Metaphor, Imagination and Poetry

In poetry, imaging and imagining are intertwined. As one of the most important and natural elements in poetry, images always can make you go far beyond literal meanings. Through metaphors, a poet can imagine and convey layers of meaning to a concrete object or an action, thus inviting the reader to feel something instead of understanding exactly what one wants to express. According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, imagery refers to images produced in the mind by the language, whose words may refer either to express which could produce physical perceptions, leading the reader actually to have those experiences themselves.

For Paul Ricoeur, the metaphor has the capacity to provide untranslatable information; and to give reliable insight about reality. He adds that metaphors create new meanings which emerge from the weakness or collapse of the literal word meaning. In this sense, Imagination is the capacity to produce new similarities by refusing the lexical meaning. A capacity to see through an internal structure by disregarding the lexical and literal to create images which are more appropriate to express what the poet wants to say.

Imagining means to display relations among things in a depicting mode. Most of the times, these relations are not predictable because things do not present any explicit similarities. These similarities are only produced by imagination which plays the role to construe a new reality. Therefore, for Ricoeur, a metaphor is generated in the borderline verbal and non-verbal. As poets make and remake reality, a metaphor may be seen as a model for changing our way of looking at things and perceiving the world.

By conveying a new reality, the poetic language reveals the deep structures of reality to which we are related as mortals being in the world. Through metaphors, the imagination makes oneself absent to the world and to everything around us.  Poets address another reality to portray in words the invisible and the impossible. By being absent from the reality, poets become in a state of absence to deal with abstractions which cannot literally be seen.

In the poem, Mother to Son, Langston Hughes makes use of metaphors to represent the struggle of African Americans to overcome disillusion in a world where everything appears to be torn. The mother teaches her son about strength and resilience.


Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.


In the poem,  Langston Hughes makes use of metaphors to make the reader feel what the poet feels. Metaphors help poets express their emotions through the visual. In this case, reading poetry involves, first and foremost, seeing, imaging, and imagining. By comparing life with climbing the steps of a stair in which the mother found stacks, splinters, and boards torn up, the poet conveys multiple meanings to represent the obstacles of life.  In the monologue, the mother tells the son that her life has not been a crystal stair. Here, the crystal represents a clear path, a smooth and tranquil life. It also represents light and clarity with the possibility to see what comes ahead.  She tells the son that in her life she found splinters or a stack on her way, but she needed to regain force to continue climbing on. As the mother tells her son that she is still climbing on the stairs of her own life, she gives him a lesson: He needs to find himself prepared. He cannot be surprised by the size of the obstacles or the strength and power of the giants he will need to battle. The poet adds other images as the mother says that there is no carpet, or this process is not going to smooth and sometimes you have to walk in darkness. He will find the strength to leave the darkness and find the light again but it is not over because life is not a crystal stair. Falling is as part of the process as getting up to continue climbing.


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