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05 November 2016 @ 02:16 pm
Like what?  
Like what?
"[In his poems] there was an exuberance of metaphor and simile entirely original, and not in the least borrowed from any resemblance in the things compared." (George Eliot: Scenes of Clerical Life)

The whole idea of likening A to B is to provide the reader with a new angle on A, a way of looking at A that illuminates it via its partial likeness to B. This can be immensely helpful to the reader, but only, I suggest, if it is possible to visualise B clearly. Otherwise the comparison hinders rather than aids the vision. The writer needs to know exactly what he is looking at, or the reader will not, and this requirement exists no less in poetry than in any other form of writing.

This all derives from a debate I've been trying to have on twitter (you try debating in 140 characters, which is why I'm blogging instead) about an image of Ashbery's that someone had tweeted:
with a trace of tears like re-embroidered lace"

When I asked the tweeter "what's re-embroidered lace?" it was of course a genuine question, because to me this is very much one of those similes that obstructs vision. I have no trouble visualising the traces of tears on a woman's face. I have immense trouble visualising what Ashbery means by re-embroidered lace, possibly because I suffer from having done, albeit unwillingly, a bit more needlework than him.

To begin with basics: embroidery is decoration executed on fabric, usually in thread or yarn but it can also involve sequins, beads, jewels and much else. Lace is itself a fabric, made of yarn or thread in an open, netlike pattern. While it would be theoretically possible to embroider with thread on lace, it wouldn't be easy and would probably end up like a dog's breakfast, because lace just isn't a ground that takes embroidery well. Another possibility, perhaps likelier, is that he is thinking of "lace embroidery", which is itself a metaphorical usage in that it means applying lace to another fabric in a decorative pattern that mimics real embroidery. It would be possible to visualise the tracks of tears as lace applied decoratively to the women's faces.

But in that case, what's with this "re-embroidered"? What am I meant to see there? Lace is a delicate fabric; its threads can break easily, but then you mend it; you don't "re-embroider" it, for it was never embroidered in the first place. If you applied decorative lace to a dress, you could remove the lace and "re-embroider" the dress – not the lace – by applying new lace. But why should the tracks of tears look "re-embroidered" as opposed to just embroidered?

What I think happened is that Ashbery liked the idea of tear-tracks as lace, partly at least because of the vowel echo with "trace", but he also liked the idea of embroidery and wanted both. Why, in that case, he didn't write "a trace of tears like lace embroidery", I've no idea, nor what he wanted to convey by "re-embroidered lace". I do know that as an image, it did nothing but confuse my vision.

I also know that I can't go along with the tweeter's suggestions that one should "accept images in poems on their own terms" and that "what makes perfect sense in a poem is not the same as what makes perfect sense outside of one". True, poets do sometimes leave out the odd logical step that the reader must fill in – Donne and Rilke are good examples. But this "accept the poem on its own terms" philosophy comes uncomfortably close to Humpty Dumpty. Words, for a writer, cannot mean just what we want them to, neither more nor less, because they also carry the meaning the reader sees in them. And said reader cannot un-know what she knows. If our readers happen to be familiar with the topography of a real place, or the habits of gulls, or the terminology of needlework, any errors or inconsistencies of fact in those areas can scupper a poem for them by destroying their trust in the authorial voice.

This is not to say that poets can't fictionalise, go beyond reality – embroider it, indeed. But if there's one place where this works less well, it would be imagery. If we want to help the reader see something more clearly, or in a new way, by means of a comparison object, then that object must surely be drawn –and drawn accurately - from the reader's own real world, which means the writer must himself be very sure what he is observing. And there needs to be some immediacy about how it works; the reader has to read it and at once think "yes! That's what A is like…" If you leave her scratching her head, I reckon you might as well just have described A in the first place.
Video Deteriora Sequorexecutrix on November 5th, 2016 03:39 pm (UTC)
To Gild Fine Gold, to Paint the Lily
Re-embroidered lace (I think of it in connection with Alencon lace) is definitely a Real Thing, though, he didn't make it up. For people who didn't spend ENOUGH money on lace and had to have a fancier and gloppier kind of lace!
Sheenagh Pughsheenaghpugh on November 5th, 2016 09:46 pm (UTC)
Re: To Gild Fine Gold, to Paint the Lily
But (a) that would surely be embroidered, not re-embroidered and (b) the fancier it was, the less like tear-tracks it would look?
entropy_houseentropy_house on November 6th, 2016 03:50 am (UTC)
Reembroidered lace is a specific type of needle lace. It starts out with a plain net ground which is embroidered with a pattern (probably always floral) and then the flowers are 're-embroidered' with a cord to define them, and both selvages are scalloped.

As the flowers are on a fine net background, they can look like separate, fine white petal, and leaf, often teardrop, shapes.

It's imagery that only works if the readers are familiar with it, but I would hesitate to restrict a poet, or writer of any kind, to only using elements they're sure the readers would understand.
The other Linda: minimereapermum on November 6th, 2016 10:47 am (UTC)
It's one of those language differences again. We don't call it embroidered lace over here, it's all needle lace.