Updated: Mar 2
Poetry does not require metaphor to exist, but metaphor is one of the ways that poetry can be a tool for healing, both for the poet, and the reader. The convincing illusion that we are separate from everything contributes to humans lacking a feeling of wholeness. If one defines healing as a path to wholeness, then reestablishing a sense of interconnection must be considered as a potential healing path. And poetry through metaphor can do just that.
As a particular form of writing, poetry uses metaphor more often than other forms of writing. Prose that utilizes a lot of metaphor might be considered poetic prose, because when we read a novel, for example, we expect a certain degree of literalness. But in poetry we expect to see things not just as they are, but through the lens of other things they resemble, preferably in more ways than one. This association has a healing effect as it helps to bridge gaps between things, thwarting the mind that is always trying to differentiate, analyze, distinguish, and put things into boxes.
The way that poetry engages attention to interconnection is similar to watching how fractals, present in everything in Nature, draw our attention to one point, but then when we reach that point we see the point engulfed as part of a larger picture of multimillions of other points, also engulfed by other larger pictures. If one looks closely at romanesco broccoli, as a random example, a naturally occurring fractal, it could be said that it is a wordless poem in and of itself. It resembles other things with similar patterns. Early rhythmic, metric, and rhyming patterns of formal and free poems themselves reveal a fascination with fractals before they were even named as such and studied in the 20th century.
When Shakespeare wrote, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…” he challenges us to imagine a love more beautiful and glorious than a warm sunny summer day. “This is no ordinary love,” he says, “but one of undying beauty.” He points at patterns. And when Emily Dickinson declared,
“Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all”
she asks the reader to imagine hope as a bird-like creature within us singing a tune with no words. Dickinson attempts to bring hope to the hopeless in this poem, albeit from a very personal perspective. Healing through interconnection with nature.
Another poem from the early 20th century, “Patterns” by Amy Lowell, illustrates the fractal idea, as it brings in the patterns of the world, including the pattern of war, as a background. However, the entire poem other than its rhythmic quality, completely thwarts the patterns of rhyming and meter (common in poetry at that time), as it deals with the unexpected death of the speaker’s fiancé in WW1. It recognizes the patterns with a rhyme here and there, but also demolishes them, in a way “bombs” them. You can read the entire poem here.
Amanda Shelton in her poem “Metaphorical Poem” actually uses a simile to flesh out what metaphor is for her;
“A metaphorical meaning is like
being a shadow
that tries to relate to a star.”
A shadow cannot exist without a “star” of some kind, a source of light, like the sun, also a star. So in this way, a shadow and a star are one, and there is a human yearning to understand such unions.
Sylvia Plath in “Metaphors,” her 9-line poem, tries to make sense, through everyday likenesses, of her nine-months of pregnancy.
“I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.”
Metaphors do not compare in the sense of this thing is “like” this other thing. It is this thing. “An elephant, a ponderous house…” “Juliet is the sun,” says Romeo. She is not “like the sun,” or “as bright as the sun.” She is it. So often, the earlier poets utilize metaphors for romantic love. To paraphrase, “This small person you see,” says Shakespeare, “is really to me the great and unimaginably huge and bright sun, who I cannot survive without.”
To understand how this sort of waxing on romantic love might engender interconnection you might consider the understanding of the era, that such romantic love was all the interconnection you needed. This was the time, remember, where people began to distrust Nature, and eventually trample it. Still, we have poets like Alfred Noyes with his first line from “The Highwaymen” (1947) — “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,” recalling a connection between a turbulent sky and a tossing ocean.
Within “Tardigrade in its Element,” Philip Gross buries this gem of a metaphor — “A day is one tick of the clock, one blink of the sun’s eye.” — drawing an apt yet surprising line between time and a clock, playing with time in a surreal way, and personifying the sun’s eye blink as a perception of time.
Personification in poetry as we saw in Shakespeare is a common metaphorical tool, especially in early poetry. It was either a carryover from ancient thinking, or the beginning of the current native American spiritual movement to cease labeling the elements of nature subjectively as separate things, but as part of us, or at least blood relatives — Grandmother Ocean, Father Sky, Grandfather Fire — a subject-subject consciousness rather than subject-object.
More recently, Dan Chiasson, in his poem “The Sun,” fortifies the ancient understanding of the sun as a god that resides within us and without us. Once again, the sun, we think of as a thing separate from us, but in this poem it is our love, it is our light, and it is our darkness.
In the mid to late 1800’s, the anti-slavery advocate, John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote “The Worship of Nature,” which uses a religious iconographic personification of nature in at least every four lines to honor the natural elements he sees around him. Of the ocean, he says,
“Its waves are kneeling on the strand,
As kneels the human knee,
Their white locks bowing to the sand,
The priesthood of the sea!”
Contemporary poets who find in metaphor the human drive for interconnection with each other and the world around them often take inconspicuous leadership roles in our society, the civil rights advocates, the teachers of meditation and contemplation, the ones who reflect what is real now and right in front of us.
So finally, we go from anti-slavery advocate Whittier, to modern prophet of interconnection, Maya Angelou. Perhaps her most famous poem, “Caged Bird,” is literal on its exterior, but more prominently a metaphor for slavery versus freedom. And though “slavery,” in its literal sense of owning other human beings, has been outlawed, this poem has modern relevance because of the ongoing enslavement of people of color through racism and white supremacy.
“But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.”
Angelou died in 2014, but her legacy was the success of important social movements like “Black Lives Matter.” Nowhere is the evidence of the disease of our unwholeness and lack of interconnection more prevalent than in the current “white supremacy” (or any supremacy) movements around the world. As poets we need to look at this point as a place along the fractals of life, and see our work as a holistic endeavor to move along toward truth and connection. If we are to fully embrace those subject-subject relationships in nature, we must first achieve them among ourselves.