The way the wind blows

The first Power of Language essay of 2011 is from Paul House, author of Harbour and Common Places, discussing imagery and metaphor.


A cursory glance at today’s artistic scene will show you just how widespread mediocrity is and how well it is accepted by the general public. The X-Factor dominates pop music; its latest winner, Max Cardle, sold over 400,000 copies of his debut single in the first week it was released and still had time to write his recently published autobiography. The Turner Prize, named after one of Britain’s most inventive and outstanding artists, was set up to celebrate new developments in contemporary art. This year’s winner was Susan Philipsz with her sound installation “I See a Darkness”, in which I could only see several speakers standing on white pillars. I should have been aware of the “psychological effects of song and how it can evoke immediate emotions, creating nostalgic shifts, emphasizing the listener’s spatial perception of the self.” On the shortlist was the self explanatory “Clutter under Blanket”, which is aimed at “subverting the artistic language of modernism”. At the Cheltenham Literary Festival I was privileged to hear the performance poet, Mik Artistik, recite his regrettable “Joyce Grenfell’s teeth exploded in my face”. A quick glance at the bookshelves in your local bookshop is likewise revealing. Amidst the celebrity biographies, autobiographies and cook books, a smattering of thrillers and fantasy novels, and the odd detective story.

The pop singer has become an invented and often impermanent product; art, an incomprehensible representation of objects most of us would throw away; and the poet has turned into a performing buffoon reciting aggressive, second-rate Benny Hill verses. The novel is something to be enjoyed quickly and with as little thought as possible, to be later abandoned in a hotel room or in the airport lounge. And this is all part of popular culture.

This need for immediacy, for instant and ephemeral gratification, has invaded what might be termed serious literature. Imagery, metaphor and simile have all but disappeared from the modern writer’s repertoire. They slow down the reader too much and require more than a minimum of attention. But writing is not just putting one word after another. People believe they can write because they have the raw material, the words, at their fingertips and because they have a story to tell. These same people would probably be able to sing, or at least recognize, all of the notes in a Mozart Opera, but would never dream of saying they could write a piece of music. They would know all of the colours used in a Velasquez painting, but would never dream of suggesting they could reproduce or create The Water Seller. Writing is a craft and takes as long to perfect as the other arts. It requires dedication, training and talent.

“I don’t know that I was ever much good at writing, I just wanted to be. That’s not enough, is it?”

Having a story to tell is rarely sufficient reason to write a novel. That story must be a vehicle for adding something to the human condition. It must tell us something about ourselves and the world around us that we hadn’t recognized before, or, if we had, we hadn’t stopped to think about, we hadn’t taken the time to analyse. Dickens, one of our best-loved story tellers, did not write stories merely for the sake of the story. Our Mutual Friend is about money and the hazards associated with its misuse. It is about predation and the perils of materialism and greed. A well written novel should leave us with a new insight into the world we live in and the people we live there with.

So it is all about words in the end. Choosing the correct ones and then putting them in the right order. There is nothing else. And it sounds very simple.  Imagine for a moment that you are looking at one of today’s political leaders, Mr Cameron, Mr Zapatero or Mr Papendreou, and, for sake of argument, you think: The responsibility of leadership and the current economic situation is getting him down. He doesn’t have sufficient stature or experience to cope . Let us also imagine, for a moment, that this noble public figure has got into power by usurping the previous government. How many of us would write: Now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief? Both sentences have words, pronouns, nouns, adjectives and verbs. Yet one uses imagery, metaphor and simile to tell us more than just the bare facts of the situation. The first sentence is just a flat statement of fact and the second, whilst it uses what looks like a sharply localised image, derives its force from a wider context. It reminds us that Macbeth is not only incompetent, he is also no more than a miserable tyrant who has killed a man far more noble than he could ever be and that he sincerely thought he would be able to bring it off. Just the addition of the word ‘Now’ tells us that his feeling is recent, that up until ‘now’ he had felt himself capable of pulling it off.

Let us look at the beginning of a recent best-seller. While reading this section, look at the verbs that are used. They are all loud, banging action verbs yet the scene is pedestrian, an old man is merely taking a painting from the wall. The verbs are: staggered, lunged, grabbing, heaved, tore and collapsed.

“Renowned curator Jacques Saunire staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunire collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.” (The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown)

All we get from this introduction is a picture of a rather energetic old man with exaggerated frenetic movements. The gentle beginning of Faulkner’s  As I Lay Dying, on the other hand, not only sets the initial scene but already gives us a glimpse of what two of the main characters are like.

“Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file . The cotton house is of rough logs.  When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides…. And steps in a single stride through the opposite window.”

Darl, the sensitive, articulate yet neurotic son, who will always avoid conflict, walks around the cotton house, but Jewel, the proud, passionate, impatient son, sees no obstacle in the house and walks straight through it as though it wasn’t there. Both pieces are using what is known as kinetic imagery, but for a very different purpose.

The next example uses kinetic imagery in the first instance merely as a description of physical surroundings, and then the same kind of imagery is extended to reveal the emotional state of mind of the character.

“The sky was still angry but the threat of the storm had passed. The people’s shirts were filled with wind as they walked by the door. He heard but didn’t listen to the people talking beside him, their voices a soft comforting murmur like the sound of the sea when it was calm. As he looked into the street, he realised again how much he disliked these mornings when he had to wake up alone.”

As a writer, the difficulty with using imagery, metaphor and simile is one of originality, on the one hand, and appropriateness, on the other.  We want our images to be unexpected, but we must avoid them being inappropriate.

Ken Follett in The Pillars of the Earth describes a rose window in exactly the same way as most people, if asked to do so, might describe a rose window with the sun shining through it. There is no inventiveness here, no surprise and no originality:

“To someone standing in the nave, looking down the length of the church toward the east, the round window would seem like a huge sun exploding into innumerable shards of gorgeous colour.”

In Tender is the Night Scott Fitzgerald is both original and surprising. He uses light and glowing not to describe physical light but the character of Dick Diver and the effect he has on the empty lives of those around him, allowing them, by his arrival on the scene, to escape from the misery of the drunkard, Abe.

“Dick Diver came and brought with him a fine glowing surface on which the three women sprang like monkeys with cries of relief, perching on his shoulders, on the beautiful crown of his hat or the gold head of his cane. Now, for a moment, they could disregard the spectacle of Abe’s gigantic obscenity.”

Using imagery to explain character can sometimes be far more effective than description:

“He could see the man’s knife without looking for it. He didn’t know where it was, but he could see it in his face. It was either a knife or a gun. There was something about his face which said, I am armed. Be very careful.”

It is important that the words we choose are appropriate for the scene we are describing.  Ian McKewan, in Saturday, presents us with a violent street mugging, but his choice of words and the sheer length of the sentence and the piling on of one image after another, not to mention the almost detached reaction of the victim, take away a lot of the force of the situation:

“Despite Baxter’s impaired ocular fixation, and his chorea, those quick jerky movements, the blow that’s aimed at Perowne’s heart and that he dodges only fractionally, lands on his sternum with colossal force, so that it seems to him, and perhaps it really is the case, that there surges throughout his body a sharp ridge, a shock wave of high blood pressure, a concussive thrill that carries with it not so much pain as an electric jolt of stupefaction and a brief deathly chill that has a visual component of blinding, snowy whiteness.”

John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins both relied heavily upon imagery. Hopkins’ dark sonnets are about doubt and depression. His reasons are important for understanding his poetry, but not for understanding his use of imagery. Depression is described through descriptions of light and dark. It is a physical impediment.

“I wake and feel the fell of dark not day.”

Hopkins chooses his words carefully. The alliteration of ‘feel’ and ‘fell’ and ‘dark’ and ‘day’ is powerful. The sentence hinges, though, on the meaning of the word ‘fell’. It is the past tense of ‘fall’, a word with significant connotations. ‘Fell’ means to cut down, but it is also the pelt of an animal. The darkness is made debilitating and tangible. And then ‘fell’ meaning of uncultivated high ground, it brings to mind another Hopkins image for despair and doubt:

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.”

Through his use of imagery, Hopkins has given us much more information than appears at first glance with a sentence which apparently is saying no more than:

“I wake up and it is still not morning.”

Darkness then becomes a symbol for despair.

“What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night!”

The “black hours” are, of course, black through lack of light, and black through lack of hope, and, as with all depression, they seem to have always been there. We have the image of the poet laid low by the heavy almost physical weight of the darkness that is both inside and outside him.

“But where I say

Hours, I mean years, mean life.”

Exaggeration is used in imagery for emphasis. To think of life as being no more than an actor swaggering and moping and worrying  his way through his lines is a simplification of this business of living, and yet it is extremely effective, because it is an exaggeration: a poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/ And then is heard no more.

Hopkins’ depression is not only externally physical, it also becomes a part of his very make-up:

“I am gall, I am heartburn.”

A far cry from happier times when he was merely, like Macbeth, a momentary event with neither world enough nor time: “I am soft sift in an hourglass.”

It is very difficult to make a metaphor like this convincing, metaphor being the identification of one thing as another, as opposed to simile where one thing is compared to another. The simple way would be to use an adjective and not a noun, would write simply, I am depressed, I am so miserable that I have a bitter taste in my mouth.

But Hopkins continues:

“Bitter would have me taste. My taste was me.”

The metaphor makes the suffering immediate, personal and suffocating. There is no escape from it. It is both outside and inside his body. It is oppressing him from the outside and consuming him from within. Shakespeare’s use of imagery and metaphor is similar at the end of King Lear:

“But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;

Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh,

(….); thou art a boil

,A plague sore, an embossed carbuncle,

In my corrupted blood.”

When Hopkins finally looks outside of himself, when he see past his own suffering, there is only more of the same, and the only effective way of describing this is by using imagery.

“I see

The lost are like this and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.”

The metaphysical poets used extended metaphors which would go through an entire poem. These are known as conceits. But conceits are not unique to the Elizabethans or to poetry. Lawrence’s Women in Love is, in many ways, and on many levels, one long metaphor or conceit. Gerald, who 500 pages later will die beneath the snow in a storm in the mountains, is already described on page 15 as:

“something northern. In his clear northern flesh and his fair hair was a glisten like sunshine refracted through crystals of ice.”

Women in Love is, in Lawrence’s words, “purely destructive”. It is about creation and decay, man’s fight against chaos and dissolution. Gerald is unable to fight and turns back towards inanimate matter, which is symbolised throughout the novel by ice and snow.

The Great Gatsby is also one long metaphor. Everything hinges on money and a superficial “foul wasteland” and Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy, symbolised in the very first chapter of book by the mysterious green light on the other side of the bay.

“He stretched out his arms towards the dark water…. I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.”

The green light is a symbol for hope and promise, a way of escaping from the “ash heap” of the present. Fitzgerald brings his conceit to a close in the last paragraph of the novel:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….. And one fine morning – –

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

It is not only the choice of metaphor that is important. The words chosen to express the metaphor are equally significant.

Let’s look at two ways of saying good-bye. John Donne, at the beginning of Valediction Forbidding Mourning, writes:

“Let us melt and make no noise.”

In her novel, Brick Lane, Monica Ali also speaks about a parting between two lovers.

“’I can’t go with you,’ she said.

‘I can’t stay,’ said Chanu, and they clung to each other inside a sadness that went beyond words and tears.”

Donne’s sentence is far more powerful, not only because of the image he uses, but also because of the alliteration in the sentence. It is a crafted piece of work, not a throw-away emotion that we have all thought and felt. At one time or another, we have all felt that our sadness goes “beyond words and tears”. Very few of us have ever thought of saying “let us melt and make no noise”.

But Donne’s craft does not stop there. His use of the word ‘melt’ allows him to make a comparison with gold. The lovers have a “refined” love, as in alchemy gold was a refined metal. Whilst they are apart, the distance that separates the lovers will not cause their love to break, but to expand “like gold to aery thinness beat”. We should remember that the alchemical symbol for gold was a circle and that the circle was the renaissance symbol for perfection. This allows Donne then to introduce perhaps his most famous comparison of the two lovers being like the two feet of a compass, where the lover at home is the fixed foot, and the poet travels and describes a perfect circle.

“Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun.”

Imagery, metaphor and simile help to make writing, literature – often an unpopular word in our contemporary world of ephemeral pop stars and forgettable, often forgotten, novels, performance art and performance poets.

Thank God we’ve still got Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” (Subterranean Homesick Blues – Bob Dylan).

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