We lost a famous poet this past week at the age of 87; his name was Derek Walcott. Today, NPR has been featuring his work, and discussing his effect on humanity. In one sense, I must confess I don’t know that I’m familiar with his work. Nevertheless, I am intimately familiar with one of the tools of his trade: the use of metaphor.
I have been thinking about the power of metaphor over this past week, especially since returning from an out-to-town trip to visit with my wife’s elderly and frail parents. We tend to listen to music a good bit when we are traveling, and one particular piece struck my heartstrings as I listened to the haunting and ominous song, “Into the West,” from The Lord of the Rings.
What can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea, a pale moon rises.
The ships have come to carry you home.
Of course, as I listened, I pondered my own close brush with death this past October. But more than that, I was struck with renewed realization of the awesome power of metaphor. And I pondered writing about it soon. Thus . . . this blog entry.
We are sentient beings, of course, aware of our own existence and the existence of persons and things around us. Yet this awareness alone does not explain our penchant for expressing our deepest thoughts and longings through metaphor. We are “all about” denotation, what words literally mean, until it comes to things we hold closest to our hearts (Ah! There is metaphor at work, too).
When it comes to love . . . or hate . . . or birth . . . or death . . . we flee to metaphor, we latch onto hyperbole, we cling to illustrative language, because something deep within us tells us that the simple, straightforward definition of things isn’t enough; it isn’t the whole truth, or the full spectrum.
And that amazes me!
It must be that the nature of life, the awareness of existence, the fullness of living in this world calls us, engages us, even pushes us into a level of contemplation that goes beyond the visible, beyond the readily explainable, into another realm.
Thus, we have poets writing poetry. We fly like birds, we drown in sorrows, we pass away like the early morning fog, we are ablaze with anger, etc. And it doesn’t seem to matter if you “like” poetry or not; you may find it quite cumbersome and confusing. Nevertheless, when you encounter the Gordian Knots of your life you will, more often than not, be forced to use metaphor to describe them.
When my mother passed away in August 2012 I was at her bedside within an hour or so of her death. We watched as she was briefly examined, then pronounced dead in the wee hours of the morning. I approached her body as it lay still, touched her hands, examined her face with what would be my final glimpse of her on this earth. Her hazel eyes were mostly closed as I drank in the serene yet lifeless visage before me.
And I was completely engulfed in the stark reality of that moment, and sobered beyond words. Of course, all that had happened was that her heart had stopped beating. She had taken one final breath (the nurse told us) after having been asked if she was all right (and she had said, “Yes”), and she was gone.
But metaphor will not allow us to stop there. Because the facts are not adequate, it seems.
When a loved one passes we must use metaphor; to refuse to do so (even if one could) would dishonor and dehumanize the whole occasion to such an extent that it would be surprising if the rocks themselves didn’t cry out from the ground.
This is one reason why some war atrocities are so infuriating to us. Life is sacred. And when we do not treat it as such we do damage to ourselves that is not possible to quantify.
I think metaphor points to a reality we all wish were true, even if we find ourselves unable to embrace it intellectually, e.g. atheists, agnostics, etc. It is the cry of our primal nature (if you will), buried deep within our DNA. And we dare not extinguish it, for to do so would make us less than human.
I, for one, do not pray that I can write; rather, that my words will flow freely. I do not merely want to be understood; rather, I want to make heart connections. And when I do depart this life at some future date, I hope to either fly away, or bag-in-hand, board a ship that will take me home.