Metaphors for Community

Is there a word for this? I visualize a pale field crisscrossed by radiating lines, each representing some affiliation or influence. This web is speckled with nodes or tangled places where a great many lines converge, and of course the pattern isn’t fixed. Some nodes keep darkening, gathering power, pulling more threads through their hubs. Is that what I’m thinking of, those maps in airline magazines, full of red curves that indicate routes? In any case, the nodes in my imaginary model are people, and the busiest ones are the network-builders: editors, teachers, organizers of reading series, and also the less obviously powerful people who just persistently stay in conversation with other writers and readers.

That’s a variation on the familiar web/weaving/net metaphor, and it has become a cliché because it really is a helpful way to imagine the bonds in a social group. The tighter and denser the connections, the stronger the fabric. Images of mixture are another option: the melting pot or alloy versus the salad, quilt, choir, family, or sedimentary rock. The latter seem better figures for community because they preserve a sense of the individuals who comprise the whole. However, I was just reading an unpublished article by Victoria University scholar Heidi Thomson about Keats’ letters—how he seeks to create co-presence through his writing, an intimacy that can seem intensely physical even though it’s made of words. She highlights his portmanteau word “interassimulate.” The word suggests that as friends interact, they assimilate and simulate. Sympathies, interests, values converge.

On Monday I attended a lecture and a reading by Robert Sullivan. He discussed the figure that obsesses him: spirals in three dimensions, “two points connected in a curvilinear fashion.” He pointed out the ubiquity of spirals in far-flung artistic traditions, though Maori and Celtic versions are particularly important to him, and noted that the curves seem closer if you look down on the spiral from above. His poetry circles back spirally through the literary past and the history of his ancestors, demonstrating community with his family and teachers through time. Like my web-that-I-can’t-name-in-a-word, the spiral, too, keeps moving.

I’m puzzling over metaphors because I’m puzzling over structures. Arguments are linear, but writing about a community for an essay or book chapter, I want a way of organizing my thoughts that simulates the complicated interdependence of the elements in my case study. I don’t want to focus narrowly on one poet, or a pair of them, because communities contain multiple nodes. I could describe the network from multiple angles, but where do the actual poems come in? Communities aren’t of literary interest unless they germinate poems people want to read and hear, but individual pieces rarely encapsulate what a community is about and it can be hard to see the very fine silks of connection between them. Can an essay resemble a net or a spiral and still be a clear and useful bit of teaching/reporting/talking?

4 thoughts on “Metaphors for Community

  1. RHIZOMES, as in Deleuze and Guattari. Google ’em. One of my all time favorite visual metaphors for indigenous community/knowledge.

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  2. Hi Lesley, What you described made me think of the visual thesaurus. Lots of ideas leading to more, then on to more, and surely back to where you started. Lucy

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  3. Hi Lesley
    Greetings from aotearoa. Just to let you know I have been writing a few terza rima (Maori = tortuous five!) since your workshop here in Wellington, and had one published in the Dom. Thanks for your inspiring teaching. Cheers Gillian

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