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Metaphor Project

In this unit, we shall ponder the theory of a famous linguist--Roman Jakobson--to get us thinking seriously about the inventive power of metaphors. "Metaphor," in broadest possible terms, is discourse that employs language selectively (or associatively) to produce equivalences. It's the binary opposite of "metonomy," which is that mode of language that draws on the combinative possibilities of discourse to produce equivalences. Terence Hawkes cites Jakobson's theory to explain the poetic function of language. He writes:

"The poetic function [of language] projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination." This becomes the distinguishing "trademark" of the "poetic" use of language, as opposed to any other use. When I say "my car beetles along" I select "beetles" from the "storehouse" of possibilities which includes, say, "goes," "hurries," "scurries" etc. and combine it with "car" on the principle that this will make the car's movement and the insect's movement equivalent. As Jakobson puts it, "similarity superimposed on contiguity imparts to poetry its thoroughgoing symbolic, multiplex, polysemantic essence . . . Said more technically, anything sequent is a simile. In poetry where similarity is superinduced upon contiguity, any metonymy is slightly metaphorical and any metaphor has a metonymical tint." (1977:79)

To write good poetry, it's not necessary to understand Jakobson. But it certainly won't hurt. Plenty of great poets have a structural understanding of the mechanics of language. Good writers--of whatever stripe--know what they're doing.

Because this assignment requires you to write several poems, it necessarily asks you to fold together the metaphoric and the metonymic axes of language. Strictly speaking, it's impossible to focus on metaphor alone (principles of selection), while excluding metonomy (principles of combination). But, as much as possible, concentrate on the possibilities afforded by the self-conscious use of associative language as you complete this assignment.

Write some poems. (I absolutely refuse to specify how many. Quality is everything!) Here are your options: