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How the Poet Invented Language
“Metaphors make connections which are not contained in the fabric of reality but created, by our own associative powers. The important question about a metaphor is not what property it stands for, but what experience it suggests.”
- Sir Roger Scruton, On Beauty
In our post-romantic society, we think of the poet as someone who talks about his or her feelings in heartfelt rhyme. Poetry has become the wet discipline of overly sensitive wallflower types who never really have their hair brushed properly. It’s surprising that this is what poetry has become, considering it finds its conception in epic stories about war, conquest and the trials of the human soul.
Homer, Dante and Ovid hardly resemble the sentimentalists who are allowed to call themselves poets today. But what is the functional role of a poet if not to tell epic stories or to express his most sensual experiences? Neither of these is the main function. The main purpose of poetry is metaphysical: it is the creation of language itself. And every generation must have new poetry to reinvigorate the language with life lest it become stagnant and die.
Language is a living, breathing thing; it is an organ of mankind that exists in the magical space between us all. It connects human beings across time, space, age and culture. However, language is also always referential. The “meaning” of a word is always a reference and this means all meanings are actually metaphors. Every single word is a metaphor.
Every word you use is a little poetic universe of its own. Take the word “dog” for example. It is a referring to the schema of a living thing we can recognize and distinguish from “cat”. When a child learns the word, he learns it as an association for that cute four legged creature with floppy ears and fur that he saw in the park. He distinguishes it from “cat” at home which although four-legged and furry, has much more of an attitude and pointy ears on its head.
All words refer to something outside of themselves to have meaning. Metaphors also make connections between two objects that are not directly connected. It follows that all language is made up of metaphor. A great example of this is the word “Odyssey”. The Odyssey is a story about a treacherous and arduous journey. People may say the phrase “It was an Odyssey to make it to this event”. In this case, they are using the word “odyssey” as a metaphor to explain how arduous their journey was. They are comparing their journey to the one in the story even though the two things are not directly connected.
Eventually, you can imagine that the definition of the word Odyssey may become “difficult and arduous journey”. And this, is where words come from. Anyone who has ever thought about metaphors (my precious kindred spirit philosophizers you) will know that the fundamental problem with any metaphor is that it is necessarily imperfect because it is merely a comparison. It is not a replacement. When we say “the city never sleeps” we are not literally referring to a physical building not falling asleep. The sleep part is a metaphor for stores being closed and roads being empty. Everyone in the city has become “dormant” with the word finding its etymology in “dormir”—to sleep.
Etymologies by the way are nothing ore than the pedigree of metaphor that led to the current usage of the word.
All metaphors are like maps: they represent the terrain but are not themselves the terrain. As such, they will miss certain aspects of the true experience they describe.
Think of every cliché line you’ve ever heard. “He’s like a kid in a candy store” is a common metaphor (a type of metaphor called a similie) which describes a person who is in a place where he can see everything he desires within reach. Like a “kid in a candy store” he might be full of childish glee, gree and impatience. But this metaphor is a cliche because it’s clearly not written specifically for that one instance. It’s copied. It has become so much a part of the language it is almost a word. This makes it unsatisfying because there might be other aspects to the situation that it does not capture. Something fresh is needed. This is what the poet can do.
He might write, “He was a starved prisoner invited to a banquet” which adds the dimension fo desperation which the first cliche metaphor does not capture.
“He was an ant on a pile of sugar” adds the dimension of helplessness against one’s basic instincts and also debases the character to the level of an insect.
The poet refreshes the language with new metaphors so that they are always capturing some unique and original dimension of reality that the existing language cannot. As such, language, thanks to the poet, is constantly recalibrated against reality from which it draws its vitality. In this way, the poet helps to keep the language alive.