Tony Hoagland says that
the only adequate way to describe [a metaphor] 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 in its extended palm.... A metaphor... is a fetching motion of the imagination.
That sounds great! But what does it mean? A bit less poetically, John Frederick Nims explains:
“Metaphor” is from the Greek word for transfer. In modern Greece, one can see delivery trucks with the word “METAФOPA” painted on their sides, they are metaphors on wheels, as it were, transferring goods from one place to another. When we use metaphor, we transfer to one thing the identity of something else that we associate with it, as when we say that the heart of a cruel man is a stone or that a grumpy man is a bear.
Robert Frost called metaphor “saying one thing in terms of another.” More formally, the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines metaphor as ”a…figurative expression, in which a word or phrase is shifted from its normal uses to a context where it evokes new meanings.”
Is this relevant to novelists? Orson Scott Card believes that “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” A good plot makes vicarious experience concrete for the reader—functioning as a metaphor for the theme. Metaphors add layers: the Mississippi as the road of life; a white whale as arrogance; a mockingbird as an innocent who only wants to sing.
Harper Lee’s getting lots of attention these days. Why? Because the mockingbird is a perfect metaphor for destroying innocence, whether child, outcast, or defendant. The metaphor she chose is permanently imprinted on our collective memory:
“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” -- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
But what if she said “It’s a sin to kill a goat. After all, they just eat. Where’s the harm in that?” Would that substitution insure our continuing reverence for the name “Harper Lee”? Make us eager to hunt down anything she ever did or would write? To put it another way, “Would anyone still stalk the diamonds she penned?” Yeech.
Tip: A bad or mixed metaphor is much worse than no metaphor at all.
For what reason? If metaphors are so great, so haunting, why not just use them any way you want, as often as you want? Next time, the ten commandments of metaphor will offer ten reasons why.