Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure

The metaphor-to-meaning structure is a two-part structure that moves from supplying a metaphor for something (a thing, or a situation) to revealing the meaning of, the significance behind, that metaphor.

The use of such late revelation is strategic.  Like jokes and riddles, which of course do not give up their punch lines or solutions right away, some poems strategically employ the energy and the interest that can be garnered by creating and keeping alive suspense, by revealing what it in fact is “about” only at poem’s end.

The delayed revelation can also signify psychological pressure to try to repress the truth which is only revealed toward poem’s end, as occurs in “Fragments.”

“A noiseless, patient spider…,” by Walt Whitman

(Rae Armantrout’s “Dusk” is a funny parody of Whitman’s poem, one that employs the ironic structure.  Check it out here.)

“Anchored to the Infinite,” by Edwin Markham

Markham’s poem is very similar to Whitman’s.

“The Sycamore,” by Wendell Berry

“A Sonnet of the Moon,” by Charles Best

“Simile,” by Peter Campion (in The Lions (Chicago: U of Chicago, 2009)).

“True or False,” by John Ciardi

“[Gauze Fragment],” by Laurie Clements Lambeth (scroll down)

“Duck/Rabbit,” by Billy Collins

(Take a look at a duck/rabbit here.)

“Weighing the Dog,” by Billy Collins

“At the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem,” by Countee Cullen (The Art of the Sonnet, Stephen Burt and David Mikics, eds. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2010. 273.)

“Violin,” by Joanne Diaz

“The Props assist the House,” by Emily Dickinson

“We grow accustomed to the Dark–,” by Emily Dickinson

“Fragments,” by Stephen Dobyns

You can find an excellent discussion of Dobyns’s poem in “The Flexible Lyric” in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Flexible Lyric (Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1999), pp. 162-67).

“Difference,” by Mark Doty

“Trophic Cascade,” by Camille T. Dungy

And here is a smart, brief reflection on this poem–and its “profound and surprising turn”–by Heather Green.

“A Snowfall,” by Richard Eberhart (in Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process, edited by Alberta T. Turner (New York: David McKay Company, 1977), pp. 85-6).

“Eight Ball,” by Claudia Emerson

“Metaphor,” by Claudia Emerson

“A Bird in the House,” by Claudia Emerson

All three of the above poems are from the first section of Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife, “Divorce Epistles.”  The first two poems create metaphors for the dissolving marriage.  “A Bird in the House” creates a metaphor for the way the speaker imagines her absence might be felt in her ex-husband’s life…

“Killdeer,” by Nick Flynn

“Lodged,” by Robert Frost

“The Silken Tent,” by Robert Frost

A big part of the constructed loveliness of “The Silken Tent” is that there’s almost no overt turning in it–but there is some subtle turning.  The “meaning” of “The Silken Tent”‘s gorgeously constructed and maintained metaphor is offered in line 7: the tent “signifies the sureness of the soul.”  And, of course, at the end of the sonnet, in the final couplet, where one expects the big movement of the turn, there is at least the hint of some movement.  “The Silken Tent” contains structure, but it also is a model of the use of understatement.

“Mercy,” by Nikki Giovanni

You can hear “Mercy” being read by poet Rudy Francisco here.

“A Fable,” by Louise Glück

“Mismatched Newlyweds,” by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Landinsky

“The Ship Pounding,” by Donald Hall

A metaphor-trigger (Jane’s continued suffering)-revision of metaphor poem.

“Scaffolding,” by Seamus Heaney

“Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breast,” by Robert Herrick

“The Envoy,” by Jane Hirshfield

There seem to be two kinds of meanings provided in “The Envoy”: both the revelation of the meaning of the metaphor and a larger statement of the meaning of the poem: metaphor, meaning, and all.  (That is, this poem may employ a hybrid structure that combines the metaphor-to-meaning structure with a similar structure: the story-with-a-moral structure.)

“For What Binds Us,” by Jane Hirshfield

“In Space,” by Jane Hirshfield

“My Memory,” by Jane Hirshfield 

(Note that, though the whole poem is reprinted, the line breaks are not present in this version.  For an accurate version, see Hirshfield’s The Beauty, p. 15.)

“My Species,” by Jane Hirshfield

“On Reading Brecht,” by Jane Hirshfield (in Of Gravity & Angels (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1988): 43).

“Sonoma Fire,” by Jane Hirshfield

“Cement Truck,” by Tony Hoagland

“Love,” by Tony Hoagland (in Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2010): 18).

“Part of Eve’s Discussion,” by Marie Howe

Howe’s is a mysterious poem.  See what she says about it here.

“Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud,” by John Keats

“Not Writing,” by Jane Kenyon

“The Knife and the Knife,” by Kim Hyesoon

“Parade,” by Nate Klug

“The Large Cool Store,” by Philip Larkin

“Dust,” by Dorianne Laux

“What I Didn’t Know Before,” by Ada Limón

“Ars Poetica,” by Steven Long

“On the First Tee with Charles Wright,” by Jon Loomis (in The Pleasure Principle (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 2001): 18).

“A Fixed Idea,” by Amy Lowell

“Not Swans,” by Susan Ludvigson

Ludvigson’s poem is perhaps a “symbol-to-intimation” poem…

“Notre Dame,” by Osip Mandelstam

“Samson,” by Claude McKay

“Falling,” by W. S. Merwin (in The Shadow of Sirius, p. 104).

“The Mole,” by W. S. Merwin (in The Shadow of Sirius, pp. 64-5).

“Carillon,” by Wayne Miller

“This is the Latest,” by Ange Mlinko

“Ephemeroptera,” by Bill Morgan

“Hospital Barge at Cerisy,” by Wilfred Owen

“On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial,” by Linda Pastan

“Motive,” by Don Paterson (in Rain (New York: FSG, 2009): 39).

“Why Do You Stay Up So Late?,” by Don Paterson  Paterson reads this poem here.  As its title indicates, this poem also makes use of the question-and-answer structure.

“The Rabbit Catcher,” by Sylvia Plath

“The Anti-Leading Lady’s Nightmare,” by Courtney Queeney (A metaphor–perhaps–to meaning–perhaps–poem?)

“The Christmas Story,” by Robin Richstone

“The way that bright planet, the moon…,” by Rainer Maria Rilke (See the first comment for this poem–one at least can get a sense of it here. For a more official version see Rilke’s Uncollected Poems, trans. Edward Snow (New York: North Point-Farrar, 1996): 77).

“A Winter Night,” by Robin Robertson–a version of a poem by Tomas Transtromer

“Undress,” by Ruby Robinson

“Octopus in the Freezer,” by Lee Ann Roripaugh

“Body’s Beauty,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“Still Start,” by Kay Ryan

“Organized Religion,” by Frederick Seidel (in Ooga-Booga (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006): 67-68).

“Dog and Owner,” by Alan Shapiro (in Old War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008): 14-15).

“Language,” by Alan Shapiro (in Old War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008): 81).

“No Such Things as Synonyms,” by Dan Smart

“Ted’s Head,” by Rod Smith

“Beast,” by Melissa Stein

“Nomad Exquisite,” by Wallace Stevens

“Miguel,” by César Vallejo

(Be sure to read the very informative translator’s note here.)

“April 5, 1974,” by Richard Wilbur

“Waterfall,” by Greg Williamson

“Crane,” by David Yezzi

And here are some poems in which “poetry” (or “the poet”) specifically supplies the metaphor’s ultimate meaning:

“The Albatross,” by Charles Baudelaire

“The Hen,” by Zbigniew Herbert

“The Bear,” by Galway Kinnell

“The Clerks,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson

For some additional information on “The Clerks,” see here.

“The Box Turtle,” by Patricia Carlin

“The Box Turtle” features its own spin on the metaphor-to-meaning structure: at the end of its description of the box turtle, it claims, “And there is no metaphor in this.  No poetry.”  Perhaps these concluding statements are true, but they are also a bit ironic, delivered at the end…of a poem.

Some poems reverse the metaphor-to-meaning structure, supplying the meaning first and then developing the metaphor.  Here are a few examples:

“The Flower,” by Michael Fried (in The Next Bend in the Road, p. 56).

“Thinking,” by Jorie Graham (in The Errancy (Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1997): 40-1).  (In “Thinking,” the title serves as the meaning–the poem offers the metaphor.)

“Red Onion, Cherries, Boiling Potatoes, Milk–,” by Jane Hirshfield (in Given Sugar, Given Salt: Poems (New York: HarperCollins, 2001): 24.)

“Food Court,” by Tony Hoagland (in Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2010): 4).

“Not Renouncing,” by Tony Hoagland (in Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2010): 78-9).

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” by John Keats

“Because You Asked about the Difference between Poetry and Prose,” by Howard Nemerov

The meaning of Nemerov’s poem is in the title; the poem offers the metaphor.

“Silence,” by Gregory Orr (in Burning the Empty Nests (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); reprinted in Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations, by Robert Bly (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008): 114).

“For Once,” by Don Paterson (in Rain (New York: FSG, 2009): 5).

“On the Sale by Auction of Keats’s Love Letters,” by Oscar Wilde

And here are some other variations on the structure:

Fragment 6, by Alcaeus  In this fragment, the image of the storm-tossed ship is understood to be a metaphor for the state subjected to political turmoil.

“Question Arising while Listening to a Lecture on the Nature of Metaphor,” by Rick Barot  In this poem, there’s metaphor and connection, but what’s the meaning?

“And Then, Like,” by Olena Kalytiak Davis (from Late Summer Ode, p. 8) The amaryllis, mentioned early on in this poem, turns into a metaphor for the speaker’s life, though the metaphor additionally is explicitly paired with (grafted onto?) the structures of storytelling.

“Ars Poëtica with Bacon,” by Terrance Hayes As with Barot’s poem, there’s metaphor, and the suggestion of meaning, but that meaning is complex and difficult.

In “Securitization,” Ange Mlinko employs the metaphor-to-meaning structure in the poem’s first part.

And if you take out the final six lines of Yvor Winters’s “Before Disaster” (as John Ciardi recommends in the final chapter of his book How Does a Poem Mean?), his poem becomes another which employs the metaphor-to-meaning structure.

“The Riddle of the Sphinx Moth,” by Sarah Hannah  A metaphor-to-meaning poem that (ironically, and poignantly) questions its own operation.

“Handle,” by J. Allyn Rosser  A poem which clearly starts as a metaphor-to-meaning poem (beginning, “Like the handle…”), but, at the turn, instead of confidently stating its meaning, the poem instead enacts its own inability to “handle” its materials, delivering an avalanche of thoughts.

“Song in my heart,” by Diane Seuss  This poem reverses the metaphor-to-meaning order, and then adds another turn, a critique (an ironic commentary) on trying to use the metaphor to make meaning.

“Sheep’s Cheese,” by Jane Hirshfield  In its penultimate line, this poem denies that it is trying to make a metaphor out of the poem’s materials (“The wheels are only sheep’s milk, not ripening souls”).  But the suggestion is enough–yes?–to animate (to give anima–spirit, or soul–to) the inanimate.

“One of the Butterflies,” by W. S. Merwin  Merwin’s poem, in fact, is structured more as a “list-with-a-twist,” but its conceit is that of the metaphor-to-meaning: the way that pleasure and the human interact is like the way that butterflies and humans interact…

“Bioluminescence,” by Paul Tran A use of this structure that is fairly unique in how it offers the full metaphor and its meaning very early on, but then uses the rest of the poem to tease out aspects of the speaker’s experience.

“The Term,” by William Carlos Williams  Another variant on the structure: Williams announces what his image is NOT a metaphor for.

“Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight,” by Wallace Stevens  Stevens uses the expectation that his observation/description of the bouquet will turn into a metaphor as a way to highlight the singularity of the roses, and the moment they are a part of.  (Note: though this poem seems to strive to place the roses “beyond the rhetorician’s touch,” the poem is a rhetorical tour de force.)

19 responses

8 03 2009
Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem « Structure & Surprise

[…] Read about the “Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure,” paying close attention to Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Kinnell’s […]

12 03 2009
Joanne Diaz’s “Violin” « Structure & Surprise

[…] Diaz’s “Violin” 12 03 2009 Check out Joanne Diaz’s “Violin,” a terrific poem that employs beautifully the metaphor-to-meaning […]

20 03 2009
Bill Morgan’s “Ephemeroptera” « Structure & Surprise

[…] out Bill Morgan’s “Ephemeroptera.”  Among many other things, it is a great example of a poem using the meaning-to-metaphor […]

5 07 2010
Ted’s Hen « Structure & Surprise

[…] I’ve included two new poems on the Metaphor-to-Meaning page: […]

9 01 2011
Close Reading “Close Reading: Windows” « Structure & Surprise

[…] Emily Dickinson’s “We grow accustomed to the Dark–” (a poem that employs a Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure) occurs at the poem’s major turn from metaphor to meaning; as Hirshfield notes, […]

8 05 2012
Writing a Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem « Structure & Surprise

[…] semester (taking roll, handing out and discussing the syllabus, etc), I introduce my students to the metaphor-to-meaning structure.  We examine a couple of key examples (often Whitman’s clear “A noiseless, patient spider” […]

6 11 2013
Billy Collins on “The Ride of Poetry” | Structure & Surprise

[…] poems by Collins appear on this blog’s pages devoted to specific kinds of turns, including “Duck/Rabbit” and “Marginalia.”)  And, as an anthologist, Collins tends to select works that feature […]

2 06 2014
How Cool Is This?! | Structure & Surprise

[…] led on the turn (and offers some great examples of student work), and I discuss a lesson using the metaphor-to-meaning structure (and offer some excellent student writing that came from it) here.  Additionally, there’s […]

29 11 2015

Hello Dr Theune,

First off, great site. I just came across your blog recently. Quite insightful categorization. Secondly, I recently wrote a 5-7-5 haiku on my blog ( that goes like this:

On the dash of a
rear loader garbage truck a
used baby mitten.

How would you categorize this? Lastly, given that a haiku is typically all about a suggestive image, and given its short length, it got me thinking whether various poetic turns might be more likely to be associated with a particular type of poem. At least in terms of the dominant turn, such as one might seen in a lengthy epic like Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh or Homer’s Iliad, or a haiku such as In a Station of the Metro

Thank you for considering my comment.


28 12 2015
Mike Theune

Hello, Arash– Thank you for this comment. I think it is the case that people tend to link particular kinds of poems with particular structures. For example, I believe that a lot of people believe that a haiku should in fact be a kind of emblem poem, delivering a bit of nature and a bit of wisdom. This belief, though, is limited: haiku need not work like an emblem poem, and engaged haiku writers know this. Consider Basho’s great anti-emblem: “How admirable! / To see lightning, and not think / life is fleeting.” Any structure can be used with any form.

Regarding your own, fine haiku, I’d refer you to Jane Reichhold’s excellent “Haiku Techniques,” and suggest that your haiku works by the way of contrast. (Note that many, though not all, of the techniques identified by Reichhold are poetic structures.)

All best!

21 06 2016

Thank you very much Dr Theune, appreciated the detailed reply and link, sorry for delayed reply.

28 12 2015
Mike Theune

Here is Reichhold’s “Haiku Techniques”:

21 06 2016

Thank you

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