THE THING IT IS AND THE THING IT ISN’T

Long-time readers here will recall that I have discussed the issue of metaphor and simile and their relation (if any) to hokku.  I have pointed out that what readers — even presumably scholarly readers — find as metaphor in hokku is often generally the more prevalent practice of the principle of internal reflection, misinterpreted as metaphor.  I have also said that though metaphor is not entirely absent from old hokku, the best verses did not use it.

There is a great deal to be said about metaphor and simile, which have a long history in English literature and have been so often used that they seem a poetic crutch for which the laboring poet automatically reaches when in difficulty, and from this sentence alone one can see how common their use has become; I have just used a metaphor myself.

There are, then, times when a metaphor or simile may be helpful in prose or in poetry (though not in hokku), yet one feels, like Ogden Nash in his poem Very Like a Whale, that both are used to excess.  He tells us, half in jest, half serious:

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can’t seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else….
That’s the kind of thing that’s being done all the time by poets, from Homer to Tennyson;
They’re always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison.
How about the man who wrote,
Her little feet stole in and out like mice beneath her petticoat?
Wouldn’t anybody but a poet think twice
Before stating that his girl’s feet were mice?
Then they always say things like that after a winter storm
The snow is a white blanket.  Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a
six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of
unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

I have said in previous articles that simile in poetry — saying one thing is like another — draws the mind in two directions by presenting it with two different images.  To say, for example, that the rising crescent moon is like a ship of silver sailing up on the blue sea of heaven, detracts from the moon and the sky as they are, and brings in the image of a ship and of a sea, and the mind must combine these into a new image created by the original “real” image and its overlay.

That does not mean metaphors and similes are good or bad; it simply means, as I have said before, that one must use the right tool for the right task.  In hokku we keep a very strong focus of the mind, for which simile and metaphor act merely as a distraction.  In other kinds of poetry — well, we shall see.

There is much more to be said about metaphor and simile, but I will delay that for when I have more time.  So expect this brief posting to grow longer in the next few days.  I would like readers, meanwhile, to read the excerpt from the Nash poem and to think about the place (is there one, legitimately?) of metaphor and simile in poetry, and to a lesser extent, in prose.

It is worth considering, in the interim, how hokku generally goes for what Nash calls the “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the great contrasts between hokku and conventional poetry.  In fact the great discovery of people like Bashō was to find the poetry in such “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the things that makes hokku so unlike what people generally think of as poetry.

David

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