Lyric thought is a kind of ontological seismic exploration and metaphors are charges set by the seismic crew. A good metaphor lets us see more deeply than a weak one.
“Wisdom and Metaphor” Jan Zwicky (2008)
Personally, I’m obsessed with understanding reality and ontological truth, and if academic feedback is a measure of anything, others have repeatedly praised my “performance” in the scientific and creative forms of investigating truth. However, these are, in fact, only forms. Therefore, regardless of the feedback, I feel like a member of the seismic crew digging deeper and deeper with newer, more advanced, more efficient, and more complex tools at my disposal only to find the truth receding further and further into that deep chasm of reality. Interestingly, I felt like I had a better grasp of “truth” when I started tearing open the ground with my pickaxe. I was certain that “there will be gold here, and gold is worth a fortune.” But now, I don’t know if I even care for gold anymore, and I’m not even certain it has value. The uncertainty ignites humility and appreciation for the hugeness of it all. Why do I keep digging then if the truth is ever receding? Well, if I don’t dig I might not discover the next insight, and the next. The truth of my certain insignificance is at stake.
One crucial piece of technology for investigation truth, accessible to every human at even the earliest stages of development, is the power to compare unrelated things to gain a richer understanding through metaphors, similes, and analogies.
Zwicky’s words (above) provide us with brilliant insight into the function of metaphors. Without the metaphor, a poet would be restricted to simply defining and describing observable characteristics. The scientist in me says “well, all you can really know about anything is what you can see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and compute in binary.” Meanwhile, my soul cries out horrified by the implications of such a suggestion “What about my eyes, ears, mouth, tongue, and hands? How will you satisfy MY senses?” Not to be too simplistic, but Zwicky seems to be suggesting that there exists 1) what we know, which is breadth: facts, information, superficial details, the “what it is” about a thing; and 2) what that knowledge means, which is depth: insight, understanding, wisdom, appreciation, the “why is it?” about a thing. Definitions describe what a thing is, but metaphors break into definitions opening a plethora of meaning through comparisons that are unlikely, but accessible to that metareflective aspect of our being, the soul.
For instance, for one of our Creative Writing 101 exercises at school we were asked to use metaphors to describe an object. I chose a guitar pick. Now, I could describe that guitar pick using only observable characteristics such as thickness, colour, shape, size, function, and texture, but there is a limit. At some point I would have said all there is to say (unless I had some very powerful observational tools at hand). However, metaphors allow me to enrich our collective understanding of what a guitar pick really is, what it means, and why it exists:
Hetfield’s hammer and chisel—
shaping chords infinitely.
A smick-smacking ticker on fortune’s wheel, steering
wheel smooth with a patch, ball of my foot rough, butter knife dull.
A tear that brings joy.
In the same sense Don McKay explains, “Poetry comes about because language is not able to represent raw experience, yet it must.” The metaphor is not simply an epiphenomenon of language; it is an apparatus that allows us to do away with our previous typologies and stereotypes and to re-discover the essence of what it is we are trying to understand. Therefore, a cold night isn’t simply lacking noise, but is “quiet as a lullaby” (Simic). The meaning derived from such comparisons is no longer necessarily rational, but does it need to be? The “quiet” of a lullaby is exactly like the “quiet” of a cold night. I don’t need reason to understand that, I just do.