We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us.
– William Butler Yeats
I was twenty when I learned what is essential about metaphors. The poet Albert Goldbarth asked his introductory class to open the bundle of photocopied poems he’d made, and directed us to a page that lay, purposefully out of time, between Wordsworth and Sappho. Upon it were twenty words by Gregory Orr:
Washing My Face
Last night’s dreams disappear.
They are like the sink draining:
a transparent rose swallowed by its stem.
I well recall the pedestal sink and pipe that Goldbarth drew with chalk to ensure we saw the shape the poem made. And I remember the way he drew the shape within the shape: surface petals made of water draining into a moving column of its making. And surely then he must have noted the iteration of that shape within us, for it comes so readily to mind: atop a column, the wakeful brain, an outgrowth of a stem. Further and further, he led us into the poem even as he led us deeper into ourselves. We talked of the cleansing agency of dream life, of the ways water and dreams relate. Only the clock stopped us.
Though I did not know Emerson’s work at the time, I was starting to see what that cheerful visionary said was “easily seen”: metaphors “are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there,” but essential offshoots of our nature. Man, he said, has been “placed in the center of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him.” He described this relationship as a “radical correspondence,” root-level connections that allow the world and ourselves to feel “full of life.”
Wakeful life is draining; it can come to feel empty. That is why I read, and why I write, and why I try to teach. It is twenty-four years since first I felt a ray arriving from Orr’s transparent rose. Now I am the teacher with the bundle of poems, endeavoring to draw the water.