Dobyns on Metaphor, and Henry James. Prison Diary Extract

My Prison Diarhy

Dobyns on Metaphor, and Henry James. Prison Diary Extract

by Alan Carl Nicoll

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

From 2008.  The following includes extensive, excellent quotes from Stephen Dobyns on metaphor in poetry, with some great examples, a fine poem from Thomas Lux, and my thoughts on Henry James and The Turn of the Screw.  Fans of James may wish to comment.

{4/9/08}  Stephen Dobyns:  Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry, St. Martin’s press, New York, 1996

Essay “Metaphor and the Authenticating Act of Memory”: “The more sophisticated we get about language, the less we are moved by its simple expression. Because of this, poets constantly seek ways to make emotion fresh. One of the obvious functions of metaphor is to heighten emotion” p. 13 I am reminded of the scene in Rostand’s Cyrano where Christian says repeatedly to Roxane that he loves her. She is unmoved, and so we get the fabulous balcony scene, and Cyrano’s effective metaphors.

Dobyns quotes a number of metaphors from W. S. Merwin: Asian Figures:

Unless she is the one/sailing to death/like an empty ship.

“To be successful…the metaphor must be functional rather than decorative, meaning it has to further the general intent of the poem and it must be necessary to the reader’s understanding and involvement in the poem.” p. 13

“A metaphor consists of the object half and the image half. The image half is most successful when it is open-ended or when the mind cannot fully encompass it: that is, when it creates the impression that it could give additional meaning each time the reader returns to it.” p. 14

Quiet/like a house where the witch/has just stopped dancing.

“In the witch metaphor the object is obviously the word ‘quiet,’ but in other metaphors, the object can be a situation.” p. 15

Talk about tomorrow/the rats will laugh.

Spits straight up/learns something. Is this “open-ended”? Seems not.

Full of danger/as an egg pyramid.

He argues that the reader must be able to discover the object: “…image without object is nonfunctional, since its contemplation won’t increase our understanding.” p. 15 “…thinking about the relationship between the object and the image” leads to understanding. p. 16

The mouth is/one gate of hell.

Neglect is a dog/in a dead man’s house.

Stepping on a long thorn/to me the sight of her hair.

Metaphor “forces the reader to participate actively in the poem.” p. 17

“A liar is like an egg in midair.” (Dobyns, not Merwin, apparently)

Silent/like the thief the dog bit.

The hissing starts/in the free seats.

Close to death/see how tender/the grass is.

Who looks at a mirror/to see the mirror.

Life/candle flame/wind coming. Cf.: “out, brief candle.” (Macbeth)

Precise and visual words strengthen the metaphors. Compare:

Ask the mouth, it says food versus

Ask the mouth, it says cake. And

When there’s no tiger/the hares call attention to themselves versus

When there is no tiger/the hares swagger.

When he draws a tiger it’s a dog.

Needle thief/dreams of spears.

Start to speak/lips feel the cold autumn wind.

If you’re going to be a dog be a rich man’s dog.

Waiting till he’s falling then push.

If it’s dirty work borrow the tools.

“The best way to disclose hidden metaphors is to question the word choices.” p. 27

“Obscurity must be a tool. It works to force the reader to ask questions that will direct him or her to an understanding of the poem. Any question that does not increase our understanding detracts from it.

“A Little Tooth”
By Thomas Lux

Your baby grows a tooth, then two, 
and four, and five, then she wants some meat,
directly from the bone. It’s all 
over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall 
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,
your wife, get old, fly blown, and rue 
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet 
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall. 


“The French poet Mallarmé said that to name is to destroy and to suggest is to create. I would agree even though I have spent some pages arguing that the poet should name clearly, meaning the reader must have sufficient information. Suggestion won’t work until the reader has enough information to brood about. The poem works when the reader can contemplate the relationship between its parts. Ideally, the more he or she thinks about that relationship, the more it ramifies and the more the poem gives back. But as a reader can’t engage in the act of contemplation if necessary information is withheld or if he or she keeps interrupting that act with questions about information he or she should already know.” p. 34

Comment: one of the best things I’ve ever read about writing, especially poetry. Possibly in future I won’t automatically reject poetry I don’t understand. The last half of the essay focuses on three kinds of “context”—intellectual, physical, and emotional—which the poem must address and the reader should contemplate. This seems less useful to me right now.

{4/10/08} Just finished reading James’ Turn of the Screw. Mostly I found it tedious—the lack of immediate scene, the convoluted sentences, the indirectness of statement (often euphemistic), all combine to make the stories seem slow and plodding. Yet, overall, I am not dissatisfied. I don’t recall having previously read much fiction making use of an unreliable narrator. The ending comes as a shock and it inclines one to look for an explanation in terms of allegory and symbolism: the governess wins her struggle with the ghosts for Miles, but at the moment of victory he dies. Did she kill him? So it seems. It would require a second reading to plumb the deeper meaning of this struggle. The ghosts apparently represent freedom and sexuality, the governess, to an extent, repressed sexuality and conventionality.

I thought the situation was rather contrived; the uncle’s insistence on not being troubled with any problems seemed excessively convenient for the working out of the plot and Mrs. Grose was entirely too much a pawn, never saying too much, never casting doubt on the existence of the ghosts until the very end.

Despite this carping, the story works, building suspense and providing some fairly strong scenes at the end. The characters of the children and Mrs. Grose seem pretty flat, lacking much color or personality or reality, but the growing tension in the mind of the narrator is well drawn.

{4/11/08} From James’ preface to The Turn of The Screw: “…this perfectly independent and irresponsible little fiction rejoices, beyond any rival on a like ground, in a conspicuous provision of prompt retort to the sharpest question that may be addressed to it. For it has the small strength—if I shouldn’t say rather the undetectable ease—of perfect homogeneity, of being, to the very last grain of its virtue, all of a kind; the very kind, as happens, least apt to be baited by earnest criticism, the only sort of criticism of which account need be taken.” (Wordsworth Classics, p. XXX) One has to wonder why Orwell never made mock of James’ style, as he did of jargon. In the first sentence James apparently assumes that the reader knows what the “sharpest question” is, as well as the “retort” the story provides. Then he praises the story’s “homogeneity”—which, it seems, is the “retort” conspicuously provided—and goes on to say that the story is “all of a kind” (i.e., homogeneous). And this “very kind” is “least apt to be baited” by “the only sort of criticism of which account need be taken,” i.e., “earnest criticism.” The following sentence makes no clear reference to these questions left hanging. In addition, the story certainly lacks “homogeneity” in that it starts with a framing story, introducing the first-person narrative that tells the story.

So this renowned stylist expects his readers to either nod knowingly over that “sharpest question” or to mentally juggle it while reading on, only to then have to juggle the question of what “very kind” of story this is, and any other questions James cares to leave unanswered. This reader is not that good a juggler.

James is a pretentious and smug snob, as far as this goes. This is the fellow they call “The Master.” Phooey. What unendurable smugness! “irresponsible little fiction”!! Aargh!

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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