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Photo by Harry Gruyaert/Magnum

Sweetness and strangeness

In our image-saturated, over-sped world, we are losing the imaginative power to create and find meaning through metaphor

Heather Altfeld & Rebecca Diggs

Photo by Harry Gruyaert/Magnum

Heather Altfeld

is a poet and essayist. Her two books of poetry are The Disappearing Theatre (2016) and Post-Mortem (forthcoming 2020). Her work is featured or forthcoming in the 2019 Best American Essays, Orion Magazine and Conjunctions, among others. She lives in Northern California and teaches at California State University, Chico.

Rebecca Diggs

is a writer, screenwriter and consultant. She completed her PhD in mythological studies with emphasis in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in California. She teaches mythology for therapists and writers, and lives in Los Angeles.

3,400 words

Edited by Marina Benjamin

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This April, Forbes magazine published the article ‘The Writer Who Couldn’t Answer Standardized Test Questions About Her Own Work (Again)!’ It focused on the American poet Sara Holbrook, who had written for the Huffington Post about just this dilemma – her evident inexpertise about her own poetry – and who was thrust into the spotlight once more, after discovering that one of her most straightforward poems had generated eight multiple-choice questions for high-school students. A number of teachers, frustrated by their own inability to choose the ‘correct’ answers, wrote to Holbrook, asking for her help discerning stanzas in the poor formatting, and quizzing her about the ‘best reason’ for a simile she chose to use. ‘Forget joy of language and the fun of discovery in poetry,’ Holbrook commented, reflecting on the episode: ‘This is line-by-line dissection, painful and delivered without anaesthetic.’ 

This sort of literal, invasive dissection of poetry is par for the course in contemporary education. In our experience (Heather teaches poetry to undergraduates), a semester might open with Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘First Elegy’ (1923), which we read, then listen to aloud in both German and English. I ask the students to share what they do when they first encounter a new poem. My hopes – that they will hear the sound of the music, be struck by images, be intrigued by the movement of ideas, and bewildered by Rilke’s comparison of beauty to terror – generally get dashed, as I look out at a roomful of perplexed expressions. Finally, some brave soul will say something, always the same thing: Well, we break the text down. Into its parts. There is agreement from the rest, palpable relief. What else would you do with a poem, but approach it as one might approach the dissection of a frog or the separation of platelets in a Petri dish?

It is at this point that the most studious among them will remember the useful acronym they learned in school, the magic formula meant to crack the mystical world of text: soapstone. Although I’d spent years earning an MFA in Poetry and teaching with organisations such as the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, and California Poets in the Schools, I had never encountered this word. SOAPSTone, as my students explained, is an acronym for ‘Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject and Tone’. This conceptual architecture is commonly taught as a way of looking not only at technical texts and expository writing but as the clearest way to interpret every kind of text, from the literal to the metaphoric.

The purpose of SOAPSToning can be gleaned from a statement on the Advanced Placement Test website:

For many students, the creation of a piece of writing is a mysterious process. It is a laborious, academic exercise, required by teachers and limited to the classroom. They do not see it as a way of ordering the mind … or achieving a personal voice … they have no conscious plan that will enable them to begin the process and then to organise and develop their ideas. Without a strategy, … they simply begin to write and the quality of their compositions is often erratic.

To utilise SOAPSTone is to look at a model poem or essay, dissect it, and then respond to a prompt to write a composition of one’s own. The website acknowledges that the strategy ‘may appear to be somewhat formulaic and rigid, but it helps students, especially novice writers, clarify and organise their thoughts’.

The strategy is formulaic and rigid. We – as a writer and a mythographer – might not object to that, if students themselves understood it as an aid for novice writers and readers; that is, a way of approaching a poem as a stage you pass through on your way to becoming a reader of poetry – the sort of person who actually enjoys poetry, rarely if ever pausing to explicitly consider ‘purpose’ or ‘occasion’. But for these students, SOAPSTone is, to paraphrase John Keats, all they know about reading poetry, and all (they have been led to believe) they need to know. Or rather, what they need to know to pass the standardised tests, the be-all and end-all of modern education.

It is easier for many educators to teach to a formula, just as it is easier for administrators and test companies to quantify the outcomes in a culture that values data-driven learning outcomes as the principle measurement of student understanding. This valorisation of the quantifiable, however, is part of a larger cultural shift, in which information-based texts and learning are privileged over imaginative and metaphoric ones. In the United States, Common Core Curriculum ranks ‘informational text’ over fiction or poetry, which constitute (for Grade 12) a maximum of 20 to 30 per cent of total content in the curriculum. 

From preschool onwards, academic classroom-based instruction soaks up vital time that might be spent on endeavours elemental to forming the imagination; in particular, play. Serious questions have been raised by, among others, the psychologist Peter Gray in Aeon about the consequences of this hyper-focus on early, high-stakes academic study – including skyrocketing rates of childhood anxiety and depression, a decline in empathy, and a rise in narcissism. We are interested in yet another casualty of this trend – the importance of metaphoric thinking.

Linguists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, philosophers, writers and literary critics, among others, have taken a great interest in metaphor; consequently, definitions of metaphor and conceptions of its significance to mind and language differ. Simply put, by the Oxford English Dictionary, a metaphor is ‘a figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable’.

There are many ‘types’ of metaphor, of course, from ‘dead’ metaphors, such as those that equate time to money (‘time spent’, ‘a good investment of one’s time’) or spatial metaphors relating to quantity (‘attendance fell’, ‘prices are rising’) to more clichéd metaphors, such as: ‘We’ve hit a rocky road in the marriage’, ‘The wind caresses my cheek’, and ‘I’m climbing out of this pit of depression’. These examples hark back to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay The Poet (1844), in which he writes:

The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.

This is like this is like that is one of the primary ways that we make sense of new entities. We compare them to things with which we are familiar, from our environment, our culture, our identities. Aristotle wrote that metaphor ‘has clarity and sweetness and strangeness’, adding:

It is a great thing, indeed, to make a proper use of the poetical forms, as also of compounds and strange words. But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.

From the real to the fanciful, metaphoric comparisons are not only part of the architecture of language and mind but they are elemental to human thought and imagination, as the linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson argue, co-authors of the now-iconic Metaphors We Live By (1980). In The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), the psychologist Julian Jaynes suggests that metaphor is an actual extension of our consciousness.

As we see it, metaphor exists – and relies upon – the complex, emotionally resonant, arresting connections we make. These linkages, between ourselves and the world, require a degree of primary experience, as well as sensitivity to the nature and details of that experience. Metaphor is the knot between language and image, between language and sensory experience, and between language and narrative. Indeed, a growing body of research supports the view that metaphoric thinking could be deeply tied to empathy. 

Literalism, abbreviation and emojis stand in for words and feelings

Nor is metaphoric thinking limited to the creative arts. Scientific thinking is frequently driven by seemingly disparate connections between things, especially in its ‘extraordinary claims’ (which demand extraordinary evidence). In Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), Lakoff and Johnson note that the scientific method is a finely developed reasoning system used to discover phenomena that are subsequently understood in terms of new conceptual metaphors. The metaphor of fluid motion for conducted electricity, for example, invokes ‘currents’ ‘flowing’ against ‘impedance’. Then there’s the gravitational metaphor for static-electric phenomena, or the ‘planetary orbit’ model of the atomic nucleus and electrons. Reviewing Richard Dawkins’s River Out of Eden (1995) in New Scientist, the geneticist Andrew Pomiankowski expands on Dawkins’s conceptual metaphor of ‘a river of genes’, writing:

The river may fork in time. Each branch slowly drifts apart to give rise to a new species. Some branches dry up in extinction. Others split repeatedly, generating the 30 million branches that exist today.

In the process, Pomiankowski reveals that metaphors not only shape the way we see things, but also carry story.

In thinking through some of the ways that our relationship to metaphor might be changing, especially in educational settings, we consulted a study by Emily Weinstein and her research team at Harvard, published in 2014. They set out to study a possible decline in creativity among high-school students by comparing both visual artworks and creative writing collected between 1990-95, and again between 2006-11. Examining the style, content and form of adolescent art-making, the team hoped to understand the potential ‘generational shift’ between pre- and post-internet creativity. It turned out that there were observable gains in the sophistication and complexity of visual artwork, but when it came to the creative-writing endeavours of the two groups, the researchers found a ‘significant increase in young authors’ adherence to conventional writing practices related to genre, and a trend toward more formulaic narrative style’.

The team cited standardised testing as a likely source of this lack of creativity, as well as changing modes of written communication that create ‘a multitude of opportunities for casual, text-based communication’ – in other words, for literalism, abbreviation and emojis standing in for words and feelings. With visual arts, by contrast, greater exposure to visual media, and the ‘expansive mental repositories of visual imagery’ informed and inspired student work. 

Of course, quantifying creativity is problematic, even with thoughtfully constructed controls, but it is provocative to consider what the authors saw as ‘a significant increase in and adherence to strict realism’, and how this might relate to a turn away from metaphoric thinking.

Kyung Hee Kim, a psychologist at William and Mary College in Virginia, believes that creative thinking is ‘declining over all Americans of all ages’. According to her, one reason for the adherence to realism is pragmatic: children simply have ever-increasing opportunities and resources for knowledge-gathering and study, for ‘empirical abstraction’. But, she argues, ‘to be creative, they also need opportunities to engage in the mental process of building knowledge through mental actions’. In her view, the exclusionary focus on ‘problem-solving’ in education is a mistake: education needs to address the more imaginative task of ‘problem-finding’ as well. ‘Standardisation,’ Kim concludes, ‘should be resisted.’

Sven Birkerts, the editor of the literary magazine AGNI and the author of The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), explained to us how he views the link between metaphor and imagination, saying: ‘Metaphor requires a perceptual power and ability, a re-seeing, a re-analogising’ that is not inborn, but instead fostered through a ‘depth of attention’ that, in turn, breeds imagination. ‘You know, you can’t just wake up after a steady diet of social media and harness the deeper power of language and connection,’ he said. His most recent book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (2015), stresses the importance of inwardness and immersion for creating experiential memory – which he believes to be ‘essential to building our imaginative capacities’ – while at the same time acknowledging that it has become very difficult to have the kind of ‘primary reality experience’ by which one gains that perceptual power.

What drives the literalism that dominates current educational practice? In part, it seems to be a side-effect of our sight-based, screen-based culture. While the digital world certainly offers examples of metaphoric thinking – memes, for one – the two-dimensional lives we increasingly lead mean that we engage less frequently in primary experiences involving our non-visual senses. Instead, we navigate the world as we see it, confined in its screen. As the poet Robert Hass writes in Twentieth-Century Pleasures (1984):

Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have the explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is.

In our digital age, photographic images are ubiquitous and constantly proliferating, and yet the world we see in pictures is increasingly curated by us and also pre-curated for us; algorithms decide what we see, what we might like to see, and what we might like to buy. This state of affairs was presciently predicted by Walter Benjamin in the essay ‘A Short History of Photography’ (1931), in which he writes of:

a photography which is able to relate a tin of canned food to the universe, yet cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which that tin exists; a photography which even in its most dreamlike compositions is more concerned with eventual salability than with understanding … the true facts of this photographic creativity is the advertisement.

When it comes to popular film, the philosopher Owen Hulatt at the University of York, a scholar of Theodor Adorno, notes that:

No space is left for consumers to exhibit ‘imagination and spontaneity’ – rather, they are swept along in a succession of predictable moments, each of which is so easy to digest that they can be ‘alertly consumed even in a state of distraction’.

Since the advent of photography, the image has become a truth we trust more than our own memories and imaginations. After viewing the film version of his novel Affliction (1989), Russell Banks noted that he had great difficulty retaining visual images of his own characters, the ones he himself conceived when writing the book. ‘[I]n my imagination,’ he told The New York Times, ‘the faces, bodies and voices of the movies’ stars have displaced the faces, bodies and voices of my characters …’ What’s more, images can never convey the full depth of a multisensory experience: they are perceived unisensorially by what the psychologist Robert Romanyshyn in 2009 called ‘the despotic eye’, our dominant sensory source of truth. Neither the other senses nor the imagination are required to grasp them.

In a long-term project focusing on elementary school and the early years of high school, the psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner at Boston College studied the relationship between empathy and experience. In particular, they wanted to understand how empathy and theories of mind might be enhanced. Looking at children who spent a year or more engaged in acting training, they found significant gains in empathy scores. This isn’t surprising, perhaps. Acting and role-play, after all, involve a metaphoric entering-into another person’s shoes via the emotional lives and sensory experiences of the characters that one embodies. ‘The tendency to become absorbed by fictional characters and feel their emotions may make it more likely that experience in acting will lead to enhanced empathy off stage,’ the authors conclude.

For one semester, I taught the Greek tragedy Hecuba to college students in Ancient Humanities. The first part of Hecuba centres on the violence toward women during war; the second half offers a reversal whereby, in order to avenge the deaths of her children, Hecuba kills Polymestor – the king of Thrace – and his two sons, just as he killed her son, whose safety he had explicitly guaranteed. The play is an instruction in lament, in sorrow, rage and vengeance, loyalty and betrayal. To see it is to feel the agony of a woman betrayed, who has lost all her children to war and murder. To act in it – as students do, when we read it, much to their horror – is to feel the grief and rage of a woman far removed from our present world, but Hecuba’s themes of betrayal and revenge resonate still: the #MeToo movement, for example, would find common ground with Hecuba’s pain.

Eva Maria Koopman at Erasmus University in Rotterdam has studied the ‘literariness’ of literature and its relationship to emotion, empathy and reflection. Koopman gave undergraduates (and for sample size, some parents as well) passages of the novel Counterpoint (2008) by the Dutch writer Anna Enquist, in which the main character, a mother, grieves the loss of her child. Thus, Koopman attempted to test age-old claims about the power of literature. For some of the readers, she stripped passages of their imagery and removed foregrounding from others, while a third group read the passages as originally written by Enquist.

Koopman’s team found that: ‘Literariness may indeed be partly responsible for empathetic reactions.’ Interestingly, the group who missed the foregrounding showed less empathetic understanding. It isn’t just empathy, however, that foregrounding triggers, it’s also what Koopman identifies as ‘ambivalent emotions: people commenting both on the beauty or hope and on the pain or sorrow of a certain passage’. Foregrounding, then, can elicit a ‘more complex emotional experience’. Reading, alone, is not sufficient for building empathy; it needs the image, and essential foreground, for us to forge connections, which is why textbooks filled with information but devoid of narrative fail to engage us; why facts and dates and events rarely stick without story.

Metaphor is central to thought and represents an extension of consciousness

Similar insights are beginning to make their way into such fields as narrative medicine. As Rita Charon at Columbia University writes:

As the physician listens to the patient, he or she follows the narrative thread of the story, imagines the situation of the teller … and in some way enters into and is moved by the narrative world of the patient. Not unlike acts of reading literature, acts of diagnostic listening enlist the listener’s interior resources – memories, associations, curiosities, creativity, interpretative powers … Only then can the physician hear, and then attempt to face, if not fully answer the patient’s narrative questions: ‘What is wrong with me?’ ‘Why did this happen to me? and ‘What will become of me?’

This is reminiscent of a comment made by the American writer Anatole Broyard in his book, Intoxicated by My Illness (1992). At the time, Broyard was struggling with the cancer that would eventually kill him in 1990. He wrote:

metaphors may be as necessary to illness as they are to literature, as comforting to the patient as his own bathrobe and slippers. At the very least, they are a relief from medical terminology… Perhaps only metaphor[s] can express the bafflement, the panic combined with beatitude, of the threatened person.

If, as Emerson says, ‘language is fossil-poetry’, then we could say of current educational practices that their stance toward poetry – indeed, toward all the arts – seems to rest on an attempt to turn them into fossils as quickly as possible. And if, as Lakoff, Johnson and Jaynes have suggested, metaphor is central to thought and represents an extension of consciousness, then to adopt an exclusive focus on the literal is to forego the opportunity to achieve what, arguably, should be the primary goal of education: to help our students learn to think, and to become as fully conscious as they might have the potential to become.

Last spring, at the University of Pittsburgh, the philosopher Alexander Nehamas gave a talk entitled ‘Metaphor in Our Lives’. One of his propositions was that ‘even the future has to have a metaphoric quality for us to imagine it’. If Nehamas is correct, then we need to grow our capacity for metaphor as surely as we need to grow our empathy for the planet. The stories and sentiments to which metaphor adds depth, the linkages between self and sense, self and narrative, that metaphor encourages us to make are not frivolity or fiction – they are the essential means by which we connect to the planet and to each other, and one we critically need in order to dream a way out of the crises that assail us.

Heather Altfeld

is a poet and essayist. Her two books of poetry are The Disappearing Theatre (2016) and Post-Mortem (forthcoming 2020). Her work is featured or forthcoming in the 2019 Best American Essays, Orion Magazine and Conjunctions, among others. She lives in Northern California and teaches at California State University, Chico.

Rebecca Diggs

is a writer, screenwriter and consultant. She completed her PhD in mythological studies with emphasis in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in California. She teaches mythology for therapists and writers, and lives in Los Angeles.

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