Follow That Metaphor: What Faith, Jazz & Poetry Have in Common

By Savant, John | Commonweal, November 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

Follow That Metaphor: What Faith, Jazz & Poetry Have in Common


Savant, John, Commonweal


Recently, prompted by the New Republic's literary critic James Wood, I've been thinking about the relationship between poetry--in particular, metaphor--and faith. Wood is unusually attentive to the spiritual workings of metaphor. Reading his collection of literary/theological studies, The Broken Estate (Random House), one notices both how extensive and brilliant is his own use of metaphor, and how haunted he is by the apparent inaccessibility of God. I think these two items--the mystery of God and the compulsions of metaphor--are not unrelated.

If God, by definition, transcends our knowing and yet invites relationship, what human faculty might resolve this dilemma, might bridge the gap between inadequacy and desire? What I have come to understand over four decades of teaching poetry is that the metaphorical "leap" that distinguishes the act of poetry from ordinary discourse has something in common with the volitional "leap" distinguishing the act of faith from mere intellectual assent.

For a writer-critic like Wood, metaphor is something more than an expressive device; it is an evocative vehicle that both gives entry to mystery and admits defeat. In a curious way, a writer's commitment to metaphor, in its resignation to what metaphor may discover, is akin to the submission of the religious mystic before the mysteries of divinity. The "otherness" of metaphor demands a surrender of autonomy. The writer may appear to be in control, but in fact he is like an explorer plunging into uncharted seas, where the water may become fire and the dolphins, dragons; where the world itself may end beyond the horizon. In an essay titled "The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville," Wood remarks that, for the author of Moby-Dick, "metaphor ... becomes the very essence of fiction making, because, when a writer commits himself to the independent life of metaphor, he is acknowledging the fictional reality of an imagined alternative." This "imagined alternative," Wood argues, is Melville's response to "God's inscrutable silence."

I once knew a poet who strove mightily (and for reasons I could only guess at) to show that metaphor is mere mind play, that it validates and clarifies nothing ultimate, serves no significant end. Metaphor, for him, might demonstrate mental acuity, but it answered not at all to the hungers and terrors of human experience. His own curious and ingenious poetry was a relentless study of language and its fascinations. But it was a study accompanied by a kind of suppressed rage--an anger that others should find in metaphorical play legitimate confrontations with experience. It was almost as if in studying the too-bright sun, he had restricted himself to its shadows. He limited metaphor, I began to realize, to likenesses--to a rather mechanical linking of parallels that, while apt enough, ultimately verged on cliche.

What he did not accept, I think, is that, for so many devoted to poetry, metaphor is precisely what cannot confidently be reduced to likenesses. The initial leap takes place not in the certitude of intellectual competence, but out of a sense of the inadequacy of thought and language. The bridge of metaphor joins terms not of likeness but of unlikeness. One learns little, for example, by comparing a tiger to a lion; but how many fresh insights may result from comparing the tiger to an angel, or a dripping faucet, or a bottle of aspirin? Attempting to express something of his wonder and admiration for his wife, e.e. cummings exclaimed, "Not even the rain has such small hands." The metaphor conveys something infinitely feminine, inexpressibly fruitful, and unspeakably erotic. Northrop Frye said that one sign of the truly literary is its capacity to call to mind other literature. Cummings's lines recall me to Maugham's short story "Rain," whose theme of repressed sexuality is musically evoked in the almost incessant drumming of a tropical storm. Its precise meaning may be mercurial, but the validity of the rain metaphor is undeniable. …

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