I’m going to write about “Metaphor as Degeneration,” one of my favorite Stevens poems, from later in his career, from The Auroras of Autumn. I’ve always loved this poem, the idea behind it, but it strikes me now as particularly fun and funny because of an ongoing mock fight between myself and a fellow writer (Blake Butler) about metaphor, what it is, and how useful it can be in one’s writing.
Metaphor as Degeneration
If there is a man white as marble
Sits in a wood, in the greenest part,
Brooding sounds of the images of death,
So there is a man in black space
Sits in nothing that we know,
Brooding sounds of river noises;
And these images, these reverberations,
And others, make certain how being
Includes death and the imagination.
The marble man remains himself in space.
The man in the black wood descends unchanged.
It is certain that the river
Is not Swatara. The swarthy water
That flows round the earth and through the skies,
Twisting among the universal spaces,
Is not Swatara. It is being.
That is the flock-flecked river, the water,
The blown sheen–or is it air?
How, then, is metaphor degeneration,
When Swatara becomes this undulant river
And the river becomes landless, waterless ocean?
Here the black violets grow down to its banks
And the memorial mosses hang their green
Upon it, as it flows ahead.
A full explication of this poem would be an essay, an essay I likely do not have time nor space to write, to say nothing of what’s yours to read. But, we can say this: “How, then, is metaphor degeneration”? All too often I feel a directness in a writer’s approach to an image, line, or story is stifling. I’m suffocated by literalness. The man white as marble and the man in black space are the same man. They are being. So, too, then is the river. So, too, then is Swatara, a tributary to the Susquehanna, but what Stevens metaphorically refers to as the ether through which we and all other things swim. It becomes apparent that the marble man and the man in black space are interchangeable (and they do, in fact, swap places: “The marble man remains himself in space” and “The man in the black wood descends unchanged”). What matters is being and death: the simple realities of life. And but how else to explain them? Metaphor.
Jamie Iredell is the author of Prose. Poems. a Novel. (Orange Alert Press, 2009); and The Book of Freaks (Future Tense Books, forthcoming 2010). He blogs at jamieiredell.blogspot.com.