Try Jeanne Murray Walker’s Tulips Exercise

When I was in graduate school, I had the pleasure of working with poet Jeanne Murray Walker. She gave us an assignment for working with metaphor that I found profoundly helpful. It involves reading and observing metaphor in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Tulips,” which you can read here.  

Here are Jeanne’s instructions:

“Okay, here we go.  This is to show you how to go through a poem to create metaphor templates that you can use to generate your own metaphors.  I’m looking at Plath’s “Tulips.”

The first metaphor is “The tulips are too excitable.”   So you might formulate the template like  this.   The X (the given term) is described by an adjective which attributes to it the characteristics of a Y (a human trait).

For the exercise you would write a bunch of metaphors with that format.

Examples:  The sun seems too anxious to rise in the morning.   Why is the watch so eager to race ahead?   The turtle seems oddly philosophical.

The second metaphor in “Tulips” is “Look at how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.”   Actually, that’s a series of normal adjectives that leads, in the end, to a metaphor:   “how snowed in”.

The template for this metaphor might be this:   The X (everything in this hospital room) is described by a verb (“snowed in”) which gives it the characteristics of Y (ie whiteness, quietness, emergency, etc.).

For the exercise you would write a bunch of metaphors with that format.

Examples:   How the sun got hemmed in by the gossiping of the big stars.    How unremarkable the chair is, how undistinguished, how—well—belittled by its surroundings.

You go on doing that kind of work through the whole poem.  “Tulips” is built out of metaphors.  To work through it  might take you two weeks.  But it will be two weeks well spent.

Does this give you the idea?   I’m inventing the examples as I go along here, so they’re probably not very good.  But you will do better than this when you do the exercises in your journal.

I made up this metaphor exercise for myself a long time ago and it has been most useful to me when I could follow the format of the original metaphor as exactly as possible.  But all my reading in semantics suggests that metaphor is a slippery and wily animal.  Don’t use that as an excuse to get discouraged.  Just do as well as you can.  Any practice, even if you’re not quite accurate, will help you.  Accuracy is not the ultimate goal.  Try to make good metaphors rather than ones that won’t be useful to you in a poem.   And the ultimate point is not just to gain metaphors you might use, but above all to get a mind nimble for metaphor. Practice in your journals.   And be well.”

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