If you’ve worked with lumber you know knots are harder than other parts of the wood. Their toughness can stymie a handsaw and defeat a nail. There was once a vogue in home-building circles for “knotty pine.” Prized for its marbling of streaks and whorls, knotty pine paneled the dens of many a ranch-style home. The knots served decorative ends.
Metaphors are the knots of poems. It will start an argument to call them decorative. They aren’t… always, but metaphors can grind your teeth. If a metaphor doesn’t land with a certain immediacy, it’s a bomb that doesn’t detonate. The tricky thing for a versifier is that emotive force doesn’t necessarily travel on perfervid vocables. Compare these two texts:
“Sobs typhooned the wheelhouse of his heart, / as the Pink Johnson of his passion’s pilgrimage, / bottled caravel wrought for a jeroboam of exile, / lay shattered now on the ruptured crown — O ye gods! — / of his lifeless Nefertiti, / the ermine chariot of his muse’s Icarus, / his Eloise of chalcedonic eyes.”
Earth, receive an honored guest: / William Yeats is laid to rest. / Let the Irish vessel lie / Emptied of its poetry.
(W. H. Auden)
The first text spoofs the ginning up of ersatz pathos by shaking fizzy words and spraying them at the reader.
The second text starts the ending of an elegy. It pivots from the expansive, conversing mode that has preceded to a strict, rhymed cadence betokening the ineluctable. In spirit, lump in throat, the reader falls in with fellow celebrants to walk behind a writer’s coffin. As moving speech, it explodes.
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