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pig vagina
Abandon Taste, All Ye Who Enter Here

Do you actively try to align your metaphors and similes with the general themes of your text? Or do you simply try to write what seems to you to be “the best” metaphor/simile you can think of at any given time. For instance, if you’re writing a story/poem about animal husbandry, and you’re talking about artificial swine insemination, do you liken the pig’s vagina to a “soft, collapsed and claustrophobic barn,” or to a “gooey, uncooked garlic knot”? Let’s say the later was the “more apt” comparison; would you still use it even though it had nothing to do with the context?

36 thoughts on “Alignment

  1. Both/and, I think. I think in most cases the former is shitty if it’s overly self-conscious or forced, needs to emerge more organically. And in many cases, probably good to have some variation.

    Sean Lovelace said something cool on his blog once regarding imagery abt the value of populating your texts from the get-go with objects so later, when you need an object, it’s already there, and you can play with it. Take it someplace.

    1. Do you intentionally evolve your metaphors? Like, taking the garlic knot example, go on to invoke dough, or baking, etc., in a later passage? The process could be used, I suppose, to counterpoint a primary theme with a secondary theme.

      I know what you mean by avoiding “overly self-conscious or forced” language, but that seems to go without saying, if you know what I mean. Also, I certainly wouldn’t say that the impression of “organic” prose necessitates an organic emergence of same.

      Flaubert said “An author in his work must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”

      1. it’s interesting you quote Flaubert, Shya – it recalls Wood’s argument with Wallace, which is based on Wood’s perception that Wallace is too ‘visible’ in his own work. He refers to Wallace’s style as “anti-aestheticism” – the refusal or inability to differentiate between authorial voice and the voice of one’s characters.

        1. The quote is one Wood uses in How Fiction Works, and the metaphor issue is a direct response to that text. I’m reading the book, so expect any number of Wood-inspired posts.

          I’m still working on my opinion about Wood’s opinion about Wallace’s work. I don’t think he’s all-wrong. But perhaps the most important contextual consideration is that Wood simply doesn’t see beauty in what he calls the “language of America.” I think it’s just because he’s a Brit.

          1. that’s funny – the British are very British.

            somebody mentioned Saunders, i think, as a favorite of Wallace, which speaks to this idea of the “language of America.” there are few writers who can capture the crassness of a particular kind of American idiom without simply lampooning it.

            1. Saunders? See, I don’t think he pulls it off. His work is lampoon. I enjoy his storied, but they feel like empty calories. They’re often hilarious, but they don’t offer me new insight, and since his characters are all idiots, I don’t get emotionally involved in their fates as often as I’d like. There are some stories that totally hit the mark, to be sure, but considering his oeuvre generally, I’d have to say that I can’t turn to it for sustenance.

      2. I haven’t intentionally evolved them, I don’t think.

        This might be one of the aspects of writing about which I’m most insecure, actually.

        The most useful feedback I get on stuff is usually something like, “See this? Do more with it.”

        Randall Brown did a cool post on this once in his flashfiction.net blog:


    2. i was doing color themes for a while, like invoking only certain color sets in stories, both in images and metaphors… that was several years ago, though. i don’t think i’m as playful anymore.

      i think, at this point, i consider metaphor needing to align with mood and tone and a broader sort of concept, rather than a specific imagistic theme.

  2. i honestly don’t put much thought into it, but i’ve found that my imagery, metaphors, and similes tend to align with the matters i’m writing about. then i’ll use the revision process to refine (of course) and sometimes to extend, carry through, or pare down.

  3. I tend to discover along the way of writing a story that a repeated metaphor or cluster of metaphors has emerged, usually related to a character’s self-understanding getting projected onto the world. So when that happens I play with it in revision, whether to scale it back (when it’s overblown) or ramp it up so the developing meaning of that image to the character can add momentum (hopefully) to the story.

      1. And Slime Me is a perfect example of what I’m talking about above. It began with a strong image and it took me a long time to figure out how to best work that image for more depth and resonance — first with help from Gabriel Orgrease (who pushed me to expand what was originally two paragraphs), then from you, when your editing feedback helped me figure out how to best use the religiosity I’d inserted in the text without knowing precisely why. I think I’m still developing the judgment to recognize these things without assistance.

        1. I’m still developing that, too. Just reading this thread, I’m thinking in my head about a story, The Fullness of Everything, where I could do more with this idea of fullness, where I’m already thinking now of things I want to add to further develop this.

          When I think of how it currently reads, it has a hit-it-and-quit-it feel with this “fullness” motif, instead of a fully recognized theme throughout. I need to revisit this story tonight. And, probably pull it from the couple places I’ve submitted it to.

  4. “Hesitation, whether ultimately resolved or unresolved and unresolvable, is one strategy for foregrounding the ontological structure of metaphor; but it is not the only strategy. Instead of poising an expression between “style” and “World” one can, for example, openly display is metaphoricity but then so extend and elaborate the metaphorical frame of reference that it approaches the status of an independent fictional world of its own, an autonomous (or at any rate quasi-autonomous) imaginative reality. The great precursor here is Proust, who notoriously begins with a relatively simple metaphor or explicit analogy—an opera box like a tank of water (near the beginning of /Guermantes Way/), homosexual courtship like a bee pollinating a flower (in the opening pages of /Cities of the Plain/)—and develops from it an elaborate metaphorical system in which the two frames of references are congruent at a maximum number of points: a world of nymphs, sea-monsters and undersea flora and fauna unfolds parallel to the world of aristocrats at the opera, an entire biological-botanical realm develops parallel to the realm of homoerotic behavior. This development may extend over several pages of text. Of course, Proust is careful to “ground” his hypertrophied metaphorical developments, motivating them at every point to prevent his reader from mistaking the “major” world of the novel.

    Postmodernist writers are not always so considerate.”

    —Brian McHale, /Postmodernist Fiction/ (Methuen 1987), pages 137–8 (in Chapter 9, “Tropological Worlds”)

    1. I wonder if anyone has written a book wherein the extended metaphor slowly overwhelms its referent reality and switches places, to become the primary carrier of the narrative.

      1. I can’t think of any book constructed exactly in this fashion, but note (as McHale does) the opening of John Ashbery’s “The New Spirit,” from THREE POEMS (1972):

        “At this point an event of such glamor and such radiance occurred that you forgot the name all over again. It could be compared to arriving in an unknown city at night, intoxicated by the strange lighting and the ambiguities of the streets. The person sitting next to you turned to you, her voice broke and a kind of tired exuberance flooded over you just as you were lifting your arm to the luggage rack. At once the weight of the other years and above all the weight of distinguishing among them slipped away. You found yourself not wanting to care. Everything was guaranteed, it had always been, there would be no future, no end, no development except this steady wavering like a breeze that gently lifted the tired curtains day had let fall. And all the possibilities of civilization, such as travel, stufy, gastronomy, sexual fulfillment–these no longer lay around on the cankered earth like reproaches, hideous in their reminder of what never could be, but were possibilities that had always existed, had been created just for both of us to bring us to the summit of the dark way we had been traveling without ever expecting to find it ending. Indeed, without them nothing could have happened. Which is why the intervening space now came to advance toward us separately, a wave of music which we were, unable to grasp it as it unfolded but living it. That space was transfigured as though by hundreds and hundreds of tiny points of light like flares seen from a distance, gradually merging into one wall of even radiance like the sum of all their possible positions, plotted by coordinates, yet optn to the movements and suggestions of this new life of action without development, a fixed flame.”

        The passage quickly gives way to metaphor, even before we know what the “it” is that’s being compared (falling in love). And that metaphor gives way to others: a breeze, a wave of music, the lights.

        For a somewhat different reading of this poem, see Marjorie Perloff’s THE POETICS OF INDETERMINACY: RIMBAUD TO CAGE:

        …McHale mentions in POSTMODERNIST FICTION several works in which the literal, fictional world “frame” is swamped and gives way to extended metaphors:

        . Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE (1967) and THE AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH (1975)
        . Richard Brautigan’s THE TOKYO-MONTANA EXPRESS (1980)
        . Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW (1973)
        . Donald Barthelme’s story “Sentence” in CITY LIFE (1970)
        . Leonard Michaels’s stories “Mildred” and “Fingers and Toes” in GOING PLACES (1969)
        …and other examples in Joyce, Kafka, Beckett

        McHale also points out we have a name for writing wherein metaphorical meaning is given equal, parallel footing to the literal: allegry. Following Maureen Quilligan’s THE LANGUAGE OF ALLEGORY (1979), he makes a case for postmodernist fiction having reinvented the allegory, divesting it of the pejorative sense it gained under Romanticism.

          1. All sane people do!

            I’ve been thinking that I should do some posts on poetry. Too many fiction writers I know never read any.

            Personally, I consider poetry fundamental; I can’t imagine reading literature without reading poetry. It’s almost where writing starts for me.

            Besides Batman comic books.

            1. Adam, will you make me a poetry reading list? Like your personal musts? I’ve been asking several friends if they’d be willing to do this for me.

              Hey, are you at your office on a Saturday, or did you get your internet back at home?

              1. I’m at my office, although supposedly someone from AT&T just repaired the problem at my apartment. (But I’ve heard that one before.)

                I’ll try to post something about poetry very soon, including a list of the poetry I find essential. At the moment, though, IT’S COMICS TIME!!!!!!! (Read this as The Thing would say it.)

                …But so you have someplace to start (and since it’s best to just jump right in), I’d suggest Frank O’Hara. You can get all of his poems in a single beautiful, complete volume (well, the poems of his that survived).

                Here’s one of his best poems, to get started:

                From there, you can explore the rest of the New York School (I personally adore Kenneth Koch), or move forward and/or backward.

                John Ashbery is also an excellent place to start; his work has always struck me as being very relevant to prose writers (and only partly because he himself sometimes uses prose). SOME TREES makes a good entry point. As does THREE POEMS.

                Moving forward more toward today, Susan Howe is utterly brilliant.

                Moving backward, check out Lorine Niedecker (again one of many greats). Who will lead you to the other Objectivists.

                Niedecker also leads to Louis Zukofsky, who leads to Gertrude Stein. Both LZ and GS wrote prose as well as poetry (and things in between).

                …well, I’ll try to put together a more proper list soon, but the above are all Twentieth Century poets whom I consider important and canonical. There are many others! Meanwhile, I’m sure others will have opinions!

                1. Speak of the devil–I’ve just been reviewing some 90s and 00s Ashbery. Man, Flow Chart is really impressive. And Hotel Lautreamont is a really strong collection.

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