Metaphor as a Game of Chance - National Council of Teachers of English
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Metaphor as a Game of Chance

This is a guest post written by poet, Taylor Mali

TaylorMaliDuring National Poetry Month of this year, as a way of procrastinating writing my daily poem, I came up with an idea for creating a set of dice that could be used to roll different prompts for writing poems. The first die would have an action word written on each side like “Itemize,” “Confess,” or “Forgive.” The second die would get more specific with nouns like “the petty sins,” “the shortcomings,” and “the shameful secrets.” And the last die would bring it all together with phrases like “of your father,” “that live inside you,” and “you live by.” I figured each of my students could roll the dice and then—in 10 minutes of journaling—attempt to, for example, “Itemize the petty sins of your father” or “Confess the shameful secrets you live by.” As each die has six sides, there are 216 different possibilities.

TaylorMaliMetaphorMakerOf course, the prompts were a little weird, which is fine for some people but not all. So I decided to rethink the project. The dice became a way to generate just metaphors. Rolling a noun, an adjective, and another noun might produce “Love is an uncontested guitar,” or the “deadly spider of envy.” I found online a two-dimensional diagram for a six-sided cube that could be cut out, folded, and taped together like a cardboard gift box. I fit three diagrams together on one piece of paper and posted it as my poem for the day.

And then, as usual, I went a little overboard. I found a diagram online of a shape that could be folded and taped together into a 12-sided dodecahedron. It was a great improvement, and it allowed me to leave some blanks for the students to fill in on their own, which made this game much more fun. And with 12 sides on each “die,” the total number of metaphors one could roll was 1,728! The only real problem was this: because each side of a regular, convex dodecahedron is a pentagon, all the two-dimensional diagrams looked like squished starfish with legs of different lengths. I couldn’t figure out how to put them all on one page and keep each individual pentagon big enough to write in without a magnifying glass.

TaylorMaliIcosahedronThen, late one night, I stumbled on a diagram for a 20-sided figure, called an icosahedron. There are several ways you can fit an icosahedron together, but each of its 20 sides is a perfect equilateral triangle! This made it very easy to fit three of them together, one each for the nouns and the adjectives. And with 20 sides on each die, I could give five examples for each part of speech and still leave plenty of work for the students to do.

But the real learning happens when students realize that a metaphor is really nothing more than a proclamation that one thing is actually another thing, that THIS is actually THAT (at least on a figurative level). And with 20 sides for each die, the total number of unique metaphors one can roll is 8,000!

Taylor Mali is one of the most well-known poets to have emerged from the poetry slam movement and one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam. A four-time National Poetry Slam champion, he is the author of three collections of poetry and a book of essays, What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World. In April of 2012, Mali donated 12 inches of his hair to the American Cancer Society after convincing 1,000 people to become teachers.