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.


Essay as Uncanny: Once More to the Moth

E.B. White

You will recall that Jeff Porter, in his “History and Poetics of the Essay,” discusses the Freudian, psychological concept of the uncanny, and applies it to White’s “Once More to the Lake.” As he notes, the uncanny is not simply an experience of the foreign or strange, but rather, of the commingling of the two, the unfamiliar in the familiar. In Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny,” one of his examples is glancing at a strange, unfamiliar face on a train, then realizing that he was seeing his own reflection in a window.

The essay, then, like the lake in White’s essay, is something of a “haunt” (the last word in White’s first paragraph). Something very familiar; but also something that’s more complicated than we commonly or conventionally, or maybe consciously, realize. [Here is a recent reference to the essay as an experiment in the uncanny. A reviewer of our own Professor James Hall’s book I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well concludes: “Reading this work gives the reader an uncanny sensation that Hall is not just presenting essays about the events of his life, but also mapping the typology of his soul.”]

Both White’s essay and Woolf’s essay are then haunted by death. You can’t get more uncanny than that: this thing that has everything to do with us that we want nothing to do with, at least not yet; death, both essayists suggest, is the most unfamiliar familiarity in our lives. That’s heavy and heady stuff, certainly for an essay–and both fairly short at that. So how do they manage to work this large subject, organize it into an essay, keep us engaged as readers in the process?

One of the primary ways that these essays work rhetorically is by organizing the contemplation of the uncanny, the unfamiliar familiarity of death, around a primary rhetorical (or some would say, poetic) figure. For Woolf, that figure is metaphor: the moth. For White, that figure is metonymy: the lake and all the physical and psychological conditions associated with it.

This use of figure–metaphor, metonymy, analogy, and others–is a way that the essayist, or any writer for that matter, relates its ideas. (The uncanny is a reminder that our relations are both familiar and strange to us, depending on how you look at them). The essay, as we have seen, places particular emphasis on relation. In the words of Montaigne: ‘I do not teach; I only relate.’