Fictivity: Metaphors in Poetry


Metaphors are particularly prevalent in poetry, naturally, as poetry concentrates language into maximum vacuum power. That’s almost a tautological sentence: it might be better to say that, poetry is metaphor generating maximum vacuums. As Robert Frost said, ‘Education by poetry is education by metaphor.’

One of the uses we see in poetry is the extended metaphor: a ‘conceit’, a single metaphor that is extends throughout all or part of a piece of a work. For example, from Donne’s poem ‘The Sun Rising’:

She is all states, and all princes, I.

Nothing else is. Princes do but play us; compared to this,

All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.

Or this, from Maya Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’:

But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage

Can seldom see through his bars of rage

His wings are clipped and his feet are tied

So he opens his throat to sing.

Which is similar to this from ‘Hope Is The Thing With Feathers,’ by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all.

Another example is this, from ‘I Watched A Girl In A Sundress’ by Christopher Poindexter:

I watched a girl in a sundress kiss another girl on a park bench, and just as the sunlight spilled perfectly onto both of their hair, I thought to myself:

How bravely beautiful it is, that sometimes, the sea wants the city, even when it has been told its entire life it was meant for the shore.

More famously, of course, is Frost’s own metaphor from ‘The Road Not Taken’:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Poetry, like other forms of creative writing, is fiction, in the sense that it is ‘made up’: the poet puts words together not for any other reason but to convey a thought or experience creatively. In that sense, also, poetry follows the same set of laws which fiction follows: it has core concepts and linear patterns, mysteries and moral choices, and draws us in and holds us to the degree that it uses all these things effectively. But, as we are learning through this series, the driving force behind all these patterns, mysteries and choices is vacuum power.

In the next part of this series, we’re going to take a look at how an extended metaphor and its associated mechanisms can be used throughout a single poem to magnify the poem’s overall meaning for the reader.

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