Metaphors, Poetry, and Thinking – “Poetry for Everyday Life”

David Brooks is continuing his incredible run of synthesis between the social and cognitive sciences with his latest piece in the New York Times entitled “Poetry for Everyday Life.” Brooks begins by paraphrasing data from a

fine new book, “I Is an Other,” [in which] James Geary reports on linguistic research suggesting that people use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words. Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think, Geary writes. They are at the very heart of it.

Examples follow, building to the following conclusion:

Most of us, when asked to stop and think about it, are by now aware of the pervasiveness of metaphorical thinking. But in the normal rush of events. we often see straight through metaphors, unaware of how they refract perceptions. So it’s probably important to pause once a month or so to pierce the illusion that we see the world directly. It’s good to pause to appreciate how flexible and tenuous our grip on reality actually is.

Certainly, any good scholar of postmodern literature can appreciate this conclusion – language creates and defines our realities, a truth with deep political and personal implications. Whether it is to help with  “understanding new things,” understanding the ways our own brains work and function best, understanding how our personal affinities create the conditions and contexts in which we operate, understanding God or spiritual experiences, or discerning between what we believe and what we are manipulated through metaphor to believe, consciousness of the power of metaphor is a central awareness for successful thinkers. Brooks states

Most important, being aware of metaphors reminds you of the central role that poetic skills play in our thought. If much of our thinking is shaped and driven by metaphor, then the skilled thinker will be able to recognize patterns, blend patterns, apprehend the relationships and pursue unexpected likenesses.

Indeed, it is the recognition of patterns, blending of patterns (and subsequent creation of new ones), and mapping of relationships between patterns that lends heft to the study of literature in a world focused more on 140 characters than 140 pages. Metaphor is, of course, at the heart of poetry and fiction; Brooks doesn’t accidentally co-opt poetry for his discussion of metaphor. Through exploring metaphor – one – and connecting this understood metaphor to another, and another, and another within a text, or even between texts, we as readers build universes from the disparate clutter of words on pages. Ultimately, if this understanding of metaphor awareness is true in any fashion, then the resultant skilled thinking is transferable from literature  to life beyond texts, to other disciplines of study, to journeys of spirit, to any and all human endeavors. Behold the metaphor at work in the brilliant “Avocado” by Gary Snyder, electric scribe genius monk extraordinaire in his beautiful book Turtle Island:

Avocado by Gary Snyder

The Dharma is like an Avocado!
Some parts so ripe you can’t believe it.
But it’s good.
And other parts hard and green
Without much flavor,
Pleasing those who like their eggs well-cooked.

And the skin is thin,
The great big round seed
In the middle,
Is your own Original Nature –
Pure and smooth,
Almost nobody ever splits it open
Or tries to see
If it will grow.

Hard and slippery,
It looks like
You should plant it – but then
It shoots out thru the
fingers –

gets away.

Now, that ain’t pedestrian, but if you get it, or even a piece of it, this message will resonate through you somehow – maybe not in the same way it does me, due to my constellation of connections differing in altitude, amplitude, and assonance from yours – the next time you’re making guacamole (2 ripe avocados, 1 medium tomato, garlic powder, cumin, salt, paprika; mash and eat it all, quickly). To David Brooks, the last word:

To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surrounded at all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called “pedestrian poetry.”

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