Friday, December 05, 2008

Simile and Metaphor: Walking Around

I talk a lot in my comp classes about language as a tool for drawing distinctions, and one of the units I use for this lesson is two translations of Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around” – the first by Ben Belitt, the second by Robert Bly. My questions are – what, in general terms, is the poem about? What do both of these translations have in common?

The answer I generally get, and it’s an acceptable answer, is some version or other of “Life sucks.”

Now what about the differences? When do the two versions of Neruda really start diverging from each other?

If I’m lucky, I’ll get an answer like “Stanza four.” It’s a good answer – the level of violence is escalated in the Bly version beyond what it is in the Belitt version. In each case, the narrator is talking about a violent fantasy which he will never enact, but which gives him a tiny measure of satisfaction, a small connection to a life that’s worth living. But Bly won’t be satisfied with finishing a nun; he wants to kill her. My students often go straight there – “kill” is a word that wakes them up.

I say this happens if I’m lucky, because if we start there, I can start directing them backwards…”I can name that tune in three notes!” Does the divergence happen earlier?

Well, yes. Someone will point out Belitt’s desire for a little vacation from things as opposed to Bly’s desire for nothing, or for nothingness – only to lie still like stones or wool. And that’s a good one too, but…earlier?

They’ll take me back another step – what about the Belitt character, relatively involved with life, actually going to a movie and dropping in at the tailor's, vs. the Bly character who walks into tailorshops and movie houses, but with no indication that he actually interacts with the tailor or sees the movie.

But finally…I can name that tune in one note. By the end of the first line, you are looking at two different poems.

And they always get it – the Belitt guy leaves himself an out. He’s tired of being just a man. He can conceivably transcend himself, become something more. The Bly guy is a total nihilist. From there, the rest of the divergences really start to fall in line. Belitt can maybe pull himself together, make something of his life, if he just gets a little vacation from things. Bly doesn’t have a chance. His only ambition is to lie still like stones or wool.

So all of this is my regular schtick with this particular unit, but this time around, we started to look at another place where the two personae diverge – Belitt’s “I won't live like this--like a root in a shadow” vs. Bly’s “I don't want to go on being a root in the dark,”and here you have, in a nutshell, as good an object lesson as I’ve found in the difference between a simile and a metaphor – and one that my freshman comp students were able to pick up and absorb. Belitt is taking a stand – he has the choice of living like a root in a shadow, or breaking out of that shadow. Bly may not want to go on being a root in the dark, but he’s never going to break out of that darkness – which, in any case, doesn’t have the border that a shadow does. If you are a root in the dark, there’s no hope.

Then we went back up to Bly’s earlier simile – “The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool” – and they could see the difference there, too. The simile tells us he’ll never have that perfect stillness of stones or wool,

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