Rosmarie Waldrop on Metaphor & Metonymy
Rosmarie Waldrop sees a tension in American poetry, one that has been growing in recent years. I think what she says gets to the very heart of the matter. As she sees it, it’s a tension between two tendencies all poets share, the call to metaphor and the call to metonymy. As a primer, here’s Wikipedia on Metaphor vs Metonymy:
“Metonymy works by the contiguity (association) between two concepts, whereas metaphor works by the similarity between them. When people use metonymy, they do not typically wish to transfer qualities from one referent to another as they do with metaphor: there is nothing press-like about reporters or crown-like about a monarch, but "the press" and "the crown" are both common metonyms.”
So now we’re ready. Here goes:
From Dissonance (if you are interested). U of Alabama. 2005.
COMPOSITION AS EXPLANATION
In the beginning there is Gertrude Stein, for whom composition is explanation. I could also say, in the beginning is Aristotle: “the fable is simply this, the combination of the incidents.”
I don’t even have thoughts, I say, I have method that make language think, take over and me by the hand. Into sense or offence, syntax stretched across rules, relations of force, fluid the dip of the plumb line, the pull of eyes . . . . No beginnings. All unrepentant middle.
And none of these forms are “organic form.” None rely primarily on metaphor, though from the Romantics on poetry has been more or less identified with it.
Olson has called this vertical tendency of metaphor “the suck of symbol.” Metaphor as hotline to transcendence, to divine meaning which casts the poet in the role of special being, a priest or prophet. We know these ideas very well. They have dominated the thinking about poetry from Romanticism to the present.
Now it happens that these two emphases, on metaphor or on metonymy, are not simply differences between two styles, but coincide with the two dimensions of every speech act, selection and combination . . . . Words always have a double reference: (1) to the code and (2) to the context.
. . . literary language tends to divide according to an emphasis on one axis or the other. In rhetorical terms, an emphasis on metaphor or an emphasis on metonymy (also in the large sense: any relation by contiguity). Some writers are more concerned with finding “the right word,” the perfect metaphor; others are more concerned with what “happens between” the words, with composition, exploring the sentence and its boundaries, slidings, the gaps between fragments, the shadow zone of silence, of margins.
I say “more” concerned because it’s a matter of emphasis. Of course we are always concerned with both. And what makes our moment now so interesting is that we seem in a period of tension between the two emphases.
COMPOSITION AS PROCESS; OR, SHALL WE ESCAPE ANALOGY
If we now look at the current pull away from organic form that began with Stein, toward an emphasis on combination, the implications are very different:
(1) Nothing is given. (Though all the elements are: there is nothing new under the sun.) Everything remains to be constructed.
Creeley: “a world that’s constantly coming into being . . . [the poetry is] in the activity” (in analogy to action painting).
(2) The poet does not know beforehand what the poem is going to say, where the poem is going to take her.
Barbara Guest: “The dark identity of the poem.”
John Cage: “The importance of being perplexed.”
The poem is not so much “expression” as a cognitive process that, to some extent, changes even the poet.
So the poem is not so much a mirror as “a window, opposite direction, lean out, not thrown back on yourself. A window, a lens gathering language [as the Objectivists meant it], a focus to burn. Conjunction and connotation.
Form/composition is not an extension of content (Olson/Creeley), but is, on the contrary, primary. It is the form that generates the content.
(3) The aim is not unifying (the one right word, the one perfect metaphor), but to open the form to the multiplicity of contexts.
(4) The transcendence is not upward, but horizontal, contextual. It is the transcendence of language with its infinite possibilities, infinite connections, and its charge of the past. In other words, no split between spirit and matter.