Giving a Metaphor Space to “Breathe”
and Related Considerations
By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street.
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And breathless, power breathe forth.
—Enobarbus describing Egypt’s queen,
Antony and Cleopatra, II, ii,233-37
Cleopatra’s great allure might serve as our cue as we open with these questions:
When is it fitting to give a metaphor space to “breathe”? And how might this “breathing space” figure in our writing?
The inverse issue also presses for an answer—how best to avoid “asphyxiating” a metaphor, putting it in a stranglehold that prevents it from getting the oxygen it needs. The “oxygen” consisting of the cognitive latitude, the processing space we so often talk about when a quandary or a dilemma needs to be weighed. All metaphors, again, as Robert Rogers has said, possessing “modal ambiguity,” the power to intrigue and bewilder us alike.
The answer, as I see it, to these intersecting questions rests on an understanding of how, and in what ways, the writer is managing pacing in a work—how many competing narrative objectives must be met to control narrative flow. When to speed up? When to slow down? What essential motives propel us to do either? And, again: how might metaphor figure in the mix?
Metaphorical “overcrowding”: the asphyxiation problem
Let’s work backward, beginning with the negatives—the “asphyxiation” problem, the “clotting up,” as it were, of narrative flow with too much stuff, a surfeit of colorful, attention-snatching language, of too many metaphors or figures of speech.
In his Essay on Criticism, Pope (him again!), was particularly gleeful in pouncing on writers who thought that “more” is invariably “better.” First having cautioned us,
In Wit, as Nature, what affects our hearts
Is not the exactness of peculiar parts…
But the joint force and full result of all.
he proceeds to mock writers who, in aiming for “glittering thoughts struck out in every line,” subvert any sense of narrative flow and produce, instead, “One glaring Chaos and wild heap of wit” (lines 290, 292). What Pope is faulting here is a gross violation of the vital need for tact—that judicious balancing of all the sundry elements that together generate “the joint force and full result of all.”
But how does a writer know when there is “too much stuff”? It’s a problem, I’m sad to say, afflicting too many recent poets (readers might wish to disagree with this judgment), whose jumbles of metaphor—”figures” flung wildly at the board in hopes of sticking—produce, in lieu of “meaning,” thickets of non-sequitur that thwart even the bravest of efforts to disentangle.
The answer to this question invites us to return to that earlier issue of narrative flow. How a writer governs the reader’s anticipating “what comes next,” either abetting or thwarting encouraged expectations, involves a set of dynamics we’re going to be looking at, although some of those dynamics, like the tactic of “wrongfooting,” must await another day.
For all that, we should observe just how closely related pacing and spacing are to each other, especially in fiction… and here’s where allowing a metaphor “space to breathe” becomes particularly germane.
Grabbing our attention: metaphor’s “enticement,” and the price we pay for it
Many years ago, while travelling in Europe, my wife and I visited the Brera in Milan, one of Italy’s great galleries. We happened to have arrived there shortly after an earthquake that had done ruinous damage to some of the country’s cherished treasures, like the Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
As a precaution (aftershocks remained a serious possibility), the Brera had emptied every room in the gallery of all of its paintings—except for just one! And that one painting, a masterpiece in each case, hung on the wall in an otherwise empty room, utterly commanding the visitor’s attention! Stunning to behold. The undeflected focus that the painting drew to itself—drew to itself, in a kind of magnetism—inspired wonderment and awe, and had the paradoxical effect of seeming, just that painting, to flood the whole room with its “light,” its grandeur. Indeed, the surrounding walls—many painted a muted color, a somber gray, a dark green—struck you as willingly “abetting” the luminosity of the one great painting, which served as cynosure (esteemed representative of a whole class or group).
Each room, in other words, had given that one great painting ample space to “breathe.” And while I stood in that gallery those many years ago, an analogy came to mind—a curious one, at that—as to how each room “set off” the painting so displayed. The analogy, oddly, was to a piece of jewelry… a delicate bracelet (metaphor does, after all, “adorn” our writing): a thin gold chain encircling the wrist, the gold chain “hosting” here and there a few gemstones—some small garnets, say, or garnets alternating with tiny rose diamonds. A tasteful bracelet! The gold chain the matrix, supportively present in an unassuming way, “setting off” the gemstones. Affording those gemstones visual “space to breathe,” as did the bare walls in the Brera the individual paintings.
Here’s the implicit lesson:
Admiration has its costs.
And key to those costs is the pause it requires, the slowing down, even the halting of the progress that our attention, so often negligent and hurried, might wish to make as it plunges on forward! Indeed, in this vein, we should note that a “stunning” image will differ in its force from a merely “pleasing” one in proportion to the degree to which it “arrests” us, leaves us lingering to savor it as we reflect upon it… all these parts of our response among the “costs” of admiration.