The Great Figure: On Figurative Language

Written by

D. A. Powell
Contributor Page

Year

2007
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Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

(William Carlos Williams, "The Great Figure")

If rhythm is the heart and breath of poetry, then surely figurative language is its beguiling and sexy skin and musculature. As in Williams's poem, the figure captivates the eye, we are drawn toward it through the rain and lights the way Odysseus is drawn toward a different kind of siren howl in a different kind of century. But whether we're reading Homer or Williams or a contemporary poet, the figure is what carries us rumbling through the dark. Without it, the poem is simply a mass of words, a clanging that does not move us.

When we think of great poems that we love, we think of the ways in which the language casts a certain light upon some occasion or subject to create a new and impressive way of listening, seeing, experiencing the world. "I heard a fly buzz when I died," "Thou still unravished bride of quietness," "White in the moon the long road lies," "My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent." Words we know, artfully turned upon the writer's lathe, confound us and please us with their newness. We haven't acquired a second language. Rather, we have acquired a second sense of this known vessel the earth.

Longinus divides figures into two kinds: rhetorical and poetic. I'd contend that the divisions are more accurately termed rhetorical and descriptive (though I hasten to add that these divisions aren't as steadfast as the divisions between air and water, or the red states and the blue. Hyperbole, for example, can be both rhetorical and descriptive: "My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow" is certainly heavy on rhetoric, but it also plants a mental image for anyone who has ever had even a passing relationship with zucchini, gardening or otherwise).

We are probably most used to thinking about the descriptive figures when it comes to poetry, particularly the figures of direct comparison. At some point in our education, a well-meaning instructor filled our heads with metaphors and similes, as well as the crucial distinction between the two. And no doubt our first attempts at poetry were filled with bad versions of both. But I'm guessing that most of us never questioned whether one mode was more virtuous than another, or whether one was somehow better suited to a particular comparison we wished to make. We simply had to feel our way through trial and error; we might even have used the two interchangeably to suit our whims. I'm sure we perceived on our own that "You're an asshole" was more effective than "You're like an asshole" when we wanted to express disdain, and we probably also understood intuitively that "I'm sweating like a horse" was a more gently amusing claim than "I'm a sweaty horse." And if we really wanted subtlety, we might even have employed the occasional metonym: "There goes a nice set of assets," we could say, relishing our slightly punning, and even gender-neutral, tenor.

It's easy to see how these figures differ, by looking at the same comparison being made in three different ways:

First, a simile: "The fog is cat-like."

Second, a metaphor: "The FOG comes / on little cat feet. // It sits looking / over harbor and city / on silent haunches / and then moves on." (Carl Sandburg)

And third, a metonym: " The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,/The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes /Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, /Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, /Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, /Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, /And seeing that it was a soft October night, /Curled once about the house, and fell asleep." (T. S. Eliot)

In the first example—the simile—we've made a comparison that is slightly suspect. We haven't qualified the comparison or given any evidence as to why we've asserted a parallel between cat and fog. This is the mistake beginning writers often make: swinging at the poetic with both fists, they'll draw a relationship between two unlike things and move on, daring us to take them at their word(s): "love is like a faucet" might leave us scratching our heads, unless the writer takes the time to follow the simile with a qualifying phrase. "love is like a faucet / it turns off and on" sang Billie Holliday—the logic of the simile is completed and allows us some window into the speaker's mind. Oftentimes, a simile is bad because it compares something we might be able to visualize with something we might not be able to visualize. Cats are visual; fog, less so. How about "She had a smile like Christmas?" In this instance, a concrete noun is wedded to an abstraction. Or "the sun shone bright as the top of a banana leaf." Here, the comparison is inexact and obtuse. The reader is correspondingly puzzled.

In the metaphor, Sandburg closes the gap between cat and fog. He doesn't give us room to argue with his assertion, and he follows it up with actual evidence: the fog is sitting and looking over the city and the harbor on silent haunches. We say to ourselves, "yes, a cat would do that. And if the fog does that as well, and then moves on, why then it's a pretty good comparison."

Eliot goes even farther. He doesn't mention the cat; he seemingly has no interest in putting an equals sign between the fog and the cat. But so many of the words he chooses evoke a cat in any case: muzzle, tongue, back, leap, curled, asleep. He leaves it up to the reader to make the comparison, and we easily fall into the habit, upon successive readings, of seeing a cat where none was made explicit.

Eliot is the master of subtle comparisons. His synecdoche, for example, in "I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Scuttle, seas, and ragged claws invite us to think of a crab.

Or in the faint allusion (the figure of comparison that employs the lightest touch, if used correctly) of "Though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, though I have seen my head, grown slightly bald, brought in upon a platter, I am no prophet." Wept, prayed, prophet and the idea of a head on a platter evoke John the Baptist so that an allusion is made implicit in the lines without having to name the Saint outright. Imagine if Eliot had assayed the same comparison through simile: "I've wept and prayed like John the Baptist, and, like John, I feel a might beheaded." Okay, maybe it would have been better than that. But doubtlessly far less memorable than what he has wrought instead.

Simile has fallen out of favor in some circles of contemporary poetic thought; if it appears in a poem, it very often appears for ironic effect:

"Night falls like a wet sponge" (John Ashbery) Here, the simile wears the overwrought language of Film Noir, so that we read the comparison as intentionally comic.

"How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime" (Frank O'Hara) The exaggerated silliness of camp adds an airy carefree tone to the poem.

"The dim flights moving over clouds like clouds" (Randall Jarrell) A form of banal repetition, reminding me of: "The strawberries taste like strawberries. The snozzberries taste like snozzberries." (Roald Dahl) Here, the simile undoes itself, to say that nothing is ever quite like any other thing.

Or there's the humorous analogy, as in Lucille Clifton's "to my last period": "now it is done, / and i feel just like / the grandmothers who, / after the hussy has gone, / sit holding her photograph / and sighing, wasn't she / beautiful? wasn't she beautiful?" The comparison is both elaborate and colloquial, like the similes in Country & Western songs.

These similes are examples of a kind of likening that distrusts itself. Donald Revell once remarked in a workshop that similes were responsible for the holocaust. "When I read a simile," he sniffed, "I can smell the ovens." Revell is, of course, purposefully hyperbolic. But his is a distrust of comparison that is not at all rare.

In the 20th Century, Olson argued against the weak simile. Pound called for a poetry that is "austere, direct, free from emotional slither." Tristan Tzara announced the death of logic, and by extension, the logic of comparisons. Contemporary poets raised on the poetics of these masters often discard simile, not even deigning to employ it in the aforementioned ironic contexts.

Metaphor doesn't fair much better. Nothing is like anything else; therefore nothing is anything else. Which is not to say that comparisons aren't made. They're simply being made through more subtle strategies.

We now have a variety of non-comparisons, which is a bit like having cake and eating it and then denying that you ate it or had it.

Litotes is one such trope; it's been around for centuries. You'll remember it from Shakespeare's Sonnet 130:

CXXX, William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

The author gets away with comparison through denial. Instead of affirming the negative, he negates the positive. "I never saw a goddess go," he says, artfully dodging the overblown rhetoric of courtly tradition. Shakespeare allows for, even celebrates, the beauty of an ordinary woman, rather than tarting her up for public exhibition.

Wallace Stevens's poem "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" operates under a kind of sous errateur ("under the sign of erasure"). Stevens fills his house with things that aren't there:

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.

Through a Via Negativa, Stevens allows himself to brocade and ornament the ordinary—like the "fops of fancy" he rails against in "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle"—but ultimately quite unlike the fops, because he's describing what isn't there. The introduction of all the nightgowns under the sign of negation sets up a nice opposition to the dreams of the old sailor, who "catches tigers in red weather." Nobody gets to dream of baboons and periwinkles in the rhetoric of the poem, but the reader certainly gets to dream of both—as well as the tigers—without having to fill the house with bric-a-brac (or so the poem might have us believe).

Peter Richards employs a similar technique in his poem "The Moon is a Moon," where he writes: "The moon is not a pickled ghost, / nor a face swollen beneath some giant leap. / The moon is not your mother, / nor a bucket of breath longing to breathe" within a litany of negated metaphors designed to debunk the romantic uses of the moon in poetry. He concludes with a single affirmative sentence: "The moon is a rock with blue scrapes." This goodly satellite is nothing extraordinary, despite all the extraordinary phrases—some of which can even be traced to other poems by other poets (Sylvia Plath, for example, who had written "the moon is my mother" in her poem "The Moon and the Yew Tree"). Richards celebrates the metaphors of previous generations even while insisting on a realistic assessment: "rock with blue scrapes" he says. Take that! Goodnight, Moon.

Parallel constructions offer another alternative to direct comparison. The parataxis of "In a Station of the Metro" by Ezra Pound is probably the example that pops immediately to mind:

the apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.

Here, "faces" and "petals" read as equals because they occupy a subject position; "crowd" and "bough" play off one another in terms of vowel sound and end position, as well as sharing duty as objects of prepositions. Pound doesn't say that the faces are like the petals or that the petals are like the faces. He doesn't say that the crowd is a bough or that the bough is a crowd. The reader gets to make that leap on her own, while Pound stands back at a safe distance from the comparative mode.

Sam Witt invites a comparison between a brain and a vegetable by laying them next to one another and having similar actions occur to both: "my brain has roasted through, an eggplant, splitting at the seams."

In her poem "Veil," Rae Armantrout has a young girl and a tree stand for one another, by having them viewed through the same pair of eyes and by having them perform similar actions, in a classic kind of zeugma:

Now the optimist
sees an oak
shiver
and a girl whiz by
on a bicycle
with a sense of pleasurable
suspense.

The yoking together of the actions through the vision of the optimist—signaled by the verb "sees"—allows us to read the shivering and the whizzing as related or similar, and the poet has only indirectly suggested to the reader that the oak and the girl might be understood as being metaphors for one another.

Of course, figures are not always laid out logically. The widespread acceptance of surrealist technique and image has complicated and enriched the tropic landscape."Don't mess up the perception of one sense by trying to define it in terms of another," said Pound. But his brand of image-based poetry, with its emphasis on hard, clear objective description wouldn't even sustain him, let alone the generations of the 80s, 90s and aughties.

Instead, it seems like the unlikely victory on the subject of comparisons went to Hart Crane. Odd, because Crane's work, particularly the long cumbersome sequence of The Bridge, was not embraced by most of his contemporaries. Harriet Monroe, at Poetry magazine, chided him for his irrational metaphors. How could "The dice of drowned men's bones" bequeath "an embassy?" Crane's response was a well-stated defense of his intuitive searching after the unusual figure. He took as his authorities both William Blake and T. S. Eliot. After all, he asked, how could Eliot really say that "Every streetlamp" beat "a fatalistic drum?"

Crane became, in some ways, a trailblazer for the poets who are making odd comparisons which leap from the surrealistic mind rather than those that emanate from an ordered universe of cause and effect:

Peter Richards: "The marrow I suck from a sand piper's leg/tastes like a laundered Pez only half as sweet."

Josh Bell: "Like a samurai, I've got something for you to explicate."

James Tate: "I feel as if I were the residue of a stranger's life, that I should pursue you."

As the descriptive figures have gotten freer, so too have the rhetorical figures. Just as abstract expressionism has taken its place in the canon of graphic arts, so too has the artful arrangement of language qua language become a figure of contemporary poetry. In addition to descriptive passages that fly in the face of traditional usage, today's poets are breaking down traditional rhetorical modes and employing diverse syntactic strategies as a textural element. The dominant figure in such poems might be repetition, lack of conjunction, cacophony, inversion, alliteration, or assonance. The sound itself might be foregrounded as a figure, or the pleasant disassociative encounter with language might trump the associative encounter with the world.

Here's a little bit of Ben Doyle:

Time. Shovels. I'm late. I'm latent. I lost my list.
It was only "difference." Hailstone a lodestone on a leather lace.
Is there a certain lack of polarity? Is it family? Here I am.
In the cold moon's blast zone on clean sand & up is the deep murk.

And the alluring wordplay of Chelsey Minnis:

The bloodrushes, the hematites and the turning black parasol
Mildred, to vomit in silver bowls
Mildred, underwater sunshine
Mildred, in a tropical print pantsuit
Mildred, the geometric sadness and the keyhole dress
Underpants with black ruffles, Mildred, mudslides and mudslides of solitude
Mildred, a lionfish...
Mildred, a bloody nose and a black frock
Mildred, ruinous and fresh as starfruit
Mildred with the plastic flowers in your hair
your sleepiness like blinking lights, your sleepiness like cocoa butter...

At the outset of the twentieth century, the increasing degeneration of social orders made itself manifest in art: the individual, consigned to the role of a commodity, reduced to cannon fodder by the machinery of warfare, caved and fractured upon the page.

Apollinaire's head was literally undone by a fragment—if poetry needed any metaphor for what was to come, there was none more apt. The sundered whole of modern existence replicated itself in poems, from Eliot ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins") to H. D. to Crane:

"Let's have a pencil Jimmy—living now
at Floral Park
Flatbush—on the fourth of July—
like a pigeon's muddy dream—potatoes
to dig in the field—travlin the town—too—
night after night—the Culver line—the
girls all shaping up—it used to be—"

Our tongues recant like beaten weather vanes.
This answer lives like verdigris, like hair
Beyond extinction, surcease of the bone;
And repetition freezes—"What

"what do you want? getting weak on the links?
fandaddle daddy don't ask for change— IS THIS
FOURTEENTH it's half past six she said—if
you don't like my gate why did you
swing on it, why didja
swing on it
anyhow—"

            And somehow anyhow swing—

(Hart Crane, from "The Tunnel")

New rhetorical figures began to creep into the poetry of the new century, fueled by the dissolution of the psyche. Anacoluthon—the root of which, in Greek, means "inconsistency in logic"—the grammatical interruption or lack of implied sequence, brought us the snatches of overheard conversation and the jingles of Madison Avenue that stipple the journey through Hart Crane's tunnel.

Aposiopesis (literally "to become silent"), a breaking-off suddenly in the middle of speaking, mirrored the ways in which poets, overcome by emotion or overwhelmed by the ticking tools of industry, interrupted by their own complex shifts of thought or their sudden lack of a sense of completeness, made of the poem a harrowing body abbreviated and truncated and eclipsed.

In Bob Perelman's "Chronic Meanings," a young man's untimely death is a literal death sentence. No matter how far along we are syntactically, the period stops us at the fifth word. Arbitrary death embodied by deliberate form.

Come what may it can't.
There are a number of.
But there is only one.
That's why I want to.

(Bob Perelman, from "Chronic Meanings")

Says Perelman of his poem in the 1991 edition of Best American Poetry: "'CM' was written on hearing that a friend had AIDS; it is an attempt on my part to see what happened to meaning as it was interrupted. If one expects a poem to be more or less narrative, focusing sharply or softly on spots of time, 'Chronic Meanings' might feel evasive. But in fact I was trying to be direct; the sentences came as matter-of-factly from my experience and imagination as I could manage. At the same time I knew I would be writing down only the first five words of each sentence, so there was a great pressure for some sort of concision, though I certainly wasn't after a haiku-like or 'poetic' compression: I wanted to feel what real-life, conventional articulation felt like when it was halted in the middle. I did work on (edit) the results to avoid habit and redundancy. As opposed to the classical received sense of poetry outbraving time, 'Chronic Meanings' seems to me to face the other way, and to try to register time's evanescence."

As the practice of reading has shifted the pleasures of poetry from the oral to include the visual, new figures have had to be made to include the new sense of the poem.

Etel Adnan populates her book-length poem The Arab Apocalypse with suns, arrows, bombs, and unreadable hieroglyphs all penned into the text with her hand.

Robert Grenier palimpsests phrases overtop of one another so that multiple readings are available, rather than a simple, straightforward sentence. For, in a world where language can operate against us, it seems almost a defiant act to create a poem that resists the linear uses to which language has been put. After all, sentences justify wars; they hide the truth; they stretch into laws that strangle our forests and pollute our drinking water. By resisting the completion inherent in sentencing, the sentencing in sentencing, the new poem staves off the inevitabilities of death and destruction and loss.

Working in another visual mode of the figurative, Claudia Rankine turns form back upon itself, writing poems that look like newspaper articles. Aligned at both the right and left margins, the poems inhabit the drag of normalcy. This is further complicated by the rhetorical structure of the poems, in which an essayistic voice meditates upon contemporary phenomena—the poem blurs the boundary between poetic and expository modes. Here's an example from Don't Let Me Be Lonely:

On the bus two women argue about whether Rudy Giuliani had to kneel before the Queen of England when he was knighted. One says she is sure he did. They all had to, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Mick Jagger. They all had to. The other one says that if Giuliani did they would have seen it on television. We would have seen him do it. I am telling you we would have seen it happen.

When my stop arrives I am still considering Giuliani as nobility. It is difficult to separate him out from the extremes connected to the city over the years of his mayorship. Still a day after the attack on the World Trade Center a reporter asked him to estimate the number of dead. His reply— More than we can bear—caused me to turn and look at him as if for the first time. It is true that we carry the idea of us along with us. And then there are three thousand of us dead. Physically and emotionally we cannot bear it, should in fact never have this capacity. So when the number is released it is a sieve that cannot hold the loss of us, the loss Giuliani recognized and answered for.

Wallace Stevens wrote that "the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility…nobility which is our spiritual height and depth; and while I know how difficult it is to express it, nevertheless I am bound to give a sense of it. Nothing could be more evasive and inaccessible. Nothing distorts itself and seeks disguise more quickly. There is a shame of disclosing it and in its definite presentation a horror of it. But there it is."

Sir Giuliani kneeling. It was apparently not something to be seen on television, but rather a moment that allowed his imagination's encounter with death to kneel under the weight of the real.

Robert Duncan's poems embody the ways in which the poem's relationship to speech has become problematic, so that the rhetorical mode supplants the descriptive mode repeatedly. In "Such is the Sickness of Many a Good Thing" Duncan employs many figures, including punning, metonym, metaphor, alliteration, zeugma, paraleipsis, and the organizing paradox of the title itself. But perhaps the central move of the poem is in its use of aposiopesis, in which the speaker comes to an abrupt halt at a crucial moment—the moment that forever changes his relationship to the man he loves.

…..I could not speak
      the releasing
word.      For into a dark
      matter he came
and askt me to say what
      I could not say.      "I .."

All the flame in me stopt
      against my tongue.
My heart was a stone, a dumb
      unmanageable thing in me,
a darkness that stood athwart
      his need
for the enlightening, the
      "I love you" that has
only this one quick in time,
      this one start
when its moment is true.

This poem is perhaps one of the best examples of the way in which hesitation acts as a framing device. The stumble, the stutter, over saying "I love you" casts a stain over the entire poem, undoing the lyric while at the same time acknowledging the failure of both speaker and poem. We live in uncertain times, the poem seems to be saying. Yet even while it makes that argument, it puts forth another: we must strive always to put into words even the most painful and instructive moments of living. Perhaps we no longer believe in a world in which the poem always gets to say everything we want it to say. But we can at least believe that the poem is an opportunity to grapple with speech—as long as we strive to say, we cannot be defeated in the realm of words.