3  Senses and Metaphor

Last week some students and I were talking about what I like to call the “tools of the trade,” that is, the technical things a writer must know to write well, everything from grammar and punctuation to manuscript format to basic narrative structure.

John Skelton, the Tudor poet laureate, called the collection of things he knew how to do his “conning bag,” the ideas and strategies he understand and could use any time he needed them.  Writers should always keep filling our conning bags, and every now and then we should dump them out and clean up everything we keep there.

Aristotle wrote that of all writing techniques, metaphor has the greatest power:  odd and fascinating that the most moving item is the one that isn’t there, the one to which we compare something that is there.

Metaphors and every sensory detail we can think of, we start with them:  they bring abstract ideas to breathing life.  Years ago I participated in an evening poetry reading at the university.  I had stuffed my poem full of all kinds of detail, making sure I hit every sense at least twice.  After the reading, another of the poets came up to me and said how much he had enjoyed the poem, but that he couldn’t remember anything after the line about bacon frying in the skillet.  It had made him hungry, and he couldn’t hold on to any of the lines after that, though they had been pleasant enough as they floated by.  Hunger wins out over poetry most of the time, and olfactory images may be the strongest of all.

I’ve always liked the line from one of Keats’s letters:  “load every rift with ore.” That is, fill every line of poetry with as much life, energy, experience, truth, and power as you can.  One of the many astonishments I experience every time I read Paradise Lost is that Milton left hardly one toss-off line in the whole poem, as long as it is.  He filled every rift with ore, and my copy, which I’ve used for more than twenty-five years now, has nearly every line underlined and annotated–which makes the underlining no longer helpful, bu makes me laugh with wonder at what a great poet can do.

Now I feel like reading Milton and sizzling up some bacon, but I don’t eat that anymore.  Maybe a nice warm, cinnamony bagel with soft raisons and some melted butter, dripping yellow-gold onto the plate.  Tasty.  Or maybe just some crunchy celery, with bitter, savory leaves, to save some calories . . .