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Metonymy and Synecdoche

April 2021

This month we looked at two famous poets and two similar and often confused literary terms.

Carl Sandburg was born in 1878 and died in 1967. He was a very American poet, biographer, journalist, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime, Sandburg was widely regarded as a major figure in contemporary literature, especially for his poetry, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920). He enjoyed broad appeal as a poet in his day, perhaps because his plain language and the breadth of his experiences connected him with so many strands of American life.

I was introduced to Sandburg in school with some of his most anthologized poems, including "Fog" which we use as a model for this prompt.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri and was a contemporary of Sandburg, though they are not very similar (and I suspect they were not friends). He moved to England and became a British subject in 1927. He wrote widely from The Waste Land and Four Quartets to Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (which was the basis of the Broadway show Cats) as well as prose, and works of drama. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. T.S. Eliot died in 1965.

I first encountered Eliot in college. As much as I had liked Sandburg's simple poems, I fell under the spell of Eliot and the idea that poetry should be complex and not easily understood on that first reading. My college copy of Four Quartets is full of margin notes about things I had to research to understand.
My taste in poetry and my own poetry today is probably closer to Sandburg than Eliot. It might seem that pairing them is unlikely but this month we are doing that by figurative language and one image.

Figurative language is essential in poetry. Ezra Pound said that his fear with modern poetry that it was becoming "prose with line breaks." He was not a fan of narrative poetry that could be read like prose with complete sentences and little or no figurative language.

Metonymy is often confused with synecdoche. These literary devices are similar but can be differentiated. 

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to signify the whole. To ask for someone’s “hand” in marriage of course means to ask the whole person. "Boots on the ground" signifies soldiers. When they ask at checkout "Paper or plastic?" they mean the type of bag made from that material. The "stars and stripes" signifies the entire U.S. flag. "Suits" can mean people in business. "All hands on deck, I see a sail" uses two synecdoches.

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word is used to replace another to which it is closely linked, but, unlike synecdoche, it is not a part of the word or idea it represents. Shakespeare writes “lend me your ears,” and "ears” are not meant as a synecdoche for people but as a substitute for “attention.” “O, for a draught of vintage!” write Keats’s in “Ode to Nightingale,” with “vintage” standing in for “wine.”  A very metonymy-heavy sentence is "The press got wind that the feds were investigating management in Hollywood.

In our two model poems - Sandburg's short poem "Fog" and an excerpt (stanza 3) from Eliot's long poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" - the poets use metonymy and also use the same image of a personified (or cat-ified) fog.

For our April prompt, we asked poets to write a poem based on a central image that uses metonymy. If you wrote a poem about "cradle to grave" you would have a double metonymy. If you decide the central image needs to be a synecdoche - perhaps about your "lead foot" - that's also fine.

You might even want to consider building upon these poets' use of fog since it can also mean, figuratively, unable to think clearly, as in "she was foggy with sleep" or indistinctly expressed, as in "Exactly what Eliot meant is still foggy."

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


It's a new thing for me and I need to use a memory hook
(What is that called? a mnemonic device. Another thing I had to look up.)
me - tony -my
(I never dated a Tony, so no me or my Tony life experience.)
And then what does meTONYmy mean?
(DEFINITION: word used to replace another to which it is closely linked
EXAMPLE: Shakespeare writes “lend me your ears,” and "ears” substitutes for “attention.”)
And don't confuse it with synecdoche
(another spellcheck word)
which is when you use a part of something to represent the whole.
(like when a sail approaches but we mean the entire ship)
I start a poem with
"His eyes were upon me"
but stop
Are the eyes metonymy in a Shakespearean attention way -
or are those eyes a part of him?
(He did wholly come to be upon me eventually.)
Metonymy is mightier than the pen
and my hand throws down the sword.

Lianna Wright


Waves upon my shore
gradually erase him -
I keep one small shell

Lily Hana Hayashi


He hates exercise for regimen’s sake
but he minds the PT when she tells him to flex
and extend his ankles, to take ten steps
without his walker. He minds the nurses
no older than his granddaughter, even when
they treat him like a baby and measure his
oxygen saturation – whatever that is,
in this flatland facility so far below altitude.
He wants to die with his boots on,
mind and stride strong again for whatever

Taylor Graham


Snow sieves onto the stones,
Intent on muffling permanence
Leaving pasts and futures silenced.

Flakes twist and cling to flakes
To swarm and mask our memory,
Challenging our stance and desire.

Sun and days dissolve it.
Yet darkness returns its resolve
To bear its weight on what remains.

Rob Friedman


Poetic meter and poetic devices
are not only not boring, they’re
basic as breath, relevant
as politics or sex. “The dick
in the White House is not my
president,” is a good example
of synecdoche--that part of him
representing the whole of him,
who does not represent me,
who does not represent anyone
I know, who does not represent
anything I believe in--which is
not only a fact, a true fact, but
a beautiful example of anaphora.
And “FUCK YOU” is a spondee.
And “FUCK you,” with the stress
on the first syllable, is a trochee
whose rejoinder is either an iamb
(“Fuck YOU”) or an anapest
(“No, fuck YOU”).

Paul Hostovsky


I awake this morning in heavy fog
that descends down the mountain,
across my yard and deck
and lies upon me in bed.

This cloud is very humid,
thick and inviting in its obscurity.
It hides the world and thought.
Frightening for a few moments

and then comforting

water vapor, condensation, molecules
droplets, dust, a flash of my desk
somewhere in the distance
a poem forming, then dissolving.

Charles Michaels


The heat erupts early in the morning
Piping up like an old, angry percolator
Breakfast can wait
I don’t want to earn my bread nor toast it
We’ll grab a quick bite later
I’m not ready to face the world
I just want to remain here
as the threads of our great fiery orb
tiptoe thru fog, shutters, and windowpane
touching down upon closed eyelids
I can feel its heat wash over the room
I can smell the scent of perfumed grass
and fallen cherry blossoms
from last night’s storm
Delighting me in a trippy haze
like a lover’s kisses
upon neck and shoulders
Rolling me over into my sheets
Warm, so warm
I reach out for my other half
into a tangle of linen and limb
It is an easy decision
to seize part of the morning
just for ourselves
The fire in the sky cajoles us
I can hear its laughter
as it beams even brighter
Gloating of its prowess
yet knowing too
what easy marks we mortals be

Terri J. Guttilla


It fell silently on lawns, streets, roads, roofs,
gently covering patios, driveways,
cars, walks, porches with fine, granular drift.

It sifted into houses, lay on sills,
occluded screens, an amber patina on
ditches, drains, pools, leaves, flowers.

People sneezed, gasped, eyes watered, noses ran,
voices stuttering into higher tones
as the silent air assault continued.

People waited in rapt expectancy
for surcease, for clarity, for release
from the cruelty of April’s rain.

Robert Miller