I was in high school at a time when it was still common for boys to tinker around on old cars. Often, this meant taking a trip to Boynton’s Auto Salvage to search for a leaf spring or a set of spider gears among the junkyard’s vast array of abandoned vehicles. One day a friend of mine needed to procure a windshield for a very large old car, and two of us accompanied him to Boynton’s, which, we discovered, had a suitable replacement. The office at the junkyard was cluttered with small parts, old carburetors, ignition coils, ashtrays—the usual. A greasy, burnt-petroleum funk hung in the air. Along one wall was a large chicken-wire enclosure, home to a captured squirrel whose name, I kid you not, was Shithead. He was a cantankerous and uncivilized pet and when the men who worked at the junkyard fed him peanuts in the shell, they had to take care not to get a hunk taken out of a finger.
It fell to a fellow named Ernie, a few years older and imminently more wise, to escort us on our windshield-salvaging mission. The four of us drove up the hill to the domain of dead cars in what was known as the “yard car.” The yard car had no doors, no roof, and no seat-belts; it resembled a World-War-II-era Jeep, though I think it was actually a Yugo. Riding with Ernie in the yard car, squealing down muddy lanes between irregular rows of wrecks, was surreal and terrifying. There were even a few pitiful, menacing dogs chained to trees to keep would-be thieves away. Circling around the junkyard was not unlike Dante’s voyage in the Inferno, with Ernie as our Virgil, except we were winding our way uphill instead of down. When we arrived at the car whose windshield we were going to liberate and raised its hood, there was a six-foot rat snake warming itself on the breather. All parties present leapt in surprise, including the snake.
Removing a windshield requires a screwdriver and a piece of steel cable about the diameter of a piece of pencil lead, sometimes called piano wire. You use the screwdriver to work the wire through the rubber gasket surrounding the glass and then feed it through to the interior of the car. Someone in the front seat takes hold of one end of the wire and another person stands on the hood of the car holding the other end. You proceed to draw the wire back and forth like a crosscut saw, cutting through the gasket all the way around until the windshield pops out. It took us a while to get the hang of this procedure, but eventually we were sawing through the gasket in rhythm and at a pretty good clip. As we zipped along the top of the windshield, Ernie called out, “Aw, boys, we’re shittin’ in tall cotton now!”
I have waited more than thirty years for a suitable occasion to explicate Ernie’s wholly resonant metaphor. A line of poetry it ain’t, but it is a genuinely poetic use of language and, except for a slightly fudged first foot, a darn good go at iambic pentameter. And the occasion was certainly suitable for poetic expression: three greenhorns and a slightly older man, assembled on a hot day in a junkyard with an allegorically named squirrel and a menacing snake to boot. Ernie’s words have survived in my mind all these years partly for their good-ole-boy humor, but also for more serious, dare I say artistic, reasons. What does that triumphant exclamation express? “We’ve got this licked!” “We have this in the bag.” We were succeeding in our task and that success was a pleasure; we were following the normal procedure for removing a windshield from a junked car and it was working. That’s the figurative meaning.
But what does it mean, more literally, to “shit in tall cotton”? That has given me reason to wonder through the years. One can assume that if you needed to relieve yourself outdoors you would want some privacy, so tall cotton would be a plus. And, I suppose, a few cotton balls might come in handy in lieu of toilet paper. If one were a cotton grower, having tall cotton would be a sign of a good season, a good yield, and thus a kind of prosperity. Sometimes, when life is going well, people say that everything is “high cotton,” which in that instance has nothing to do with going to the bathroom. But to say, “Aw, boys, we’re shittin’ in tall cotton now” is to mix two expressions, one of which is standard and the other of which is, shall we say, non-standard. It’s not unlike the famous scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Quince observes that his fellow actor, Bottom, has magically sprung a donkey head on his shoulders. Instead of saying, “Bottom, you’ve turned into a jackass,” which is obvious and flat language, Quince says, “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.” Now Ernie’s exclamation doesn’t sound so coarse. In fact, if we imagine it in a farcically charged dramatic context, it becomes perfectly and outrageously poetic.
But here’s another curious thing: cotton hasn’t been grown in Kentucky, where this adventure occurred, since the nineteenth century. My hunch is that the figure of speech originated farther south, migrated north by word of mouth, and lodged in Ernie’s mind. It’s a real figure of speech, that is, one born of local forms of expression rather than literature. I’ve always felt fortunate to have grown up with this kind of language to listen to. I hear it first, and then realize its complexity, its rich use of figuration. I was in college before I learned about metaphors and figures of speech, and how the employment of a metaphor can express ideas through nonliteral means and nuances of meaning on multiple levels at once. Metaphor, simile, alliteration, and other figures of speech allow us to speak with a forked tongue, and therefore, I would add, to think with a forked mind. That is, we can have many thoughts coursing through our brains at the same time, and English gives us the capacity to experience those thoughts as if they were unified. Ernie, the junkyard poet, used a figure of speech very effectively: he wanted to say more than one thing with the same utterance, and it worked—is still working, in the sense that I’m still puzzling over it.
Here’s another country yarn. A few summers ago I spent a day traipsing around old family cemeteries with my mother and my cousin. As the day went on, we found older and older ancestors buried in increasingly remote locations in the southern Cumberland Mountains. We passed by places called Stab, Keavy, Skate, and Plato, a little sparrow-fart of a place where my great-great-great grandparents’ farm was located. These names for places and geography are different from Jonesville or Washington, the origins of which are obvious, whereas Stab and Skate encourage a fair amount of wonder and curiosity.
Our last stop was a cemetery near the community of Hightop, where, down a gravel road and off in a glade, my oldest Kentucky ancestor is buried. He was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. A roundish stone marks the grave, and carved on it is the following:
KER HE WAS BO.
SEPT THE 29th
1765 DIED SEPT
THE 10th 1810
It looks rather poetic to me, and I love that whoever carved the gravestone was obviously illiterate, able only to recognize letters and reproduce them. And that accidental double-entendre, “hear lies,” fascinates and mesmerizes me. Just as we glimpse the mind of Sappho through her fragments, I feel like I know something about the way this anonymous stone-carver thinks. The epitaph suggests that even at its crudest level, the English language requires structure, and cannot avoid figuration. It’s a painting with words, and for someone who probably couldn’t actually read words, being able to paint with them must have been a satisfaction.
Keep in mind that figurative language is not merely decoration, but rather a way to give structure to thought, and one who deals in figures does not think according to linearity, but by leaps and analogy. For this reason, a good metaphor does not express anything directly. Instead it creates a kind of globe, a three-dimensional structure that houses thought¾and not simply a single thought, but a nexus of thought, a space where multiple shades of meaning coincide and are suspended. It’s similar to a bell: the bell is the house for the sound produced by the clapper; the bigger and more spacious the bell, the more resonant and lasting the sound. And while a figure of speech certainly reveals something about speech, more importantly it reveals qualities of the mind of the person who utters the speech. Figures of speech allow us to be of two minds about something, if not more. As Wallace Stevens says in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “I was of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds.”
We have an old tobacco barn at our farm, built more than a century ago, and over the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of rebuilding part of it, revising it. The task has required me to use jacks and long levers and principles of physics, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. In order to make the basic framework more square and plumb, I’ve removed the interior plank walls. Now I can see the big beams and posts and how they were first put together. The dimensions are based on squares that are ten feet on a side, and the angles of the rafters were derived using the Pythagorean theorem. I’ve looked at the lines of this barn as I would study the lines of a poem. The design is lasting, practical, and elegant. The barn faces south in order to get maximum sunlight, and the framework responds flexibly to changes in the weather and the wind, the ground’s expansion and contraction as the temperature changes. It’s not a stiff old stony structure, it’s yielding. Poetic structure, constructed of hand-hewn figuration, is very similar in this capacity.
A figure of speech is not something applied to the surface of language like a coat of paint. As I’ve suggested, a good figure is part of a poem’s interior design; it provides a 3-D structure, like a room or a sphere of language, in which various levels and shades of meaning and even contraries all hum together in a microcosmos. The figure unifies the variety of thought and feeling created by language, but does not seek to resolve the tensions and oppositions implied by that variety. A figure is like a bus with lots of different people on it and a few empty seats; like a boat with a few craggy sailors and a one-legged captain aboard, listing across the sea; like a rickety wagon with a family inside, a baby sleeping in a barrel-half, a woman in a bonnet holding the reins, a man, thinner than the handle of a rake, walking beside the team of oxen, clucking to them to keep going. In short, a well-used figure is never static: it doesn’t freeze elements of a poem but suspends them momentarily, like a little mobile of the solar system with a string of planets swirling around the heavens. Upon encountering a good figure, the reader can’t help but pause to admire and study its mesmerizing effects. Interestingly, while a figure is a primary building block of the larger poem, it also has an independent integrity; it can hold together by itself, even if only as a briefly-registered effect. Consider another example from Stevens:
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
Perhaps figures of speech have a four-dimensional quality, like a tesseract.
If I understand Frost’s notion of “the sound of sense” correctly, then I think what I mean to say about figuration is similar. Just as the figure “houses” a nexus of ideas, the line is the “house” for sound. Somehow—in the best cases—the house of the figure chimes elegantly and resonantly with the house of sound registered by the poetic line. Those lines where figure and sound sync up or coincide really stand out; they are like tones pulsing through the poem and maybe they produce a chord, a series of tones that harmonize with each other. (I think of the harmonies of the Everly Brothers—a very particular but beautiful approach to harmony, a harmony that can be at times paradoxically asymmetric. Beauty tends to like asymmetry.)
Obviously there’s a useful tension that arises from having a loaded line, one that’s pregnant with figuration and ding-donging along, counterpointed by a more humbly written, plain-Jane line. In other words, all lines in a poem need not be great with figuration; that would come across as gaudy wallpaper, gilding the lily, as it were. Notice, I cannot illuminate my observations about rhetorical figures without resorting to them. Go figure.
Let’s stumble out of the musty old barn and see how all of this looks in the daylight of actual poems. We’ll begin with a classic—Emily Dickinson.
There’s a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference—
Where the Meanings, are—
None may teach it—Any—
‘Tis the seal Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—
When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows – hold their breath—
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—
We’re all familiar with the line, “There’s a certain slant of light.” The opening phrase hints at personification—the physical light is given character. But the sentence goes on: “There’s a certain slant of light, winter afternoons—that oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes.” Now we have many other figures deployed: two images (the slanted light, the heavy tunes); the hint of personification is now elaborated (the light has become oppressive); a simile that itself is loaded with irony (it is a leap in observation to claim light is oppressive and therefore has weight, and a further leap of the mind to compare this quality of light to heavy music, which is actually made of air); two instances of synecdoche (the certain slant of light implies a broader gloom, and the hefty cathedral tunes stand in for larger order and authority); and maybe more. That’s a lot of figuration for a couple of lines, but I don’t find them overdecorated at all. This is because the accumulated figures are not merely descriptive, but rather interpretive: they transmit not only the scene to readers, but the speaker’s cast of mind in the moment of apprehending that scene. Dickinson is very good at this mind-in-the-moment-of-apprehension business, and her poems reveal a lively, literally inspired mind—a spirit has come into it, because the natural world itself is always in its moment of being. That moment is also always ending, thus the “Heavenly Hurt” and “imperial affliction” Dickinson mentions later in the poem. Dickinson’s use of figures is so rich that her poems not only give us the mind of a singular poet, they also hold up a mirror for anyone willing to think. We see things in that mirror, we recognize them as our own thoughts, our own imperial afflictions. That has to be one of the practical, heart-honing values of reading poetry.
Which brings me to an additional, very practical value in learning how to use figures of speech with facility. Because figures of speech establish structure, they help to organize our thoughts; they give shape and character to the materials of a poem. They deepen thoughts, expand them and give them resonance. Learning to use figures of speech even a smidgen as well as Dickinson helps us avoid writing the all-about-me poem, of which we have too many. The better, more generous poem is profoundly all-about-us: it speaks on behalf of the human condition, some quality of life we all share.
One of my favorite modern poems is “Church Going” by Philip Larkin. Talk about your figuration! The title itself strikes me as a pun, a twist on the more natural-sounding “going to church.” Does Larkin want us to ponder the idea of church “going” away from Western civilization, going the way of horse-drawn buggies and parlor tunes, swallowed by the leviathan that is the modern industrial world? That kind of reflection, and an old-fashioned regard for beauty and polite custom, is all over this poem, which begins in almost mocking understatement and slowly shifts to a more elevated tone. Listen to part of the first stanza:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence . . .
The first gesture Larkin makes is that onomatopoetic “thud” of the door, to indicate a sense of finality and emptiness within the church. Then he gives us a list of ordinary, even dull images, as if to say he’s seen all of this before. The phrase “sprawlings of flowers,” though, cuts a deeper groove. Here Larkin has made a verb, sprawling, wear the costume of a noun, sprawlings. And the meaning of the word is shifted under Larkin’s gaze. If something is sprawled it usually means it is spread out, widely dispersed. In Larkin’s use, however, the flowers are bunched up. The rhetorical device of using a word out of its ordinary grammatical context is called anthimeria. You don’t hear that one every day! But “sprawlings of flowers” also is a coinage—what we call a neologism—and also an instance of personification. It’s as if something in the church is dimly alive, a haunting hauntingly echoed by Larkin’s recognition through synesthetic imagery of “a tense, musty, unignorable silence.” The absence is palpable; the silence makes itself heard. Larkin has entered the realm of irony and paradox, which is appropriate, given that the strands of the Judeo-Christian tradition are tangled with paradox. What is stunning to me is how Larkin clusters such a wide variety of figures around a single phrase or a single line. It’s like swallows spinning over a field in summer dusk. Is Larkin just showing off? What’s the point? Perhaps the figurative fireworks are intrinsic to the writing of verse: without this intensity of thought, in which the poet’s mind transforms the outer world and permits the outer world to transform it in turn, the poet would have nothing to say, and there would be no poem.
For a better sense of how all of this can work, consider two lines from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Melancholia”: “Through the trees sighs the breeze / Like a soul in pain.” We have personification here, and a double-image. Most importantly, notice how the simile is buoyed and bounced along by the sonic and rhythmic qualities of the lines: the sighs of the breeze can be heard as well as seen. That means Dunbar is involving the eye and the ear; the human body is swaying with the natural world, which is itself embodied. But the human self is at odds with itself, a state Dunbar captures by inverting the first line’s syntax—the subject of the sentence is delayed, and even when it arrives—“the breeze”—it is ethereal and evasive. By employing figures of speech related to both the interior human self and the exterior world, the poem finally glimpses out onto the metaphysical, and the soul cries out. Dunbar gives us a nice internal rhyme, trees-breeze, but he’s also doing something with that string of sz sounds at the ends of trees, sighs, and breeze. There must be a technical term for this, but after searching high and low I haven’t uncovered it. It is a kind of consonance, because Dunbar is repeating a consonant. If this were alliteration the consonant sound would come at the beginning of the word; in this case, however, the repeated consonant sound arrives at the end of the word. Maybe we should call this terminal consonance.
It’s important to observe that this specialized kind of repetition isn’t mere enumeration; in this case the repetition amplifies the emotional freight. Dunbar sticks those sz-ending words together like cars on a freight train and the rhythmic engine of the lines chugs along, enhancing the lines’ main effect, which is a vision of the speaker’s interior world reflected in the exterior world. Consider the first two stanzas now in full, if only to appreciate the consistency of Dunbar’s rhythm, music, and figuration:
Silently without my window,
Tapping gently at the pane,
Falls the rain.
Through the trees sighs the breeze
Like a soul in pain.
Here alone I sit and weep;
Thought hath banished sleep.
Wearily I sit and listen
To the water’s ceaseless drip.
To my lip
Fate turns up the bitter cup,
Forcing me to sip;
’T is a bitter, bitter drink,
Thus I sit and think,—
The internal rhyme and consonance organize the sound of these lines; the simile, personification, and imagery organize the thoughts of these lines. And each word counts. It’s pretty impressive that Dunbar can render such expansive emotion and effect from a mere eleven words. But that’s partly what figures accomplish—they help us write not simply with focus, but with economy.
For the sake of historical connection, here are a few lines from Robert Hayden’s homage “Paul Laurence Dunbar,” in which Hayden is describing Dunbar’s poems.
Their sad blackface lilt and croon
survive him like
The happy look (subliminal
of victim, dying man)
a summer’s tintypes hold.
The presence of simile registers, of course, but this is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill simile. Hayden is comparing the sound and rhythms of Dunbar’s verse to facial expressions preserved in early photographs. Sound is linked to sight, as if perception of sight comes through sound and perception of sound comes through sight. The crossing of sensory perception is called synesthesia, a trusty figure of speech, favored by the likes of Coleridge and Keats. It lends itself to a dreamy state of semiconsciousness we associate with Romanticism. There’s also some interesting sonic pairing in the phrases “blackface lilt” and “happy look.” We have a rhythmic similarity, because the two phrases have the same pattern of accent. The short-a sound in “blackface” and “happy” gives us a handy example of assonance, and the repetition of l sounds followed by concluding hard consonants in “lilt” and “look” is, of course, alliteration.
But this pair of phrases is even more notable at the level of meaning. In the larger context of the lines I’ve quoted, both are oxymorons, and, eerily, their pairing crosses shades of meaning to produce a deeply embedded use of chiasmus. In fact, a lot of crossing is going on here: sound is crossed with sight, beauty with grief, one oxymoron with another, the present by the past. The crossing is the means by which Hayden interprets Dunbar’s life, yet, the implication is that Dunbar is representative of all African American poets, of African American experience itself. That means Hayden’s reference to Dunbar’s lines serves as a kind of meta-application of metonymy, a device in which a specific thing¾Dunbar’s poetry¾is used to represent a larger thing with which it is associated¾African American poetry.
To wander down a longer path, I’d like to look at one sentence, five-and-a-half lines long, from Edward Thomas’s poem “The Sign-Post”:
The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
Figures are packed in here like sardines in a rolltop tin. Let me attempt to name them. “The white sun is shy” is both personification and imagery. “The skeleton weeds and the never-dry, rough, long grasses keep white with frost at the hilltop by the finger-post” offers further personification and a long-winded, painterly series of three images which convey the entire landscape. The final, sentence-and-stanza-concluding flourish is: “the smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.” Metaphor and personification are bound via imagery. Sonic figures¾a little assonance here and there, some alliteration¾are also present, and one could claim that the use of “puffed” is an instance of onomatopoeia. And lest we overlook the obvious, these lines rhyme, which is also a figure of speech, since “straight,” single-minded speech does not rhyme.
These are common figures, but Thomas has a few other cards up his sleeve. The phrase “the hilltop by the finger-post” enacts a kind of parallelism on several levels. The terms “hilltop” and “finger-post” are double-nouns, yet their grammatical similarity quietly clashes with the dissimilarity in scale—the hilltop is vast, whereas the finger-post is small. Also, to describe the grasses as “never-dry” instead of the positive descriptor “always wet” inverts our ordinary perception of the image, a figure known as meiosis.
Considered grammatically, the sentence builds as it goes, gradually amplifying our sense of the scene Thomas is describing. And doesn’t the amplification—the feeling of rising—make perfect sense? After all, Thomas has just walked up a hill. Further, when Thomas refers to “the smoke of the traveller’s-joy,” he’s pointing specifically to the seed cluster that forms on the head of the flower after it has bloomed, which functions as a stand-in for the entire plant—indeed, for a field full of these wildflowers at the end of the season. Using a part to stand for the whole is called synecdoche. The phrase “skeleton weeds” is a very rich example of metonymy—Thomas could have merely said “the dead weeds,” but we understand the idea of death through its stand-in, “skeleton.” There is arguably even a kind of parallelism to be found between the white of the “frost” and the white of the “smoke.” What’s more, the sun is also “white,” which cannot actually be true, but the phrase does give the passage a nice use of an oxymoron. Like Larkin and Dickinson, Thomas often gives us two figures¾or three, or four¾for the price of one. So, for instance, “the white sun is shy” is an example of oxymoron, personification, imagery, and alliteration all in the same breath, the same calm thought. And maybe the clash between the density of the figuration and the serenity of the thought enacts a kind of paradox as well. That would make it five figures of speech woven into five monosyllabic words. Five words a child would say.
Beyond the individual figures Thomas uses is a larger enterprise, which the smaller figures serve like worker bees: to present the landscape in three dimensions, as wholly embodied. The land, the scene Thomas describes, is alive, and the ways in which the humans respond to that world, and what that world asks of the humans in it, is the nexus of considerations running through the center of the poem. There may also be some irony lurking in the shadows. The poem was written on December 7, 1914. World War I had recently reared its ghastly head; the possibility of a doomed world loomed. Thus declaring the world to be a living thing is both an expression of joy and a gasp of grief. This poem, incidentally, is based on an actual walk Thomas took with his friend Robert Frost, who was living in England at the time. The poets’ friendship would soon be reduced to a few letters when Frost returned to America, and then severed completely by Thomas’s death in the war in 1917. Though he is remembered as a “war poet,” Thomas originally was a poet of peace and sanity and insight and joy for the natural world. So it goes, as Vonnegut observed. I offer this information merely as a historical aside; it’s eerily relevant to our understanding of “The Sign-Post” today, but it was only one factor, or potential factor, in the poem’s composition. Though war shadows the poem, the poem’s present is one of friendship, the light of nature, and the conundrum of being alive in this world.
Let’s return to the richness of the poem itself. Even the wildflower Thomas features in this poem has a metaphorical name—traveller’s-joy. It’s also known as “Old Man,” because in the fall it can seem as if it has a silky white beard. Thomas and Frost are the travelers in the poem; only one would live to be an old man. Last, note Thomas’s title: “The Sign-Post” is a general term that allows for both literal and figurative interpretation. Strangely, though, in the first stanza Thomas uses a much more local and figurative term, “the finger-post,” which for me conjures the image of several fingers pointing in different directions at a junction. (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . and I—I took the one less traveled by.” Was Frost reflecting on this same walk?)
Let’s look at the full poem to feel how moving it becomes when reflected through the irony of history. The poem’s irony is masked by a tone of understatement—the figure of speech that conveys understatement is called litotes—a coolness that makes the emotion underneath it all the more intense. What Thomas holds back and literally keeps out of the poem makes its presence known by its absence. If my math is correct, in the five and a half lines I’ve excerpted, Thomas uses twenty-eight figures of speech, twenty-eight brushstrokes to paint these lines. Certain figures, such as imagery and personification, are used multiple times. Figuration is not a counting game, of course—using more figures does not make the poem better. But using figures effectively always produces good results, because they transfer the poem from the flat page into the mind of the reader: the reader enters the room of the poem, its three-dimensional space, and has a seat at the table prepared with a bowl of metaphor before him and a nice warm cup of irony. Here’s “The Sign-Post” in its entirety:
The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould be
To be sixty by this same post. “You shall see”
He laughed—and I had to join his laughter—
“You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
‘Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth,
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,—
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?”
Obviously, more figures follow from the ones I’ve observed in the first stanza. This is pretty much a tour de force, an intricate revelation of craft, and I haven’t so much as addressed the purity of Thomas’s meter—that feature of the poem will have to nibble in the pasture of another discussion. To be interested in listening for figures of speech—and then to stitch such figures into your own writing—doesn’t require one to become eggheaded or stiff. Figuration is just the opposite of stiffness and esotericism—it’s fun, this wordplay, it’s the essence of the craft of poetry. The mind that works in figures is agile and capacious; it isn’t full of papery information, it’s full of machinery, like a block-and-tackle gizmo, Archimedes’s lever, a trusty hoist, a turnbuckle or two, a wedge, a hank of piano wire, a pocketknife. In the hallowed halls of figuration the rational and the irrational meet, the literal and the analogical discover their kinship. The imaginary, the remembered, and the actual coalesce in the dreamy room built by figures on the page.
All of the smaller figures of speech—simile, synecdoche, metonymy, looping gestures such as allusion, and even sonic devices such as alliteration and assonance—derive from two big-daddy figures, namely, metaphor and irony. After all, metaphor draws the language, associations, and significances from one thing and infuses them into something very different, just as some fancy liquor is infused with apricot. And to offer that kind of two-for-the-price-of-one gesture, that doubling of meaning, requires one to utilize irony, not in a cheap, smart-aleck, or reductive way, but irony used as a vehicle for a more expansive vision and interpretation of the things in the world.
In this discussion I have attempted to demonstrate the richness of figurative speech by overusing it, exaggerating it. That’s hyperbole—another figure of speech! Employing figures of speech in a discussion of figuration has not been a chore at all. Instead, it has been an abiding pleasure, a good dog by my side and a fire glowing in the woodstove. I’ve told a couple of stories, one saucy, the other grave, and the parable of the tobacco barn, and in doing so I’ve thrown in every figure but the kitchen sink, every tool in the shed. The whole shebang—whatever a shebang is. And we’ve looked at lines from a handful of poems that use figurative language to great effect. I often think a well-placed figure in a poem is like a stone dropped into a pool of water: the rings of resonance radiate outward, and if the pool were large enough the expanding rings would go on infinitely. And yet, exactly what each figure means or connotes or suggests is often shrouded in a veil of ambiguity. Figures of speech refine and intensify meaning, but they don’t necessarily make it precise or crystal clear. Figures draw blurry lines, by design. Here comes old irony again. The veil of ironic ambiguity is necessary in art and in life—think of that fickle Mona Lisa smile.