When one approaches a poem, one should not just go message hunting. Perhaps this is why Ciardi (Understanding Poetry) feels the pertinent question to ask is not WHAT does a poem mean, but HOW does a poem mean? How does it build its form out of images, ideas, and rhythms? These elements help to intensify and become an inseparable part of the meaning. Yeates writes, “O body swayed to music, O quickening glance,/ How shall I tell the dancer from the dance?” Even Whitman’s seemingly non-selective catalogs in Leaves of Grass become a part of an overall meaning in a grand cosmic sense.
Imagery, specifically metaphor, is a vehicle for carrying the reader into the poetry. If the reader brings to the element of the comparison a flexible mind, a willingness to see likenesses, to share, to make analogies, the poet will attempt to give him an experience of the other element which is being compared. Added to this is the pleasurable interplay of the two things.
The poet addresses both sides of the metaphor at once, but to assume that because two statements could be placed in the same category they are the same thing or mean the same thing is to ignore connotative differences. For example, the carpe diem theme is expressed in both statements, but it is a far cry from “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” to “Make hay while the sun shines.”
The use of metaphor is saying one thing in terms of something else. Cardi says, “The poet pretends to be talking about one thing, and all the while he is talking about many others.” It is speaking of the unknown in terms of the known; it is pegging an unknown experience to a similar known experience. When Burns writes, “My luve is like a red, red rose,” the reader knows what a red, red rose is, but he doesn’t know what Burns feels about “my luve”. However, in linking Burns’ love to the known feelings stimulated by a rose, the reader finds a sense of how Burns feels about his love. Figurative language with illogically linked terms forces the reader to notice the connection. He must think in terms of personal definitions rather than connotations.