The metaphor is one of the most powerful tools of thinking that people possess and the ability to make metaphor lies at the heart of poetic thinking. Morley (2007:9) asserts that ‘Metaphor has power and permutation, almost like a magic force.’ He ‘sees metaphor as ‘the art of defamiliarisation’ and its function is ‘no less than an act of revivification’. Metaphors are part of everyone’s experience of the world and endemic to every sphere of life from politics to journalism, but Morley is right when he pinpoints metaphor in poetry as having a special role in making us see the world we live in with different and less tarnished eyes.
In her poem, No.7, Emily Dickinson uses the metaphor of a nosegay for her own poetry, thus demonstrating both what a poem can be and how it is constructed. She compares her poems to a nosegay taken to captives as a present from a visitor. The word ‘captives’ suggests prisoners and patients with time on their hands and no chance of escape. Dickinson’s modest image of her poetry as a present suggests that it sweetens life and acts as a touchstone for a wider vista. This demonstrates the power of metaphor to capture the poet’s manifesto in a visual and memorable way. Her poems offer glimpses of freedom and a gentle reminder of past aspirations: longings for denied beauties or pleasures. The homely image of an ‘errand’ and the seriousness of the ‘prayer’ root the poem in the real world where the poet’s words are used to explore ideas that are expressed through poetry and become pedestrian if we seek to transpose meaning to another form.
Dickinson’s poem illustrates how the poet thinks in images. Oakeshott (1991:516) believes that this is the fundamental function of the poet to work with imaginings: ‘the activity in poetry is imagining, making and moving about among images’. Shklovsky (1965:5) puts the image at the heart of poetic discourse when he writes that: ‘Poetry is a special way of thinking: it is, precisely, a way of thinking in images.’ Such thinking is dynamic and compresses words into Plath’s ‘suitcases’ in order to pack more meaning into the line. In order to do this, the poet adopts a special kind of thinking which takes the image and works with it in order, as Vendler (2000:9) puts it:
‘not only to instruct but also to delight: [thinking] must enter somehow into the imaginative and linguistic fusion engaged by the poem.’
In the writing of poems, then, is a special kind of problem-solving which is concerned with complex patterns of meaning and which evokes willingness, indeed delight, in delving into intricate decisions about alternative choices. The poet is willing to be inquisitive about word meanings, to toy with ideas and to be open to puzzling choices and demands. These characteristics are part of what we mean when we talk about creative thinking. That creative thinking can be used in all spheres of life but is a clear component of poetry.
It would be pointless to paraphrase a poem such as Raymond Carver’s ‘Drinking While Driving’ (1996:3) as what happens is clear and it needs no such translation. And yet the poem captures moments in time that seem to have a greater significance. It is reminiscent of Robert Lowell’s (1969:268) description of the process of poetic thinking when:
‘Some little image, some detail you’ve noticed – you’re writing about a little country shop, just describing it, and your poem ends up with anexistentialist account of your experience.’
Carver’s poem captures such a moment in life. It is not significant in the way that a key event in one’s life is significant and memorable. It is only a space before ‘something will happen.’ Nonetheless, it has its own kind of significance as it is a happy moment, spent with his brother and where intellectual achievements (‘I have not/ read a book in six months’) are not seen as the source of that happiness, which appears as a surprise to the writer as he uses the word ‘Nevertheless’. At this moment, captured in the poem, life is directionless and perhaps without pressure as the brothers are ‘just driving’ with no clear direction and the drink adds to the feeling of what Hardy calls a ‘fugitive day’, with responsibilities put aside and the sense of being lost appears both literal and metaphorical. There appears to be almost permission on such a day to ‘sleep forever’ without consequence, apart from the brother’s nudge, which breaks the moment and brings us all back to the real world where events happen.
The poem is reminiscent of Ted Hughes’s (2002:157) suggestion that poetry often deals with human experiences that have significance because they are ours. However, they are hard to put into words. He would contend that much of poetry is about an attempt to give a voice to our inner experiences so that:
‘Words… express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are….Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this. Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness.’
Something of this is captured in Carver’s poem where he has found words for a fleeting and ordinary moment.
Thinking in metaphor is a way of expressing what may seem inexpressible and illuminates our thinking to ourselves and others. Lakoff and Johnson  have established how metaphor shapes our thinking and understanding of the world. Poets often do this thinking for us but everyone should tap into the power of metaphor in making sense of our worlds.
Carver, R. (1996) All of Us: Collected Poems, London: Harvill.
Dickinson, E. (2000) Selected Poems, London: Heinemann.
Hughes, T (2002) ‘Words and Experience’ pp 152-157 Edt. Herbert, Hollis. Strong Words, Northumberland: Bloodaxe.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M.  Metaphors we live by’, Chicago: Chicago.
Lowell, R (1969) ‘An Interview’, Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, edt. Scully. London: Fontana.
Morley, D. (2007) Creative Writing, Cambridge: Cambridge: University Press.
Oakeshott, M (1991) ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’, Rationalism in politics and other essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Shlovsky, V. (1965) ‘Art as Technique’, Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays trns.Lemon and Reis. London: Lincoln.
Vendler, H (2004) Poets Thinking, Harvard: Harvard.