Once in Athens I was nearly hit by a truck as I started to cross a street. I got back in time to read the legend lettered on its side. Metaphora. One is supposed to be struck by metaphors, of course, but this seemed too literal a way to go about it. The legend meant Transport and brought home to me that “metaphor” is a metaphor. The root meaning is to carry from here to there. The metaphorical use of a term is to carry it out of its usual context into another where it does not properly belong, to talk about one thing as if it were another. Poets do this well. Sports writers usually do not.
Aristotle said that it is a mark of genius to see similarity in dissimilar things, he added that metaphor is the peculiar gift of the poet. It seems to be a feature of poetry that it attends to the words with which we say things as much as to the things we say. In this respect, puns are a kind of degenerate poetry.
Bill. Nail. Stick. Page. You can take monosyllables almost randomly from the Random House dictionary and have the wherewithal to form such sentences as “Bill got a bill for the repair of his duck’s bill.” (And ducked out of town soon afterward, taking flight, as it were.) Or: “She went into the shop called Nails and was sold some nails.” (By a clerk named Brad, of course.) “On a page of the Congressional Record he is listed as a page.” Puns are more inspired versions of this sort of thing.
Among the basic metaphors of human life are the seasons of the year and the hours of the day. High noon is not just when the clock’s hands become one, but the apex of something. The dark night of the soul is a darkness deeper than the absence of sun. Death in the afternoon means more than the time of day when bulls are ceremoniously killed, and the evening of life, when the shadows lengthen, conveys something of the ease with which we slip into our later years.
The four seasons function in a similar way: autumn leaves, September song, the Chaucerian winter is acumen in, will you love me in September as you do in May? There is a springtime of life, a summer and fall and then the winter of our discontent. The seasons, more than the hours, seem to provide a moral geography, as if we were seasoned by their quartering of the year, becoming sage of course. A land with a single season must seem, to Minnesotans and others, like a day when the sun stands still.
No one has conveyed the progression of the seasons more effectively than Willa Cather I think, and of course that progression is intimately connected with the fact that her characters live off the earth. We all do, but the fact gets disguised by styrofoam and shrinkwrap. Not so in the Nebraska of the pioneers. The isolation of winter with its whirling blizzards, the spring thaw and planting when the fertile fields await cultivation, the long maturation of summer and then in fall the harvest, the haying, the moonlit rides, until winter comes back again like a judgment. The year is a drama of which the seasons are necessary components. What would a world without winter be like?
Like Florida. Or Arizona. Or Tahiti. Northerners who go south are called, somewhat disdainfully, snowbirds, even by Anne Murray, who as a Canadian should know better: snowbirds love the snow. To get away from winter is a bit like going to Tahiti with Gaugin — sunlight, palm trees, imaginary amoral maidens. One of the attractions of a vacation is that it seems a pardonable escape from the moral order. Or at least from snow.
John O’Hara called a collection of his stories Waiting for Winter. Winter was when he wrote novels. I write this waiting for the spring time when it will appear in print. Outside my window snow is piled high. The kids next door are tunneling through it. As always, the weather is a reminder that we are not in charge. Even April can be a cruel month. But how I long to see it.
This column originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.