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Metaphor is common to both poetry and science. It is a wrench, hammer, and screwdriver all at once. For me and many poets (not all, but that is a discussion for another post), metaphors are the ubiquitous tools in my junk drawer, the tools that build or take apart the mechanisms of the world. Metaphors allow us to make sense of the complex, new, or inexplicable, and to communicate that sense to ourselves and others. Consider the lowly pie chart, with proportion defined by arc and angle and color, all of which are compared to a favorite dessert, or the more elegant stem-and-leaf, where an array of numbers is organized into single leaved stems cropped-stem_and_leaf.gif, much like leaves of grass. The stem-and-leaf, like other graphs, help us to see.Really see. Stephen Few, in

leafNow You See It, writes of “thinking with our eyes”: “We do not attend to everything that we see. Visual perception is selective, as it must be, for awareness of everything would overwhelm us. Our attention is often drawn to contrast to the norm.”

Stem-and-leaf graphs allow us to see at once what is the norm as well as the outliers; to reveal the strange, the other. We can see, for example, the variations on the thickness of skin, of the weight of elephants, and what that means. As does poetry. In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman does not provide counts. It isn’t a book of statistics or graphs, but it is an accounting, a poetry of everything, both human and nature and the nature in human.Through poetry, Whitman finds meaning in the enormity of both the normal and the strange on a summer day in a grassy field; every word a leaf of grass, containing multitudes. Whitman the scientist, Whitman the poet, asks “What is the grass?” Both scientist and poet answer with metaphor.

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped, Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

-Walt Whitman