Thursday, August 2, 2007

Mark Doty: Speaking in Figures

Nice article at The Academy of American Poets:

Here's one of those stories everyone swears is true, though they always seem to have happened to a friend of a friend, and are never quite verifiable. I heard it from my friend Genine, and I'm not quite sure where she got it. A man was telling his therapist about a fight he'd had with his mother. They were standing together in the kitchen, arguing, and then, he said, "My mother put the icing on the cake." The therapist said, "Oh?" "Yes," he said. "She put the icing on the cake?" "Yes." The therapist persisted: "But how did she put the icing on the cake?" "She put the icing on the cake." And so it continued, until they realized they were talking about a literal cake; the mother was holding a knife covered with butter-cream frosting.

Just this summer, in Prague, I had the opposite experience. Considerately, restaurant menus often offer English translations beneath the Czech listing, but the translations are often dodgy. "Beef consommé with faggots," for instance, took us aback, but nothing was as hard to figure out as an appetizer called "smoked language." Then one of the diners at our table decoded the dish, which was tongue.

The therapist assumes language must be metaphoric; the dogged but well-intentioned menu translator assumes it must be literal. I tell these two little bits of anecdote because they point to the absolute centrality of figurative speech. You could say that all language is metaphoric, since the word stands for the thing itself, something the word is not. In her evocative memoir, The Names of Things, the Egyptologist Susan Brind Morrow points to the origins of letters in the observation of nature, how the scuttle of crab claws on sand, for instance, influenced the hieroglyph for "writing." To use words at all is to use them figuratively; we breathe metaphor, we swim in metaphor, we traffic in metaphor—and the verbs in those three phrases illustrate my point.

Poetry's project is to use every aspect of language to its maximum effectiveness, finding within it nuances and powers we otherwise could not hear. So the poet needs to be a supreme handler of the figurative speech we all use everyday, employing language's tendency to connect like and disparate things to the richest possible effects. In poetry, figuration is at its most sophisticated: condensed, alive with meaning, pointing in multiple directions at once.

Read the rest.

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