C is for Conceit

My New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines the conceit as “a complex and arresting metaphor, in context usually part of a larger pattern of imagery, which stimulates the understanding by combining objects and concepts in unconventional ways…the term denotes a rhetorical operation which is specifically intellectual rather than sensuous in origin,” and whose “marked artificiality appeals to the power of reason to perceive likenesses in naturally dissimilar and unrelated phenomena by abstracting from them the qualities….they share.” This is one of the simplest, most comprehensible openings to a definition in the “C” section of my encyclopedia, which is why I am not making a post about caesura, chiasmus, or consonance.

My memories of the conceit, dusted off from the British literature seminar I took during my sophomore year of college, recall the idea of a metaphor on steroids that governs an entire poem, a linking of parts disparate in some (or many) extremes, so that the relationship between the objects is–exactly as the encyclopedia indicates–an operation of the mind rather than of the heart, a showcase for both the reader’s and the author’s Wit. I remember conceit as particular to the metaphysical poets (Donne, Marvell).

I can’t say I love poetic conceit. I like to feel my metaphors, rather than think them. But I also believe that thinking and feeling lead to one another and mingle thoroughly, powerfully, and sometimes indiscreetly. The conceit is great at this, at forcing a feeling upon you and then guiding you to think it through. Take “The Flea,” for instance, a cheeky, erotic insect-ridden poem in which the speaker tries to get into the pants of the woman he’s addressing by arguing that their blood mingling in the belly of a flea that has bitten them both is a metaphorical consummation of their relationship that both removes any barriers to their immediately actually having sex and further, makes it almost sacrilegious for them not to do so! Very clever, Mr. Donne.

Moving away from insects and toward fungi, I think Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms” is another effective poetic conceit, using the metaphor of a low-lying ever-spawning flora (with its allusion to the nuclear mushroom cloud) to write about the women’s movement. Listen to her read it here.


Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

~ Sylvia Plath


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