“By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs — now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life.” —John Muir
I have a particular love for metaphors. Maybe it comes of having been raised by a mother who taught poetry — and who respected and quoted Archibald MacLeish’s bold statement in “Ars Poetica” that “A poem should not mean / But be” and thus would occasionally ask me about poetry well above my reading level just to see how I felt as opposed to what I thought the line meant.
To be fair, we are talking about reading levels as the educational establishment imagines them, and the educational establishment in the 1970s no less. As someone who teaches poetry myself, I’m convinced that most adults don’t appreciate e.e. cummings (no, that is not a typo; it’s how he wrote his name) because they approached him when they were too old.
Just try asking a teenager to stop looking for one true meaning in something and accept that there is no one purely correct answer but a million individual interpretations. They stammer and puff and sometimes start to shake a little. Already too old.
“Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town” reads very much like a poem for a child’s brain, one that is still learning to fill in nouns and adjectives in a Mad Libs kind of process that amounts to distilling the world into something that has meaning and coherence, which is perhaps a fool’s errand, but nonetheless an errand we are all sent on from a very young age indeed.
I’d say it’s to cummings’ credit that he was still able to suss this out as an adult. It’s something most of us lose when we learn to read and write and make meaning in the world and trade something as invaluable as time for something as transient as money.
“Neither Christ nor Buddha nor Socrates ever wrote a book,” said William Butler Yeats, “for to do so is to exchange life for a logical process.”
Or maybe that love of metaphor comes of being an early reader. I can appreciate e.e. cummings, but I would never be able to write like him — even as a study in pure mimicry. I can see the world the way he saw it only with his guidance and only then with great effort.
For better or for worse, then, I am someone who values the symbolism of things, who seeks a deeper meaning, a coherence, a logical process.
And this week, as we in Southeastern Kentucky struggle under the weight of water falling upon us, I’ve been thinking about all the many ways we use water as a symbol.
Our language is full of the imagery of water. A fish out of water is uncomfortable in his surroundings. Water under the bridge is no longer relevant to the issue at hand. If you’re in trouble, you can be in deep water, hot water, or up a creek without a paddle. We are cautioned not to make waves, rock the boat or throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In the Christian tradition, no metaphor is as freighted as that of water. It is mentioned more than 700 times in the Bible, from the flood that destroyed the known world, to the life-giving water from the stone in the desert, to John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth in the River Jordan. In Genesis, it is the waters that bring forth life (and the metaphor holds to this day, when we speak of a pregnant woman’s “water breaking”), and the river of the water of life begins the final chapter of Revelation.
The recurring theme is always this: water is necessary to life. We can survive for weeks without food, but only a few days without clean water. And like all things necessary to life, water can be unbelievably destructive. Even faster than fire, water can wipe out miles and miles of infrastructure, personal possessions, and lives. The problem right now, not to belabor the metaphor (I’m joking, of course — I’m working this metaphor to its bare bones) is that our cup runneth over — and not in a good way.
With more rains on the way in the coming week, we are watching the destructive power of water before our very eyes in Southeastern Kentucky, a bitter irony if you also watched Australian firefighters dancing in the rain when soothing water finally came to Australia last month.
But we are also watching an outpouring (seriously, this metaphor might not survive) of love, help, sympathy, and hard work among neighbors. Cities and counties that can often bicker bitterly under ordinary circumstances have opened a different kind of flood gates, the kind that allows resources and shelter and manpower to flow where it’s most needed.
What a shame that we so often have to close one set of flood gates to open the other.
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