Shall I Compare Thee? Finding Affection for the Metaphor

by Melissa Bryan, Guest Contributor



In the 20th Century, Olson argued against the weak simile. Pound called for a poetry that is "austere, direct, free from emotional slither." Tristan Tzara announced the death of logic, and by extension, the logic of comparisons. Contemporary poets raised on the poetics of these masters often discard simile, not even deigning to employ it in the aforementioned ironic contexts.


Metaphor doesn't fare much better. Nothing is like anything else; therefore nothing is anything else. -The Great Figure: On Figurative Language, D. A. Powell


Metaphors Carry

Communication is a complicated venture. It is a more untrackable transaction than the flow of money across seas. We, in our own desperate attempts to be understood, choose words that inadequately express our perceptions. It is like we press the cancel transfer button on our own attempt to move currency. The gifted sum of our thoughts sent out to others to be regarded and dealt with rarely pays down debt or returns dividends. Sometimes we come up short, sometimes we overpay, and sometimes we ignore the effort altogether. This is why I never understand eschewing liminal forms of communications. It’s like an automated transaction; we don’t think about them too much, but they are accruing, so why not value them? Surely any step toward the gift of communication is worth attending to as educators.

In preparing to teach a graduate course on Assessment in ESL, I have been reading - and largely agreeing with - the concepts and anecdotes, theories and student samples provided by the authors of Assessment and ESL. And while context matters here, one interpretation of a student sample left me bereft. Frustrated even.


After a quick discussion of a Bradbury story, “All Summer In A Day,” the authors, Barbara Law and Mary Eckes, contend that one student who wrote in response to the story, “did not even address the issue. He was completely off topic” (Law and Eckes, 2007, p. 153). The assignment, according to the authors, was to write a letter as the main character, Margot, to the children who locked her in the closet on the one day of the year - in this super-sci-fi story - on Venus in which the sun comes out and the rain briefly stops. Maybe a trite summation, but bearing that detail in mind, the student who, “did not even address the issue” wrote: “If there was a dog locked insid the car. I would help [him] out and take [him] home. I also would freedom ….i would take cer of the dog.” ESL language acquisition errors and lack of knowledge of the letter genre aside, I really wondered if this is an example of a kid who “was completely off topic.”


I kept thinking: wasn’t the task to impersonate Margot? Wasn’t Margot the child in the Bradbury story who was locked up in a place and wanted out? Wasn’t the objective to write a letter to the perpetrators of Margot’s crime? Yes, yes to all questions, in fact. And, the student’s parallel discussion of Margot via the trapped dog image seemed to indicate that he was, metaphorically, on topic.


As teachers of language and literacy, we certainly want to be sure that we are assessing form, style, syntax, and more, but - and this is especially true (and something Law and Eckes would agree with) with multilingual learners - we have to be sure we are measuring what we are assessing. In this child’s case, the teacher was assessing story comprehension - not spelling, not syntax, and not letter form. The metaphor used by the student adequately carried his own understanding of the story to the teacher, and yet the interpretation of that comprehension was deemed “wrong.” Inarguably, though, Luis, the author of the dog letter, seems to have understood something fundamental about the story. No one wants to be trapped.


“That’s so Meta!”

Recently, as I was working on lessons related to the concept of love in literature in my high school English and Transitions English classes, I started the month of love, February, by asking my students to create a very visual representation of who they are. Being meta is, afterall, self-referential.


Specifically, I asked them to create a heart map. In this activity students are asked to compare themselves - in constituent parts - to the pieces of one’s heart. They may not recognize the task as metaphorical, but while the heart represents things one cares about, the map requires the creator to place the aspects of self in a specific arrangement of values for that person. In this way, the heart map is truly metaphorical. What is a metaphor if not a simple, concrete example compared to a larger, complex experience or idea for the sole purpose of making that complex idea all the more comprehensible to the reader (and for the source, as well)?


In reading my students’ heart maps, I understood the levels of their concerns - what rises to the top, what edges the space, and what settles deep at the bottom of themselves - more than if I has asked them to merely - and not metaphorically - write a narrative to explain to me what matters most to them.


We know metaphors have value. They help us logically derive conclusions. They help us understand the world we live in, and - most importantly - they contextualize that world for each person. Metaphors explain how individual each person’s own perception of reality actually is. To Luis, Margot was like a helpless dog. He communicated his understanding of Margot’s pain through comparison. It is a mark of mature thinking, and he should be lauded for understanding a character’s internal identity vis-a-vis a metaphor.


To that, I go back to Luis. He was surely far away from mastery of skills, but he was making a relevant comparison, and I would be hard pressed to look my student in the eye who wrote the same thing about the same story and say: “You just want to goof off.”


I can say this now after many years of teaching, but I didn’t always understand or appreciate how much a metaphor offers us in the classroom. My first year teaching, I taught Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman” to a class of College Prep ninth graders. I tasked the class with writing an analysis on the story by exploring the ways the narrator gives her aunt the identity her family stripped from her as revealed in Kingston’s vacillating past and present narrative style. A tall order to be sure, but most students managed the assignment in ways English teachers have come to expect. One classified student, however, wrote his entire piece about a growing tree, but referenced no details from “No Name Woman.” At the time, I definitely didn’t see any evidence in his writing of story comprehension. I might have even said to myself something like: “He is completely off topic.” I don’t think I would say that now, and it’s not because of a softening of my expectations. Rather, I think I understand the role and work of metaphor more than I ever did before.


Unblock the Metaphor

When I teach writing, there are two metaphors I have come to use in my class very often. Both were born out of a frustration with an inability to adequately and - to my mind - truthfully convey aspects of writing to my students. For example, I have always hated reading in teacherly books or writing texts that “writing is a circle.” How many graphics do we get of that image? Google “writing process” and you will see an excessive number of graphics that make writing look “fluid” and “easy.” Something like this:


Writing never felt that way to me. So years ago, I started showing students this image:



First, I ask students if they even know what this image is, and of course they do. But hilariously it is because it is what their “grandmother has at home!” But then I ask them, why might this be my example of what the writing process is for me?


I usually have them reflect on that in writing, and then we share out. Pretty quickly, too, students understand that I am referencing the dial on the phone and that writing is still recursive and cyclical for me. I then explain how I often feel like I write until I hit a “wall” or a point that stops me, and then I have to go back to the beginning, or the middle, or a sentence right before the end, and start my way through from that point until I hit the wall again. In other words, the way I have conceived of my writing process is still round, but it isn’t fluid or easy or whole; even as I glide back through revisions, the forward motion of my writing is jerky, thwarted, darted and hop-scotchy.


I end by asking my students to find an image or compare what their experience of writing is to a simple object. Then I know they are thinking. Then I know how to better help them when they write.


Further still, over the years I have taken to discussing thesis writing metaphorically. Thesis writing can be wildly abstract. Since I teach sophomores who are learning to drive, this metaphor piques their interest. I say something like:


“Imagine I am driving us somewhere. There is no Waze or Google Maps, but you have to get me from point A to point B, and you - as my passenger riding shotgun, are my directional “co-pilot.” On our trip, I ask you if I should turn left or right? And, you tell me to go left, but we are supposed to go right. Well, I have been driving a long time. I know when I am going in the wrong direction. I see all the wrong markers along the way, so I know I have to turn around or I have to find another route forward to get us back on track, but all the while - all while I am getting us back right again - I am frustrated we went the wrong way. That’s what happens when a thesis doesn’t direct. Be careful not to give the wrong direction to your reader because it’s hard and frustrating to turn around.”


Those two concrete writing metaphors have done more for my writing instruction than almost any other training I have been given or any other writing I have done myself over the years. You can see the meaning and comprehension wash over the students, and the images stick.


So why do people then, like Law and Eckes, seem dismissive of metaphors in a student’s writing? What is it about a metaphor that seems problematic?


In reading a recent acceptance speech for Excellence in Reviewing given by the National Book Critics Circle, the recipient and speaker introduced the audience to an ancient English text where the author, Wulfstan, was praised for no use of metaphors because it meant that he spoke plainly or “directly.” The idea being that in speaking plainly, one’s message is “freer” or perhaps more present. Then, too, in reading a New Yorker article under the header, “Block that Metaphor!” the author argued that comparing somewhat current Greek politics to the ancient, classical Greek world was an overused (maybe dead) metaphor which missed and ignored whole other really relevant parts of Greek history to which, conceivably, current Greek politics could also be compared. Both valid points. Metaphors could complicate ideas and metaphors do become cliche and die. Unfortunately, in both cases, the metaphors seem to do the opposite of what a metaphor should do; namely, make the abstract concept more comprehensible through its freshness. Objections to metaphors blight their purpose. It doesn’t stand that writing or thinking is better because it is free of metaphors or more alive without them.


And this is the point. Really, that is what metaphors do so well; they make complicated ideas visual and personal. Even for Luis; he made abundantly clear that he understood Margot’s feelings of being trapped, and he even - in saying, “I would help” - leveled a charge at the children who put her in the closet on that one sunny day on Venus. Not only did Luis understand (and make clear to his reader that he understood) that Margot was placed in a horrible situation and that she was helpless, but he also understood that those on the outside, those witnessing the caging, were morally-bound to free her.


Linguistic Virtuosity

To this then, the criticism or the dismissive reads of metaphors needs rethinking. Inept as I may be making this reference, in the mid-1900s, a rather solid group of linguistic philosophical thinkers, like Wittgenstein, developed or participated in a philosophy called “Ordinary Language Philosophy.” Perhaps the name of the philosophy seems at odds with the use of metaphor, which is very figurative in nature, but the philosophy tried to reorient Philosophy away from metaphysical inquiry. For example, the Ordinary Language philosophers might say, “We will never understand “Truth,” but we can understand “truth” if we look at “truth” in the contexts in which it is used in sentences.” When you, then, consider how the word or concept is used in all of its variants, and in its many diverse contexts, you start to understand what “truth” means. For example, I could say, “I speak the truth,” “Truth be told,” “It ain’t the truth,” “Truthiness,” or my favorite line by Tim O’Brien, “truth can kill.” In each of those cases (clichés, made up Colbert words, and dramatic, mic drop fiction writer statements), we can start to understand the meaning of truth. And, in fact, it is that granular, sentence-level approach to meaning-making that more aptly and plainly - to those philosophers at least - expresses reality than does some metaphysical answer to “What is Truth?” If that thinking is, pardon the pun, true, and if a sentence - which is a word derived from the Latin word for to feel - is an unfolding of meaning word-by-word to its end and never to be taken in wholly like a picture, then doesn’t a metaphor get us about as close as possible to a person’s own understanding of a text (or of reality)? A metaphor is contextual (on the page or to one’s own perception of reality), a metaphor opens up to us throughout the sentence with more feeling than any plain, direct, literal statement might, and a metaphor shares not just ideas but conceptual and personal meaning-making. It is a loaded element.


They Share Me

Metaphors do the work that almost no other language tool can. And still, I am not sure we value them as much as we should in the classroom or in serious work. When I have my students participate in Writing Groups and give them instructions on how to offer peer feedback, one method I guide them toward is one Peter Elbow suggests. He says that when you listen to and reflect on a peer’s piece, you should put that piece or their idea into a metaphor. Why would Elbow offer that feedback advice? Because if you make a metaphor, it means you understand what you read. It’s comprehension.


Metaphors are a necessary tape. As teachers, as students, as readers, and as writers, we need them. We need them to help ideas stick, we need them to put pieces together and to see transparently through how they connect ideas, and we need them because whether short or long, we enjoy watching them unfold. They are the most pliable and productive adhesive we have to gift our realities to others.