I’ve been reading “How the Pope Is Chosen” by James Tate, a poem in which one of my clear-headed creative writing students perceived “metaphors.” Hmm . . . Certain aspects of the poem certainly drop shadows we would expect cast from other shapes. Pope selection is orchestrated in terms of poodle selection:
If a Pope’s hair is allowed to grow unchecked,
it becomes extremely long and twists
into long strands that look like ropes [. . .]
Popes are very intelligent.
There are three different sizes.
The poodle, the juvenile delinquent and the rugged western hero can all stand in for the Pope as director Tate checks the lighting and tapes off marks on the stage.
For me, however, the poem stands in for and calls our attention to a certain kind of language at once nostalgic, because we’ve grown up with it, and ridiculous, because we’ve grown beyond it. We are lulled to some other psychological state by rhetoric so reassuring that Highlights Magazine should take note:
growing up to become a Pope is a lot of fun.
All the time their bodies are becoming bigger and stranger,
but sometimes things make them unhappy.
And the poem, for all of its finely honed humorous barbs, grows bigger and stranger and more tonally complex. The same lips that slurp bowls of cream attract black flies. This is no vendetta against Catholicism or The American Kennel Club, even if their shared pomp is brought into question. The poem is ultimately about the joy and futility of making meaning.