friday roundup: on metaphor, reverse dictionary, and “everything of the stillness”


It was fun for a while…

Friday and I’m completely out of my rhythm. Something about summer vacation. I’ve decided I’m in the Secretary of State chapter of motherhood. In which I am primarily engaged in settling disputes amongst and between warring nations. Bringing to bear the power of diplomatic language. Suggesting compromise. Compromise from the Latin com- “with, together” + promise “‘The ground sense is “declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done.'” (etymonline). Alas.

Since the last roundup, there has been one heated debate over whether or not North Korea could ever host the Olympics (you can’t make this stuff up); one badminton set purchased and discovered to be too big for the Wee, Small Yard; one former midwesterner who never would’ve imagined a badminton set too big for a yard or a yard too small for badminton; four swim practices; one collection of poems read during swim practices; three trips to the library; one door closed to the general din in the back of the house (this just now occurring); one trip to the beach; two waves catching one 8yo by surprise; one very sad and sandy 8yo; one hasty departure; and one trip back over the mountains at rush hour. Alas. Onward:

on metaphor  I have not done a lot of reading this week, but when I’ve had a few minutes I’ve been reading Stephen Dobyns craft essay “Metaphor and the Authenticating Act of Memory” (from this book). Dobyns puts all figurative language in the metaphor bucket — simile, allegory, analogy too — and while I would like to split hairs on this point, his thoughts are equally applicable to all forms of figurative language.

He argues that if a poem is meant to recreate an experience for the reader, the figurative language of the poem must serve to 1. heighten emotion and 2. involve the reader more deeply in the poem. This is accomplished when the figurative language both provides an easily discoverable context and introduces mystery.

He uses this example from W.S. Merwin’s Asian Figures:

like a house where the witch
has just stopped dancing.”

We know what quiet means. We have to think a little bit about the particular quality of quiet after “the witch has just stopped dancing.” This touch of mystery involves both sides of our brain, and increases our investment, as reader, in the poem.

There is more to read and learn about metaphor (and many other craft topics) in Dobyns’ book Best Words, Best Order which probably every other poet in the world has already read, but not me.

reverse dictionary  Sometimes it is a small thing, a slender slice of time, just a few lines jotted down, that convinces us we are living the writing life. When time is scarce for my usual writing practice, I try to do very small things that don’t take much time. One thing I do is choose a few words and write a “reverse dictionary” for those words (which is also good practice in creating metaphors). Examples:

  • The wandering of a throat. How breath becomes enemy. (thirst)
  • Meaning ‘from the very beginning.’ Meaning ‘there was a spectacular fire and I melted but survived.’ (mineral)
  • Somehow meaning ‘two.’ Somehow meaning ‘pedal faster, let me steer, look at the same view I’m looking at.’ (tandem)

If you need a 30 second to 3 minute writing exercise, I recommend it.

“everything of the stillness”  The collection of poems I read this week at swim practice was The Darker Fall by Rick Barot. Even sitting in the bleachers with my sun hat on, even with the background noise and the wind, the coaches hollering “Onnnnes, ready go! Twooooos, ready go! Threeeees, ready go!” I was broken open by so many of these poems. A particular favorite is the second part of the poem “Blue Hours” which I cannot find online but share with you here:


from “Blue Hours” by Rick Barot

II. Exile

All day I have made words
which fix my life
to the rhythm of
this day. I know
this hour’s satisfactions:

tea coloring the water
in a cup, and birds, kindled,
as if of one mind,
shuddering out of the trees,
then gone. The sun

falls below the familiar
line of roofs, and I
wait for someone who knows
I wait. Yet why
the old terror, the one

Seferis knew, sickened
with sensibility
as he stood on the ship
and watched the light
die over Sounion,

the cliffs still gold
while the hills turned blue?
He discovered himself
in the moment, and heard
the voices of others,

distant but calling.
Here, houselights blink on,
the breeze empties
of warmth. And more often
I catch myself

in these moments
when the light is scarcely
alive above the roofs
and I lean on the doorframe,
remember the small

fires of everything gone.
I know longer know who
I’m waiting for. I ask
everything of the stillness,
I wait for everyone.


I am in awe of the figurative language of this poem, as well as with the linebreaks, which often serve to suspend meaning, and/or to let it slip a bit as the poem continues.

And now… the blue hour of dawn is long gone here and I must away. I wish you happy Friday and a wonderful weekend. Thanks for reading.

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