When Metaphor Gets Literal

What my mother’s coma taught me about reading poems

Jennifer Grotz
Cassis, vue sur Cap Canaille by Pernmith modified and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

1. The Sunset

The first time it happened, I was on a cliff, looking down at the little French fishing village of Cassis. My friend had brought me to this cliff, called Cap Canaille, to preoccupy me with the phenomenal view at sunset. Earlier that morning, I had spent hours on the phone with doctors back in the United States. My mother had slipped into a coma, they told me. They tried to explain what had taken place. It was something to do with electrolytes. Something about potassium spilling through cell walls. She was likely to come out of it soon. She was not suffering, they assured me. She could not be feeling any pain.

What happened then was this: my friend parked the car, and as we unclicked our seatbelts I turned to him and for no conscious reason heard myself speak the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky”—and then I gasped in horror.

In what way could a sunset resemble a patient? Perhaps that they are both horizontal, perhaps that they are both short-lived.

We got out of the car and walked to the cliff’s edge, where there was indeed an extraordinary vista beyond and below. But all I could feel was a sinking dread, a vertigo. I was standing still, but my mind was reeling, and it felt like I was falling. And then, as if on cue, a man I had just registered out of the corner of my eye fell off the cliff and plummeted.

What on earth was happening? Thankfully, a parachute exploded into view. That allayed one anxiety. But still, there was my mother. How could a person, I kept thinking, be so provisional? As if she were an invention, a figure, when literally, she was “electrolytes.” Was I going mad? I wondered. No, I was not mad, but I was not at home in the metaphor, as Robert Frost once put it: “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.”

2. The Patient Etherized Upon a Table
The simile in the opening of “Prufrock”—comparing evening to “a patient etherized upon a table”—is now one of the most recognized similes in English-language literature. But when Eliot wrote it, this line went against the prevailing ideas of how a successful metaphor should operate. At the time, most literary criticism held that metaphor, and imagery, and indeed poetry itself, should be beautiful and pleasing, and so one charge against his comparison was that it was too ugly and harsh. “If the reader objects to use of the unpleasant and the obscure in poetry,” Cleanth Brooks once wrote, “an introduction to them by way of a figure must seem doubly offensive because gratuitous. The poet is obviously being willfully perverse, for surely he might have chosen another metaphor.”

Eliot’s simile also would have likely seemed either inaccurate or too-surreal: in what way could a sunset resemble a patient? Perhaps that they are both horizontal, perhaps that they are both short-lived. But rather than elucidating a sunset, the etherized patient is a more revelatory proxy for the state of mind of the poem’s speaker, and indeed of society’s disease as a whole, and Europe’s in particular, at the end of World War I. Within two years of Eliot’s walking the streets of London and penning his opening to “Prufrock,” Guillaume Apollinaire would end his own poem “Zone,” about walking the streets of Paris, with an image of the sunrise as a beheaded neck: “Soleil cou coupé.” Surely it was something in the zeitgeist. I wanted to understand why, more than a century later, these existential metaphors had come to haunt me, as I stood on the edge of France in dread and panic over what was literal and what was figurative, as I felt like I was falling, as a man parachuted off a cliff, as a sunset spread out against the sky, as my mother lay in a coma.

3. Metaphor, the Two Parts of
Something about the way I had been taught or had come to think about metaphor and how it works, about the literal and the figurative and the inherent laws that applied to each, was causing this sense of not being at home in metaphor or in the world. Even the two words I keep repeating, literal and figurative, started to confound me. The first refers to letters, to what is written on the page, but we use it interchangeably with actual or real, to mean that which is verifiable by the five senses and often does not exist in language at all. Figurative, on the other hand, is the word we use for something abstracted or invented or distilled from the literal to convey meaning. We borrow it from the visual arts, like the equally misleading term image.

But, at least since the 1938 publication of Understanding Poetry by Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, we use the word image in poetry to refer to language that appeals to any of the five senses, not just the visual. There is also wide-ranging debate about what differentiates an image from mere concrete description. Teachers of poetry invoke Ezra Pound’s definition of image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” where “complex” implies a blending or combination of more than one thing or sensation, suggesting something beyond the literal. The same teachers often go on to cite Pound’s two-line poem “In a Station of the Metro” (“The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough”) as an exemplar of this definition, inviting students to argue over whether the poem constitutes one image or two. Does the couplet contain a single image elaborated through metaphor, in other words, or does it present two images in juxtaposition? The answer to this question depends on whether we think of image and metaphor as distinct; sometimes we conflate them. In the end, all this terminology starts to feel inadequate.

The critic I. A. Richards sought to address this confusion by enlisting the terms tenor and vehicle in 1936, giving name and purpose to the two parts of a metaphorical comparison. For Richards, a metaphor is the means of describing or understanding a “tenor,” named for the Latin tenere or French tenir, to hold or grasp. A tenor is the something not yet held or grasped or known. The “vehicle,” as its name implies, is the means of grasping the tenor: the transport used to convey the unknown into the realm of the known.

In Robert Burns’s line “Oh my Luve is like a red, red rose,” the speaker’s love is the tenor, the subject we seek to know better. What does the vehicle, “a red, red rose,” reveal? Perhaps that the beloved is beautiful. Perhaps that she smells sweet. Perhaps that such beauty or love itself is evanescent. Perhaps that it is accompanied by thorns.

In this formulation, as I have often presented it to my students, the tenor and vehicle become a kind of poetic technology. One can change or manipulate the vehicle to shift the meaning of the whole. If for example we exchange “a red, red rose” with “a black, black boot,” the line’s rhythm and syllable count and even consonance remain intact, but we conjure a very different kind of love. Perhaps one that is harsh, even sadistic. One that is dark, sturdy, practical. One that can kick, or stomp, or cross terrain. And so on.

Another thing: the tenor tends to be something present, at hand, and yet curiously unknown, mysterious, or abstract. The vehicle, on the other hand, tends to be something completely known and available, yet absent from the scene; it must be conjured from some memory bank of concrete detail or experience. This is partly why I had been so bewildered standing on that cliff in Cassis. The sunset that evening was what was present to me; presumably, it was the tenor I was trying to describe by quoting Eliot. But the vehicle, the patient etherized upon a table, was also my mother, and she was also my tenor, the whole reason for my being in France or on earth in the first place. My mother was the part of the comparison I could not understand.

4. Metaphor: How Strange
We are also generally taught that metaphors must meet two main criteria. The first is accuracy; readers must be able to recognize the truth of a given comparison. If we rewrite Eliot’s simile as “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a can of Sprite,” well, that befuddles rather than pleases because it cannot readily be parsed in any obvious way. However, we could make a comparison that is exceedingly accurate—“this apple is as green as a pear”—but that fails to achieve the second mandate, and pleasure, of metaphor, which has to do with difference: with strangeness. The poet’s task is to find a comparison in which the tenor and vehicle share a pertinent and revelatory commonality and yet are also different enough in nature to be surprising.

But the vehicle, the patient etherized upon a table, was also my mother.

Historically, much discussion of metaphor has to do with the question or degree of strangeness, or the difference between the tenor and the vehicle, as in early objections to Eliot’s comparison of the sunset to an etherized patient. In 1779, Samuel Johnson indicted the Metaphysical poets on these grounds, describing their poems as a series of “the most heterogeneous ideas . . . yoked by violence together.” For Johnson, too much thinking has to happen for these metaphors to register, and that thinking takes him out of the poem. The Metaphysical poets’ “learning instructs and their subtlety surprises,” Johnson continues, “but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.” A century and a half later, the French surrealist André Breton, however, argued the complete opposite. In Les Vases communicants (“the communicating vessels”), Breton maintains that “to compare two objects, as remote from one another in character as possible, or by any other method put them together in a sudden and striking fashion, this remains the highest task to which poetry can aspire.”

In other words, there is little consensus on what makes a successful metaphor. Whether we side with Samuel Johnson or I. A. Richards or André Breton, we can agree that all these men define the relationship between tenor and vehicle in a way that feels limiting and essentializing, often hierarchizing one aspect of metaphor over another unnecessarily. Richards’s terminology privileges the tenor, which he sees as the metaphor’s purpose or quest, whereas the vehicle is merely the instrument and therefore secondary; Breton advocates for the extravagance of the vehicle. But we know that both are right. We know the pleasing recognition of an exceedingly apt metaphor. But, as countless poems illustrate, there is also undeniable joy in the runaway vehicle.

5. The Blacksmith
Meanwhile, other aspects of metaphor that preoccupy me as a poet often seem missing from the discussion altogether. One such aspect, which determines a lot about how I experience metaphor in poems, concerns the relationship between metaphor and realism—specifically how a poem’s use or rejection of metaphor might double as a commentary on the poet’s relationship to testimony, to bearing witness to the actual world. Czesław Miłosz’s “Blacksmith Shop” is one of the most literal poems I know, by which I mean it is grounded in concrete detail coming directly from the present world. Or, in this case, from memory of the once-present world.

Miłosz’s poem begins casually, recalling the wonder of being a boy, standing at the entrance of a blacksmith’s shop, watching a piece of iron being formed into a horseshoe. The description is completely unembellished, spared of figure: “a piece of iron in the fire, held there by tongs, / Red, softened for the anvil, / Beaten with a hammer, bent into a horseshoe, / Thrown in a bucket of water, sizzle, steam.” Yet the poem’s simple act of isolating and presenting this memory lends it, in the final line, a kind of “glory:” “I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this: / To glorify things just because they are.” At this point, the poem becomes an ars poetica. It is most certainly a poem about making.

So is Emily Dickinson’s poem 365, and yet the reader encounters a very different experience in her smithy. The poem begins, “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat? / Then crouch within the door—” before describing the “vivid Ore” that “quivers from the Forge / Without a color, but the light / Of unanointed Blaze.” Like Miłosz’s poem, Dickinson’s has the reader/viewer standing (or here, “crouching”) at the threshold of a blacksmith’s forge, not a specific one from her childhood but a hypothetical one that might be found anywhere, even in the “Least Village.” While Dickinson uses the same imagery—iron being heated, hammered, and bent—the reader gleans from the first line of her poem that all this activity is figurative: the “vivid Ore” is a vehicle for the tenor of the “Soul” and even the “Anvil” and “Forge” “stand symbol” for an interior psychic or spiritual act of soul-making. (When the poem ends, the “impatient Ores” give off such “Designated Light” that they manage totally to “Repudiate the Forge.”) In other words, Dickinson’s poem is not about a horseshoe. It is not about a memory and certainly not about a call “to glorify things just because they are.”

It is often thought—and often taught, at least by me—that poems tend to begin with literal, concrete description, which only afterward begins to resonate and take on figurative properties. The glorifying of making itself at the end of Miłosz’s poem exemplifies as much. But Dickinson’s poem traffics in the figurative from the first line and throughout, in part because, as with any religious poet or mystic, she relies on metaphor, analogy, and paradox to elucidate her intangible subject: the human soul. Miłosz on the other hand sticks as close as possible to the grounded, literal world because his poetic project concerns itself with a memory embedded in a historical time and place. His particular response to the context out of which he writes—World War II, the German occupation of Warsaw, and the Holocaust—renders him suspicious of figurative flights of fancy or surrealist poetics. Another early poem of his, called “Dedication,” addressed to “You whom I could not save,” declares: “I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.”

6. As a Drowning Man Clutches Driftwood
Miłosz was not the only Polish poet mistrustful of the figurative in poetry. His contemporary Tadeusz Różewicz, an even more extreme example, argued against metaphor in an early “anti-poetry” manifesto written shortly after World War II: “Poorer poets . . . make comparisons. They clutch comparisons as a drowning [man] clutches driftwood.” It is an interesting suggestion, that we turn to metaphor out of a sense of desperation. The irony, of course, is that apparently Różewicz shares this desperation, using a metaphor (“driftwood”) in his very argument against them. Where I disagree is that metaphor is the crutch of “poorer poets” exclusively. All too often metaphor is required to describe the “actual world” because the actual world and the human mind include and demand metaphoric thinking. This is why most poems (unlike those above examples by Miłosz and Dickinson) combine the literal and the figurative.

Take for example another poet writing about war, the American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, whose poem “You and I Are Disappearing” describes a girl being burned alive from napalm during the war in Vietnam. “We stand with our hands / hanging at our sides,” the speaker laments,

while she burns

          like a sack of dry ice.

She burns like oil on water.

She burns like a cattail torch

dipped in gasoline.

She glows like the fat tip

of a banker’s cigar,

          silent as quicksilver.

There is an undeniable desperation in this catalogue of similes. The poem’s speaker is grasping after language appropriate to the scale of the atrocity he is witnessing, yet no one metaphor quite satisfies him. At the same time, the reader recognizes that all of these comparisons cannot simultaneously be literally true, even if they are true figuratively. Literally, “a sack of dry ice” burns differently than “oil on water” or “a cattail torch / dipped in gasoline.” None of those burn like the “shot glass of vodka” or the “field of poppies / at the edge of a rainforest” listed later in the poem. Like Eliot’s patient etherized upon a table, these vehicles combined convey at least as much information about the poet-speaker and his fellow soldiers’ suffering—their self-medication with alcohol and drugs, their resentment of rich warmongers, and the trauma of combat—as they do the burning victim. Komunyakaa’s poem does not ask us to hold two ideas in mind at once—a tenor and a vehicle—but rather demands that we hold all of this in mind at once, which is overwhelming, even unbearable. The unbearableness is the point.

7. “From Then On, It’s Fugitive”
That evening in France was the first time I had ever lost my sense of being at home in metaphor. But it happened to me again a few months later, back in the United States, while I was sitting in my car, parked in front of the Golden Dynasty, a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. It was again near dusk but instead of looking at the sunset, I found myself staring absentmindedly up at the restaurant’s signage, three-dimensional yellow letters, hoping I would catch the moment they illuminated. That is when I noticed the birds. Lots of little sparrows had constructed nests in the hollows of each vowel, along with the lower case “d” in “Golden.” My absentminded staring was interrupted by a rupture of delight. They were making their home in language! Literally they were!

But why had Eliot’s simile come to me at sunset on the cliff in France? Like Apollinaire, like Komunyakaa above, Eliot was not thinking merely about the relationship between tenor and vehicle; rather, he was using the whole apparatus of metaphor to convey a particular instance of subjectivity. “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art,” Eliot famously and controversially wrote, “is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” But my understanding of that moment on the cliff was an instance of a subjective correlative. It seemed to be something only I could register, and only at that one specific moment. Further, the metaphor didn’t occur to me as a means of expressing the emotional experience I was having, but rather as a way of understanding that experience in the first place.

All too often metaphor is required to describe the “actual world” because the actual world and the human mind include and demand metaphoric thinking.

Perhaps it is fitting that both moments of my confusion about the literal and the figurative happened in cars. After all, the word metaphor in Greek means transport, or carrying across, and can be found on trucks and delivery vans throughout Greece. Maybe Robert Frost was wrong and there is no such thing as being at home in the metaphor. Maybe the truth is something closer to the poet Elizabeth Willis’s claim: “Metaphor carries something across, but from then on, it’s fugitive.”

There is no stable or fixed relationship between the literal and figurative. They can occur separately, they can occur together, they can even be overlapping. Likewise the relationship between tenor and vehicle is not fixed. Every poem we write puts these elements into new relation. All that seems required is what James Longenbach calls “an act of thinking,” the holding of two things in the mind at once. Similar to Breton’s “vases communicants,” this strikes me as the most versatile way of understanding the two parts of metaphor, permitting them the capaciousness and flexibility of connection that we grant, for instance, to rhyming or near-rhyming words.

Embracing terms like tenor and vehicle comes with repercussions. I have already pointed out that this terminology risks instrumentalizing and limiting our understanding of the two parts of metaphor. But it also emphasizes a sense of prowess and originality within the poet that does not feel true in my experience. The metaphors I care the most about are not usually the ones I have “crafted” but rather the ones I have received, or attended, or discovered, like the birds nesting in the Golden Dynasty sign. The metaphors that mean the most to me, my own or others’, feel more like the pleasure of holding two things in mind at once without any irritable reaching after tenor and vehicle.

Jennifer Grotz is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Still Falling. She teaches poetry and translation at the University of Rochester and directs the Bread Loaf Writers' Conferences.
Originally published:
April 3, 2024


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