Sons and Waters, Sean Kinsella
The mixing of metaphors
At school, I recall being taught that mixing metaphors was a risky venture. But then Shakespeare proved, by taking arms against a sea of troubles, that it could also be terrific.
In Sons and Waters, which contains both prose and poetry, I was struck by the metaphor mixtures from the start. They are impossible to miss. In fact, I might say they are brandished.
In the opening poem, for example, ‘Sand Boy’
[ ... ] I stand where we met, with your
hands like flags of convenience in the sovereign
waters of your smile.
I remember your words, like a heart of seashells;
brittle and derelict. Your lips were a stick of rock
where my name went down the sugar.
Now the ocean holds your dowry and transfers you overseas.
The mixture of similes and metaphors is clearly intentional and ironic – almost comic. Sometimes, as a deliberate ploy, I think this can work, but it is – as I was counselled at school – a risky venture. And the risk is not just the mixing of metaphors but the danger of using too many tropes for the poem to bear. One well-placed simile, to my mind, is worth a whole sea of troubles.
And so for me, the last stanza of ‘A Big, Grown Up Debate’ (which was written before a UK election) is stronger by far than the earlier metaphor for the welfare state ‘assaulted / surrounded like a fort; / where the cannons of economy, / recoil without a thought’. It’s possible to write powerfully without any metaphors, metonymy, similes or elaborate personifications, and for me this writer is at his best when he does just that:
We need an honest contest.
The needy, me and you.
We need something to come of this.
Nothing else will do.