"Tis Backed Like a Weasel": The Slipperiness of Metaphor

Tony Hoagland | March/April 2001

Zack Rogow


There is something irreconcilably, neurologically primal about the act of metaphor. This primal wildness conceals it from us. Because metaphorical speech is such a commonplace, because almost anyone can and does produce metaphor on a daily basis, we assume that it is scrutable. Because it is a mental process, because it takes place inside our own heads, because it leaves our own authorial lips, we assume we know something of its workings. But we do not. Finally, the only adequate way to describe the metaphorical event is by another metaphor. It is a mystery hand going into a black mystery box. The head says, "Fetch me a metaphor, hand," and the hand disappears under a cloth. A moment later, the hand reappears, metaphor on its extended palm. But despite the spontaneity and ease of this event, we have little idea of where the image came from. And neither does the hand.

What we know for sure is that metaphor is the raw uranium of poetry, and that an urge to say that one thing is like something else is one of the earliest markers of the poetic spirit, the nascent poet. And it is a striking fact that some people, otherwise very intelligent and artistic people, seem devoid of metaphorical ability, as if that gene were simply missing from their chromosomes. In that way metaphor seems truly a gift; that is, something given, not earned. Aristotle said that he could teach you to write a play, he could teach you beginning/middle/end, he could teach you the parts of rhetoric, but he could not teach anyone to make a metaphor. Hemingway didn't have it, or didn't want it—and became the archangel of American realism. In poetry, William Carlos Williams—our red wheelbarrow—is the figure we have nominated as our token realist—and, though this reputation is not really very accurate, it is true that WCW is a man of images, but not metaphor. Emerson did have it, and metaphor flows out of him like Perrier from some high Swiss alp. Emerson's essays, which are his real poetry, seem basically the result of holding a bottle under that transcendental faucet: all the essays say the same two things (know your worth/try harder), but they say it with enormous figurative variety. Emerson is an amazing and persuasive metaphorical thinker, not a logical one; to read him is to enter a kind of drunkenness, which suggests something about the disorienting nature of metaphor. The beginning of his essay "Experience" goes like this:

We wake and find ourselves on a stair. There are stairs below us which we seem to have ascended, and there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception.

Over the years, I have read "Experience" a half dozen times, and yet I must confess that I cannot recall what Emerson's main point about Experience is; still, the image of those stairs lingers in my mind, an analogue for strange wakefulness in mid-life. This fact, that metaphors can be separated from their contexts, that they often seem to function independently of the rest of the work they belong to, suggests a fact worth noting: that metaphors often have an irregular relationship to their texts, whether it be a poem, a story or, in this case, an essay.

Stephen Dobyns, in his excellent essay, "Metaphor and the Authenticating Act of Memory,"1 provides a sturdy definition of the well-governed metaphor. A functional metaphor is an engine of equivalence:

Generally speaking, they [metaphors] are forms of comparison which exist to heighten the object of the comparison... a metaphor consists of the object half and the image half... since the object half of the metaphor attempts to provide a context for the image, the object itself should be entirely clear.

The "equation" of a functional metaphor consists of an object half and an image half. Consider the example of a phrase by Robert Lowell, "A Sahara of snow."2 Snow, the object, provides the context for Sahara, the image. If a metaphor works well, the two images appear simultaneously in the mind, suspended in a kind of mutual resonance. There is an equivalence between them, but also a hierarchy, in which snow has a primary status, as the object half. Our quick trip to the Sahara lends us a perspective upon the snow, connotating vastness and barrenness.

Billy Collins's poem, "Weighing the Dog," illustrates a fairly representative use of metaphor:

Weighing the Dog

It is awkward for me and bewildering for him
as I hold him in my arms in the small bathroom
balancing our weight on the shaky blue scale

but this is the way to weigh a dog and easier
than training him to sit obediently in one spot
with his tongue out, waiting for the cookie.

With pencil and paper I subtract my weight
from our total to find out the remainder that is his
and I start to wonder if there is an analogy here.

It could not have to do with my leaving you
though I never figured out what you amounted to
until I subtracted myself from our combination.

You held me in your arms more than I held you
through all those awkward and bewildering months
and now we are both lost in strange and distant neighborhoods.3

"Weighing the Dog" is a sleek demonstration of metaphor in action, something one might show students to illustrate the basics of good metaphor management. The poem opens in realism and ends in image, beginning with a carefully described domestic narrative context, from which an image of some psychological eloquence springs naturally but surprisingly. What it is we are supposed to understand is clear, and the image performs its work with a coherence that seems natural and effortless.

In this poem, the speaker's failed relationship is the object half of the metaphor, and the image half, associatively suggested by the preceding narrative, is the vision of lost and homeless dogs. Notice how the image embodies the psychological mood of the speaker, a sort of empathetic pathos. With "strange and distant neighborhoods," Collins also adds a sort of mini-narrative to his image—the dogs wandering through the suburbs, down one street after another. Most importantly perhaps, the image, because it concertizes emotion, saves the poem's last line from seeming too sentimental.

and now we are both lost in strange and distant neighborhoods

Here we see precisely the perspective-granting function of metaphor—at the close of the poem we hold two images simultaneously in our mind's eye: lost dogs and lost lovers.

A metaphor goes out and comes back; it is a fetching motion of the imagination. Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk" fame was a metaphor-maker in that sense; sent forth with the family cow, which he was supposed to translate into money, he looked at some beans and saw wild visions of something else. His is a tale of irresponsibility rewarded. Here is Rilke's own slightly disordered image of fetching, from the 9th Duino Elegy:

For the wanderer from the valley doesn't bring back from the mountaintop some handful of earth he has found, untellable earth, but only some word he has found, a pure and simple word, the blue and yellow gentian.

Rilke's analogy is powerful, but illogical, too—the flower stands for the word which stands for the handfuls of earth we can't bring back—huh?

Effective metaphors are always more complicated than we suppose. Their singular, endorphin-like impact, which strikes so swiftly and so hard, like a happy blow on the head, makes us believe they are simple. Also, their nature as equations misleads us to believe that they are the servants of logic. Snow=Sahara. Lost lovers=lost dogs. But a fine metaphor exceeds logic in odd ways.

The problem—and the glory—is that metaphor is an intuitive brain function, being temporarily employed by a rational one. In its function of equivalence, however, the metaphor is held responsible to logic and correlation. Metaphor is produced by one part of the brain and interrogated by another. It is a lateral function which must fit into a forward movement. It is a vertical spike on a horizontal time line. It is a digression that must fit into an argument.

But the edges never get all tucked in. There are always loose threads, as in Billy Collins's poem "Man in Space."

Man in Space

All you have to do is listen to the way a man
sometimes talks to his wife at a table of people
and notice how intent he is on making his point
even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver

and you will know why the women in science
fiction movies who inhabit a planet of their own
are not pictured making a salad or reading a magazine
when the men from earth arrive in a rocket,

why they are always standing in a semi circle
with their arms folded, their legs set apart,
their breasts protected by hard metal disks.4

The analogy in "Man in Space" is highly functional—the image half, the description of the defensive Amazon space women, interacts creatively with the object half of the narrative situation in a way that resonantly exposes the situation for the reader. The equivalence is clear and rational, but surprising and joyful in its strangeness. There is what our critic-shaman Robert Bly would call a "leap" in this poem. Here the object half is "how women feel"; the image is, of course, the Amazon space women. We go out and refer back; in fact we go back and forth from situation to image, and the movement is very satisfying. And look at what the poet doesn't need to say ideologically: he doesn't need to state his thesis: "Women have so much legitimate reason to resent men, or wives their husbands, that if they had their own planet, they would not allow men onto it." What happens in the image is more vivid, playful, and complex than discursive ideology. The image does the work.

And yet, and yet—when a ship goes to another country and then returns, it always brings some kind of foreign vegetation attached to its hull. Under the waterline, some zebra mussel or termite is hunkered in the dark—and a metaphor too will always return from its journey with something unintended attached. In the Collins poem, which seems so tidy, so well "closed," we have the odd sexual subtext of the images—the spread legs and the pointy breasts of the Amazon women. These details probably come from the psychological subtext of the '50s sci fi movies which are Collins's source. Those movies were made, after all, by men, not women, and the result is the oddly confusing image of proto-feminist go-go dancers. It's sci-fi night at the Playboy Mansion! If this is a poem of feminist sensibility, it totes some funny baggage with it. (And doesn't it also, by the way, imply that women are aliens?) In this sense, metaphors should, like prescription drugs, probably carry a warning label about possible side effects: A label on the Collins poem might say, "Warning: this politically correct poem could prolong your sexism."

But this is always going to be the case; unintended adjunct qualities will always attach themselves to metaphors—their luminosity lies not just in their equivalency but in their unmanageability.

Popular culture abounds with other examples. I'm sure I am not the first to notice that when Mae West makes her famous remark, "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?," the subtext is pretty spooky, suggesting as it does that male genitals are a deadly weapon. Another troubling public use of metaphor is that bumper sticker often seen on the cars of educators, the one that says, "A mind is like a parachute: It only works if it's open." Sounds good, for a second. But what about the sub-implication of this analogy: that the body is plummeting towards the ground at tremendous speed? And if it is, after all, are we supposed to think the mind is really going to save it?

My point is that more irregularity resides in the process of metaphor than we credit with our definitions and our ideas of hierarchy in functioning. If metaphor provides another level to a poem, and it does, it is not always exactly supplemental, and that level itself has levels within it. The mind moves back and forth between the object and the image and forth and back and what is inside and outside, foreground or background, often becomes unclear.

Here's a poem which illustrates the fantastic elasticity of metaphor, and some of its disorienting properties. The poem is "A Long Commute" by Laura Kasischke, one of the premiere image-makers of my generation:

A Long Commute

Faith is a long commute. Lots
of time to change
the station on the radio, time
to relive the past, to consider
the future the way
the boy in the bus station standing by the trashcan
the afternoon the bomb went off
must have had time to consider

his own hands carefully in his hands. The road

is narrow and it goes

straight through the gardens of Paradise. Lots

of soggy godhearts dripping
blood on their bloody vines. Behind me

a beautiful blind girl carries a Bible
home in a plastic bag, while

before me, an old
woman and her old mother
drive a Cadillac over
the flowers slowly.5

Kasischke establishes her presiding metaphor in the first line, and we interrogate it for equivalence: What does "a commute" mean, we ask, in the context of faith? Well, it is a kind of going to work, an equivalence we can entertain. But the sequence of images which follows the opening assertion is dreamy, peculiar, and expansive—images so rich and particular they effectively displace our memory of the poem's alleged theme. In fact, we forget their metaphorical status. These images in their alternate world take on independent lives, which we only intermittently refer to our alleged thesis. We could call this allegory, but that term only partially accommodates the dark surrealism of the poem. What is the "equivalence," for example, of the image of the blind girl carrying a Bible in a plastic bag? What about the soggy godhearts dripping on their vines?

Kasischke's metaphors have a daring recklessness which has to do with her intuitive method; hers is a temperament less governed by precise equivalence than by a surrender to the riptides of psyche. This is the dream-realm beloved by Freud and Magritte. And finally, this hallucinatory narrative-allegory inside the image half of the metaphor is mysterious in a way that the Collins poem isn't, because it comes from another temperament—one with a different, more rhapsodic relationship to metaphor.

For the purposes of this essay, the poem shows that equivalence is a limited concept when it comes to metaphor. If, in some hands, metaphor is employed on a mission of perspective, i.e. a moving away from a thing in order to better see it—Kasischke's poem illustrates the equally operative aspect of fantasy in metaphor-making. And let us remember—fantasy is not about "bringing back" the resources of the imagination to enrich realism, but about downright escaping the force of gravity.

Kasischke's poem elicits a significant issue, an inevitable issue in regard to metaphor: the competition between a local moment in a poem and the poem as a whole.

This tension between the localized textual pleasures of image and the global economy of the poem are addressed in part by Mary Oliver in her statement about imagery from her book, A Poetry Handbook:

There are no rules about using imagery. Certainly it enlivens and deepens the poem. It is a source of delight. It makes the poem more meaningful—more of an experience. It is powerful stuff. How much one uses it is a matter of taste. The writer would be wise to remember, however, how much emotional excitement it can create. The poem that, all along its line of endeavor, pauses to give out "jolts" of imagery may end up like a carnival ride: the reader has been lurched, and has laughed, has been all but whiplashed—but has gotten nowhere. In the shed electricity of too much imagery the purpose of the ride—and a sense of arrival—may be lost.

There is also the question of imagery that is fit and imagery that may be unfit. This too is a matter of taste. Poetry is a serious business. it is joyful and funny too sometimes, but it is neither facile nor poisonous. If you are not sure your imagery is appropriate, don't use it.

Oliver comes off here as the Miss Manners of poetic convention, but she represents one traditional position regarding image, and, by proxy, metaphor: that too much local "excitement" can undermine the poem's architecture as a whole, and in some way damage its cumulative power. The social analogy might be that if an individual metaphor is over-active it can undermine the social structure of the entire poem.

When metaphor is subordinated to the designs of the poem as a whole, as Oliver advocates, it often shifts grammatically, from the position of being a freestanding noun or phrase, to the verb or adjective position. In such forms it becomes more horizontal and less vertical, relative to the forward movement of the poem. Here in the beginning of the poem "Interrupted Meditation" by Robert Hass, we can see Hass thinking about the proper position of metaphor (italics mine).

Little green involute fronds of fern at creekside
and the sinewy clear water rushing over creekstone
of the palest amber, veined with a darker gold
thinnest lines of gold rivering through the amber
like—ah, now we come to it. We were not put on earth,
the old man said, to express ourselves.

The water is sinewy and the creekstone is veined and rivered—there are metaphors aplenty here. And yet Hass seems to consider these grammatically buried metaphors as qualitatively different from the more overt simile he begins to initiate and then turns back from making, "like."

It is a significant distinction. The simile, Hass guiltily implies, would be an act of self-expression and thus self-glorification. Such a metaphor would be of a categorically different nature than the metaphors already buried in the text of his description; which are unobtrusive, chosen in a spirit of representational fidelity. Though they supplement and augment the poem's discourse in subtle ways, they do not take a dramatically active role in the poem; they don't proclaim their singularity. And in that way, they seem to be of a different species than, for example, the Collins metaphors or the Kasischke.

In its function of equivalence, metaphor is used as a clarifying, focusing technique. If we conceive of a poem as a social act, we could say that the poem as a whole is responsible to the reader, and that its success is measured in part by the reader's ability to imaginatively inhabit its comparisons. Metaphor may be, from this perspective, a hugely enriching device, but it must not be permitted to toss the rider from the horse. On the other hand, when metaphor is employed in its more fantastic function, its truth might be said to lie in its exhibition of impulsiveness, as in this fragment of Andre Breton's "Le Postman Cheval":

We are the sighs of the glass statue that raises itself on its elbow when man sleeps
and shining holes appear in his bed
holes through which stags with antlers can be seen in a glade
and naked women at the bottom of a mine...

Breton's subject is the inner world, the self-creating imagination, in motion; to him, the social world is a lie, including any worry about good taste or reader comprehension. Imagery is true to the extent that it reveals process, and art is reliable to the extent that it trusts in the revelation of process. The poem is an action, not an object, and it operates on a time scale of moment to moment jolts and explosions.

But for both the conservative and the radical, I would suggest, there is in the use of metaphor something faintly opposed to reality. Somber or joyful, rational or surreal, descriptive or fantastic, a metaphor is intrinsically a breaking away from fidelity and continuity, an allergic reaction to too much reality. Something there is that doesn't love an equal sign. Or, to refer back to the Collins poem, "Man in Space," I would assert that in every metaphor there is a tension between the forces of gravity and antigravity, between the marriage to realism and the rebellion of fantasy. What is gravity but a mean husband? What is freedom but the right to repel all boarders?

Something of this tension between the social and the imaginative is visible in one of my favorite scenes from Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2; a scene in which Polonius has come to summon Hamlet to an audience with his mother. The situation of the play is that everyone is worried about Hamlet's dangerous volatility; he is a wild card and they are lobbying both to "read" him and to tame him; they want him to get with the collective program.

Polonius: My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the Mass and 'tis, like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Me thinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Hamlet: Then I will come to my mother by and by. (aside) They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
Polonius: I will say so.
Hamlet: "By and by" is easily said.

It is easy in this scene to see Polonius as a doddering, people-pleasing, ill-used fool, and Hamlet as a mocking, arrogant youth. What is not so obvious is that Polonius himself, in his spineless agreeable way, is insidious, an agent of the hierarchy. For if he is trying to please by agreeing, he is also trying to draw Hamlet's imagination into consensus, into the social web. If only Polonius can get agreement about those clouds, Hamlet can be potentially harnessed into the collective agenda.

But Hamlet, that subversive figure, that poet, will not cooperate—he continuously changes his images, and, by implication, shape-shifts himself, moving out of reach. Hamlet's behavior, his insistence on difference, represents the anti-social impulse in metaphor, which speeds away from social reality. Hamlet's weapon against the forces that wish to "make him sane," to get real, is metaphor. Metaphor is the weapon for the person who would protect himself from too much reality, or from the wrong kind of reality—it creates a buffer zone of imaginative negotiability. And it protects his right to dream, which, like all freedoms, is dangerous.


  1. Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).
  2. "For the Union Dead" in Robert Lowell, Life Studies & For the Union Dead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 1972).
  3. "Weighing the Dog" from Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins, © 1995. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
  4. "Man in Space" from The Art of Drowning, by Billy Collins, © 1995. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
  5. "A Long Commute" by Laura Kasischke. Reprinted by permission of the author.

No Comments