I will be writing about “figures of speech” in the next few days using the following poems as examples, but this will be the last day that I lecture on it dryly. Mostly, it’s just me trying to comprehend the concepts introduced (or rather, I’m trying to get some new words into my vocabulary) by the “Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed.” Kennedy.
I talked yesterday about personification, a thing or animal or abstract idea is made human through speech (“the wind stood up” “the sun gnaws” “the bird smiled and winked” “despair can sock you right between the eyes”). But then we have concepts such as “apostrophe”, “hyperbole” (overstatement), “understatement”, “metonymy”, “synecodoche”, “transferred epithet” (a type of hypallage), “paradox” and “pun”. Most of these I knew already; some I knew, but didn’t know the terminology; and one… I had to look that guy up online.
Apostrophe: when the poet addresses a thing, an idea, a non-living person – in other words any one who isn’t currently human (dead humans are corpses) – as human. So when Wordsworth is talking to his spade as if it’s his buddy, “Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”, that’s an apostrophe. Or in the movies when a guy turns to his favorite tool and states, “You know, hammer, you and me have built a lot of good houses,” the word “hammer” is an apostrophe. Or how about in the movie Hunt for Red October when one of the crew on a naval ship is watching the submarine Dallas on his radar screen – they’re attempting an emergency surfacing to avoid a nuclear torpedo launched at them – the character shouts, “Come on, fly, Dallas, fly!” That’s an apostrophe. I used those modern examples, because often it’s used in more old fashioned ways, “O moon!” or “O despair!” With the old fashioned “O!” and everything, but with a little imagination it can be used in a modern context. “Death, ain’t you got no shame?” was one that the book used, it’s from an American spiritual – how about when David Bowie sings, “Modern Love, I’m never going to find you.” (Gets me to the church on time.)
Hyperbole: or overstatement. I said it a million times! I’ve shouted that phrase at my sister and she just smirks and says, no, you’ve said it three times. My statement, is hyperbole. (Say it with me: hi-per-bole-ee). I didn’t actually stand there, say the statement and count, “okay, said it once, said it twice…. said it five hundred fifty-five times…. said it nine hundred nine thousand and ninety-nine times.” What “I’ve said it a million times” really means is I’ve said it so many times that I’ve lost count, but it feels like a million times. But hyperbole is literally making mountains out of mole hills, making something vastly larger, more intense, et cetera than it really is. “Man, that car was going faster than the speed of light.” No, it wasn’t because nothing we can build can go faster than the speed of light, that statement means that the car was going faster than any car he’d ever seen speeding. “I hate him with the heat of a thousand suns.” That’s a lot of heat. I once heard a comedian complaining about designer headlights on cars as “so bright they melted my eyes.” Other hyperboles: “He’s richer than god.” “Your mama’s so fat, that when she sits around the house, she sits around (pantomime a person’s body spilling around a house) the house.” You get the idea.
Understatement: this is when a statement is de-emphasized. A good example is a guy sitting on his couch watching football and stating with satisfaction, “there’s nothing better than a cold glass of beer and a good game on the tube.” Well, actually, there are a lot of things better than that, but for him at that moment, there isn’t. Or perhaps when I was a kid and we’d go to church on Sunday, then the grown-ups would read the paper, and do yard work and we kids would sit around bored. I’d always state, “Nothing ever happens on Sundays.” Well, not nothing, people went to church, read the paper, did yard work, and bored little kids sat around (plus lots of other things happened that day as I’m certain the newspapers can testify). But what I really meant was that nothing that I thought of as interesting or important ever happened on a Sunday. I think that understatement must be the cousin to sarcasm. For instance, a woman visits a house with children in tow. The children climb all over furniture, destroy a thousand dollar vase and set fire to the curtains and the owner of the house refers to the children as “Mother’s little angels.” Not only are they far from being good enough to be called angels, but mother cannot see this instead for her they’re too good to need any guidance.
Now, onto the lesser known ones: metonymy (a word I still can’t pronounce, mety-on-ee, er, metone-ee, ug, it’s Greek). For this one I went to Wikipedia for my definition. “A figure of speech…in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name but by the name of something intimately associated with [it].” So, Hollywood becomes the name of the American Film Industry, despite the fact that it’s really just a shabby little district within L.A. It is where the majority of film studios *used* to be. Now (according to the natives) that’s just where the hookers are. From what I saw, all of the studios are now in Burbank, and, really, honestly most of the filming takes place in Canada. But if you say the word “Hollywood” to any one in the world they’ll say, “take me to the movies!” The White House in the news often stands for the President or his cabinet or our House of Representatives or House of Senate (or both). But usually sentences that start with “The White House claimed…” usually it means the President. The book has a good example as well, “From cradle to grave,” meaning from birth to death.
Synecdoche (another word I can’t pronounce -sin-neck-de-kee?) is a type of metonymy (I’ll try it again – Mih-ton-i-mee). It’s when a part stands in for the whole. When she lent a hand, she actually lent her entire body (the book says her entire presence – but you know what I mean). You can refer to police as the law, but they’re really only a small portion of the law: the ones who enforce it. You can see this used in the title Law and Order where “Law” refers to police and all of the work they do to solve the crime and “Order” refers to the courts and all they do to prosecute the criminal and bring them to justice. In shows about paranoid conspiracies, sometimes an eye becomes the symbol for an oppressive government that is always watching its citizenry. Perhaps a hand, is the symbol for those who enforce the oppressive laws, and “the Foot” is the machinery that comes crushing down upon those who get too much out of line. Chilling.
Now, transferred epithet, took a bit of figuring out. A very weird verbal concept (who knew such things existed – oh, academics, what busy, little beavers you are!). I had to look this up in the book, on Wikipedia and the Wise Geek site just to get a glean on the concept. So here goes, a transferred epithet is like a transference of emotion – one focuses an emotion onto the wrong person (I get angry at my fiance when I’m really angry at my father) – therefore this is a transference of an epithet on the wrong word. Now, Wise Geek says that this use of the term epithet in this case is not the modern definition (a disparaging term i.e. bitch, honky, the n-word), but the archaic term which simply means “description” or “expression”, a modifier. In other words, using the wrong description for a word. Instead of the adjective (a modifier) “fuzzy” whose true form is to be used to describe an object’s texture, like a hat (the fuzzy hat), we can use it to describe something that does not have texture at all “a fuzzy thought”. The book uses a line from a poem, “drowsy tinklings lull the distant fold.” Well the bells aren’t drowsy, the sheep are, but the description is given to the bells instead of the “fold”. I think if I were to pick an erroneous description, it would have to be, “she gave a blank expression.” Perhaps this is an incorrect example (still don’t really grasp this one), but it is erroneous to call any expression “blank”, an expression by its very definition is descriptive (of emotion) therefore not blank – blank would be lacking in any description at all.
This brings us to paradox. If anybody reads anything about zen, they know all about paradox – it’s a zen favorite. The haiku that had a wheelbarrow full of moonlight (“full” implies matter, “moonlight” is matterless). The book describes this one as “a statement that at first strikes us as self-contradictory but that on reflection makes some sense.” I think of a paradox as two contradictory things occupying the same space. In a special on PBS, Brian Green talked about the nature of outer space and said that it is full of nothing, but nothing, according to physicists, is something. Yeah, I don’t get physicists either. Yet, there is a paradox here. In one of my Taoist books there’s the story of the hippy who wanted people not to do anything, and he gave lectures and wrote books and became very famous for telling people to do nothing. He was extremely busy doing nothing. Even the Tao does nothing, but through it all things are accomplished. The paradox that the book gives is a quote from GK Chesterton, “The peasant lives in a larger world, than the globe-trotter.” And it is explained that Chesterton means in terms of spiritual exploration rather than physical miles. In that case, children go much farther than any adults, their imagination taking them out to space and strange and beautiful worlds far beyond those of adults who need everything to have an explanation.
Finally, we get to pun. Pun is evil – we hate pun. Even the book’s well meaning examples are still ridiculous. But I will define it anyways. Anyone who uses this tool is a Tool. No? Okay, how about this the older word for pun is “paronomasia”. It is a play on words used often to display wit – comedians use it for jokes all the time. So one word that is the homonym of another is substituted out. “Why was the whale sad? Because he was a blue whale.” (You see how awful pun is!) Blue means color – which is the color of the breed “Blue Whale” – but it also connotes sadness. When comedian Emo Philips talks about “picking up his mother at the airport bar,” he says “what it was dark in there!” And he needed a date. Oscar Wilde said that he can resist anything except temptation. But here are some true groaners: “A horse is a very stable animal.” “A clock is hungry when it goes back four seconds” (for seconds). In choir we used to say, “don’t walk and sing, because if you don’t C sharp, you will B flat.” (You’d get if you read music.) Okay, that’s enough pun-ishment. Let’s move onto the poem.
Since I wrote so much about the other stuff, I’m just going to say this, what figures of speech do you see in this poem? It’s a nice one – hate to waste it on puns! Might re-post it some other day when I’m feeling the need to inspire.
by George Herbert
When God at first mad man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by –
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can;
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way,
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all His treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on My creature,
He would adore My gifts instead of Me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to My breast.