This is the fifth in a monthly series by Dave Lucas, the Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. You can read the September Installment, (No. 1), here; the October Installment, (No. 2), here; the November Installment (No. 3), here; and the December installment (No. 4), here.
“Education is not the filling of a pail,” reads the sign above my colleague’s desk, “but the lighting of a fire.”
These lines—often attributed to the poet W. B. Yeats—happen to articulate my own beliefs about teaching as well, but that’s not why I love them, or why I mention them here.
I love that this sentence, ostensibly about education, is also an argument between metaphors. A search for the best comparison to help us understand, to grasp not just what learning is but what it is like
For the record, Yeats is wrong—at least literally. As we know, education in the strictest sense is neither a filling nor a lighting. The Oxford English Dictionary
supplies several definitions: “culture and development,” “systemic instruction,” and one obscure mention of the “rearing of silkworms.” But nothing about buckets or arson.
These definitions offer the letter but not the spirit of education. For that we need the figurative language of metaphor: as when Robert Pierce compares knowing a poem to knowing a city, or when Mark Twain says that the right word is to the almost right word what the lightning is to the lightning bug.
Metaphor helps us see whatever we look at by making us imagine it as something else. Consider the shapeshifting metaphors of Margaret Atwood’s tiny masterpiece “[you fit into me]”:
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
A few millimeters of blank space change our whole notion of this relationship. The barbed hook of the simile gets under the skin, and won’t come out.
The eighteenth century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa performs a similar bait and switch in this quicksilver haiku, translated by Robert Hass:
The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
The flood of meltwater becomes the rush of joyous children; our sense of the village becomes in a glance as new as their own.
In each poem we glimpse a vision of the world, only for the angle to change, revealing that all along we’ve been looking at something else.
The lens of metaphor clarifies even as it distorts. We become familiar with what is strange by speaking of the strange in terms of the familiar. Or, as the poet Beth Ann Fennelly writes, “you are closest to something / when naming what it’s not.”
Metaphor makes possible what I have called the “strange alchemy” of poetry. By this I mean the metamorphosis of marks on the page or sounds in the air into something else: the illusion of personal encounter that we experience when we read or hear a poem. The feeling that we are being addressed across the room or across the centuries.
The old alchemists sought to change one thing into another, to transmute
lead into gold. They wanted to do with metal what metaphor does with words.
The word itself—metaphor
, derived from the Greek—means “to carry or bear” “across or beyond;” its Latin cousin is the word translate
, which means roughly the same. So metaphor translates our experience by rendering one thing in terms of another.
At its most basic, as Aristotle writes in the Poetics
, metaphor is simply the “application of a noun which properly applies to something else.” “Simply,” I say—and yet to me this is the essential and profound mystery of poetic language. That we can say one thing, mean another, and somehow be understood as doing both at once.
War is hell.
Time is money.
Love is a battlefield.
Aristotle, meet Pat Benatar.
The paradox of metaphor is that by putting a mask on mere reality we unmask a more profound reality. Similarly, the mask of the poem allows us poets to be more ourselves, as every actor or playwright or child on Halloween already knows. What covers the face uncovers the heart.
The miracle happens when language and metaphor allow us to see ourselves in the other, and vice versa. The figurative language of poetry offers us that illusion of encounter with another, with the other.
If literature can make us “better people” (and I’m skeptical), then metaphor is the vehicle. Metaphor is the only way I know to achieve the sort of empathy in which we exchange “I” for “Thou,” to experience the other as oneself.
One noun substituted for another, as Aristotle would say. But the difference between poetics and ethics happens when we consider how to behave toward those odd proper nouns all around us, each of them an “I” in their own right, each wondering how to behave toward us.
Only metaphor allows us to suppose what it is like to be them. If only for the instant of the metaphor, “I” becomes “Thou” and vice versa. You may remember Walt Whitman’s line: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
We see this alchemy at work in the Gospels too. The same Jesus who teaches in parables offers his disciples a more profound metaphor. When did we clothe thee? the righteous ask. When did we take thee in? Christ answers: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren,” “ye have done it to me” (Matthew 25: 37-40).
This is a lot to ask of poetry. More than the filling of a pail or even the lighting of a fire.
And yet, ever since the storied confusion of the tongues, language has been both the chasm between us and the metaphorical bridge across that distance.
Those distances can be as long as thousands of years, and as wide as the world itself. And yet in poetry they are never more than a few words away.