Posted on November 16, 2012 by Joe Sacksteder

This past spring I was attending a Creative Writing Department meeting here at Eastern Michigan University, and one of my colleagues mentioned a list of literary terms that we’re supposed to make sure all of our Intro students are familiar with. I immediately became nervous and scouted the room for other people who looked like they might have never heard of this list. Either everyone was pretty good at pretending–Ah yes, the list!–or I was the only one who missed the memo. I discreetly obtained a copy of the list without anybody finding out (until this incriminating blog post, I suppose), but seeing the chosen terms didn’t completely alleviate my nervousness. I wasn’t sure I could define all of them. Referent, mimesis … aporia!?! I mean, I could nod when other people used them in conversation, but I thought I was teaching creative writing so I didn’t have to explain tough terms like these. But, no, I realized–this is a good thing. The time has come to finally untangle signifier and signified.

My colleagues take various approaches to the list. Some give students the list right away and send them to the nearest dictionary of literary terms. Some, I believe, give a test. Some ask students to use the terms when providing workshop feedback to their peers. I decided that I would pepper the words throughout my semester’s syllabus, matching them up with lessons and readings where they seemed most applicable.

There was Googling involved. Wikipedia was consulted once or twice. Donation pleas from Jimmy Wales were ignored. While trying to figure out how exactly synecdoche and metonymy weren’t the same word, some baffling hopscotch of hyperlinks landed me on an essay I read in graduate school, Shoshana Wechsler’s “A Ma(t)ter of Fact and Vision: The Objectivity Question and Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead.” Wechsler allowed me to check yet another tricky word off the list:

Rukeyser’s poem narrates the story of one particular and localized catastrophe, which is presented as a synecdoche for the larger whole.

I drew a circle on the board–my sister’s the art teacher–labeled “Disasters of the 1930s,” and a smaller circle within it to represent the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster. If the word synecdoche itself, in Greek, means “simultaneous understanding,” Rukeyser wants us to understand that specific people (with names!) died in a specific disaster from specific, preventable neglect while simultaneously getting us to realize that she’s not just talking about one instance of corporate carelessness, greed, and cover-up, but any situation in which the weak are subjugated by the powerful. (We eventually erased “of the 1930s”.) When she sets up her objectivist camera of poetic consciousness in the dingy town of Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, she wants to preserve how that one town looked at that point in history, but at the same time point out that “any town looks like this one street town.” And not just any one-street, American town. Any town.

But metonymy. Oh dear. My interpretation is that, while synecdoche uses the part to represent the whole (pars pro toto), as in “heads of cattle,” metonymy represents the whole by using something the whole is intimately connected to, but of which it’s not physically a part. I searched The Book of the Dead for an example, and came up with one I think is pretty good. In “Absolom” Rukeyser lists victims and towns, then funnels them into the line “the whole valley is witness.” Though I wouldn’t put it past Rukeyser to be saying the land itself is witnessing the disaster, she really means the people. Here’s the whole thing:

There was Shirley, and Cecil, Jeffrey and Oren,
Raymond Johnson, Clev and Oscar Anders,
Frank Lynch, Henry Palf, Mr. Pitch, a foreman;
a slim fellow who carried steel with my boys,
his name was Darnell, I believe. There were many others,
the towns of Glen Ferris, Alloy, where the white rock lies,
six miles away; Vanetta, Gauley Bridge,
Gamoca, Lockwood, the gullies,
the whole valley is witness.

She gives the names in order to resurrect them and pay tribute, but she distills (or even buries) them into the image of “the whole valley” so that we the readers simultaneously understand she’s talking about any low place on planet Earth.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts or examples on synecdoche and metonymy. Perhaps my definitions might need some tinkering …