Description Without Metaphor

Percival Everett’s “Body” intervenes in the blazon form. More specifically, the poems may be understood as celebrating the capability of language to convey an artistic form without the use of literary devices such as, and especially, metaphor. Throughout the entirety of the work “Body,” not a single concrete metaphor is used—a complete divergence from the standard blazon form, which, aside from typically describing  “the physical attributes of a subject, usually female,” (something that “Body” participates in), almost always deals in concrete metaphor. While most blazons include lines like “her goodly eyes like sapphires shining bright,” Everett’s “Body” does no such thing, and yet it is still recognized as a blazon, perhaps not just because it describes a female body, but because it describes a female body with language that can be described as artistic in form.

It’s a difficult idea to wrap your head around. Metaphor is one of the most simplest and well known literary tools known to writers and readers alike. Especially in poetry—when one must convey an idea with as few words as it takes to fill a stanza, metaphor is a powerful tool to communicate that idea across with what can be as little as three words (“eyes of sapphire,” for example). But what happens when metaphor is taken away? What happens when you can’t form an analogy, or tie an idea to another well known idea in order to communicate how you feel about a subject? What sort of language do you use? Will your reader understand what you’re saying? Will it even be considered objectively “artistic” if you do?

Everett’s “Body” is an example of what happens when one doesn’t use metaphor to communicate an idea when writing poetry. Instead, the poems are almost completely description; description of physical attributes, and description of action. It is the words and phrases that Everett uses in order to convey a tone of praise and sensuality. In the first poem “The Hyoid Bone,” all the Everett does is describe an “arch of bone, greater cornu, reaching/reaching, stretching above the lesser.” Words and phrases such as “violence” and “sick pain” convey a feeling of discomfort to the reader, without using metaphor to describe it. Everett does not write “violent as a stone might fracture” or “the sick pain of a dog” because stones and dogs are not present in this occasion. In this occasion, only the body part being described exists.

To use a metaphor (or, more specifically, an analogy) of my own, think of “Body” as if it were a stereotypical piece of modern abstract art. Either sculpture or a painting, but no recognizable objects can be seen, just an unidentifiable formation of colors and shapes. For example:

Randy Akers, red clay quarry

To compare, your standard blazon is your stereotypical piece of Romanticism art. Art that focuses on glorification, and, different from the abstract modern art above, has identifiable objects recognizable to most people. For example:

Philip James de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale by Night

These recognizable objects, such as the figures and the trees and the sky, can be compared the metaphor that characterizes the blazon. While both “Body” and your average blazon have words and phrases describing the physical attributes of their subjects, “Body” has no metaphors, no allusions to an outside world, only describing the focus of the poems: the subject. The body. Which, in itself, is a form of praise, I suppose; nothing else exists to cause confusion, or to muddy the picture that is being painted. All that is present is the body. But I diverge. Just as both the abstract art and the Romanticism art can both be described as paintings, both “Body” and your standard blazon with metaphors can be described as blazons. Just one common element has been excluded.

However, there is a downside that I am able to identify in “Body” because of its lack of metaphor. Metaphor and analogy are more than just flowery prose and artistic language; they are tools used to grant clarification in a work of writing, and they can be used to describe something that is otherwise indescribable. They might not be able to paint you the perfect picture, but they can paint the next best thing. By not using metaphor, “Body” comes off as not fully comprehensible; at least, not to anyone who doesn’t know Latin or hasn’t study human anatomy. Many of the words, especially the anatatomical names, hold little meaning to your average reader. At best, they can convey meaning through how they might sound; “cornu” in “The Hyoid Bone” has the same “o”  sound as “bone,” keeping consistency with the cracking, solid tone of the poem.

Regardless of whether or not Percival Everett intended for “Body” to be read by someone who had studied anatomy and Latin or not, I believe these poems can teach us an important lesson about what separates artistic and scientific language. For the past few days in ENGL 203 we have been investigating what the purpose of metaphor is; from reading the article “Metaphor is Hard Science,” by Dr. Valerie Prince, to today’s reading “Science, Space and Nature,” from Interdisciplinary, by Joe Moran. With this reading of Everett’s “Body,” I have arrived at the conclusion that the use of metaphor does not separate art from science, or subjectivity from objectivity. There can be art without metaphor, just as there can be science with metaphor. The two are not mutually exclusive, or else “Body” would not succeed as an artistic work. 

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