I start from the proposition that all things are metaphor. We understand them through the labels we apply to their existence.
This does not mean that they have no separate reality. There is a difference between being and understanding that being. We understand these things that are only in part, through the structures we create.
The foremost method of constructing these is language, but there are non-linguistic metaphors as well. A painting is a visual metaphor. A page of sheet music is a visual metaphor for something we might hear – something that is ‘real’ but we can not directly understand except through words, through notes on a page, even through a memory of the physical act of playing it – a kinetic metaphor, one might say.
For that matter, it could be through the scientist’s graph of sound waves. All of these are the piece of music, in part, metaphors for its existence, yet they are not its totality. We can never fully grasp nor voice that. We can, however, edge ever closer to it, triangulate on its being, that reality we feel in the wordless center of ourselves.
Note that what we feel, that which goes before the metaphor (and which becomes metaphor by the act of acknowledging and naming it), is no more the thing, the totality, than is the metaphor. It is the question, not the answer. There is no magic, unconscious path to understanding. We understand by defining, by building our structures, by metaphor.
Every image in a poem or story is, then, metaphor. Every metaphor is an image, as well, a snap shot of reality from one moment and one angle. What goes on before and after, from a different vantage point? That can only be suggested.
As I see it, that is the primary purpose of poetry (and the arts in general), to suggest those other views, those other parts and aspects of reality that we know also exist. Again, we do this through metaphor, grasping after the totality which must forever remain beyond our reach. By creating symbols and images we take the mind in new directions, help it see that reality from the elusive different vantage. We increase our understanding. We find our enlightenment.
Our feet may remain firmly planted in the mud of our everyday lives but, through a poem, we may glimpse being from a place among the stars, from the depths of hell or the heights of heaven. Or from one step to the left – come over here and take a look.