Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Motive for Metaphor by Wallace Stevens/Denis Donoghue/ W.B. Yeats

You will have heard that expression of stoic realism, it is what it is. I'm saying, it is what it isn't. The world is not a cave really nor is it a well furnished lab and we clothed in the alb of investiture, the white coat. The first is the Platonic metaphor and the second is a confection of mine own, compounded of many simples. What you have there are two examples of a series of similes that are condensed into a single metaphor. This is a common strategy of mental economy and it is operative in poetic language in which meaning is typically compressed. To dispense with metaphor is to perhaps dispense with language itself.

The most conspicuous point of contact between meaning and poetry is metaphor....... If we trace the meanings of a great many words - or those of the elements of which they are composed – about as far back as etymology can take us, we are at once made to realize that an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them referred in earlier days to one of these two things – a solid, sensible object, or some animal (probably human) activity.
(From the chapter on Metaphor in Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield.)

Displacement or replacement is what Wallace Stevens accuses himself of. He does not face up to the given in all spiritual seasons.

The Motive for Metaphor

You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.
In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon—
The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,
Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,
The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound—
Steel against intimation—the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

He is, as it were, happier with glimpsing things in half light and not primary noon which is altogether too clear for his evasions. How much better it would be if he forged the smithywork of his soul using the plain indications of correct temperature namely cherry red and peacock's eye in a downright way. Forgive the twee 'smithywork' but it seems to go with a poem which finally for me does not give pleasure. Non placet then. The metaphor of the final stanza does not go on all fours when one considers that a smithy is always kept in low light the better to gauge the annealing and quenching colours.

Compare this to Yeats finding metaphors for poetry in Georgie's scribbles.

On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences.  ‘No,’ was the answer, ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.’
How invidious is that.

Denis Donoghue does his best, his almighty best, with the poem but I sense the reservations from a man that bleeds Yeats:
Hudson Review


skholiast said...

The hammer may not be that of the half-lit smithy but of the construction site.

Is it that you think that between Yeats and Stevens a great gulf is fixed? Yeats may have been the last of his kind. After him, poetry had to do something different.

He might, following the psalmist, have named Stevens' source of anxiety the Noonday Demon. But follow this metaphor to the End of the Mind and you find the tall palm, phoenix in Greek, with its fire-fangled feathery bird, and there too the wind moves slowly, and the song one hears is inhuman, but there is an unreasoned happiness. Something does emerge from the smithy fire. But yes, I think Stevens had a harder time of it than Yeats.

ombhurbhuva said...

Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top.
(Under Ben Benbulben)

Yeats runs counter to the Modernist trend of opacity and though there is only 15 years between him and Stevens they seem to belong to different worlds. Yeats connects to the Tennyson era when poetry was enjoyed by the general public though of course there is the esoteric background to some of his work. Stevens is gnomic and not readily accessible.

Just now I have been reading Robinson Jeffers:
The fierce musical cries of a couple of sparrow hawks hunting on the headland,
Hovering and darting, their heads northwestward,
Prick like silver arrows shot through a curtain the noise of the ocean
Trampling its granite;

ktismatics said...

A stimulating post, Michael -- I've been thinking about it all morning. "You like it under the trees in autumn" seems a sexual innuendo, "it" as a metaphor for...: you prefer "it" -- the romanticism, the subdued lighting, the evasiveness, the sweet nothings whispered in your ear -- but if you are forced to confront the act in the full light of day, the direct ABCs of the act, then the lover comes down on you in his heavy weight, looming over you, the flush of pretty romance revealed as ruddy temper; the phallic hammer comes down hard and brutal, red and blue, VItal, ARrogant, FAtal, DOMinant, bang bang bang bang, and BANG -- the climaX Xing out the vague and evasive poetic intimations with reality hard as death. So I guess I like the poem. And now I'm concerned that works of fiction are metaphors for nonfiction, the same sort of evasive and queasy displacement.

ombhurbhuva said...

W.S. may be a man for all seasons but al fresco frolics in Springtime Hartford or Boulder are more to be contemplated than ventured on. Denis Donoghue in his essay gives a more complete picture of metaphor in the light of actuarial considerations than I could. Can suchness (tsujan) be rendered in words? Is there a haiku in Hartford? Immediacy includes everything.

I always think of the profound observation of A.N. Whitehead: No contemporary events are causally connected.

There was a despair in his judgment of metaphor in that poem but Donoghue traces a more benign view in the poem:


Our sense of these things changes and they change
Not as in metaphor, but in our sense
Of them. So sense exceeds all metaphor.

ktismatics said...

Reading Donoghue's interesting essay contributed to my all-morning ordeal. To use more empirical language, I'm not saying that Stevens "did it" under the trees beyond the lovey-dovey sweet-nothings stage. Poetry is a romance, a foreplay, a sublimation of an "it" that's more direct, a primal and violent "it" that in its hard reality both completes and kills the art. There's nothing particularly startling in that observation. "More to be contemplated than ventured on" is the poet's lamentation, his poetic success being attributable to his failure to go ahead and eat that peach. But I also agree with Donoghue, and with you too, that Stevens wants the spirit to be more real than the body, wants to slip through the evasiveness and indirectness into more ethereal realms. So where is his desire: for the tangible or for the sublime? It's dramatic tension; it's ambivalence.

ombhurbhuva said...

To be tendentious, it might be held that the affront of the simple declarative sentence was what lead to the brawl in Key West with Maximus Ernesto. A blow had to be struck for ambiguity, for the overshadowing ‘but’, adumbrations, and the crepuscular. If he but knew that the Clean Well-Lighted Place had a more terrifying ‘nada’ than he, W.S., had discovered in the fine print.

I believe that ambivalence is a key:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is but what is not

We move in procession from the subtle to the gross and in the average man this is an osccilative progress. An artist finds linking archetypes that can bring unity out of the collective unconscious. Some leave out the indecisions and give you a story that has the finality of a parable, others go from the planning application to the building to the selection of the rugs. The archtectonic of W.S. seems to Donoghue to be ad hoc, he throws out an extension here, builds a conservatory there and 'what about a gazebo’.

ktismatics said...

"U can't touch this," Maximus taunted the bloated poet; "it's hammer time!" Being drunk also keeps the world from coming too clearly into focus; so does getting punched in the face.