Poetry Sunday: “Figures,” by Wendy Videlock

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The end-rhyme scheme of “Figures” is subtle and complex and so variable that it might not even be accurate to call it a “scheme,” but a few points nevertheless can be made. The predominant end rhyme (or “a” rhyme) is with the word “wall” that closes the first line, an end rhyme found in all but one of the six tercets that make up this poem. A diagram of the rhyme scheme might look like this: aXa bab, bca, ddX, eea, ffa—where “X” designates lines whose end words have no rhyming partners. This doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before and, sure enough, “Figures” is an example of a nonce form, one invented by the author that follows a pattern but not one recognizable as a fixed or received form. The rhyme pattern is present but evanescent, perhaps representing a choice by the author to use form that in some way enacts the concepts (mystery, elusiveness in the search for truth) that animate her poem. Besides end rhyme, there are many other sound repetitions that bind lines and the poem as a whole. For example, although the word “bridge” that ends line 12 has no rhyme partner, its short “i” vowel echoes the sound in “limber” heard in the line before, and its initial consonant sound (br—) is repeated in the word “brain” in the line that follows.

But rhyme, mercurial and wonderful as it is here, is not the main force at work in today’s poem. When I think of the title and the word “figures,” what comes to mind immediately is another word, “shape.” This is not the first definition that turns up in a dictionary, and you have to read pretty far down to get to it even though the origins of the word trace back to the Latin root for “shape or mold” (fingere). [Source here] The word “figures” also, of course, makes me think about figures of speech, defined as any “expressive use of language in which words are used in other than their literal sense in order to suggest a picture or image or for other special effect.” [Source here]

A better definition—and one that can help to distinguish such figures from a related term, “trope”—may be this one:

A figure of speech is a literary device in which language is used in an unusual—or “figured”—way in order to produce a stylistic effect. Figures of speech can be broken into two main groups: figures of speech that play with the ordinary meaning of words (such as metaphorsimile, and hyperbole) and figures of speech that play with the ordinary arrangement or pattern in which words are written (such as alliteration, ellipsis, and antithesis). [Source here]

According to this definition, figures of speech that play with the literal meaning of words are called “tropes” while those that play with the order or pattern of words are called “schemes.” Tropes tend to use comparison, association, or wordplay to layer another meaning onto a word’s primary and literal meaning. Some commonly used tropes are metaphor, simile, oxymoron, paradox, hyperbole, irony, metonymy and synecdoche, onomatopoeia, personification, punning, and rhetorical questions. Schemes, on the other hand, are figures of speech that manipulate sound, syntax, and word order (as opposed to meanings) in order to achieve an effect. They include repetition, omission (ellipses), changes of word order (anastrophe), syntactic balance, and parallelism, as well as alliteration, assonance, epistrophe, apostrophe, apposition, appositives, chiasmus, climax, consonance, and parenthesis. (For definitions of these subsidiary terms, see the last source cited above.)

Writers use different figures of speech to achieve different effects. Schemes tend to work through sound and rhythm to produce a visceral effect felt in the body and thus can make language more musical, persuasive, or memorable. In contrast, tropes appeal to the intellect by adding complexity or ambiguity to otherwise simple language. Tropes might ask the reader to compare two very unlike things (oxymoron), or impose human qualities on nonhumans (personification), or mean the opposite of what they literally say (paradox, irony). Broadly speaking, when both types of figures of speech are used in a written work, they can help engage both the hearts and the minds of readers, and in a very compressed and efficient way. All figures of speech help a writer to communicate ideas that are difficult to express in words or that are more effectively communicated non-verbally. By way of example, last week’s poem “Radiance” uses a Roman candle metaphor to communicate the bright-yellow obliterative quality of a security light (trope), and it manipulates syntax so as to make the last four stanzas into one long, running sentence mimetic of an electric current (scheme). In general, figures of speech trigger emotions and feelings and capture reader attention by making language more colorful, surprising, and complex.

With all that in mind, let’s turn to the text. “Figures” opens with a reference to “a metaphor,” something we have defined here as a figure of speech that falls within the rubric of a trope. A metaphor, you will recall, makes a comparison between two unrelated things by stating that one thing is another thing, even though this isn’t literally true. When John Lennon sings “I am the Walrus,” he doesn’t mean literal equivalence so much as to invoke the absurdity of a comparison between that aquatic mammal and himself. Again, in metaphor, as opposed to simile, there are no connective words (“like” or “as”) between the tenor (the thing being described) and the vehicle (the thing brought in to make the comparison).

At any rate, “Figures” opens with a reference to a particular figure of speech called metaphor and then does something really interesting, deploying that word “metaphor” in an actual metaphor or, technically speaking, in a negated metaphor—“A metaphor is not a wall.” Stated without the negation, the sentence would read “A metaphor is a wall,” and stated as a simile, it would read “A metaphor is like a wall.” The use of negation in the opening line almost makes the phrase sound like a rejoinder—a response to or an argument with—something else just said, doesn’t it? This technique snags our attention right away, a strategy that is crucial in such a brief poem. As with any negation, the phrase gives double-the-money as it makes readers think first of ways that a metaphor could not be a wall and then of ways that it could.

How could a metaphor be unlike a wall? Well, one is abstract, the other the very model of concreteness. This speaker’s view is that a metaphor does not, or perhaps should not, share wall attributes; that is, a metaphor is not or should not be impregnable, difficult to get or see through, or exclusionary. Instead of being a wall, the poem tells us, a metaphor is something fluid and surprising—a  “turn”—and one that occurs “in the sudden  / feel of it all.” I agree with this, thinking again of Lennon’s equation of self with walrus and the immediate sense of the absurd it imparts. The greater the distance between tenor (I) and vehicle (the walrus), I suppose, the greater the surprise and impact of the metaphor.

The rest of the poem is, in essence, a list of all the things a metaphor is as opposed to what it is not, “a wall.” A turn is definitely not anything like a wall, nor are the other things iterated in ensuing lines: a “breath,” a “calm,” a “casting call,” and a “reminder” of a whole host of other wonderful things that, when we unpack them, end up hearkening back to that “wall” in line 1. Let’s go through all that in more detail.

We’ve already discussed the way that a metaphor can be a “turn” in the “feel” of a piece. According to the poem, it can also be “the breath that comes / before the fall.” Use of “the” rather than “a” before “fall” suggests that the poet may be referring to the biblical fall and loss of Eden, arguing that metaphor can, in some way, restore that magical, untainted state before things were categorized, named, and separated. Or, perhaps the fall is meant more abstractly and the breath to describe an oasis or space that happens before any descent from a high place, whether from grace, or a position of power, or the top rung of a literal ladder. How is a metaphor like such a breath? Well, metaphors are expansive and fluid like breath, and like breath, they bring life to a poem. Any breath brings life, but one taken before a great fall is especially deep, bracing, and important.

Next, in a phrase that plays on the cliché “calm before the storm,” a metaphor is equated with the “calm that comes / / before the form.” How this delights me! Look at the way it twists the old cliché (calm before the storm) into something entirely new that, nonetheless, manages to capture the power and resonance of the original cliché. Beyond that, there are so many figures in just these six words that it makes my head spin. For example, there is sound repetition in the form of consonance (“calm that comes”), assonance (before and storm), and rhyme. The rhyme is quite complex: the obvious slant rhyme of “calm” and form” and then the full rhyme of “form” with another word—“storm”—that occurs only in the minds of readers who happen to remember the old cliché. These sound repetitions are all examples of the “scheme” type of figures of speech, those that manipulate words in ways that trigger a response in the reader’s body. That is, the full rhyme of “form” with “storm” (even though that word only appears in my mind and not in the poem) gives me a feeling of pleasure and recognition. The same is true of the fact that “form and storm” and also “calm and storm” are polar opposites that together make another figure of speech, this time a trope called an oxymoron. Such richness of sound and idea in six tiny words is a marvel to me.

Now, just how is a metaphor like any kind of calm, let alone the calm that comes “before form”? (As you can tell, readers, this is a figure of speech that is actively engaging my intellect.) Well, metaphor is certainly less rigidly prescribed than, say, a fixed form like a sonnet. Metaphors are less rule-bound, and could be said to be more fluid and “calm,” more organic, than the fussy insistence of a fixed form. Here’s another idea: Maybe that “before” is meant more in the prioritizing than temporal sense, and the author is saying that metaphor matters more, is more powerful than form. We are getting a sense here, perhaps, of the ways in which tropic figures of speech can proliferate and complicate meaning.

In yet another example of a metaphor-in-usage, the poem next equates a metaphor with “a philosophic casting call.” This one makes me work even harder. A casting call asks actors to show up for an audition, so a philosophic casting call does—what? Asks philosophers or philosophies to line up to show their stuff? The definition of philosophy is “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct” [Source here] but the word derives from Greek and Latin roots meaning “love of wisdom.” I read a philosophic casting call, then, as a search for a system, any system, that helps define the meaning of life, and yes, metaphors are certainly our allies in this quest in the way they can uncover deeper truths and connections between things.

In the poem, the last thing a metaphor can be is “a shapely reminder” of several other things that will be discussed below, and yes readers, that construct is yet another metaphor; that is,  a metaphor = a shapely reminder. I took particular note of “shapely”—the first word, you’ll recall, that came to mind when I read the title of the poem. Metaphors are “shapely” because they are examples of figurative language that, as defined above, use words “in an unusual—or “figured”—way in order to produce a stylistic effect. And what are these things, the heart concepts, that metaphors are “reminders” of? Each of them is itself another metaphor! The first, in a phrase that uses yet another figure of speech (consonance), is the reminder that “language is limber.” The second “reminder” is that “thought is a bridge,” one that can span seemingly disparate concepts, as seen in paradox, oxymoron, and many metaphors. Lennon’s metaphor bridges the semantic gulf between a man and, well, a walrus.

The third thing a metaphor can remind us of is that the “brain is a gate.” First, notice the presence of another figure of speech—assonance—that links those two words “brain” and “gate.” Next comes a kind of mise en abime (yep—anotherfigure of speech, one that “places a copy of an image within itself, often in a way that suggests an infinitely recurring sequence” [Source here]). Fasten your seatbelts, readers—we have here the concept of a metaphor embedded in an actual metaphor in usage (a metaphor = a reminder) that itself proliferates into a number of subsidiary metaphors. A metaphor = a reminder that the brain = a gate subsumes at least three metaphors into one, a hall of mirrors reflecting one another in infinite regression.

It only gets better, and deeper, from here. The next lines equate that “gate” with a “break” (words assonant with “brain”) that occurs in the “wall” that the poem referenced in its first line. A metaphor, then, is more than just simply “not a wall”—it in fact breaches and is the enemy of walls. The poem’s last three lines depart from the mis en abimeconstruction to say something larger about figures of speech in general—why we use them, how they are effective:

and the heart is inclined
to the clearing sound
of the undiscovered waterfall.

The human mind yearns for meaning, but the heart understands that meaning is inherently limited and elusive and so yearns instead towards mystery. And not just any mystery, but the one that seems to promise clarity (“the clearing sound”) that remains always “undiscovered” and tantalizingly out of reach. This is where metaphors shine—the liminal space between heart and mind, between yearning and finding, between mystery and meaning. What “Figures” seems to be both expressing and enacting is the infinite interconnectedness of things and the way that metaphor (and other figures of speech) can help us in apprehending that mystery. How wonderful that so many ideas, and ideas of such sophistication, can be communicated in such a brief lyric—and one that is, moreover, an absolute delight to read, both aloud (try it!) and on the page.




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