Metaphor and Metonymy

There are two key elements of poetics, figures of speech, that we have encountered recently with Woolf’s (and Dillard’s) “Death of the Moth” and White’s “Once More to the Lake,” and Emerson’s essays. The moth and Emerson’s circles are examples of metaphor; the lake (and all the various things White describes connected to it, from fishhook to the soggy, icy garment at the end) and Emerson’s books, reading, scholar are metonymy.  These poetic figures can also be thought of as rhetorical figures or what are known as “tropes”; they create imagery in the essays, but they also serve a larger, organizing purpose. The writers focus–or “turn” (from the Greek “trope”) our attention almost entirely around them. As Emerson says of the power of analogy in “American Scholar”: “the near explains the far.” Both metaphor and metonymy are symbolic figures: they substitute or replace one thing with another thing in some way related to it. With metaphor, the relation is one of resemblance: two things are physically different, but share some sort of similarity or resemblance. With metonymy, the relation is one of proximity or contiguity; two things are compared that are physically related, often a part of something that represents a larger part or whole. In his later work, Emerson characterized metonymy as the primary figure of all thinking and writing–since to his way of thinking, everything was scientifically, not just poetically, related, even the most remote items.  I suppose Terence Malick’s Emersonian-inspired vision in his film Tree of Life, taking the local story back to its remote origins in the big bang, is an example of this metonymy in action.

As elements of poetics, as well as rhetoric, these important figures of speech (and thinking) remind us that in nonfiction, in an essay, the writer can be creative and symbolic and still be nonfictional. You can, and do need to, “make” stuff up in an essay, and still represent the topic truthfully. Metaphor and metonymy play important, but different, roles in the symbolic action (remember Kenneth Burke’s definition) of all writing and thinking–not just in poetry.

Here are two further examples of metaphor and metonymy in action in writing. The examples are both from poetry, but the ways the figure of each works (the bird as metaphor for young writer/daughter in “The Writer”; the metonymy of the car/road and all its associations of travel, moving in “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road “) applies to nonfiction writing as well, since the larger issue is how we conceive of the world in language. With metaphor, we tend to see and represent our world through resemblances and figures that substitute wholly for what we are thinking about–that are not directly related to thing we are thinking about; with metonymy, we tend to represent and see through the various parts and pieces of the world we are in, with things in some way related to what we are thinking. 

Here is the metonymy example:

“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams

sittin´ in the kitcken, a house in macon
loretta´s singing on the radio
smell of coffee, eggs, & bacon
car wheels on a gravel road
pull the curtains back & look outside
somebody somehere i do not know
c´mon now child we are going to go for a ride

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

can´t find a damn thing in this place
nothing is where i left it before
set of keys & a dusty suitcase
car wheels on a gravel road
There goes the screen door slamming shut
you better do what you are told
when i get back this room better be picked-up

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

low hum of voices in the front seat
stories nobody knows
got folks in jackson we are gonna meet
car wheels on a gravel road
cotton fields stretching miles & miles
hank´s voice on the radio
telephone poles trees & wires fly on by

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

broken down shacks engine parts
could tell a lie but my heart would know
listen to the dogs barkin in the yard
car wheels on a gravel road
child in the backseat about four or five yeahrs
lookin´ out the window
little bit of dirt mixed with tears

car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road
car wheels on a gravel road

Here is the metaphor example:

Richard Wilbur, “The Writer”:

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

For some further thought on metaphor and the essay, consider this discussion from the essay journal River Teeth about the origin of its name.


Project 2 Follow-up: rhetoric of the essay

In focusing on rhetoric in the second writing project, we explored the ways that the rhetorical work of an essay organizes and develops its argument. The assignment challenged you to think about this as a critical reader, and to work through this as a writer in developing your close reading of the texts and the rhetorical elements within them.

the rhetoric of immersion:

Emily’s essay, “Immersed in Ideology,” provides a good model of close reading in action: effective in taking time with the argument, creating longer body paragraphs that unfold the argument, provide complications but also clarity. In fact, as you will see, Emily argues for the rhetorical significance of “immersion,” and I would say this essay is strong rhetorically in the ways it immerses its reader in that argument.  Here are the first two paragraphs:

Claudia Rankine, Baratunde Thurston, and Frederick Douglass all share a common feature in their essays: immersion. Douglass writes Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave and intensifies the topic through his powerful autobiographical anecdotes that ultimately criticize the enslavement of African Americans. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, a lyric essay,Rankine overwhelms the reader in her thoughts and ideologies in order to communicate her notion that the media negatively affects individuals’ lives. Thurston, in How to Be Black, uses his humor to reinforce the necessity to re-complicate stereotyping. By anecdotes and irony, all three authors immerse the reader to convey their various opinions.

Immersion keeps the reader engaged in the text; Frederick Douglass’ text had the potential to be an utterly uninteresting litany on why the institution of slavery ought to end. However, rather than hurl facts and figures at the reader, Douglass gains the reader’s attention by communicating the horror of his life in slavery. Douglass explores this immersion all throughout his text and uses it to persuade his audience of the necessity to abolish slavery and to feel the sense of familiarity with the readers that he never got to feel as a slave. Douglass employs the horrific stories of his life to intensify the plot. He describes his Aunt Hester’s punishment in appalling detail, “She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes… [A]fter rolling up his sleeves, be commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor” (Douglass 7). The reader senses the loss of dignity that Hester endures through this experience and the terror that Douglass feels as the onlooker. His description of the scene from the point-of-view of his young self compels the reader to suffer a similar loss of innocence and painful companionship with the young Douglass that hides in a closet, looking on. Douglass’ depiction of Hester’s pose also gives the reader the entire effect of the situation as Douglass witnessed it. Her outstretched position illustrates the complete vulnerability that Hester must suffer through. Then, his interrupter, which includes Hester’s screams and her attacker’s swearing, demonstrates the passivity that these horrifying details receive in such a situation. The fact that these moments do not even deserve their own sentences leads the reader to the realization that these occurrences appear utterly normal to the child. This notion appalls. When one considers such atrocities ordinary, a serious problem afflicts the system. Douglass clearly communicates this by his parenthetical statement. Therefore, we, as the audience, feel panic and pity for the writer, Hester, and all slaves. By playing on this horror, Douglass convinces the audience to accept his view that slavery negatively impacts the country and ought to be abolished completely.

This idea of “immersion” will continue to be important, particularly as we head into the final project. It is something to take up as we explore the poetics of the essay, as well.

the rhetoric of counterargument:

Casie’s essay provides an example of the ways a counterargument adds depth to the essay–a way of immersing your reader into the complexity of the argument you are developing. In this case, this counterargument comes in the final body paragraph, leading into the conclusion. Note the simple but effective way that the counterargument is signaled to the reader: although

Although I associate both authors with being nonconformists, it is important to highlight the moments where they almost (or do) cave to meet society’s demands. For Kaysen, this occurs when she subtly describes her longing to take the medications. As earlier noted, she understands that the pills symbolize their fatal flaws, but good behavior plus medication could mean a way out. However, if Kaysen is such a nonconformist, shouldn’t she be advocating against it? Perhaps her argument would have been more valid had she pretended to take the antidepressants and watch as the world around her suddenly becomes accepting, even though she did not actually change. Rankine undergoes this same method when she conforms to the genre constraint her publisher places on her work. She strongly feels that it should be classified as poetry, but the editors claim it as a lyric essay. They are so concerned with placing at least one constraint on the piece, that they not only change the genre, but also place the distinction right on the front cover. This lost argument stares its readers in the face, taking away the validity and trust behind Rankine’s argument. More importantly, what is so different between Kaysen and Rankine from Douglass? Perhaps Kaysen and Rankine display their weaknesses as a rhetorical effect. They want to indicate the level of control society exerts, and they cannot do so if they do not conform in at least one instance. In Douglass’s case, it is likely that he has no option; he submits because he feels that he has to. For this reason, he does not address the issue in his text, whereas Rankine does. Rankine includes instances where she engages with the editor in order to demonstrate their relationship. She writes, “My editor asks me to tell her exactly what the liver means to me” (Rankine 54). In this instance, Rankine knows the answer to the question, but does not know how to say it to her. The editor symbolizes society, and the demands it exerts, whereas Rankine is herself; someone who is supposed to answer but chooses or cannot bring themselves to do so.