Learning language, learning poetry

Metaphor is defined [by Aristotle] in terms of movement.
Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (Robert Czerny, trans., University of Toronto Press, 1984)

Yesterday’s fresh inch of snow and cold temperatures overnight gave everything a sparkle this morning as the sun rose into a cloudless sky. I remembered my niece Eva’s first use of metaphor at the age of 2 years, 9 months. She had just begun speaking semi-coherently the summer before, when she was in Honduras, and had a very limited vocabulary of mostly Spanish words. One night, during a prolonged Christmastime visit, her grandpa showed her the stars. She always accompanied him to the compost heap/wildlife feeding area after supper, taking out the scraps from the kitchen. It was an exceptionally clear night, and the stars were beautiful; Eva practiced saying “estrellas,” which tripped off her tongue with surprising fluency.

The next day dawned equally clear, and as Eva was riding on my shoulders up to her grandparents’ house for lunch, she surprised me by pointing at the ground and yelling, “Estrellas!” I looked. She was pointing, of course, at the sparkles in the snow.

I don’t suppose this sort of thing is too uncommon. It makes sense that facility with metaphors would be a normal part of language acquisition, since analogic or metaphorical definitions are common for many words (and are probably essential for abstract thinking; all of mathematics is based upon the ability to analogize, for example). Learning a new word involves figuring out the extent of its semantic coverage. In the case just described, was this really an example of the conscious use of metaphor? Perhaps, instead, it was simply an attempt to figure out whether “estrellas” meant solely “sparkly things in the sky,” or if it also included sparkly things elsewhere.

One way or the other, I would like to think that this kind of active, joyous measuring of the world through spoken language is fundamentally poetic. This is the argument Heidegger makes in his essay on a theme from Hölderlin, “‘…Poetically Man Dwells…'” To Heidegger, the comparison of sky with earth is an integral part of this measure-taking. “The upward glance spans the between of sky and earth.” It encompasses “everything that shimmers and blooms in the sky and thus under the sky and thus on earth, everything that sounds and is fragrant, rises and comes – but also everything that goes and stumbles, moans and falls silent, pales and darkens.” The poet does not merely describe such sights, but “calls … that which in its very self-disclosure causes the appearance of that which conceals itself, and indeed as that which conceals itself. In its familiar appearances, the poet calls the alien as that to which the invisible imparts itself in order to remain what it is – unknown.” (Albert Hofstadter, trans., Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper, 1971.) In other words, in her making-strange the poet merely testifies to the ultimate unknowability of everything language seeks to measure and describe.

I remember how fascinated Eva was with birds that year. It helped that her daddy was an ardent birdwatcher, I suppose. But more than that, I think birds appealed to her because they were small and quick, always in motion – just like she was. Her word for bird(s) was “Pio!” and she used it constantly – hardly a bird escaped her attention as we walked around the farm. One evening, we gave her a ballpoint pen and a pad of cheap paper and encouraged her to draw. She would put the pen on a blank page, move it rapidly in circling, sweeping strokes, turn the page and do it again. The pad quickly filled up with actionist creations that had little to do with representational sketching. After a while, one of us asked her what she was doing. “Pio!”

By sheer serendipity, one or two of them did end up looking like birds. I saved one that bore an uncanny resemblance to a resplendent quetzal. I wish I’d saved the whole pad.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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