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How ordinary people understand extraordinary metaphors

Author: Lacey Okonski

Psychologists and poets alike have assumed that poetic metaphor may not be for everyone. Researchers thought that analogical reasoning tasks were too difficult for ordinary people. American poet Robert Frost himself thought poetry was only for those with a superior intellect (Frost, 1959). Yet, Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” (1969) remains one of America’s favorite poems (Kettle, 2001).

Consider whether you think Frost's poem is about a physical journey or a metaphorical journey:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Not only is this poem metaphorical, it takes it one step further: it allegorically talks about the physical act of walking down roads and paths but never explicitly states the abstract, metaphorical, symbolic meaning. Does this make the metaphorical meaning even more difficult to unpack?

One study on the Frost poem (Gibbs & Boers, 2005) demonstrated that people do understand the allegorical nature of the poem. These results are promising but do they reflect a deeply poetic imagination? Or do these results reflect a cultural awareness of a popular poem taught in many primary schools?

We explored this in a series of experiments (Okonski & Gibbs, 2019) using a longer poem that would be more obscure to the everyday American: “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich (1974). In the poem, a scuba diver goes down to see a wrecked ship.

The poem begins:

First having read the book of myths,

and loaded the camera,

and checked the edge of the knife-blade,

I put on the body-armor of black rubber

the absurd flippers

the grave and awkward mask.

I am having to do this

not like Cousteau with his

assiduous team

aboard the sun-flooded schooner

but here alone.

There is a ladder.

The ladder is always there

hanging innocently

close to the side of the schooner.

We know what it is for,

we who have used it.


it is a piece of maritime floss

some sundry equipment.

I go down.

Rung after rung and still

the oxygen immerses me

the blue light

the clear atoms

of our human air.

I go down.

My flippers cripple me,

I crawl like an insect down the ladder

and there is no one

to tell me when the ocean

will begin.

First the air is blue and then

it is bluer and then green and then

black I am blacking out and yet

my mask is powerful

it pumps my blood with power

the sea is another story

the sea is not a question of power

I have to learn alone

to turn my body without force

in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget

what I came for

among so many who have always

lived here

swaying their crenellated fans

between the reefs

and besides

you breathe differently down here…

This poem seems allegorical to many literary scholars. The question was, could people interpret such a long, complex, unknown poem?

The results were striking—even with a lesser known poem, and even for those who saw a prime suggesting that poem was only about scuba diving, the vast majority of participants took an allegorical approach to the poem. Furthermore, they did so by metaphorically mapping the experiential physical descriptions to the abstract ideas that contributed to their interpretation.

It’s one thing to expect a poem to have symbolic meaning and it’s another to provide a grounded interpretation of the poem. The idea of grounding refers to using physical and experiential knowledge about the world to apply to abstract concepts. For example, we can think of an infant learning about love and intimacy through physical experiences with their mother keeping them close and warm. This motivates the link between affection and warmth and intimacy and distance.

In describing the poem, people consistently referred to experiential themes: journey, verticality, discovery, containment, isolation, and wholeness. For example, one participant wrote, “He dove into the relationship and swam around, but it all seems very sad.” There is a sense a verticality in that the protagonist is diving indicating downward motion. Down is often conceptually negative indicating bad, sick, difficult, dead or even hell. There is also a sense of containment here as they are diving into the relationship as if it were an ocean that they could fully immerse themselves in.

Is it a basic property of human cognition to create extraordinary metaphorical meaning even when only given physical descriptions? Over a series of 3 studies, few people took a strictly literal interpretation of the poem. This suggests that ordinary people use their embodied experiences to tap into allegorical meanings. This is one small piece of the puzzle in a growing body of work that suggests that the mind is embodied even during abstract thought. Embodied cognition is the fantastic way we all understand the world, or as my co-author famously wrote, it is the poetry of the mind (Gibbs, 1996).

Stay tuned for the next blog, which promises to be very exciting, as I hand over the metaphorical torch to Thomas Wiben Jensen in Denmark.


Frost, R. (1959). Being let in on symbols. Downloaded from: on 2/25/2014.

Frost, R. (1969). The poetry of Robert Frost. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Gibbs, R. (1996). The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language and understanding. Cambridge University Press.

Gibbs, R., & Boers, E. (2005). Metaphoric processing of allegorical poetry. In Z. Maalej (Ed.), Metaphor and culture. University of Manouba Press.

Kettle, M. (2000). Americans choose the road not taken. The Guardian.

Okonski, L. & Gibbs, R. (2019). Diving into the Wreck: Can people resist allegorical meaning? Journal of Pragmatics, 141, 28-43.

Rich, A. (1974). Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972. Norton.

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