiving obsession… [p. 196-197]

shakespeareMost importantly, notice that Shakespeare never uses “as” or “like” in these two passages. The similes have been organically absorbed into the character’s “personal experience”, not tacked on as in Titus. It’s this difference that Spalding was trying to express almost a hundred years earlier. Shakespeare, in the course of his poetic development, learned to speak through metaphor rather than by the elaboration of similes (John Fletcher, not so much). It’s in this sense that Spalding delineated the difference between Shakespeare and Fletcher’s verse:

“Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness.”

  • A very simple example from Shakespeare: “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” In earlier days Shakespeare might have written: “He draweth out his argument like a spinner who draweth out his thread & etc.

The same criticism applies to all poets since Shakespeare, including the poetry of our current poet Laureate, Charles Wright (2014-). On a whim, and at random, I looked up his poetry at Poetry Foundation. The first to come up was Archeology. And what do we find?

The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to find the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
…………………………….to glow in the dark like clock hands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
………………………………………all golden, all in good time.

Just as with Shakespeare’s earlier efforts, or Fletcher, Wright tacks on the simile, “appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration”. Like will appear twice more in this short poem:

Gaze far out at the lake in sunflame,
Expecting our father at any moment, like Charon, to appear
Back out of the light from the other side,
…..low-gunwaled and loaded down with our slippery dreams.

Rather than compress the comparison of his father to Charon in the language of metaphor, Wright interrupts the narrative (amateurishly in my opinion) with the announcement of the simile, and then a little later:

Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black

Nevertheless, at the poem’s conclusion, Wright demonstrates that he can write metaphorically (compress simile):

Sunlight flaps its enormous wings and lifts off from the back
….yard
The wind rattles its raw throat,
…………………………………but I still can’t go deep enough.

And if you ask me (and in terms of technique) this ‘compression’ of simile in the language of metaphor is the better way to write poetry (though there are obviously exceptions). Loading ones verse with similes strikes me too often as a kind of poetic shorthand — roughly equivalent to inserting a thee and a thou just because that’s what poetry is supposed to do — and frequently the simile adds little to the narrative. It’s more poetic flourish than necessity. Wright’s poem is an example of figurative poetry, though not a good one. Wright tells us what it’s about: “[digging] into our childhoods…” (so that it’s cousin to the plain poem) then uses the rhetorical figures of simile, metaphor, verbal metaphor, adjectival metaphor, etc…

But there are also beautiful examples of figurative poems that work. The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

ts eliotThe poem begins with the famous simile “Like a patient etherized upon a table”. “Muttering retreats” is both an adjectival metaphor and personification. “Like a tedious argument” is another simile describing the way streets “follow” — itself a verbal metaphor. And why do I like these similes, and not Wright’s? Because Eliots are wholly original. When before has an evening been compared to a patient “etherized upon a table”, as opposed to an evening boater to Charon? (I don’t hold a high opinion of Greek mythology’s appearance in modern poetry. It’s often plugged into a poem when having to do the work oneself would be much more difficult.) When has the layout of a city’s streets been compared to “a tedious argument”. Eliot’s simile’s are not only fresh, they add a subtext to the poem. Why the choice of etherized? What does this say about the narrator? Why compare streets to a tedious argument? — And how does this play into the narrator’s own avoidance of complications and explanations later in the poem?

The Silken Tent, by Robert Frost, is not only one sentence but is comprised, but for the first two words, of a single simile! The sonnet is the simile:

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.

She is like a silken tent, says Frost, and from there the sonnet elaborates. Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116 would also fall into the category of the Figurative Poem:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
··If this be error and upon me proved,
··I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The whole of the poem is an example of personification, in which Love is endowed with personality, intent, and conviction. The figure itself is called prosopopia: “(Rhet.) A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is represented as animated, or endowed with personality…” Shakespeare was extremely adept at using this figure (a common one during his era); and his skill, above and beyond that of his contemporaries, was surely attributable to his dramatic genius. In essence, the inanimate became characters. Take a look, for example, at the following brief passage from King John, at the way Shakespeare so beautifully personifies grief:

“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”

And this also reminds me of Richard Wilbur’s extraordinary poem Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, wherein the morning breezes are, in a sense, animated and endowed with the personality of angels. One might justifiably dispute whether this is really personification (since Wilbur never attributes the angel-like behavior to the breezes, but rather distinguishes the angels and air by saying that the “morning air is all awash with angels”) — perhaps more accurate to call the angel-like behavior of the breezes a poetic conceit (in the sense of an extended metaphor that nearly governs the whole poem).

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
··············Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

···Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

···Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
·······································The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
··············“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
··············keeping their difficult balance.”

richard-wilburThe poem, as I read it, comes very near to being what I would consider a Metaphoric Poem. I’d say it falls in the far spectrum of figurative poems, but still a Figurative Poem, because the poetic conceit of the angels is framed by the reality of eyes opening “to a cry of pulleys”. The conceit is framed by the reality of the “morning air” at the beginning and the thieves, lovers, and nuns at the close. It’s is brought ‘down from its ruddy gallows’, back into the difficult balance of the real world.

  • The conceit is itself considered a trope. The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms writes that “In general usage, most poets and critics use the term to indicate, as Coleridge proposed, any language that aspires toward the state of metaphor.”

The Metaphoric Poem

I’m trying to coin a new term and I’ve sweat over it. As far as I know, this type of poem hasn’t really been given a name. It’s not just poetry that uses metaphor, or a conceit, but a poem that, in its entirety, is a metaphor for something else. So, I settled on Metaphoric rather than Metaphorical. I’ve checked all my poetry dictionaries. I’ve Googled the term. I checked my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, and the term “Metaphoric Poetry” isn’t used in any specific way. So, I’m claiming it to mean something very specific. As I judge it, a poem may be metaphorical simply by using metaphor, but what distinguishes the Metaphoric Poem is that the poet doesn’t, or only in the most oblique way, give the reader any indication that the poem is really about something other than its apparent subject.

To me, the metaphoric poem is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment. The poem can have the appearance of a Plain Poem or a Figurative Poem, but is really, in its entirety, a beautifully modulated, extended metaphor on what can be an altogether different subject. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in fact, Robert Frost more or less invented and perfected this kind of poetry, though it’s tempting to go back in history, point to other poems, and say that this or that poem was never really about X, but about Y. We have become somewhat accustomed to this way of reading and critiquing poetry, but I’d assert that this way of thinking about poetry is really a very late development. For instance, I had a reader write the following after my post on Ann Bradstreet’s poem, Before the Birth of One of Her Children:

“…when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work”

That’s reading Bradstreet’s poem as a Metaphoric Poem. My response was that this is probably anachronistic. Bradstreet was a contemporary of John Donne and near contemporary of Shakespeare. There’s no evidence (that I’ve ever found) that poets wrote or thought this way prior to the 20th century. In every poem that I’m aware of, the conceit, or metaphor, or analogy, is framed as a poetic construction within the poem. The reader is always made aware of the poet’s “misdirection”. In all of John Donne’s poems, for example, there’s no confusion as to what the poem is about (setting aside the usual interpretive challenges). He famously constructs elaborate conceits, but we always know that he knows that we know what the conceit is really about.

Not so with Robert Frost.

For years he was accused of being “a simple, farmer poet”. The accusation, as accusations usually do, revealed more about the critics. In short, despite considering Frost a 19th century hold-over, it was in fact the critics who were behaving like 19th century readers — reading all poems as Plain Poems or Figurative Poems. The day that readers and critics realized that Frost might have been fooling them all (all along) can actually be dated very precisely. While it’s not the birth of Metaphoric Poetry, it might be the birth of it’s broader awareness. It happened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in 1959, on the evening of Frost’s 85th birthday. It happened when, to the shock and consternation of all those gathered, Lionel Trilling called Frost a “terrifying poet”. (Trilling, embarrassed by his own comment and worried that he’d insulted Frost, reportedly left the gathering early.)

Trilling opened the world’s eyes to the possibility that yes, all along, they’d been reading Frost with outdated expectations. As Frost said himself, as if to drive home the point that he wasn’t just writing about “nature”: “I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems.”

Even when there isn’t.

As a nice essay at FrostFriends.Org puts it:

“Frost uses nature as metaphor. He observes something in nature and says this is like that. He leads you to make a connection, but never forces it on the reader. Read on a literal level, Frost’s poems always make perfect sense. His facts are correct, especially in botanical and biological terms. But he is not trying to tell nature stories nor animal stories. He is always using these metaphorically implying an analogy to some human concern.” [Frost and Nature ~ March 7 2015]

But then Frost had already been telling the world as much. In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, Judith Ostler begins her contribution entitled “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor” with the following paragraph, quoting Frost at the outset:

“‘Metaphor is the whole of poetry.’ ‘Poetry is simply made of metaphor… Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.’ Such are the burdens Robert Frost placed upon metaphor, and on himself as a poet. He went even further in his claiming that metaphor is the whole of thinking, and that, therefore, to be educated by poetry — note: by poetry — is to be taught to think.” [p. 155]

 Why did it take so long for readers to realize that Frost had been ‘fooling’ them? He was cagey in life, and cagey in his poetry.

A Drumlin Woodchuck

One thing has a shelving bank,
Another a rotting plank,
To give it cozier skies
And make up for its lack of size.

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.

Robert-Frost-TFWith those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.

All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.

We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.

And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),

If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,

It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

I hesitate to call this a Metaphoric poem, as the narrator gives away the game (if the joke wasn’t already painfully obvious) with a wink and a nod to “my dear”. You could read it as Frost’s commentary on his own art and persona with a sly pun on Thoreau in the closing rhyme of thorough/burrow. To read quite a good essay on the significance of the pun, visit Two Woodchucks,or Frost and Thoreau on the Art of the Burrow by Fritz Oehlschlaeger.

“Further suggestion that the woodchuck be seen as a poet figure can be found in the somewhat submerged tension between the poem’s playfulness and the seriousness of the matter at hand. The woodchuck’s jocularity nearly causes us to forget that his survival is at stake. While the burrow provides him a wonderful possibility for fanciful comparison to his counterpart at Walden, it also serves the mundane but equally important purpose of saving him from the hunters.” [p. 5]

And there’s more at stake than that. Who are the hunters? Could they be his critics? Think of Frost’s uncanny poem this way: The burrow as his poetry and the two entrances are two ways (among many more we suspect) to enter therein — a “two-door burrow”. As soon as you try to catch Frost by hunting down one crevice, he’s out the other. While pestilence and war rage, and notably “the loss of common sense”, Frost remains cagey enough not to be cornered. He won’t be caught up one side or t’other.

There are a good many of his poems that are ‘two-door burrows’. The most famous example might be “Stopping by Woods” and its many interpretations. At the two extremes are notions of the poem as a simple and beautiful lyric on the one hand and a suicide poem on the other. It may have seemed that Frost grew impatient with readers trying to identify the meaning of the poem, as if they all tried to come in at the same door, but he’d also never say what a poem wasn’t. Frost, in the end, always wanted to keep his burrow a “two-door” burrow

“Mending Wall” and “Birches” can both be read as Metaphoric Poems and I’ve offered a reading of Birches and Mending Wall suggesting how (though my interpretations may or may not reflect Frost’s thinking). The trick in Metaphoric Poetry is in knowing how to be understood or how not too be too obscure. The poet writes to be understood (unless you’re a John Ashbery).

WE make ourselves a place apart
··Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
··Till someone find us really out.

’Tis pity if the case require
··(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
··The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
··At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
··Must speak and tell us where they are.

‘Revelation’ is from Frost’s first book of poetry and reveals him, early on, searching out the balance between hiding “too well away” and having to “speak the literal to inspire”. Frost, much later in life, addresses this same question in the Metaphoric Poem For Once Then Something. In it, Frost cannily addresses the accusation that his poetry is shallow by using the very device, the Metaphoric Poem, that his critics stubbornly and shallowly misread. It’s an elaborately constructed tour-de-force, and perhaps a little too much so, not being among his better known or understood.

But now that I’ve made the argument that Frost was the first to deliberately write Metaphoric Poetry, there is a genre of poetry that anticipates Frost by several centuries (in some cases) — the nursery rhyme. Many of these poems mean something entirely other than their ostensible meaning. They were written in a time when speaking freely, and too freely, could be a life and death matter. “I Had a Little Nut Tree”, for instance, is speculated to be about the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII, though I happen to disagree with that 19th century assertion. “Little Boy Blue” is said to parody the life of Cardinal Wolsey. “Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle”, is thought to originate with Queen Elizabeth. The cat is Queen Elizabeth, who was known to greatly enjoy dancing to the fiddle at Whitehall Palace (throughout her reign). The moon is said to represent the Earl of Walsingham (who she skipped over, choosing to remain unmarried) and the dog was the Earl of Leicester (jeered in the poem as a laughing dog) because he “skulked at the Queen’s flirtatious behavior”, asking to leave the Court for France [Origins of Rhymes, Songs and Sayings, p. 157-159]. Nursery rhymes could be seen as related to the fable and apologue (being symbolic, metaphorical and archetypal in nature). The notion that Frost was the first to write metaphorically is not what I’d assert; but I think he was the first to make the poem the metaphor, as it were.

So, the next time you write or read a poem, these three categories might give you another way to approach it.

And that’s that.

up in Vermont: March 7 2015

23 responses

  1. Reblogged this on Randa Lane – Haiku and More! and commented:
    Should be required reading at least once a week for anyone who writes poetry with one personal proviso — I do not share the author’s opinion of Bukowski. At best he was the “shock jock” Howard Stern of the poetic world who destroyed his talent and gift by dissolution in unimaginable ways. (opinion only — Ron Evans)

  2. It sounds to me like what you call “Metaphoric Poems” ARE allegories. To back up a minute, three levels of figurative language HAVE been identified before:

    Simile = X is like Y
    Metaphor = X is Y
    Symbol = X (is also Y)

    The parentheses in symbol means that the “is also Y” part is left directly unstated, implied. Allegory is merely a work in which every significant part is a symbol for something else. Obviously, allegory was around long before Frost and was an indelible aspect of poetry (English and otherwise) for many centuries. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene may be the most elaborate in the English language. Before Spenser (and in Italian) we have Dante; after both we have something like Poe’s The Haunted Palace (made more so by its placement in Fall of the House of Usher: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/184957). Even something like Browning’s Childe Roland, while not consciously allegorical (as Browning admitted), certainly FEELS allegorical and utilizes many of allegories’ traditional devices and tropes.

    What Frost MAY have invented, though, was the allegorical lyric poem. Before him, most allegories I can think of were narrative or dramatic. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if allegorical lyrics existed before Frost, but I’m simply drawing a blank on examples.

    • I really thought about that, whether I should go ahead and call the poems “Allegorical Poems”, but I did want to differentiate what’s commonly called an allegorical poem from what Frost (and surely others) did and do. Here’s the definition of Allegory that makes me hesitate:

      allegory n 1: a short moral story (often with animal characters) [syn: fable, parable, allegory, apologue] 2: a visible symbol representing an abstract idea [syn: emblem, allegory] 3: an expressive style that uses fictional characters and events to describe some subject by suggestive resemblances; an extended metaphor.

      All definitions generally include or emphasize the idea of fictional characters symbolically or metaphorically “representing” a given subject. Inanimate objects, the sun and moon, may be allegorical, but the emphasis is on their personification. More to the point, if you go to Wikipedia and look up “Allegory”, all the examples given are characterized by ‘X’ standing in for ‘Y’ within the context of a narrative (in the sense of a story).

      This isn’t what Metaphoric Poems, as I would define them, do. A Metaphoric Poem doesn’t necessarily tell a story and doesn’t necessarily offer character ‘X’ as a symbolic or metaphorical representation of ‘Y. If you removed the first ‘She is as in’ from ‘The Silken Tent’, I don’t see any way that one could call the poem “allegorical” (without considerable qualification), or ‘Mending Wall’, ‘Birches’, or ‘For Once, then Something’. Where’s the “moral” for example? I think allegory stems from the Fable, from the genre of story-telling – hence the synonyms: fable, parable, allegory, apologue — none of which, in my view, would be synonymous with what the Metaphoric Poem does. A metaphoric poems stems from the simile — a compressed simile without the introductory “as” or “like”.

      The Metaphoric Poem probably precludes a narrative (in the sense of a story).

      Does that make better sense?

  3. “There is a poetry without figures of speech, which is a single figure of speech.” –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Truly, there is nothing worth thinking that hasn’t been thought before, no? :P

    • The quote is from his Maxims and Reflections, numbered 176. If he ever wrote anything more about metaphoric poetry than that single sentence, I haven’t yet come across it. But I can see why those who choose to write that way might prefer, like Frost, to be a little mysterious about it.

    • Actually, maxim 435 is also relevant. I won’t quote the whole thing, but: “If a man grasps the particular vividly, he also grasps the general, without being aware of it at the time; or he may make the discovery long afterwards.” Perhaps the only distinction between plain poetry and metaphoric poetry is how aware the poet is of saying more than what he says.

    • Thing of it is (and I speak German), Goethe’s first quote is obscure enough that he may or may not be referring to “Metaphoric Poetry”. A “figure of speech” for example, needn’t refer to the notion of metaphor at all. Metaphor is just one trope (if one is going to get precise about these things). In truth, Aesop’s fables could be construed to be “a figure of speech”. So, as I say, it’s a curious way to put it — so vague (without context) as to mean whatever we’d like it to mean. (Strictly speaking, metaphor isn’t “a figure of speech”, but a trope.)

      As to your second assertion, I’m not so certain that the poet’s awareness is up for grabs. If it were, then we could look at any poem, at any time, and say that it actually meant X instead of Y — but that ignores the poets intentions and historical context. There are critical schools (philosophies of criticism) that don’t know the meaning of the word “anachronistic” — the poem exists in the here and now and we can read it however want and a poet’s intentions and history are utterly irrelevant. I personally find this kind of criticism the very height, the pinnacle, the non-plus ultra of critical narcissism. As if the poet created each and every poem solely for the glory of the critic — and had no intentions whatsoever. So, what I would say is that the only distinction between plain poetry and metaphoric poetry is how aware the reader is of the poet’s intentions.

    • Ah, but I never said the poet’s awareness is up for grabs. I think the distinction can be an important one without being especially useful to critics, disreputable ones aside.

      I only have a rudimentary knowledge of German, so what you say about the quote intrigues me. What kind of a figure of speech might Goethe be referring to, if not metaphors? The remark isn’t entirely without context: being a maxim implies that it’s the result of thought given to observations and experiences, deliberately shared for the (presumed) edification of readers. It is implicitly a piece of advice, and, as I read it, advice on how to read a kind of poem that might otherwise be read without being understood or appreciated.

    • Okay, then I misunderstood your meaning. :-) As to Goethe: Here’s how Wikipedia defines a figure of Speech:

      “A figure of speech is figurative language in the form of a single word or phrase. It can be a special repetition, arrangement or omission of words with literal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words. There are mainly five figures of speech: simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification and synecdoche. Figures of speech often provide emphasis, freshness of expression, or clarity. However, clarity may also suffer from their use, as any figure of speech introduces an ambiguity between literal and figurative interpretation. A figure of speech is sometimes called a rhetorical figure or a locution.”

      And you can find a list of figures of speech included in the article. So, for example, an entire poem could be an example of accismus. Or take Mark Anthony’s speech: Friends, Romans, Countrymen…. The entire speech could be considered an example of Apophasis. It seems deceptively plain, condemning Caesar, but by condemning him he praises him. The speech could be understood as a single figure of speech. Since Goethe doesn’t really explain what he means, but ironically, speaks figuratively, I think Antony’s speech survives as an example of what he might mean. :-)

    • Perhaps Antony’s speech could be considered one big example of apophasis, but I don’t think it can be denied that it contains instances of apophasis. How could a poem *be* apophasis without having a single instance of it? It’s that distinction of being a figure of speech without containing any– of being completely literal on the surface in a way that hints at the depths– that makes metaphor (and its close kin) the most natural candidate.

      I suppose Goethe might have used the general term ‘figure of speech’ because a more specific one would have been too limiting. Given his statements on the particular representing the general, which aren’t confined to the maxim I cited before, synecdoche might be a better choice, if we have to commit to one figure. But there can just as easily be poems that are metaphors and metonymy– using those terms metaphorically, of course. :)

    • Okay, but ultimately there’s no such thing as a poetry “without figures of speech”, in the sense that rhetoricians (all apparently suffering from some form of OCD) assiduously cataloged every possibly combination of words under some form of rhetorical figure — so it’s really just a matter of degree — and discerning Goethe’s line-in-the-sand is where I’m cautious. Perhaps I’m playing too much the devil’s advocate. But knowing that there’s really no such thing as poetry (let alone prose) without figures of speech — Goethe’s definition could have been quite different from mine/ours and might have included Shakespeare’s soliloquy. I don’t know. However, I admit that one could take Goethe’s maxim as a beautiful description of the Metaphoric Poem — a poem with no figurative language that is, of itself, a figure of speech. I couldn’t ask for a better description; I would just be cautious in ascribing that meaning to Goethe’s words. Prior to the 20th century, for example, the expression “to make love to” did not mean sex. It meant “to flirt with”.

    • Until a German linguist comes to this thread to clear up the matter of what ‘figure of speech’ might mean– or, perhaps, until I get a copy of Goethe and Schiller’s correspondence, which seems to me the most likely place to find a statement that would clarify the maxim– I’m thinking there’s not much more we can say on the matter.

      But, considering that in many folk-songs metaphoric meaning is an open secret, and that by the 19th century, nature symbolism– inspired by this tradition– was practically codified in German poetry, I still think that a good case can be made for the figure of speech being metaphor. But most of my knowledge of this poetry comes from Lieder rather than systematic study, so I can’t say anything more precise.

    • If you ever want to make the case for it, and put some time into it, I’ll publish it on the blog. :-) It’s not about being wrong or right, but learning something more than we knew before.

    • I’ll keep that in mind. If hanging out with philosophers has taught me anything, it’s that while argument is completely useless for convincing other people you’re right, it’s one of the best ways to refine and test your own insights.

  4. I’ve taken out Eliot’s similes. See the improvement?

    Let us go then, you and I,
    The evening spread against the sky,
    Etherized upon a table, let us go!
    Through half-deserted streets,
    The muttering retreats, spermy
    One-night cheap hotels
    Sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.
    Go! wend their circular argument
    Of insidious thread
    To the great existential question–
    Go! Do not ask, “What is it?”
    Ask: Is it metaphor or not?

  5. Yes, my literary ODD acting up again. Just think of it as a little bar room joshing, one Irishman to another.

    “If a man grasps the particular vividly, he also grasps the general, without being aware of it at the time; or he may make the discovery long afterwards.” Couldn’t agree more with Goethe on this. I would define metaphor as an intensely felt particular whose effectiveness as a springboard for metaphor is up to the readers. By this criterion “The Red Wheelbarrow” is possibly the most metaphorical poem in the bunch, as universal a particular as my tool shop. Frost reminds me of Williams here–hands-on but with an added dash of allegory if you prefer—yet by far the superior poet. Despite having to memorize several Frost poems in elementary school I never outgrew him—his metaphors evolved with my maturity—whereas Williams can seem too self-consciously clever by half (to borrow a Loganism). His poems become curios fast. As for the others you quoted, their particular is not particularly my particular on a universal daily basis, and at their worst these poets proceed by way of their ideology or theology, Eliot especially. If what I’ve said here doesn’t make any sense, just keep in mind I’ve been hauling chicken shit in my red wheelbarrow all afternoon.

  6. To clarify my post above via Goethe: the intensely felt particular is the first cause of poetry. That “so much depends on the red wheelbarrow” expresses this conception of poetry in its essence.

  7. I just discovered your blog (please don’t ask me how) and needless to say I have a lot of reading to catch up with! So erudite, but the admiration for Bukowski is really maddening. Oh well, it’s a blip I can easily overlook!

    • If you ask me whether Bukowski was a poet, I’d probably say no — only because I don’t consider free-verse writers to be writing poetry. But inasmuch as free-verse is a genre of its own, is called “poetry” because its short and kind of looks like poetry, I count Bukowski to be among the best of them. He was essentially writing short-short stories — stories about a paragraph long and I find some of them profound — they stick with me.

  8. Pingback: May 13th 2016 « PoemShape

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