September 3, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

Figuring Figures

Heather McHugh, in graduate workshops, would often bathe my poems in ink. All those warranted marks summed up something like this: beware virtuosity. What I took from that instruction at the time was far too juvenile and less interesting than what I’ve come to realize about those poems now–there was clearly way too much lead guitar in them to ever make a very good song. (Think: something akin to the ending scene of Back to the Future.) I was smothering the ‘poeminess’ of my poems in extended and loose comparisons; all my metaphor boats had holes in them. It was terribly hard to give a fig about all the foggy suggestions–and harder still to trust the guts of an earnest gesture when you’d just had to stomach how a grandfather could be a gavel and a gravel pit. Or worse, an ointment and a curveball. I continue to owe her.

I recalled that time in my life after reading D.A. Powell’s wonderful new essay on figurative gestures called “The Great Figure: On Figurative Language“. He begins by using the W.C. Williams poem “The Great Figure” to separate figure from sound, and then claims the figurative in Williams’ poem draws us

“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.”

Powell goes on in the essay to create a quick, historical (though not necessarily linear) taxonomic sampling of figurative language. He comes eventually to suggest Hart Crane as “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,” and goes on to suggest that the figurative gestures used in modern poetry owe much to the fractured and fragmentary sense of self in the modern world. Staring back from the vista of the 21st century, it is clear that the ground has shifted, and suddenly we have less sense of where to put our elbows.

More extreme figurative gestures, therefore, have become the norm. Powell suggests the acquisition of the sense of the poem–the transfer of sensibility from poem to reader–is happening in new ways: multiple readings are available from the friction of one phrase rubbing up against the next, so that significance works both backwards and forwards in a poem; images and drawings are inserted in the text; or a poem makes tonal leaps so that at one moment you are reading an end-stopped list, item by poem-y item, and the next you are reading something that feels as vulnerable and prosaic as a diary. Of course, some modern poems make use of figurative gestures more representative of other poetries–but those don’t necessarily characterize our times, Powell suggests.

Can you get away with a simple simile these days? I suppose the mitigating factors are too complex to get a straight answer, but suffice it to say (as Powell suggests) that unless irony is your goal, you are using something of a relic from the 20th century, and would do well to acknowledge that fact (and, one would suppose, the baggage and risks.)

What I like most about Powell’s essay is his suggestion that figurative language, regardless of characteristic, causes some motion–it draws us, it carries us, it moves us. It creates the force of attraction by rendering the otherwise less effective poetic line certifiably attractive–and therefore magnetizing the space between reader-ly recognition and the page. Motion is energy. Powell suggests that this caused motion is historically true of figurative language as much as it continues to be true in this present moment. Even if the techniques have changed–suggesting, as it were, that the audience has changed, too–the end result remains: to ellicit motion in the reader. Why else does one read if not to get their electrons in a tizzy over a potent metonym? To feel the sparks off a metaphor? To have their expectations short-out suddenly on a line break?

Why else read except to be literally persuaded to move?

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The Kenyon Review Associates Program provides Kenyon students with valuable experience in literary editing, publishing, and programming. KR Associates work closely with Kenyon Review staff, gaining valuable experience in a number of editing, publishing, and programming areas including manuscript evaluation, publicity and marketing, copy editing, developing web site and social media content, outreach programming, event planning and promotion, and other creative and editorial projects

KR Associates attend regular seminars conducted by Kenyon Review editorial staff, visiting readers, and publishing industry professionals. These seminars cover a wide range of topics including editorial philosophy, evaluation of submissions, print and electronic production, marketing, and design.

KR Associates enjoy also enjoy exclusive access to visiting writers and speakers, free issues of The Kenyon Review, and valuable work experience and employment references.

This program is made possible through an initiative of the Kenyon Review, part of the mission of which is to contribute to the enrichment of the academic, cultural, and artistic life of the Kenyon College community.

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  • Submission Evaluation: All Associates are required to read and evaluate eight Kenyon Review submissions per week. Associates who are not able to complete their weekly submission assignments for more than two weeks in a row may not be allowed to continue in the program.
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Application Details

The application deadline for the 2023-24 program has passed. Applications for the 2024-25 program will open in the fall of 2024. Please check back then for more details.

Questions? Please contact Tory Weber for more information.