Sunday, August 7, 2016

"In a Station of the Metro" I -- antipodean metaphor

“If one thinks of strange scenery, then painting is not the equal of real landscape; but if one considers the wonders of brush and ink, then landscape can never equal painting.”
—Dong QiChang
How do you know which is tenor and which vehicle in the following juxtaposition?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Of course, you'll know the title, and so you'll think you know the answer. The faces in the crowd in a station at the Metro as Pound watches the train pull in are (like) petals on a wet, black bough.

But without the title, you might be able to reverse it, right? Looking at petals on a wet, black bough, watching them come into your attention, taking on shape and focus, whether in a garden or on a scroll -- you might have a vision of the ghostly faces in a subway car in a station of the Metro.

The scroll is yet another part of the metaphor, the way Pound is using it, and part of the brilliance of the poem. Since this is actually referring to a station of the Metro, that means that in this metaphor, "petals on a wet, black bough" comprises the vehicle, with the faces in the crowd the tenor, the "true" if aestheticized reality perceived by the speaker's eye. (The speaker who sees these faces.) The vehicle in a metaphor is never actual -- otherwise it wouldn't be a metaphor -- and there's something right, perhaps, about the petals on a wet black bough not being actual, being instead the evanescent vanishing aesthetic vision into which the solid urban fact of the Metro station is transfigured. The transfiguration into an aesthetic vision is what the scroll would do anyhow. "Actual" petals and an "actual" scroll are equally unreal here. They're both visions of the aesthetic vision, so to speak. And of course that's what the scroll does anyhow. It takes real petals and transforms them into their brush-and-ink aesthetic counterpart.

But that's just what makes this metaphor antipodean. The crowd in the Metro is transformed into the solitude of mountains or the still greater solitude of the scrolls depicting the solitude of mountains through the representation of a single bough. The metaphor is apt because it reverses the tonality of what it describes. That's what I mean by an antipodean metaphor. All metaphors, as Donald Davidson points out, are false. But this one is the antipodes of what it is predicated of, and so its transformational power is total.

This is why I think Pound must have been alluding intentionally to "Daffodils," which does essentially the same thing, but in reverse. The crowd that Wordsworth sees is the crowd of daffodils which belong to the lonely places he wanders. So where Pound's crowds predicate the metaphor of petals under lonely rainclouds, Wordsworth's daffodils predicate the metaphor of the crowd.

In both cases, though, it's solitude that wins out over the urban jostle. Why is that? Why do goose and gander both fly to the faraway reaches of the scene?

Because they're both poems, and those solitudes are "the one and only metaphor" (Szentkuthy) for the wonders of brush and ink.


  1. When you wrote this, had you seen Les Gottesman's chapbook?

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