Percy begins "Metaphor as Mistake" (1958) with five metaphors which were misunderstood; these misunderstood metaphors, he says, have nevertheless "resulted in an authentic poetic experience . . . an experience, moreover, which was notably absent before the mistake was made" (65). Metaphor, in Percy's view, is a way of getting at the real nature of a thing by comparing it to something that it does not resemble on the surface. It becomes a tool for ontological exploration.
Existing inquiries have failed to notice this, however, because they either abstract their viewpoints from both effective and ineffective metaphors (this is the path of philosophy) or focus on the individual effects of the individual poet (this is the path of literary criticism). As he does in "The Delta Factor," Percy wishes to seek a middle ground between these two extremes. He makes it clear, however, that the metaphor has scientific, rather than strictly poetic, value for him;he sees metaphor as a method of getting at the way things actually are.
Two qualifications exist for the metaphor as mistake: It must be given by an authority figure, and it must have a certain aura of mystery around it. In this way, the metaphor becomes both right (given by authority) and wrong (not strictly true as a descriptor).
Percy's example is of a boy on a hunting trip who sees a bird and asks what it is. The African-American accompanying him and his father calls the bird a blue dollar, which excites the boy until his father corrects him and tells him the bird is actually a blue darter. The term blue darter may describe what the bird does and what color it is, says Percy, but blue dollar in some mystical way gets at what the bird actually is. When the boy saw the bird, he formed a subjective impression of it—what Percy calls the bird's "apprehended nature" (72)--and in some sense the mistaken name blue dollar gets right at the heart of that apprehended nature.
In this way, the metaphor becomes both science and poetry; it is a sort of subjective science, the ontology of the world as it appears to the individual. Percy says that we can only understand reality through metaphor. We never perceive the world--"We can only conceive being, sidle up to it by laying something else alongside" (72). All language, then, and perhaps all intelligence, are therefore metaphorical. When one person makes a metaphor, the people who hear it hope that it corresponds to their subjective understanding of reality—an understanding they may or may not even be consciously aware of.
The poet, according to Percy, has a double-edged task: His metaphors must ring true, but they must be flexible enough to reverberate with his audience and for them to gain a new understanding of the things to which they refer. The poet must refer to things we already know, but he must do so in new ways; in this, he gives his audience access to their own private experiences.
This can lead to a sort of blind groping for metaphors, however, a process which Percy sees as effective but harmful. Authority and intention are essential for metaphors to be shared between the Namer and the Hearer.