Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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.


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.




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.


At 10/18/2009 6:53 AM, Blogger Paul Gibbons said...

This little run-down comes at a good time -- I'm prepping to teach a seminar in metaphor.

Sometimes what you're looking for comes right to you . . .


At 10/20/2009 5:49 AM, Anonymous jon said...

It is totally and appallingly ignorant to identify a metaphoric tendency in poetry with the Romantics. There is so much written about this only an illiterate could assert this as fact. It is akin to proclaiming that the individual subject is a product of the French Revolution.I suggest you actually go back and read Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Marvell, Donne, Dante, Homer, the French Symbolists, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Indians before making neat and irrelevant distinctions.

At 10/20/2009 6:21 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It's Rosmarie Waldrop who said it, not me. What I've doe here is take some bits from a much longer essay by her from her book Dissonance. I'm sure that in the original, she's more clear.

Metaphor has been around a long time, point taken. I think she's thinking about what she sees as the way metaphor is being employed. A lot of people say that we're still functioning under the Romanticism umbrella, and sometimes it can come on stronger than it should.

At 10/20/2009 7:18 AM, Blogger Henry Gould said...

Rosmarie Waldrop might possibly have derived these ideas from Multu Koniuk Blasing (also at Brown U.), whose 1987 book "American Poetry : the Rhetoric of its Forms" is a classification & analysis of major American poets, based on which of 4 "master tropes" - metonymy, metaphor, synecdoche, & irony - structure the poet's style.

At 10/20/2009 7:46 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I've not heard of that book. It sounds like an interesting project. Do you recommend it? I'm in the process of buying a bunch of books, you see.

At 10/20/2009 10:49 AM, Blogger Matthew Zapruder said...

Hi John, I'm not sure if she credits the source but to me these ideas seem to come directly from Roman Jakobson's essay, Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance. I will track down her essay, which sounds quite interesting.

There's a ton of material about this of course; I recently taught a seminar on Metaphor at University of Houston, and that amount of material was overwhelming. We talked a lot about the difference between metaphor and metonymy (I.A. Richards is great on the exact definition of metaphor). That was last fall during the run up to Obama's election, and one of the things we spent a lot of time talking about was how in politics metonymic and metaphoric thinking have all sorts of profound consequences.

At 10/20/2009 11:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I wish I'd've been there for that. It's been a long time since I've done any sort of thinking in a programatic way. I'm quite envious...

I'll look up the Jakobson. I'm getting interested in the distinction, or the four distinctions.

At 10/20/2009 11:59 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I just found this through a google search:

"In Jakobson's lexicon, links between topics which substitute for one another are called metaphoric, while links between topics which complement each other are called metonymic."

I'm looking forward to finding the essay itself. Turns out it's from 1971... !

At 11/06/2009 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

check the jakobson here:

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