The Last Word : Metaphorically speaking
Every morning I ride my blue bicycle down to Ocean Park where I, in an eco-friendly way, catch a bus to Edgartown. After working in my writing shed, walking the dog, running a household task or two, calling Mom, it is a great pleasure to sail down School Street and into the Campgrounds. School Street, for those of you unfamiliar with the byways of Oak Bluffs, is steep. There is a stomach-spinning plummet, a gentle roll, then a more level final 30 yards past the Island Transport garage where the road flattens out and brakes are applied. Wheee!
The reverse ride takes place after six hours of day job and a bus ride back from Edgartown. Most often with a few groceries tucked into the pannier to add a level of difficulty to the challenge of working my way back up the School Street hill. I can do it in second gear up about three quarters of the way, then I have to downshift to first, and pedal like mad. Huff and puff. The fact that the prevailing wind is southwest, and right in my face, doesn't help. Some days I can do it; some days I can't. If I were to use the experience as a metaphor, I would write that: my day is a downhill run. My evening an uphill challenge. The reader might catch on that the cycle of my days is strenuous. Pun intended.
Metaphors are that wonderful literary device whereby a word or a common phrase stands in for another. She had stars in her eyes. Its sister device, simile, is a more readily identifiable element in literature, or even in common language because of that little clue your English teacher told you about: like or as. Her eyes were like stars. Then there are symbols, things that stand in for emotions, decisions, hazards.
If metaphors and similes are tools in the writer's workbox (metaphor), and the reader is led to understand what the writer is trying to say in the story by their use, it is also true that in our daily lives there are metaphors and similes. And symbols. We are surrounded by the symbol of the sea. The ebb and flow of its immutable tides reflect the ebb and flow of our lives; the rising of hope, the fall of disappointment. Maybe we're more sensitive to ocean-going metaphors as the sea effectively rules our lives as they are lived on an island. We've missed the boat. It is both a metaphor for lost opportunity and a fact of life.
In everyday language, metaphors abound, and so many of them have become such a part of the English language we don't really think of them as metaphors as much as sayings. There are sports metaphors. Life is often referred to as a game, or when you've done something wrong twice, after the third strike, you're out. Nautical metaphors, two ships passing in the night stands in for proximity without contact. Animal metaphors like the oft-described gorilla in the room representing an unspoken knowledge. Metaphors and similes are like a linguistic shorthand (simile).
We dream in metaphor. Since Freud and his ilk made that discovery, psychiatrists have plumbed the depths of the subconscious to get to the central metaphors of a patient's illness. In your dreams you are on a merry-go-round? Ah! You feel like you aren't getting anywhere. So too have psychics and interpreters of dreams existed since the dawn of time to unravel the hidden meanings in the symbolism of dreams. In many cultures, dream metaphors are powerful and necessary to understanding the world.
Which brings me to the metaphor-rich world of poetry. A poet's stock in trade (metaphor) is metaphor, simile, and symbol. The whole point of most poems is to tell a story with metaphorical substitutions. The fog on little cat feet. A pair of ragged claws scuttling...or those coffee spoons measuring out a life. A poet is like a surgeon among general practitioners when it comes to using the metaphor or simile compared to writers of other forms. We may use (and abuse) the tool, but it isn't necessarily our sharpest. We have whole pages to toss in dialogue, analysis of characters, driving directions. The metaphors may be powerful, and help the reader get inside the character's head or understand his action, but they shouldn't clog up the flow of the story.
In many stories, a central symbol is a clue as to the author's intention. A symbol can be reworked and re-configured in different ways to bring home the point. In The Book of Joe, by Jonathan Tropper, the author uses air as a symbol for the way life can change abruptly. Throughout the course of the story about an author who comes back to the hometown he maligned savagely in his best-selling first novel, Tropper evokes the mutability of air. A pigeon hitting a window concludes that the air in front of him is suddenly solid. The protagonist, Joe, sees that he has been like Wiley Coyote just noticing that he is running on thin air, the safety of solid ground behind him; noting that it's only when he looks down that he falls. Joe is a man gliding through life until he hits the solid glass window of his past. Neat symbolism. Unfortunately, the author has a proclivity for using similes which can be a cheapened device if over-used. Over-using similes is like having a precocious child at a dinner party high-jacking the conversation. A little goes a long way. Run along now.
It's very windy today. So I shall coast down the hill like a kid on a skateboard. Tonight, unless the wind changes, I'll have to beat my way home against the wind that pushes against me with the flat of a hand. Metaphor, simile or symbol?