Brogan: Conceptual Metaphor Theory may apply poetry

John Brogan, Columnist

The theory of conceptual metaphors has helped frame much of the way we currently understand linguistic communication, and thus poetry. Conceptual metaphor theory posits that persistent metaphorical mappings in everyday communication may reflect at least some of the ways our brains think about the world.

Within the theory, it’s interesting to question if quantitative, inherently scientific theories of cognition apply to the study of art.

The theory of conceptual metaphor (CM) states that much of language is founded on basic metaphors that conceptually structure larger ideas such as emotions and ideas. An example is using movement metaphors to describe relationships. Just as someone may say in a literal sense that “someone fell in the sewer,” it can be also be said metaphorically that “someone fell in love.”

One theory is that these structures are developed in infancy as young children make sense of the functional qualities of the world by interacting and playing. For example, a child can more easily grasp the understanding of an idea by relating it to a simple action such as eating. So the sentence “Let me chew on your grant proposal overnight” makes use of the metaphor that “ideas are food” to represent the complexity of a grant proposal, that the speaker must use the lengthy process of eating to trudge through it.

Simple notions of space, directionality and commonplace functional events such as eating are often mapped onto the conceptualization of ideas, emotions, relationships and other larger concepts in normal communication. Does that apply to artistic expression in the same way?

Consider the E.E. Cummings poem “voices to voices, lip to lip.” The introductory stanza draws a connection to communication as constituting undying, relating communication to life.

“voices to voices, lip to lip

i swear (to noone everyone) constitutes

undying; or whatever this and that petal confutes . . .

to exist being a peculiar form of sleep”

Lips touching may represent kissing but can equally represent speaking. The connection of voices and the connection to lips, is said to constitute undying, or existing. One inference that can be drawn is the importance of communication for human existence.

Cummings’ claim of communication’s importance to livelihood constitutes the conceptual metaphor that “communication is linguistic communication,” such as when someone says the cliche “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Interestingly, he swears this claim to both no one and everyone, perhaps himself questioning whether his poetry is actually making the connection of voices that he praises.

By questioning if anyone is listening to his proclamation, he is in a sense questioning the metaphor “communication is linguistic communication.” The purposeful irony of his ambiguity is in that his argument is presented in the poem using language.

“(While you and i have lips and voices which

are for kissing and to sing with

who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch

invents an instrument to measure Spring with?

each dream nascitur, is not made . . .)”

Jumping ahead, stanza seven brings back lips and voices as tools for kissing and singing, juxtaposing them to a scientist analyzing the climate of spring through a microscope. Here Cummings is pinning rationality and grouping against more primal desires. This theme carries throughout the poem, questioning the necessity of creating categories, even going as far as to question why we keep track of seasonal changes.

In saying that each dream born is not made, he asserts the claim that creation is not always “made” in the sense of logical reflecting or scientific methodology. For example, while we may be able to apply cognitive and literary theory to poetic analysis, these theories aren’t absolutely necessary for a person to create a poem.

In that sense, artistic creation can be born without ever having been mechanically made. The mechanized metaphor of making versus the inspired metaphor of nascitur create a different framing for understanding the outside world: either as a rationally understandable system or a malleable state of constant birth.

“why then to Hell with that: the other; this,

since the thing perhaps is

to eat flowers and not to be afraid.”

The final stanza continues to disregard a mechanistic and categorical approach to life, instead discarding it to hell. Religious metaphors aren’t overly apparent in the poem, but its use at the end points to a religious appeal based on a more romantic view of communication described throughout the poem. His call for acting with passion rather than logic is based less on reflection but rather largely on faith.

The last stanza makes use of the fundamental “ideas are food” conceptual metaphor. The metaphor suggests that his beliefs are in fact as simple as eating food: Since our greatest importance is simply to live without being programmed, our objectives aren’t to measure the prototypical behaviors of spring, but rather to willfully take part in the natural ways of life.
Just as we can chew on an idea overnight, or swallow or “suck up” hearing bad news, Cummings invites us to readily take all of the idea without pause, and simply not be afraid of it.

John is a transfer student who also works in the solar energy field.