A couple of weeks ago I taught a workshop on metaphor for the finalists in the Poetry in Voice/Voix de Poesie program. This is a recitation contest for high school students (akin to Poetry Out Loud in the US) and is funded by the same good people who bring you the Griffin Poetry Prize. In non-pandemic years, the semi-finalists and their teachers are brought together and invited to participate in a variety of events to make it a kind of two-day celebration of poetry. I’ve been involved in one way or another with the program for a while, and have even had the enormous pleasure of seeing one of my own poems recited by immensely sensitive and dedicated students:
So metaphor has been on my mind lately. In my workshop I tried to suggest to the students that metaphor isn’t only a way of describing something in a “poetic” way. Metaphor can make connections that change the way we see the world.
Professorial moment, so we can be clear: officially there are two parts of a metaphor, the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the thing being described, the main subject; the vehicle is the “other thing” that’s brought in to help us see the main subject in a new light. (These terms were developed by Modernist critic I.A. Richards, if you really want to know.) In a metaphor like “My friend Frank is a tank,” the tenor is Frank, and the vehicle is the tank. The “tank” helps us see Frank a little more clearly, as big, unstoppable, maybe a little brutal, etc. Why “tenor” and “vehicle”? I dunno, ask Ivor Richards.
But of course, the best kinds of metaphor do more than that – they make links between two separate things that help us re-imagine both of them. Think of Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? […] does it dry out / like a raisin in the sun?” Yes, the image gives us an idea of what happens when someone’s dream is put off for so long that it dries up like a raisin. But call me silly, sometimes when I grab myself a fistful of raisins, I look more closely at them and wonder about the grapes they were: “Whose dreams are you?” To put it in Richards’ terms, the tenor is also the vehicle, and vice versa.
So when I was reading Sandra Beasley’s latest collection, Made to Explode, “Pop” jumped right off the page and made me wish I had read it a week or two before, so that I could have brought it to the PIV students. Ah well, next time.
We call an unpuffed piece
the old maid
but she’s just the one
who read the fine print.
Germ and sugar curled
in her hard hull,
to shake out her sheets.
Sometimes it’s worth it—
pan, oil, flame.
Sometimes you must
hold the steam within you.
- Excerpted from Made to Explode: Poems. Copyright (c) 2021 by Sandra Beasley. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved
I’ve always suspected that some of the kernels in my microwave popcorn bag had just refused to pop, but I’d never understood why until this poem revealed it to me. Beasley seizes on how her family calls them “old maids” to make a connection between these incomplete morsels and women who might be similarly labelled. We may not use terms like “old maid” or “spinster” much any more (except in a card game) but they are recent enough to have a sting. And of course women’s lives are still often evaluated based on their marital status and fertility. Do we really feel frustrated by single women who are “unpuffed” in the same way we feel cheated by the unpopped kernels at the bottom of the bowl? And what is this “fine print” that these refuse-niks have been reading?
While we wonder about that, let me back up and think about the title for a second. “Pop” is what the subject of the poem has not done. In fact, by not popping, the kernel of corn has refused to become “popcorn” at all. It’s just corn. So in a way the title is misleading. But “Pop” is also a much better title than “Kernel of Corn,” and starts us off with a bit of energy and expectation. I can also think of a few aspects of the “fine print” for which the verb “pop” is used – we say a pregnant woman’s belly eventually “pops” when she really starts to show, for example – that give the title a little added resonance.
So the subject of our poem is a kernel of corn that has not “unpuffed” in the pan or microwave. She’s the one “who’s read the fine print” – but which fine print is this? I mean, for a kernel of corn, it’s pretty straightforward: if you pop, you’ll probably get eaten. But what about the other “old maids” that might be resisting societal expectations to “pop” in traditional ways?
Rather than answering the question, the next stanza detours into a description of the kernel in its stubborn state. Can we pause briefly and appreciate the sonic pleasure of that third stanza? We don’t need it for the sense of the poem from a pure “meaning” standpoint. We could skip this whole sentence and go from “fine print” to “Sometimes it’s worth it…” if we just wanted clarity. But the detour is a delicious one:
Germ and sugar curled
in her hard hull
I count 5 hard Rs in that little couplet, and I’m suddenly made aware of how that letter (or at least the way I pronounce it, as a child of Southern New England) makes my mouth curl in on itself in the same way I imagine the corn kernel does. Also, as this very useful website from the State of Montana points out, the germ in a kernel of corn or wheat is the “embryo or sprouting section of the seed,” the part that contains the hope of a new plant. So the “germ and sugar” have lots of connotations for me with both the pleasures (sugar) and fertility (germ) associated with the activities (puffing, shaking out her sheets) that this particular old maid is refusing to perform.
This is the moment in the poem when we are very clear that we are not just talking about salty snacks. What we get, instead, is a kind of projection from the speaker of this poem, who seems to have some ambivalence about starting a family, or at least sympathizes with those who resist that pressure.
Once the poem has turned, and we are fully associating the language Beasley is using to describe the kernel with a woman who is deciding whether to pursue sexual/romantic/reproductive passion, then the final two couplets are a kind of winking with us. The “pan, oil, flame” is of course referring to the accoutrements of popcorn making. But it is also clearly referring –metaphorically – to other kinds of flame. At first the metaphoric linking of the kernel to the old maid was a way of re-imagining the corn – the kernel was the tenor, the old maid the vehicle, to use I.A. Richard’s terms. But now the kernel has become a metaphor for women rejecting a certain kind of life – now the woman is the tenor, the kernel a vehicle.
This is all great fun, and the combination of the rich sonic pleasures I get from the poem and the nudge-wink of the “sometimes it’s worth it” would be enough to make this a satisfying short read. It’s already the best poem I know about popcorn. But there’s something about that last couplet that haunts me:
Sometimes you must
hold the steam within you.
The “steam” has the same passionate connotations that were referred to earlier, but this last statement also feels like it’s reaching towards something larger. Note also the sudden switch to second person: “Sometimes you must…” And while I personally am a man who has procreated (three times, God help us), I know exactly what the poem means when it suggests that sometimes I must hold the steam within me. Whether that “steam” is anger or passion or creativity or whatever, sometimes we want to keep it to ourselves until we are good and ready, no matter what the frying pan expects. That final discovery in the poem is only possible if we see both sides of the metaphor working on each other, and has the power of a proverb that I can take away with me long after the poem is complete.