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Sometimes I wish metaphors weren’t often taught as their own unit in elementary school. It makes them seem sort of precious, like a necklace one would only wear on Very Important Occasions. Or it can make them seem crafty: Hey, anyone can do this! Just draw a line between two rows of words.

Of course anyone can do this and have fun while they’re at it. It’s never wrong to amuse oneself with language. But what bothers me is what such a linking game may leave out. Some of us working with metaphors are looking beyond whimsy or fancy to convey ways that disparate things or ideas find common ground. We don’t go on metaphor hunts waving nets or pincers, but rather quietly stay alert for flickers of meaning in the shadows.

The best metaphors surprise us the way we hope they’ll surprise readers. I might go about my day with something in the back of my mind, then when I read, see, or hear something altogether different, what’s in my mind’s corners and what’s front and center collide into something new. Or maybe something catches my attention, and in asking myself why the once-ordinary image brightens or haunts, I glimpse a link. The connections deepen in the triangle between what happened, my snagged attention, and my inquiry about why this might matter.

Sometimes what we look at takes the shape or color of our obsessions, which is why anyone writing about an oak tree, chrysanthemum, or the ocean will write something different than anyone else, if they’re really paying attention. This leap from ourselves to what we behold is like the one in which we find ourselves in another’s story, perhaps an old tale or myth, whose flexibility to take many forms is one reason it’s stayed around.

Most of us work hard to keep things in order. We try to separate joy and sorrow, life and loss, going after one and doing our best to dodge the other. But when these wash together or collide, there’s nothing more we can do. We remember that most joy and sorrow has strands of the other twisted through. When fragile dams break, we can drop our aching arms and stop building them. And maybe spot strange beauty.

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit the always inspiring Tara at A Teaching Life.


I need to share this with my kids when the time comes, Jeannine:We don’t go on metaphor hunts waving nets or pincers, but rather quietly stay alert for flickers of meaning in the shadows.
When metaphor is taught in isolation as a single craft move, it loses its power, I think - it becomes just a convenient strategy to throw in and cross off the writer's check list. Thank you for this reminder to teach effectively.
Tara, you are the last person who needs to be reminded to teach effectively. I am in awe of what you do. I think we can all have fun as readers or writers just noticing with some humility and wonder and humor -- hey, do you think that could mean something else, too?