An Essayby Donald Hall
A young poet friend calls my letters the Dead Metaphor Bulletin. It is possible that I am a crank about dead metaphors. Another friend sent me a completed manuscript, which I read with pleasure, and when I wrote him I congratulated him on writing a long book with only four dead metaphors in it. They were the usual things, often nouns used as verbs, often monosyllabic or disyllabic, often taking their origins from archaic sources—words like shield, cradle, plough, and dart. In minor pique, he answered me alluding to “Hall’s Index.”
The phrase dead metaphor is a dead metaphor, henceforth known as DM. The phrase implies that the metaphor was once a living organism, like a human being, but died and became a corpse. When we use such words in our poems, we populate our poems with zombies.
A defense of poetry argues that the art fulfills a social function by using fresh DM language, keeping the language new or lively DM. Fresh compares language to bread or lettuce. (When you call air fresh, you compare it, say, to strawberries; when you call it crisp, you compare it to potato chips.) When we hear that the city is blanketed with snow, we understand that the city is covered with snow as a blanket covers a bed and its occupants. But reading blanketed, we respond only to a portion of the word, the portion abstracted into the notion of covering. We don’t feel the irony in the metaphor—blankets warm us—because our mind cancels the literalness of the word and takes in only the word’s abstracted sense. Its physicality is lost. If we use blanket to mean “cover” in a poem, lacking the image of woolen fabric and the feel of warmth, we write poems using language that is shallow DM or stale DM.
When we speak, when we write letters or newspaper headlines, we use dead metaphors and we understand each other. The dead metaphor is not a criminal activity—but it is an activity at odds with poetry. If a poem is to alter us, or to please us extravagantly, it requires close attention from both poet and reader. Close attention to language is the contract DM that writer and reader sign. The terms of the contract require that each word be fully used—so that its signification, implication, association, and import may impinge upon us, move us, and reward intelligent attention.
One dead metaphor will not sink DM a poem. Theodore Roethke’s “The Meadow Mouse” is a small powerful lyric, original in language: “My thumb of a child”; “The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising . . .” But the poet went careless for one word when he wrote that he brought the mouse inside “Cradled in my hand.” Cradles are no longer commonplace objects, but everyone knows what a cradle is; we can all visualize a cradle. When cradle is used as a verb, the particularity of the word has deteriorated, diminished, and abstracted into “hold in a protective manner.” In news magazines, people cradle Uzis—and the writer does not intend to compare automatic weapons to infants. The abstracted verb has no wooden sides or rockers; it comforts no babies. Although “The Meadow Mouse” survives DM one egregious dead metaphor, the word is a blemish DM on the poem. When a poem strings DM such words together, a necklace of putrescence, the poem stinks DM.
A poem is no better than its skin. A poem requires a skeleton, and doubtless a soul or at least a brain, but without skin this body cannot stand or walk, dance or sing. Translations are scams because skin seldom translates. (We learn from leading translators that Goethe and Pushkin made poems out of dead metaphors; I don’t believe it.) Translation is a useful scam, so that languageless readers may gather notions of what Cavafy or Tu Fu are up to . . . but Frost’s “poetry is what gets lost in translation” is a definition of poetry. Poetry lies in the minute shades DM that distinguish among words commonly known as synonyms. Poetry happens in the differences between the words listed together in a Roget paragraph: “chaste, virtuous; pure, pureheared, pure in heart; clean, cleanly; immaculate, spotless, blotless, stainless, taintless, white, snowy; unsoiled, unsullied, undefiled, untarnished, unstained . . .”
The poem’s skin is its words, and words are phonemic sequences, combined for beauty of sound, which are also bundles DM of history and circumstance, so that a dart is not d-a-r-t but a feathered projectile hurled by Englishmen in pubs, or poisoned and ejected from blowguns, or Cupid’s arrows—and abstractly a verb for quick movement, useless in a poem. In late Robert Lowell we found “minnows darted”—and early Robert Lowell must have whirled in early Robert Lowell’s grave. Minnows have darted in several poets’ poems. When a poet uses dart for “the act of sudden acceleration or movement” and compares this motion to a small fish’s, the poet violates the contract with the reader. For one thing, minnows move quickly but not in the manner of darts. Minnows speed for a few inches, stop abruptly, and squirt off again at an angle, often a right angle. The dart has not been invented that pauses and alters direction. When Shakespeare had lovers dart glances at each other, iconography supported his verb: There is a quiver on Cupid’s back.
Intelligent people have devoted much thought to the nature of metaphor and other figures of speech. I do not disparage this thinking, but in this practical guide DM to incompetent language, I am unwilling to explore DM distinctions among metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and algorithm. I speak merely of inadequate diction, physical words used in a sense abstracted from particularity, of which the particularity is universally available or even unavoidable. I speak of poets using false color DM, words that would be as bright as Matisse if familiarity had not turned them gray and tan. Headline writers find delight in dead metaphor. I believe that PTA TAKES AIM AT VIOLENCE is deliberate wit, the dead metaphor as pun. But I doubt it was conscious salad to write TOMATO SALES MUSHROOM IN CONNECTICUT. Recently an obituary in the New York Times spoke of a mountain climber who PAVED THE WAY ON MT. EVEREST. The same paper told us later that REBELS IN PERU LEAVE DOOR AJAR ON ASYLUM.
Commonly, when I accuse my friends of dead metaphor, they rightly point out that all language is ultimately metaphoric, and they entertain me with derivations: cliché is a French printers’ word meaning stencil or plate, a preassembled block. Yes. And mostly a word’s metaphoric origin is buried DM in etymology or antiquarianism. When Richard Wilbur, in “Lamarck Elaborated,” writes of “the tactless finger-bone” and how nature “inspired the nose,” he speaks to that portion of his audience (I suppose considerable) who will understand that to inspire is to breathe in and that something is tactless when it lacks touch.
It’s not only a matter of Latin. Once in a poem I wanted to speak of the shape hay makes on the ground after a mowing machine has cut it. I used the noun wake, and the context excluded Finnegan’s sort. My noun was visually appropriate but deplorable in its inefficiency—because the reader would not see the dead metaphorical wake of a boat, which has been abstracted into “anything that follows.” The wetness of wake is suppressed (or comically present) in the spread hay drying under the sun. A magazine sent me a proof of my poem containing wake just as I returned from a gathering where I had denounced dead metaphor with special attention, as it happened, to wake. I telephoned the editor, frantic with a revision and apologizing for my gaffe. He accepted my change and told me that he had no idea what I was talking about. For a substitute, I turned not to a new metaphor (I found none handy) but to a word that would carry the sense without intruding the false color of a dead metaphor. I used aftermath. When I looked the word up in the OED I was amused: aftermath originally meant the second mowing of a field, “aftermowth.”
It doesn’t now. Few readers will know the derivation so that common sense will allow the word in its abstracted sense of “anything that follows.” George Orwell made a distinction between moribund metaphors and dead ones. Aftermath would be dead because readers do not recognize its physical origin; wake would be moribund. (Although I recognize Orwell’s distinction, I choose not to follow his classification here; it is convenient to use dead metaphor to signify the sort of thing that most of us mean by “dead metaphor.”) Another example like wake and aftermath: I once denounced dart to a friend and asserted that I would prefer a boring substitute to the dead metaphor: I would rather write move quickly than dart. As my friend pointed out, to move quickly is to move in the manner of a live person rather than in the manner of a dead person. Since this use of quick survives only in “the quick and the dead,” I permit myself quickly without considering it a DM.
Maybe I am inconsistent or arbitrary. If I read the word churn, I think butter, yet poets I respect use the word for any agitated motion. (When Pound wrote, “So-shu churned in the sea,” in the second canto, he alluded to Ovid’s metamorphoses in which a ship turns into rock.) Yet I use the word flail, as in “flail about,” although I know what a flail looks like. Maybe I deceive myself that the particularity of flail has nearly evaporated DM. I deplore shoulder—as in “take on a burden” (PRESIDENT SHOULDERS BLAME FOR . . .)—but I am seldom disturbed by hand, as in “proffer” (PRESIDENT HANDS OVER DECISION. . . . ) I used handy, above, without calling it a DM. If Hall in his language violates Hall’s Index, praise the Index and blame Hall.
Along with dart, another favorite dead metaphor among contemporary poets is cup. In poems (and in prose and in all discourse) we are always cupping things, and often our actions bear no resemblance to the shape of a cup. I remember a poet cupping a dead rabbit. Another frequent DM is echo, used for any loud noise, without the possibility of a literal echo. Poets use echo also to indicate any repetition. It has become a poetical word, like pattern, that prettifies without indicating anything. Mirror is just as common—used as a verb meaning “to copy or reproduce”—as echo is. If we pause in revision between echo and mirror, as verbs of duplication, we cannot be searching for the right word. Other common DMs: erase, dwarf, tool, flower, veil, fog, fade, haunt, haunted.
Illness provides ten thousand wounds DM to the language, which Hall’s Index would nurse DM back to health DM. The dead metaphor is a cancer DM in the poem’s language, which only revisionary scrutiny can cut out DM. We are crippled DM when we use crippled, except in its literal sense. What’s more, we are sick DM. Maybe the dumbest DM is blind. We should never use the word except to indicate sightlessness. Writing poems, we must save cup for a thing that you drink coffee from. A harbor must be a refuge for ships, not for poets. A mirror is something that hangs on a wall. It’s only in revision that we uproot DM the dead metaphors that inspiration provides—or we may need the help of friends. Jane Kenyon read my drafts first, and triumph would rise in her voice when she told me, “Perkins, here’s a dead metaphor!” Common sense notoriously overlooks one’s own errors while it discerns the errors of others.
Earlier I mentioned that the sources of many DMs are archaic: king, reign, scepter. Not long ago most of our ancestors farmed, and the vocabulary of agriculture supplies many DMs. The fullback plows DM through the line. If the defensive line finds this assault harrowing DM, how many sports writers have observed a harrow breaking soil? In our poems we sow DM, we plant DM, we reap DM, and we enjoy harvest DM. Because our language and literature derive from an island nation, our dead metaphors navigate DM the seven seas. Endlessly we drift DM. Clouds drift, our minds drift, practically everything drifts. To express the contrary fixity, we anchor DM ourselves. (An anchor is apparently synonymous with a chemical binding solution, since we might as well be glued DM to a chair as be anchored to it. Another kind of fixity is more drastic: We are paralyzed DM.) Needless to say, we harbor DM to protect; that is, we harbor as we cradle—and a harbor resembles a cradle as much as an echo resembles a mirror. Other nautical relics: rudder, flotsam and jetsam, keel. Architecture supplies another set: architecture itself, tower, arch, vault, buttress, foundation.
The word forge is used by people who never saw one. Joyce has the young Stephen Dedalus vow “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Granted that the mature author used rhetorical inflation to satirize his younger self, Joyce and his readers could not forbid themselves to see the image of an actual forge because they lived in an age of blacksmith. Also, Joyce made his metaphor more concrete by extending forge into smithy. Sometimes we may resuscitate the dead by extending and developing the metaphor, therefore enforcing the physical. Forge departs from the abstract create when the physical smithy brings the blacksmith alive. Can one make a dead metaphor walk? Possibly by speaking of zombies. But it is chancy; we are more likely to link DM dead metaphors together.
What about spur? When Milton wrote that “fame” was “the spur,” the poet was the horse and his avid pursuit for honor dug sharp points into his own ribs. The element of pain—giving and getting—could not be overlooked. When Yeats was an old man he wrote “The Spur”: “You think it horrible that lust and rage / Should dance attention upon my old age: / They were not such a plague when I was young: / What else have I to spur me into song!” Yeats’s plague is a DM; but spur? Yeats wrote late in the 1930s, when people rode horseback more rarely than they did in Milton’s England. But Yeats was born in 1865 and celebrated hard-riding country gentlemen. I think that pain remained inside spur, and the poet was the horse with his own “lust and rage” digging painfully into his own side. Today, when the headline tells us that CHRISTMAS SALES SPUR ECONOMY, no horse gallops across newsprint.
Medieval or ancient warfare decimates DM language, urged on by phalanxes of cliché. Armor DM yourselves against this onslaught DM. Avoid: shield, siege, sword, invade and invasion, army, weapon. Another class of DMs slips from the military to the sadistic: kill, torture, whip, scar. Another DM is offensive: “He slaves over his geraniums.”
Is the DM a contemporary epidemic DM or flood DM? The DM has always been with us, as a glance at old magazines will confirm. Nor is it confined to one form or division of poetry. Two of our language poets use more DMs than the rest together; neoformalists score high on the DM-meter. Certain poets who specialize in the ironies of received language—John Ashbery, heaven knows—use DMs to desired or purposeful effect. Once when Ashbery heard a poet claim that poetry cleansed the language, he murmured that his own work “gave it a blue rinse.” Sometimes a poet uses a DM as part of an idiom, where an alternative would be periphrastic. What can you do except cap DM a nuclear pile? The practice I deplore is the unwitting use of DMs in the pursuit of poetic effect: the unrealized comparison as false color.
Of course, the ways of failure are infinite. A poem without a single DM will most likely be wretched anyway.