This is no. 28 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.
I remember being told a story when I was a student, though all these years later I wonder if it can be true. The course was in Modern Art History, and we were studying Bauhaus. My professor told us that on the first day of class, the Bauhaus teacher gave each one of his students a single sheet of paper. The assignment, he said, is to fold the paper in such a way that it can support the weight of your entire body. Some succeeded; some failed. But it is the assignment itself, the sudden and impossible challenge of it, that struck me—that one simple, blank page had to hold up the weight of your entire life. I then recognized something I’ve never recovered from, some true and awful thing about being a poet and a poet’s relationship, not to words or the beauties and meanings words offer, but to the blank space those words are written on, to the page: that one must learn to trust that its thin, near nothingness can bear the burden of a life. I realized that the poet has the simplest answer. You do not need to find the strongest method of folding, you do not need an intricate architecture of support; you just leave the page as it is and step onto the blankness.
Now I see that poetry intensifies the latent properties of the daily mundane into symbolic potency. The words on the chore list lend themselves to the desperate reverie of “Ode to a Nightingale.” A pencil makes its marks in the margins of the books I teach, and as the semester unspools day by day, and poem by poem, chapter by chapter, I sharpen the pencil and it grows shorter; I see this object of mere utility is also a mortal clock, and that the pencil’s beauty is a strange humility revealed in the seldom felt fact that it is, among all the objects I live my life among, one of the few that will disappear before I do. Walking to my Intro to Poetry course, I’ve come to realize—I hope, I fear—that the day’s lesson on some point of poetic craft is something other than what the definition in the Literary Dictionary holds, and is, instead, a complex consciousness, a vital form, a means of living a life. I know that sounds impossibly grand, but I think it’s true—that metaphor can be a philosophy, and metonymy a form of faith.
To help my students grasp such possibilities I ask them to take out a blank page of paper. The question is how to get from one corner to the opposite corner in the quickest way. The immediate reaction is to take a pencil and draw a straight line from corner to corner. But then some student figures it out and, leaving the pencil where its point stands, bends the opposite corner under its tip, letting the pencil ride across the distance without leaving a mark, for it has not “moved” at all. That is the discovery of metaphor. It helps us cross the distance we cannot imagine. And if it is as they say—those star-gazers, those physicists, those astronomers—that the earth isn’t the center of the universe, nor now is the sun, nor the Milky Way’s own black hole, but that all is in the red-shift, and flees from us in every direction at increasing speed into infinite distance, and between us and all we might love, as Emerson would have it, there is “an innavigable sea,” then metaphor becomes something other than the answer on the midterm, an implicit comparison between unlike things. It becomes a way to recognize the isolate nature of our condition, and a means of countering what otherwise could best be described as our cosmic loneliness. If the cost of the consciousness that language lends us is the inevitable sense of our separation from what it is we speak of, who it is we love, what it is we desire, then metaphor short-circuits that sad consequence and shuttles us—though we hardly feel the corner of the page slip under our feet—across the abyss of the universe. Is that hyperbole? Maybe. But sometimes the universe is just the living room. Sometimes the universe is nothing more than room A113 in Microbiology, where every Tuesday and Thursday from 12:30 to 1:45 I teach my class. That doesn’t mean the distance to cross is any less. If infinity has any lesson, it’s that every part of it is also infinite: chalkboard to student’s desk; word on a page to word in a mind.
But that’s only one way to think, only one literary term, only metaphor. There are other terms to heap your faith inside. Like metonymy, that form of substitution of a name or attribute for something closely associated with it. Think of noble Queequeg in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Royal prince, the prophets of his tribe tattooed on his body the entire epistemology of his people; his body bore the signs and symbols that held the secrets of his tribe, prophecies and histories, facts and faith. It’s a beautiful image, the body as Holy Book—of course, Queequeg left his people before those prophets could teach him how to read what on his body was written. He was himself a book he could not open, illiterate to the answers he bore, outcast from the knowledge that marked him, unrecognizable to himself by the very marks that identified him. Queequeg gets very sick. He has the carpenter make him a coffin. Instead of resting in his hammock, Queequeg gets each day into his coffin, and looking at the symbols etched on his body, carves each one onto the wooden lid. Not knowing how to get to his people’s heaven, he trusts some divine spirit will be able to read those mystic marks on the coffin itself, and take him where he most wants to go, the starry archipelagoes. I know you’ve been told the earth is round; so have I, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Maybe Queequeg’s coffin would float out to the horizon, and there, where we assume one drops behind the curve of the earth to continue a ceaseless circumnavigation of the globe, the heavens reveal themselves as metonymic, and what seems like unbridgeable distance is actually not, but is continuous, contiguous, a near substitution for what once seemed impossibly far away, and the noble prince will find his way to heaven, not because his soul has been lifted there from the wreck of his body, but because that frigate-coffin has sailed all the way to the distant islands of those stars. Metonymy says that what seems apart is not apart at all, but is instead a part, as one tile is a part of the mosaic whole, and connected to the whole image of the world, though one can’t see the picture fully oneself.
Some other eyes can read it; some invisible hand can take you, too, to the starry archipelagoes.
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).