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As the resident poet at EcoHealth, my verse finds inspiration these days in the spectre of global pandemics. At LMU Munich's Amerika-Institut, where I tutor composition and poetics, I'm anatomizing the sonnets of E. A. Robinson for my dissertation. I also teach at Münchner Volkshochschule and Amerikahaus.


On the Making of “Metaphor”

Q & A with students from William Paterson University


A poem is a weather-tested craft,

whose worthiness is ultimately found

by how it sails the oceanic rift

between assaulting waves that never end

and utter stillness when the winds are lost,

or it's a vessel of another stripe

with holds so flooded that they nearly list

as blood is fed along its thrumming rope.

1.  The metaphor in this poem is the comparison between a poem and a boat.  The rhythm and flow of the poem is compared to the movement of a boat in stormy water and calm waters.

That’s right—yet the poem is also carried onward toward another metaphor.

2.  What made you compare a poem to “a weather-tested craft”?

I think my answer to the fourth question here gets to the heart of what you are asking, but another question of interest might be about my choice of words.  There is, of course, no shortage of synonyms for boat, but this one—craft—has a meaning that directly alludes to the art of writing.

3.  What did you mean by the craft uttering “stillness when the winds are lost”?

In this instance, the word “utter” is used in its adjectival sense (and not as a verb), which means complete, total, or absolute.

4.  What was your inspiration for such an unusual, but fitting metaphor?

More often than not, writing is an act of discovery--which is to say that, especially at the beginning of a poem, even the poet is unsure of where things will go.  In this case, I actually had a definite word in mind that I hoped would act as the volta, or the dramatic turn, of the poem:  Vessel, which has both nautical and anatomical meanings.  This curious pliability of language, more than anything else, inspired the poem.

5.  The nautically-themed words are confusing and yet very significant.  They are necessary in helping to make the poem and metaphor more effective.  If they were to be excluded, there wouldn’t be such an obvious connection between poetry and the boat.

I agree.  And those terms continue well into the throes of the second metaphor, coloring its images from the first, with allusions to holds, listing, and ropes.

6.  Why did you divide the poem into two stanzas?

This always a good question to consider when reading a poem, especially if the stanzaic paragraph continues into the next.  I wanted to play with the enjambment—how the line continues onward but reads, at first, as though it ends—in illustrating the endlessness of those assaulting waves, but I also wanted to indicate honestly that a new stanza hinted to a new thought (in this case, that of the second metaphor).

7.  Are the two stanzas supposed to be opposites?

No, they aren’t—yet, by virtue of being separated, the reader is entirely justified in expecting that the stanzas will address discrete ideas, which they do; though, as mentioned in the answer to the fifth question, there is a certain amount of terminology held over between the first and second notions of metaphor.

8a.  Significant words in his poem that seem confusing are “ blood” and “thrumming.”  They are significant because they explain what a poem would look like if it went awry and confusing because it is hard to interpret.

8b.  I don’t understand the blood on the rope.

8c.   What do you mean in the last stanza where you state that a poem is “a vessel of another stripe”?  Are you saying that it sometimes comes in a different form other than the standard structure we are accustomed to? 

One way of distilling the poem down to its proverbial brass tacks might go like this:  A poem is something that can endure a lot, like a well-made boat, which should be able to handle both rough seas and a long time away from port; or, it is another kind of vessel—not a ship, but an artery—one that is nearly overwhelmed with volume and action.

9.  The use of the words “assaulting” and “stillness” are significant because they represent the type of reception a poem or any form of literary work will generate.

Like the waves that usher forth from a pebble thrown into a lake, the interpretations of a literary work can be both valid and unintended by the author, as here.  In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the eponymous character reels in a marlin, only to have it savaged by sharks; the work has been interpreted as the way the writer felt about how his novels were treated by critics.  That Hemingway might not have intended this is really beside the point. 

10.  What do the last two lines signify?

On a literal level, a blood vessel near the heart is hard at work—but this meaning is muddied, as the metaphor for poetry, the boat, has now become the metaphor for the artery (which explains the continued use of the nautical terms, cf. question 7); on another level, poetry itself is both the container and the vehicle by which the stuff of life is carried to its end.

11.  Why did you choose this title?

Its generality appealed to me, which contrasts nicely with the specificity of the poem itself.  I also like how it plays, as a red herring, with the notion that just one metaphor yet will be spoken of—which allows greater impact of the volta when it does arrive.  (I also was bemused by the fact that one metaphor [in this poem about a poem] has its language and trappings coopted for that of another; this is “meta” indeed.)

12.  How did you come up with the right words to use?

Like all writers, I revise quite a bit.  I read the lines aloud, thumb through my dictionary, and annotate the stress patterns of the lines.  I cross stuff out; I scribble stuff:  Some parts come easier than others.  This poem took about an hour to write (and another to revise), which, for me, is very fast.  (I also translate poetry from German and can easily spend a week or longer on just fourteen lines.)  Poetry, I’ve come to think, tastes best when slowly cooked. 

13.  Is this poem written in iambic pentameter?

Yes, it is.  An iamb, of course, is a poetic unit composed of two syllables—one unstressed and one stressed (like the word “about” or the words “a boat”); if you string five of them together (for a total of ten syllables) you’ll have a line of meter of five iambs (ergo, iambic pentameter).  The poem has cross rhymes (abab cdcd) that are slanted, which means that the consonants are the same but the vowels are not.  This kind of rhyme is effective at creating a strong rhythm that is coyly musical—not unlike, perhaps, that of waves against the hull or the steadiness of a healthy pulse.


A metaphor is a symbolic (and often revelatory) comparison between disparate things—as in, “The pizza’s steaming toppings, it seemed to him, from its mozzarella pools of lava to its meteor-stricken craters of pepperoni, were the very surface of our newly-cooling and still young Earth, a billion years after its violent rendering from the Sun.”  

Writers distinguish comparisons that are made directly (called metaphors), as in the example above, to those that employ the words “as” and “like” (called analogies), which mute the impact of the figurative expression by saying how a given things seems to be—as in, “The pie was hot as hell.” or “That first bite melted the roof of his mouth like a white-hot coal.”  The language of poetry is friendly territory for both metaphors and analogies, as the very artifice of the form itself (as opposed to the naturalness of prose, which better mimics our everyday speech) seems to foster our acceptance of creative comparisons.

In writing “Metaphor,” I sought to define poetry itself through the use of this age-old rhetorical device.  At first glance, this short poem smacks of prose or free verse—but a closer look reveals a design meant to deliver on the promise of its title.  What tethers these two different metaphors of poetry—one as a boat, the other as an artery—is a polysemous word that doesn’t occur until the piece is three-quarters done: Vessel.  (Polysemy, or multiple meanings of a word, can be subtly effective:  Consider, for example, how the word blue can might color a line of verse hinting toward either the sad or risqué.)  

Like those “assaulting waves that never end,” the rhythm of these lines is unwavering in its monotony and steadfastness.  To achieve this effect, its lines are penned in iambic pentameter, with the poem split into two quatrains, hinting both at the infinite sea and presence of a second part to the metaphor.  The poem’s lyric sense—its song-like effect—is enhanced by the momentum of its Shakespearean prosody and ends in crossed, slant rhymes that cloak the melodic hardware.  A bittersweet feeling courses through the half-pleasure born by these half-rhymes.  It’s a mood that seems fitting to this octave of memento mori.

Mark Olival-Bartley
28 April 2012

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