A Fine Line: Loss of Meaning via (too many) Metaphors

Posted: July 16, 2011 in Misc
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A poet once admitted to me, rather enthusiastically, “If you wanna impress me, shoot me a really good one-liner” (or something to that effect). If guitar riffs are considered hooks in music, why shouldn’t poetry have something similar? Stand-out lines are easily memorable, thus randomly quotable, and inevitably the way people can inspire readership of verse. But when a one-liner is all that defines a poem, can that piece of writing really be considered poetry? Is the zinger all contemporary poetry has to offer?

I’ve spent many a night in myriad venues listening to poets rattle off line after dizzying line of … lines: thoughts that, in and of themselves, were admittedly impressive but that, when meditated upon given the greater context of the poem, seemed more like a stand-alone, audible rhyming dictionary with ADD than anything designed to be a part of something larger than itself. Originally I blamed this disconnect on my own inability to fully absorb the spoken word, especially in rapid-fire succession as is in vogue. If I couldn’t remember all the lines clearly, how was I supposed to connect the disconnects throughout a 3-minute long piece in any meaningful fashion as to reap the intended effect of the poem? However, friends and I have bought books by such poets (whom we were fans/fond of) and been, on average, drastically disappointed in what was lost from mic to page.

I’m not debating the quality of said one-liners; they stand out and on their own for a reason. But most one-liners I hear delivered from the stage seem to be nothing more than self-celebrating linguistic exercises so crammed with thought that they don’t really need to be part of anything else and probably shouldn’t; the author just couldn’t let go. The problem is an odd combination of not knowing when to stop and stopping too frequently. Poems comprised of one-liners often seem a collage of disparate thoughts and ill-aligned images incompetently thrown together in favor of length or stream of thought or simply “because.” It is this lack of control that defeats the purpose of a poem, which is supposed to exhibit more discipline than any other form of writing.

What such potent one-liners should be is built upon. Authors should explore all that line can lead to and make sure its essence and related imagery continue throughout the poem. This is what is known as extended metaphor, which is quickly and sadly becoming a lost art. A crafty poet (that is to say, a poet) should be able to find enough material within a single image to evoke any particular feeling. I do not argue the effectiveness of disconnected and abrasively juxtaposed images, but they must be used for a reason greater than themselves and shock value. A good line might catch the attention of individual audience members, and a series of good lines might keep their focus, but even a series of great lines does not necessarily a solid poem make.


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