Way back in mid-February–before toilet paper started flying off the shelves, we all started mask-wearing, and graduating students tuned in to a virtual commencement ceremony–15 new members were inducted into UP’s Sigma Tau Delta Honor Society. Though it’s hard to imagine now, students and faculty from the English Department gathered to share a meal and celebrate their love of literature with one another. Near the evening’s end, those in attendance also had the pleasure of hearing keynote speaker Professor Cheri Buck-Perry’s closing remarks.
Professor Buck-Perry is well-known throughout the English Department and all of UP for constructing innovate, hybrid courses in the core curriculum, especially courses which aim to explore the rich intersection between academic disciplines. It is not surprising, then, that her keynote speech investigates the metaphor: what it means, its connective power, and its pervasiveness in our lives.
So, whether you’re still on The Bluff or are quarantining elsewhere, please enjoy reading Professor Buck-Perry’s words from that evening (below):
It’s a treat to address a room full of literature lovers. Most often when I’m in front of a group at UP I’m attempting to convince students, in majors other than English, that they really do want to read that 300-page novel or those finely designed poems. So, I want to take advantage of this opportunity to celebrate—celebrate your accomplishments, and to celebrate one small aspect of language that I hold dear and that will hopefully resonate with you as well. The next few minutes then will be about raising a glass, exclaiming “Whoop! Whoop!” as we say in my house when we have something to celebrate, and skipping around the room as we delight in the power of language to shape existence.
Specifically, which aspect of language might inspire skipping around a room, you might ask? For me, metaphor, or comparative constructions and the sort of thinking they entail. (You should know that I’m using the term “metaphor” very broadly to include a host of comparative constructions such as simile and personification)
We’re all familiar with metaphors, of course, as devices to describe one thing in terms of another as Mary Oliver does when she sees ocean waves in winter “gush pearls from their snowy throats.” But metaphoric constructions are much more than descriptors. At times, metaphors offer mini-stories within stories. In other instances, metaphors are tiny instruments for seeing, encouraging us to find “similarity in the dissimilar” (as Aristotle noted in the Poetics). In these instances, metaphors become a mode of comprehension—our minds scurry back and forth between two conceptual spheres and carry bit of each world into the other. The word’s history demonstrates this transference—in Greek, metaphor means to “bear” or “carry over.”
And while we appreciate these morsels in literature, cognitive linguists know our everyday language is soaked with metaphor. James Geary, author of I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor, tells us we “utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, or about six metaphors a minute” (a shockingly high number). For the most part, we unconsciously
employ these “conventional” or “dead” constructions, as linguists label them, until savvy word artists shake us awake with their “imaginative” or “live” creations.
Overall, these tiny language morsels are demonstrative of what word artists are capable of—crisp, garden-fresh ways of perceiving, and consequently, innovative ways of relating to the world around us.
I’ve long been a fan of metaphor in literature, but as the parents in the room will agree, having a child expands and reframes what you already think you know. Thanks to my son Nikolai, I’ve gained another set of ears to hear the everyday, extraordinary world. Children are naturals at figurative thinking. They personify as they wave and shout “goodbye swings!” when
leaving a playground, as if the metal contraption were a dear friend. They notice that the letter “A” is a tent, or that clusters of white blossoms on trees in the springtime look like popcorn, or see that a bagel half sliced in two emerges as a butterfly.
Even now, as an adult, my basketball loving son has kept me attuned to everyday metaphorical music. Attending his games gives me the pleasure of seeing him excel at a sport he loves and the chance to savor basketball lingo. Players zoom from “coast to coast,” or shoot from “downtown,” or they “make it rain.” A few years ago, Nikolai and I were watching the Portland Trailblazers win a tough game and the commentator noted the remarkable ability of Damian Lillard (star Blazer player) to remain composed under pressure. He said Damian was as “cool as the other side of the pillow.”
Storytellers, poets, and basketball commentators are individuals who haven’t, thankfully, outgrown the ability to see the world creatively, and they’ve given us works full of delicious comparative constructions. I’ve brought along a few, yes, only a few of my literary favorites to celebrate.
The first examples come from William Faulkner’s classic short work “A Rose for Emily.” Late in the story the narrator describes the mourners that attend Emily’s funeral, including “the very old men . . . on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs . . . confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches.”
Time is a slippery concept—often conventionally pictured as a commodity such as money. We know we need to “budget” our time, and not “waste” it by “spending” precious minutes on activities that are not “worth” our “investment.” Faulkner’s passage first presents a metaphor that describes time as a “diminishing road”—not currency, but still an image that constrains it to units, a linear succession of moments. The second metaphor, however, presents a scene I can’t forget—time as a “huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches.” While the second comparison contains a mild “dig” at the old who are confused, I think Faulkner, is offering up something fresh, something else to try on. I like the idea of time pooling in an open space; my imagination ignores what Faulkner likely had in mind and invites me into a green subalpine meadow near Mt. Rainier ringed with fir, scattered with huckleberry and lupine. I tire of thinking about time in terms of units, divisions, and Faulkner’s metaphor gives me a new means to experience this abstraction; he gives me the freedom to wander eras and instants in a meadow.
The poet H.D. also immediately comes to mind when I consider my favorite literary metaphors. Published in 1914, her poem “Oread” serves readers a singular experience. (Dr. Larsen kindly included the small piece on the handout. It’s nice to refer to). Oread, a mountain nymph, is the poem’s speaker:
Whirl up, sea— Whirl your pointed pines, Splash your great pines On our rocks, Hurl your green over us— Cover us with your pools of fir.
I imagine Oread, (or all of us, if we step into her shoes and take up this script), standing on a rocky outcropping facing the immense ocean, her (or our) command booming into the wind—“Whirl up sea/ Whirl your pointed pines/Splash your great pines”—wait, what? The sea doesn’t have pines. Yes, on some days the sea might look gray-green, but how will it splash up and cover the forest behind us with “pools of fir”? We must swivel around to look behind us at the hillsides blanketed in Douglas Fir rippling in the wind like a body of water. Which way should we imaginatively face? Towards the water? The forest?
Generally, cognitive linguists refer to the two domains in a metaphoric construction as the “target” and the “source”—the intended subject and the object from which attributes are “sourced.” In H.D.’s poem, the speaker addresses the sea in terms of the forest, but the conceptual spheres are so close that one can’t maintain ascendance; the two spheres of reference overlap, ooze into one another, fuse. Or, to put it another way, we as the speakers of the poem are invited on our rocky outcropping to take it all in, to expand our scope of vision to see the pointed tips of the waves as pines, the watery undulation of the firs on the hillside, and to marvel at the interconnectedness of the whole scene.
Perhaps these language constructions have come to mean so much to me because they are emblematic of my own life experience. Like so many of us, really, I am, or have been a resident of multiple, dissimilar domains—physical environments, cultural traditions, ways of thinking, religious and secular spheres, and more. For example, I was born and raised in the
startlingly bright Colorado sunshine and thin high elevation air, a landscape dominated by a blue dome where the Rockies gnaw at its edge. Now, I’ve taken root in the Northwest where the air is moist, heavy, a presence to lean against; giant trees crowd the sight lines to gray sky, and I’ve become a passionate lover of moss. I grew up in a conservative culture that when not working still embraced doing—my childhood home was filled with footballs, bats, gloves, snow boots, sleds, skis, but not books. Now I spend my days conversing with texts, living inside stories, savoring individual words, discussing ideas with students and colleagues in a university dedicated to intellectual doing.
I come from a family of Nebraska and Iowa farmers, mechanics, truck drivers, and one accountant. Only one of my parents obtained a college degree and my father paid for his own education, mostly by roofing—exhausting work that involved carrying roofing tiles up ladders and installing them in the summer sun. After acquiring that dearly bought college degree, he landed an entry-level position in the accounting department of a large Denver hospital and then climbed a corporate ladder to an administrative career that afforded him the luxury of paying for his daughter’s college education. So, you can imagine his skepticism when I told him I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in English.
One conversation we had remains lodged in my memory. I’d recently finished a Medieval literature course which included studying Beowulf in both the Old English and in translation. He asked, in his kind and gentle way, why it was important to study such works. He wanted to know what practical value to attach to old texts. Remember, for him, education was a means to a specific end—higher education meant learning a set of skills that could take a person from the roofing crew to the executive suite. I don’t remember how I answered, what words I strung together, only the ache of not being able to adequately explain or transmit my enthusiasm and wonder.
Now, many years later, I might be able to give a more articulate answer to my father’s question, and it would likely pertain to the beautiful metaphoric compounds, called kennings, that permeate Beowulf. Kennings, or metaphorical expressions such as “whale-road” for the ocean, “ring-giver” rather than king, or “storm of swords” to capture the terror of battle, give listeners a rich, aesthetic experience.
More importantly, works that are alive with creative, imaginative comparisons like Beowulf, are precious because of what they ask our minds to do—repeatedly stretch to different domains or spheres, then connect them. These constructions ask our mental muscles to negotiate tension; to extend an imaginative bridge between things that are alike and unlike, and
then travel that span to take in the new view.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, authors of the book Metaphors We Live By, liken this imaginative bridge building ability to a primary sense. They write:
Metaphors are not merely things to be seen beyond. In fact, one can see beyond them only by using other metaphors. It is as though the ability to comprehend experience through metaphor were a sense, like seeing or touching or hearing, with metaphors providing the only ways to perceive and experience much of the world. Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.
In other words, the study of literature and metaphors has mattered to me, specifically, practically, because it has given me the intellectual equipment to link the dissimilar spheres that make up my world. Practicing metaphoric thinking over the years has helped me develop, in the words of Anthony Doerr, a “muscular and nimble imagination” for bridge building, and I’ve gained a “precious new sense” for living. Studying literature has shown me a way to embrace and create my life, to quilt together all the disparate pieces into meaningful patterns.
That’s something to celebrate. So, a toast, a celebratory cheer, a “Whoop! Whoop!” to you, and to developing “compound” ways of thinking and being in a world that so desperately needs bridges instead of barriers.
By Cheri Buck-Perry