Ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh.
Fiction writers are always stealing from the poet’s toolbox: image, rhythm, le mot juste. These are devices that bring poems and stories alive in the hearts and minds of the reader. Good fiction, like good poetry, is co-creative. It expands beyond the words on the page, coming alive in the reader’s imagination.
And for this, there is no greater fuel than figurative language. Human beings think metaphorically. It is how we process experience. One thing is like another and that leads, to awareness and understanding.
In fiction and in poetry, figurative language is a kind of elegant shortcut. It helps us see below the surface, to a deeper understanding of a poem, story, and self. When Pablo Neruda writes: “There is no place wider than grief,” the image, the re-cognition, the re-knowing of grief as a wide, desolate space, speaks to us in a way that pages of exposition could not; we apprehend the loneliness and despair of it in an instant.
Like the thrust of a knife, metaphor is a piercing, economical weapon.
In How To Read A Poem, And Fall in Love With Poetry, Edward Hirsh asks where the power of metaphor is to be found. “What especially concerns me,” he writes. “Is how the reader actively participates in the making of meaning through metaphor, in thinking through the relation of unlike things. How do we apprehend these previously unapprehended or forgotten relations: in ironic tension, in exact correspondence, in fusion? The meaning emerges as part of a collaboration between writer and reader.”
Figurative language in particular helps the reader see beyond words and images to new meaning, and even more, to what is otherwise inexpressible. In the example below, from Bless Me Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya uses figurative language to impart a sense of the mysterious in nature – it’s benevolent, unpredictable, and protean qualities:
I felt the sun of the east rise and heard its light crackle and groan and mix into the songs of the mockingbirds on the hill. I opened my eyes and rays of light that dazzled through the dusty window of my room washed my face clean.
In this way, metaphor acts as a kind of shortcut, helping the reader re-envision the world and see beyond it.
As James Geary argues in, I Is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes The Way We See The World, metaphor is more than “a way with words..., [It is] a way of thought…Scientists and inventors compare two things: what they know and what they don’t know. The only way to find out about the latter is to investigate the ways it might be like the former. And whenever we explore how one thing is like another, we are in the realm of metaphorical thinking….”
Poetry and fiction dramatize human passions and quandaries. They are elusive codes that reveal our existential dilemmas. The writer’s purpose is not to name these passions or pose forthright questions, but to evoke feeling and wonder in the reader. The kernel of every story is the question never asked, the position never explicitly stated.
The associative power of figurative language serves to juxtapose the seemingly disparate, making fresh connections in the reader’s mind. These are associative leaps of a powerful kind that transport the reader beyond the page to a deeper understanding of our poems, our stories and ourselves.
Hollis Shore is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer's Collaborative, and graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults program. She was the 2012-13 Boston Public Library Children's Writer in Residence, and a winner of the PEN New England Discovery Award for her novel, The Curve of The World, out for submission shortly. Contact her at Hollisplus@gmail.com.