The Empty Bowl: Metaphor as Meaning by Michael Simms

The Empty Bowl: Metaphor as Meaning by Michael Simms
June 25, 2024 Simms Michael

Michael Simms’ essay for this month’s issue of Plume, “The Empty Bowl,” assays the various figurative categories of metaphor that make what Hart Crane called (in a letter to Harriet Monroe at the Poetry Foundation) the “strange relations” between disparate things coherent, revelatory, paradoxical, original, and mimetic. In so doing, Simms enumerates with various examples and metaphorical modes the ways in which metaphor transports one thing (any “thing”) into another in the guise of the same thing. Implicit in Simms’ discussion of metaphor is the poet’s talent for exploiting metaphor’s double nature as both literal and figurative in its transactional capacity for “making new.” With the pedagogical skill of a master teacher, Simms discusses the various established kinds of metaphor with definitions and examples that provide an invaluable instructional manual for readers and writers alike.

—Chard deNiord



The Empty Bowl: Metaphor as Meaning


Part One: A Theory of Metaphor


As English teachers, we know our job is to explain to students that a metaphor is a figure of speech in which an image stands for an idea. As poets, we know that metaphors are useful because they add texture and beauty to a poem and connect a simple concept to a complex one. The word metaphor comes from the Greek to carry across, so a meaning is transferred from the idea to the image, as in Hope is a bird. When a metaphor merely illustrates something that could be accurately described by other means than a metaphor, it’s termed decorative, but if a metaphor expresses a thought so precisely or subtly that it could not be so well expressed by other means, it’s termed organic. I.A. Richards (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936) breaks down the metaphor into two aspects: the tenor, or referential word which is usually stated first and is often of an abstract nature (“Hope is a bird”), and the vehicle usually the second term and commonly more concrete (“Hope is a bird”). Often the tenor is referred to as literal and the vehicle as figurative.

What we don’t say to students, at least at first, is that metaphors conjure powerful juju that alters the way we see the world because our minds re-shape themselves around the correlation between tenor and vehicle. Richards claims that the meaning of the tenor is transformed and adjusted by passing through the connotations of the vehicle which, in turn, energizes the original tenor. In longer metaphorical constructions, such as allegories, the original tenor can disappear when the vehicle assumes command of the imagination. Richards describes the way in which the mind functions when it riffles through the qualities that images or ideas possess:


The mind is a connecting organ, it works by connecting any two things in an indefinitely large number of different ways. Which of these it chooses is settled by reference to some larger whole or aim, and though we may not discover its aim, the mind is never aimless.


In Metaphor as Pure Adventure, a speech given at the Library of Congress in 1968, James Dickey claims that the process of metaphor-making has four steps: 1) making picture comparisons in the mind: 2) discovering the threads of continuity that run through these pictures and which create a “narrative of dramatic action;” 3) recombining these elements so that that they undergo a “fruitful interchange of qualities, a transference of energies, an informing of each other”; and 4) translating this process into the medium of language. Although the process of imagining a poem is not as deliberate as these steps make it sound, the dream-like flow of metaphor often moves, as Dickey implies, from individual image to combinations of images to words that describe them.

Paul Ricoeur (The Rule of Metaphor, 1977) defines metaphor-making as a three-step process of selection, substitution, and language formation. In other words, the creation of metaphor is akin to a three dimensional starburst of associations in which the imagination splits, fuses, and refines images and concepts. Although there is an important difference between the process of comparison, which defines the basic action of creating a simile, and the process of substitution, that is, the replacement of tenor with the vehicle, which defines a metaphor; it seems obvious that in both comparison and substitution, we are recognizing resemblances. But the act is so fluid and instantaneous that unless we interrupt the creative act in order to observe ourselves writing the poem, we are unaware of its workings. Comparing and substituting are actually two complementary sides of the same act which is not just a way of understanding the world, but a way of recreating it.



 A Brief History of Metaphor

The first grammatical unit of language, according to Christine Brooke-Rose (A Grammar of Metaphor, 1965) was the verb, not the noun, because verbs already contain nouns within them by implication. The word run implies that someone or something must be engaged in the activity. Thus, although the verb seems to be a more complex unit of language than the noun, studies have shown that the verb metaphor in poetry is older than the noun. For example, note in the 4,000 year old Babylonian astrological poem Enuma Anu Enlil the lunar eclipse is referred to as the moon god mourning.

Just how difficult it is to analyze and organize metaphors into a comprehensive system can be seen by the number of attempts that have been made. Aristotle, for example, devised a system known as the Genus/Species Classification similar to the one he used in his biological studies. Quintilian broke the types of metaphor into relationships between animate and inanimate objects, so a comparison between two animate objects  (Henry is a rock) is a different type of metaphor than Your glasses are a gas which is a comparison between two inanimate objects; or A book is a man’s best friend which is a comparison between an inanimate and an animate object. In 19th -century France, a system was developed that described the matrix of a metaphor according to its domain of thought — from the world of science nature, religion, etc. which was refined further by German linguists into the Domain Trait formula, a point-by-point analysis of the metaphorical construction. Today, it is common among literary critics and political activists to interpret, and sometimes call out, that is denounce, a speaker’s intention based on their use of wordplay: does the language imply an anti-feminist attitude? Does it neglect to consider post-colonial issues? Does it imply a stereotype of oppressed groups? For example, the greeting Long time, no see is believed to have developed as mimicry of some Asian Americans’ speech, and her rosy cheeks might be seen as reducing a woman to her appealing appearance.

Metaphors have power because they create categories of thought and imply resemblances of items in a given category. But in a larger sense, language itself is a metaphor, that is, a systematic correlation of patterns of sounds to the world, and the way we experience these correlations creates the world we live in. Powerful juju indeed.



Metaphor in Contemporary Poetry


Ancient Greek and Latin rhetoricians made lists of dozens of rhetorical and figurative strategies. The lists were later expanded and refined by Renaissance writers. Here are five types of metaphor which are often used by writers and poets today:


catachresis (Greek for “misuse “) the choice of a word that belongs in one domain of meaning in another unrelated domain. For example the phrase I’m broke denotes destruction or breaking but is normally applied to one’s financial state. Another type of catachresis is sensually oriented; Her hands sniffed into the bag of candy, in which hands act as if they were a nose. This type of surprising metaphor lends itself to unexpected exchanges between the domains of the concrete and the abstract as in Thomas Nash’s Brightness falls from the air and Naomi Shihab Nye’s I wish I could harvest his patience. Sometimes the dissimilarity between the tenor and vehicle is purely decorative and can create a comic effect, as in Shakespeare’s “Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse.”


meiosis (Greek for “a lessening”) the substitution of a word or concept of lesser degree for one of greater degree, as in My excommunication is nothing but a leave of absence. This device is often a form of humor or ironic understatement; however it can also create an ironic counterpoint to a serious subject. W.H. Auden uses the device often, for example in Musée des Beaux Arts, a poem about the way people ignore the suffering of others, he says The torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.


metonymy (Greek for “change of name”) a replacement of a subject for its characteristic; for example, an athlete is known as a jock, a king as the crown and military officers as brass. The leader of a group is usually referred to as its head, and the expression blood, sweat and tears commonly stands for brutal sacrifice. Metonymy is widely used in poetry. In his poem Out, Out —, Robert Frost describes a boy holding up his hand injured by a buzz saw — as if to keep/ The life from spilling — where life is a metaphor for blood. Metonymy is often differentiated from synecdoche which brings together two things that are related but separate, as in Robert Graves referring to a physician as a hippocratic eye, and W.S. Merwin calling a window the square that is always open.


metalepsis (Greek for “participation”) often called mixed metaphor, the mingling of incongruous or illogically connected figures of speech or the clashing of attributes between the tenor and vehicle within a single metaphor. Although mixing metaphors is usually considered a stylistic mistake leading to unintentionally humorous imagery, for example, She is the flower that walks beside me, there are many examples of mixed metaphors from Shakespeare to Keats to the French Surrealists that work because of their imaginative power and authority. The decision of when to use a mixed metaphor depends upon the writer’s sense of risk as well as his or her skill. Examples of successful employment of this strategy can be found in poems by W.S. Merwin, such as Sunset Water in which he describes his father: all his life he swam doggie paddle/ holding hurried breaths steering an embarrassed smile; as well as in Barbara Hamby’s Athena Ode in which she invokes the goddess: Road diva, divine mixologist, cancan dancer/ of the mandible wars.


paradiastole (Greek for “a putting together of dissimilar things”) using a metaphor in order to soothe, flatter or assuage. In his essay The Poet, Emerson flatters all men in an attempt to defend poetry: For we are not… porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it. The contemporary poet Alfred K. LaMotte writes God is nothing else/ but the place where the sun comes up/ in your chest. Similarly, James Crews often generously includes his listener in his ongoing spiritual awakening: Relentless/ as the urge that also blooms in us.



The Grammar of Metaphor


Another way of understanding a metaphor is to look at the grammatical structures that underlie it:


The Noun Metaphor, the simplest figurative construction, is an attempt to fuse qualities of the tenor and vehicle in order to create a concept. For example, if we say My mother is a flower, then we evoke free-floating associations of weather, landscape, temperament, and emotional relationships. Another form of the noun metaphor is the appositional phrase, such as My mother, a rose among weeds. We can make the relationship between tenor and vehicle more dynamic by using an active verb, for example, My mother becomes a flower when she smiles. Often, with noun metaphors the tenor is implied: My flower or Oh rose.


The Verb Metaphor is more dynamic than the noun because it fuses a description and an action, instead of a description and a thing. For example, we can transform the awkward noun simile He ran away as fast as a rocket can fly into the more efficient verb metaphor He rocketed away which expresses both action and description of the action. The imagery evoked by verb metaphors can have powerful implications. For example, here are two descriptions of the same basic communication between characters, and yet they imply completely different interactions: The police hammered away at me with questions, and The police needled me with questions. Verb metaphors are sometimes used to extend a conceit: In the game of life, you draw a limited number of breaths, then fold when you’re bumped. Sometimes a verb metaphor is combined with a simile, as in Lailah Dainin Shima’s Chemo/ pinned me like a butterfly.


The Preposition Metaphor reveals the derivation of something, that is, how it is related to something else. It often has the form of A is the B of C, as in She is the sun of my day. Here the vehicle sun is equated with the tenor she and the third term day completes the figure by providing it with the larger metaphorical and literal framework.


The Adjectival Metaphor is easy to use because any noun can be modified by an adjective. For example, we can say Writing is a sweaty occupation or Writing is a jittery occupation or Writing is a tense occupation, and all the assertions have more or less the same meaning even though the images they conjure are different. Because of their facile quality, poets and writers might want to avoid adjectival metaphors unless they are part of a larger conceit.


The Adverbial Metaphor is often used by beginning writers to strengthen a weak verb. For example, in the sentences He walked woodenly; He entered the room sheepishly; He ran blindly after his desires, the adverb carries the weight of the sentences’ meaning. However, sometimes this stylistic strategy can effectively express a paradox: He was fiercely quiet, outrageously still. Here the adverb exaggerates and distorts a state of being by overpowering the bland adjective it modifies.


The Conceit is an extended metaphor which combines the grammatical structures listed above into complex patterns in order to express an idea. The basic formula for a metaphor is A=B, as in Desires are birds. Tenor or vehicle can be extended as in Desires are birds of prey. Sometimes both tenor and vehicle are elaborated: Unwelcome desires are ravens that prey on my peace of mind.


The grammatical structure of conceits can be logically complicated. For example, notice this extended simile from Song of Solomon (KJV2:2):


As the lily among thorns so is my love among the daughters.


Here the two vehicles (lily, thorns) are linked to two tenors (speaker’s love, other women’s love); thus, a noun and prepositional adjective are compared to another noun and prepositional adjective in order to contrast the two tenors. The grammatical structure might be described by this formula:






Part Two: The Uses of Metaphor



Extended Metaphors


Conceits can occur in a single line as in the example from The Song of Solomon, or they may control the argument of an entire poem. For example, Alan Dugan’s poem Love Song: I and Thou presents the speaker’s life as a badly built house. Sometimes in its bringing together of unlike things, an extended metaphor can take on ontological qualities, causing us to question the very nature of being, as in Francis Ponge’s prose poem Fire which describes the movement of fire to that of various animals. Here’s one sentence from the poem:


One can only compare the gait of fire to that of an animal: it must leave one place before occupying another; it moves like an
amoeba and a giraffe at the same time, its neck lurching, its foot dragging…


Some extended metaphors are subtractive, in that they set up a metaphor, then subtract parts of it in order to define its subject more clearly. Yehuda Amichai uses this strategy in speaking about the difference between what a man is and what he has to work with. The narrator of this poem, translated by Chana Bloch, is a father speaking about his son’s knowledge of him:


He thinks I’m a sailor,
But knows I have no ship.
And that we have no sea.
Only vast distances, and winds.


Some poems employ an extended reverse metaphor, that is, they contrast the tenor and vehicle, showing how they are different. In Emily Dickinson’s poem It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up, the poet defines her sense of despair and loss in terms of what it was not like:


It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.


It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl –
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool –


And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine –


As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –


When everything that ticked – has stopped –
And space stares – all around –
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground –


But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –
Without a Chance, or spar 
Or even a Report of Land –
To justify – Despair.



Allegory, Fable and Parable


An allegory is an extended metaphor in which social or moral ideas are represented as characters and settings in a story. For example, the character of Despair in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress embodies the feeling of despair. Another example can be found in Psalm 23 in which God is represented as a shepherd and the speaker as one of his flock. As an extended metaphor, allegory implies its tenor and elaborates its vehicle. Traditional allegories in the western tradition tend to feature one-dimensional characters and demand narrow thematic interpretations, and the simple rigidity of allegory is usually contrasted with the resonant levels of a symbol, such as the Christian cross.

However, some forms of allegory offer narratives that suggest the ambiguity of the ideas they present. A parable is a type of allegory in which human characters stand for complex ideas; for example The Prodigal Son offers religious truths having to do with the welcoming forgiveness of God. A fable, a type of allegory which features animals as characters, can be ironic in tone and satirize historical or political characters. The ancient Hindu animal fables of the Panchatantra have been used for thousands of years to teach children, and sometimes kings, principles of good behavior. The great heroic myths of Greece and Persia can be interpreted as allegories, as can many modern psychological novels such as Mrs. Dalloway. Other canonical narratives, such as Gulliver’s Travels, The Faerie Queen, The Divine Comedy, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and The Tempest, are considered allegories, as well as many modern poems including Frost’s The Road Not Taken and H.D.’s The Flowering of the Rod.

Traditional wisdom is often passed down as fables, for example, here is the story Beaver Steals Fire, as told by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Pacific Northwest, in which animals cooperate with one another:


A long time ago, the only animals who had fire lived in the sky. The earth animals wanted fire to keep warm, and decided that whoever sang the best song would be the leader into the sky to steal fire. Beaver and the animals tried to sing, but they were not satisfied. Then they heard Coyote sing and all the animals began to dance and named Coyote the leader.

Wren, Coyote’s friend, shot arrows into the sky world, creating a ladder. Wren climbed up the ladder and dropped a rope for the animals to climb up. Curlew, the guardian of fire, was at the river watching his fish traps and the animals followed him back to his camp, where the fire was kept.

Beaver pretended he was dead, floating in the river, and Curlew grabbed him and wanted to skin him and dry his hide. Suddenly, Eagle landed on Curlew’s house and he ran outside to catch him. That is when Beaver stole the fire. Beaver took the fire and swam down the river, climbed back down the rope. That is how the animals brought fire to us.


Bob Dylan’s Extended Metaphors


Many of Bob Dylan’s figures of speech are so memorable they’ve become fixtures of the American idiom, for example these lines from various songs:


You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky.
Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.
When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.
A hard rain’s gonna fall.


Since the beginning of his career, Dylan has employed an array of sophisticated literary devices, including extended metaphors, for example one of his earliest hits was the beautiful 1962 folksong Blowin’ in the Wind:


How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind


Dylan’s protest songs are often parables, such as the 1965 ballad Maggie’s Farm, a complaint about the abuse of workers:


Well, he hands you a nickel
He hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more


And often the parables have an absurdist quality, such as the 1968 All Along the Watchtower:


“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke


After Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, his lyrics took on the quality of moral adages such as the 1985 Trust Yourself:


Well, you’re on your own, you always were
In a land of wolves and thieves
Don’t put your hope in ungodly man
Or be a slave to what somebody else believes


And recently, Dylan has employed metaphors for social satire, such as the 2020 Murder Most Foul:


Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done
Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman, howl
Rub a dub dub – it’s murder most foul



Over the sixty years of his career, this great American bard has consistently created songs that link complex metaphors to folk, rock, blues, country and pop genres. As the Dylan scholar Mike Schneider puts it: No one brings more authority than Dylan to making new ballads about the 20th-century from old ballads about essentially the same registers of thought and feeling—tragedy and comedy, death and rebirth.



Extended Metaphor in James Tate and Charles Simic


The use of fable as extended metaphor is common in contemporary American poetry. For example here is a well-known poem by James Tate:


Teaching the Ape to Write Poems


They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”



Notice that the tenor of the extended metaphor (the poet attempting to write a poem) is omitted while the vehicle is presented through the narrative of the scientist and the ape. Clearly, Dr. Bluespire represents the muse while the ape stands in for the poet. In this way, the vehicle of the metaphor takes over our imagination, leaving us to enjoy the absurd irony of the fable.

A profound use of extended organic metaphor can be seen in a short poem by Charles Simic:


Today’s Menu


All we got, mister,
Is an empty bowl and spoon
For you to slurp
Great mouthfuls of nothing,
And make it sound like
A thick, dark soup you’re eating,
Steaming hot
Out of the empty bowl.



The dramatic situation here is not a literal description, of course. Although Simic did suffer deprivation as a child in Sarajevo during World War II, the poem is not meant as autobiography; that is, the speaker is not actually at a restaurant being served a bowl of nothingness; rather the poem is a metaphor for an existential state. But interestingly, the dramatic situation is the vehicle of the poem while the tenor, the literal meaning, is omitted. What is the poem a metaphor for? The reader is left with a feeling of emptiness, much like the hapless patron of the restaurant, and ironically, the poem creates a metaphor for that very state of emptiness, a life where we feel we’ve been cheated. We expected our life to be satisfying, but instead it turns out to be empty of meaning.



Parable and Fable in Franz Kafka


Simic’s poems often bring to mind the fictions of Franz Kafka which often feature an ordinary man faced with an absurd situation. Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin. We discover he’s been living a meaningless existence as a traveling salesman who has to support his family. At first his family is patient with his new condition, bringing him food and waiting for him to return to a normal state, but as time passes, they adjust to the new reality and neglect him until finally he dies. Kafka’s story is usually interpreted as a parable or fable, and the interpretation is given a great deal of significance. Gregor’s situation and the family’s transformation into people who are self-reliant are seen as an expression of the author’s father complex, or as a portrayal of the meaninglessness of modern life, or as a feminist text about the emergence of Gregor’s sister Grete as a self-possessed young woman. However, almost no one sees Gregor’s story as literally true, but rather as a metaphor for life.

Similarly, Kafka’s novels The Trial and The Castle are usually seen not as realism, but as parables — extended metaphors about the oppressiveness of life in central Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, towards the end of The Trial, Josef visits a cathedral where a priest calls him by name and tells him a little fable (kleine Fabel) that is meant to explain his situation. The priest tells Josef that the story is an ancient text of the court, and many generations of court officials have interpreted it differently:


 A man from the country seeks The Law and wishes to gain entry to it through an open doorway, but the doorkeeper tells the man that he cannot go through at the present time. The man asks if he can ever go through, and the doorkeeper says it is possible but not now. The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man he only accepts them “so that you do not think you have left anything undone”. The man does not attempt to gain entry by force, but waits at the doorway until he is about to die. Right before his death, he asks the doorkeeper why, even though everyone seeks The Law, no one else has come in all the years he has been there. The doorkeeper answers, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”


This fable, actually a parable, was originally published under the title Before The Law in the 1915 New Year’s edition of the independent Jewish weekly Selbstwehr and later included in Kafka’s novel published in 1925 after his death. The parable is often interpreted as an illustration of the situation of Jews in Europe where special laws applied only to them.

Here is another of Kafka’s short pieces which he wrote in 1920 and was published as a short story under the title A Little Fable:

“Alas”, said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.


The dark irony of this fable is that it describes a situation in which the one offering advice is also the one who preys on the protagonist, somewhat akin to discovering too late that one’s career advisor is a cannibal.



Science Fiction and Fantasy as Extended Metaphor


Speculative fiction often presents itself as social allegory while implying a political critique of Western society. For example, Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower is the story of Lauren, a fifteen-year old Black woman suffering from a debilitating sensitivity to other people’s emotions, who must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. The novel, first published in 1993, has clear parallels to the climate crisis. In the 1998 sequel Parable of the Talents, Lauren, now a leader in her community, is targeted by an American president who imposes a reign of terror. These two novels eerily predict the climate denialism and the MAGA movement which we are experiencing thirty years after the publication of the novels.

Similarly, Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is set on the world of Gethen whose inhabitants are ambisexual, having no fixed gender. The central character is a man from earth who has trouble understanding Gethen society because of his own rigid notions of gender division. The novel is part of Le Guin’s Hainish cycle which challenges contemporary ideas about gender, ethnic differences, the value of ownership, and human beings’ relationship to the natural world. We might interpret each of Le Guin’s novels as a thought experiment which explores contemporary assumptions about society.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Le Guin’s 1973 short story, is an allegory about an outwardly perfect society of happy people living tranquil lives. However, as we discover in the final paragraphs, this seemingly ideal society depends on the imprisonment of one child suffering horrible abuse. The child, who can remember sunlight and a mother’s voice, sometimes cries out. “I will be good,” the child says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” In excruciating detail, Le Guinn describes the horrible conditions in which the child suffers. All the people of Omelas know of the child and understand that the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery. At times, however, a citizen falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home, walking through the beautiful gates of Omelas and across the darkness of the fields never to return.


Metaphors We Live By


Extended metaphors, especially in the form of allegories, fables and parables, have a marvelous power to shape our lives. When I was young, Tolkien’s novels influenced my friends and me, and a later generation felt the impact of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations. Although most of us failed to become brave hobbits who heroically leave comfortable lives to confront evil, the ideal still lives in our imaginations. Later, my children, who were raised around the turn of the century, strongly identified with the Harry Potter novels in which friendship is presented as the most powerful magic on earth, and I can see that Nicholas and Lea, now in their thirties, have bonded with their friends to a degree I find enviable. And as I’ve been writing this essay, students protesting the genocide in Gaza have encamped at universities and are being violently removed by police. These young people are courageously facing danger, giving up easy lives and promising futures to serve an ideal. To my mind, they are like those who leave Omelas, incapable of accepting happiness if it means accepting the suffering of even a single child. One undergraduate pointed out to me that her generation was raised on The Hunger Games, in which a group of determined young people stand up against the lies and violence of a corrupt society. Brava!

Undeniably, our ideals are embodied in the stories we love, and these stories — allegories, parables, fables — find their meaning through the power of metaphor.


Essay and compilation copyright 2024 Michael Simms. All rights reserved.

Today’s Menu by Charles Simic. Copyright 2012 Charles Simic. Published August 24, 2012, by The New Republic. Permission pending.

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems by James Tate from Selected Poems, published by Wesleyan University Press. Copyright © 1991 by James Tate. Permission pending.

Michael Simms is the founding editor of Autumn House Press (1998-2016) and Vox Populi (2014-present). He is the co-author of The Longman Handbook and Dictionary of Poetry (Addison Wesley, 1985). His recent books include the poetry collections American Ash, Nightjar and Strange Meadowlark (Ragged Sky, 2020, 2021, 2023) and the novels Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy and The Green Mage: Volume One of the Talon Trilogy (Madville, 2022, 2023). In 2011, the State Legislature of Pennsylvania awarded Simms a Certificate of Recognition for service to the arts.