Metaphor &/or Metonymy
I’m continually finding myself falling in and out of understanding when I read theory. A lot of it is my impatience or boredom pulling me away, but some of it is due to the shifting nature of abstract ideas. It’s always, in the end, much less precise than I’d like. Or that I think I’d like. It depends on if I’m thinking about writing something or if I’m thinking about something that’s already written.
There are many ways a way of formulating things can be useful, but how one approaches a way of doing things will be predicated upon what one intends to do with it. For it to be helpful in creating art, it must be open, generative—while to be helpful in talking about art it must be reductive. Many attempts at conceptualizing things (manifestos, especially) have failed to notice this distinction.
So perhaps my finding theory to be constantly elusive owes a lot to the fact that in the end I’m interested more in making art than in talking about art that’s made.
Even so, one thing I really want to be clear on is my reading of [BIG M] Metaphor and Metonymy, especially in Roman Jakobson’s formulation. On the metaphor side, I’ve always felt that simile was greatly over-used by contemporary American poets (at least that was the case when I was starting out writing in the late 1980s), and that metaphor was a way out of it, but I’ve come, more recently, to think of metonymy as a more interesting way to proceed.
Of course, all language (and language arts in an even more heightened way) works through both metaphor and metonymy, so they are both going to be present in some, even if masked or downplayed, form. What I’m thinking about is the conscious use of them as methods of propulsion in poetry.
1. Metaphor is mainly a way to associate images (metaphor / simile) or concepts (analogy) through their similarity to other images or concepts. 2. Metonymy is mainly a way to associate things in a sequence or proximity (not similarity), through substitution (the part for the whole, something associated with the object for the object). They both work with a tension between similarity and difference, and poets, depending on their attitudes toward similarity and difference, use them in radically different ways. (When one writes poetry, and when one reads poetry, is one drawing things into similarity or difference? Both, sure, but in general? This will play into the poets [not necessarily the types of poems] that interest you. It’s more about sensibility [how the world works] than aesthetics [how art works].)
But these definitions don’t approach the houses of metaphor and metonymy. Roman Jakobson, in his work on metaphor and metonymy, writes about “similarity” and “contiguity” which can also be formulated as “resemblance” and “nearness” before getting put in the museum as Metaphor and Metonymy. (As a non-specialist, I’m relying here on The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 2nd Edition. Leitch, et al.)
Metaphor is the easier term, as it’s the most familiar, and in Jakobson it stands easily enough for all the ways we associate concepts as similar: “synonymy, analogy, comparison, even antithesis, with or without the word like” [from the introduction]. Metonymy is more complex, only because it’s less discussed. It stands for the ways concepts are substituted: thing for the thing symbolized, part for the whole, that sort of thing, but, more importantly for me, it’s not based on a similarity of the things themselves, as in metaphor (“love is like CO2”), but my their proximity (“I’m working for the weekend”). When this ideas is extended, the realm of metonymy extends from the “connections among the meanings of the terms” to “the very fact of sequence, syntactically relating all terms that are present in a sentence.” (1143-4)
Words themselves are metaphorical, and language is metonymical. So both metaphor and metonymy are used by all of us all the time in art and in general conversation. Conversation of the two in connection and apart is just another way to focus attention, on the creative process or the finished work. Imagism through much of the 20th Century privileged the conversation around metaphor. The word and the thing. The relationship to further images around that center of gravity. The late 20th Century, however, began to move away from “the perfect image” or the “best words in the best order” to conversations about sequence, gaps, leaps. Rober Bly, “Leaping Poetry.” Ron Silliman, “The New Sentence.”
Those are my go-to essays about this sort of thing, because in many people’s minds they are in strong opposition to each other. I like that, as it keeps reminding me that a conversation around Metaphor and Metonymy need not be a manifesto, though one might posit that to conceptualize the largesse of a poem as needing to conform to a metaphorical unity (someone like Mark Halliday, perhaps, though he’s not probably the best-known example) one would find oneself in opposition to those who conceive of a poem as a metonymical unity (Robert Duncan comes to mind, where he said something along the lines of “everything that happens around the poem belongs to the constellation of the poem” or something like that).
But again, or “even so,” looking at recent American poetry, one finds all sorts of permutations: Michael Palmer, for instance, seems to me very much a metaphor-oriented poet, even as he’s grouped most often with metonymy-oriented poets (Rae Armantrout and the Language poets), while a poet like Dean Young, say, seems to me a metonymy-oriented poet often associated with metaphor-oriented poets.
Selection / Substitution / Similarity = Metaphor
Combination / Contexture / Contiguity = Metonymy
John Ashbery = Metonymy
Donald Revell = Metaphor
Kay Ryan = Metonymy
Jorie Graham = Metaphor
Cole Swensen = Metonymy
James Tate = Metaphor
It’s a fun game, and there might even be a point to it. Anyway, here are some bits from Roman Jakobson’s "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" (excerpted in The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 2nd Edition. Leitch, et al.) to close this out:
[ . . . ]
Every form of aphasic disturbance consists in some impairment, more or less severe, of the faculty either for selection and substitution or for combination and contexture. The former affliction involves a deterioration of metalinguistic operations, while the latter damages the capacity for maintaining the hierarchy of linguistic units. The relation of similarity is suppressed in the former, the relation of contiguity in the latter type of aphasia. Metaphor is alien to the similarity disorder, and metonymy to the contiguity disorder.
The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The metaphoric way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the metonymic way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively. In aphasia one or the other of these two processes is restricted or totally blocked—an effect which makes the study of aphasia particularly illuminating for the linguist. In normal verbal behavior both processes are continually operative, but careful observation will reveal that under the influence of a cultural pattern, personality, and verbal style, preference is given to one of the two processes over the other.
[ . . . ]
In manipulating these two kinds of connection (similarity and contiguity) in both their aspects (positional and semantic)—selecting, combining, and ranking them—an individual exhibits [a] personal style, […] verbal predilections and preferences.
[ . . . ]
In poetry there are various motives which determine the choice between these alternants. The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of Romanticism and Symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledged, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called Realist trend, which belongs to the intermediary stage between the decline of Romanticism and the rise of Symbolism and is opposed to both. Following the path of contiguous relationships, the Realist author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. [The Realist writer] is fond of synecdochic details.
[ . . . ]
A salient example from the history of painting is the manifestly metonymical orientation of Cubism, where the object is transformed into a set of synecdoches; the Surrealist painters responded with a patently metaphorical attitude.
[ . . . ]
A competition between both devices, metanymic and metaphoric, is manifest in any symbolic process, be it intrapersonal or social. Thus in an inquiry into the structure of dreams, the decisive question is whether the symbols and the temporal sequences used are based on contiguity (Freud’s metonymic “displacement” and synecdochic “condensation”) or on similarity (Freud’s “identification and symbolism”). The principles underlying magic rites have been resolved by Frazer into two types: charms based on the law of similarity and those founded on association by contiguity. The first of these two great branches of sympathetic magic has been called “homeopathic” or “imitative,” and the second, “contagious” magic. This bipartition is indeed illuminating. Nonetheless, for the most part, the question of the two poles is still neglected, despite its wide scope and importance. . . . What is the main reason for this neglect?
[ . . . ]
Similarity in meaning connects the symbols of a metalanguage with the symbols of the language referred to. Similarity connects a metaphorical term with the term for which it is substituted. Consequently, when constructing a metalanguage to interpret tropes, the researcher possesses more homogeneous means to handle metaphor, whereas metonymy, based on a different principle, easily defies interpretation.
* * *
ADDENDUM: A Response to this post from Paul Otremba [As this was too large for a comment box, and scattering it among a few comment boxes made it look all beat up]:
Hello John, Once again an interesting and thoughtful post. I really like what you say about theory, that “For it to be helpful in creating art, it must be open, generative.” The distinction between metaphor and metonymy is actually a subject near and dear to me at the moment, which got set off by a comment Ange Mlinko made in her interview with Iain McGilchrist in the October issue of Poetry. She compared Larkin’s “The Trees” to Ashbery’s “Some Trees,” calling the former metaphoric and the latter metonymic, and implied that the former was obvious and outdated while the latter was progressive and more contemporary, and she supported this by invoking Rosmarie Waldrop. I think she was referring to Waldrop’s “Form and Discontent,” an article I know from a previous research project. What surprised me about the Mlinko is that she doesn’t explain how the Ashbery poem employs “contiguity” as metonymy. This also led me back to rereading the Waldrop essay (which appeared in Diacritics in 1996), and in it she also claims a superiority of metonymy over metaphor, contiguity over equivalence, without explaining the workings of metonymy, and she cites the Jakobson as a source for the distinctions between the tropes.
This led me back to the Jakobson. “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances” is a provoking read, but what I find interesting is how Jakobson associates metonymy with realism and prose, with film and its close-ups (not its use of montage), and he sides plays and poetry with metaphor. His sense of contiguity is much more tame than the wild leaps implied by Waldrop and Mlinko. David Lodge in his book The Modes of Modern Writing has an excellent chapter that explains in more detail the implications of Jakobson’s brief talk, particularly as it relates to film and drama. There is also a good article by Marjorie Perloff that discusses how the poems in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies work, and she uses the Jakobson to say that Lowell’s confessional poetry works more metonymically than metaphorically. Perloff writes of the characters in Lowell’s “Man and Wife”: “their plight is dramatized in terms of selected, patterned detail.” This is the kind of metonymy used in the close-ups of film. I wonder if the kind of radical associations or stretches of context that Waldrop, Mlinko, and you attribute to poets like Ashbery might be better described by the tropes of metalepsis (a metonymy of a metonymy, which really extends the chain of contiguity) or catachresis (which gives us the wonderful, intentional abuses of mixed metaphors).
I really like that you are not attaching value to either the metaphoric or the metonymic “house” (a term that I really like as opposed to the metaphor of “camps,” which is too militaristic, and as George Lakoff might say in Metaphors We Live By, if we use the word camp we won’t be able to see the issue as anything but a war between metaphor and metonymy). I didn’t mean to implicitly side you with Mlinko and Waldrop, who I do feel are making evaluative claims about metaphor and metonymy without a close enough consideration of either. You are more generous and careful with your identifications, particularly Palmer and Ryan. I think the Kay Ryan association with metonymy is close to what Perloff claims for the Lowell. These houses are also continuums, and the more radical side of the house of metonymy would be metalepsis and catachresis.