Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay

A Memoir of Figurative Language

essay by

 Dr. Joseph S. Salemi

 Department of Classics
 Hunter College

Some of my earliest linguistic memories are associated with my mother's parents, Rosario and Giuseppina Previti, who lived in a small Italian neighborhood in Corona, Queens. As children in the 1950s, my brother and I spent a good deal of time with them, especially on weekends.

 My grandfather Rosario Previti was a poet who produced work in both Italian and Sicilian, and who translated English verse into Italian. He was also the American correspondent for a small Sicilian newspaper called Don Giovanni, for which he wrote a satiric column packed with mordant observations on modern life. His house was always filled with books, papers, and the incessant clicking of his typewriter.

 My grandfather's first book was Da Zancla a Messina, published in New York in 1910. According to Dr. Ferdinando Alfonsi, this is the earliest recorded literary work published in America by an Italian-American. His larger collection, Raccolta di Poesie Siciliane ed Italiane, appeared half a century later in 1960.

 Corona in the immediate postwar period was still heavily Italian. I would go with my grandmother on Saturday mornings into a maze of small stores on Roosevelt Avenue and associated side streets that provided all the requisites for Italian cuisine: olive oil, bread, cheeses, special cuts of meat, pasta, pastry, vegetables, and fish. It was always a long shopping trip, for my grandmother seemed to buy every item in a different place.

 The common language in the market was Italian, but a rough-hewn lingua franca rather than pure Italian, since the speech of Italian neighborhoods in those days reflected the linguistic diversity of Italy itself. My grandmother spoke Sicilian, but the baker was Piedmontese, the butcher Calabrian, the fishman from Genoa, and so on. Each merchant's dialect was noticeably different though mutually comprehensible, with some basic English helping to grease the skids. All I knew was that I understood very little, except that the stores sold wonderful foodstuffs.

 A special treat was pizza, which in those days was available only in Italian bread bakeries, and sold by weight, like sugar or flour. My grandmother would buy a hefty chunk (pizza back then was extremely thick and bready), which was then taken home and eaten as an afternoon snack, and never as a full meal. Curiously enough, it was at one such afternoon pizza snack that I first came to understand figurative language.

 We drank a great deal of wine, though as a concession to our youth my grandfather would always mix the wine for me and my brother with water. Food without wine was unthinkable, and a flask of Chianti or Burgundy was never missing from the table. One afternoon, through some childish impulse, I picked up the wine bottle and went to put it into the refrigerator. My grandfather stopped me, and told me in tones of great seriousness that this was not to be tolerated. I recall his exact words in Sicilian, though he also translated them into English for me: Lu fiascu di vinu e` guardianu di la tavula; c'e` bisognu ristari cca`. ("The wine flask is the guardian of the table; it must remain here.") He said this with such irrefutable force, and with such absolute rhetorical power, that I don't think I have ever been more thoroughly convinced of anything since. But then again, almost everything my grandfather said seemed to have that kind of certainty behind it.

 This was my first vital experience of what we call a trope, or the use of language in a non-literal sense. My grandfather had pointed out that the wine flask was not a mere bottle, but a sentry, an armed guard, a watchdog. I now looked at the heavy-bottomed basket-woven Chianti flask and saw it as a living person with a crucial mission. It was a frightening and somewhat jarring perception, like suddenly becoming aware of someone's presence in a dark room that you thought was empty. You can call it what you like--metaphor, personification, pathetic fallacy--but I understood it not as some paltry verbal trick or some obscure note in a prosody handbook, but as a palpable reality. Chiddu fiascu e` vivu: That bottle is alive! This knowledge made the world a little more dangerous, but a lot more interesting.

 My grandparents were born in 1882 and 1881, and had emigrated to the United States around 1906. Coming as they did from a still essentially feudal and pre-industrial Sicily, they were spared many of the psychological and spiritual consequences of that horrendous mistake known as modernity. During all the time that I knew my grandparents I always breathed a sigh of relief in their presence, as if I had gone back in H.G. Wells's time machine to an earlier age of sanity, coherence, and verbal richness. When they spoke, I was in a pre-twentieth century Eden, where the dimwitted asceticism and drab poverty of contemporary art and language were obliterated. It was only years later that I came to realize that this was due in large measure to the rock-solid self-confidence that underpinned their use of words.

 For example, when my grandfather uttered a sentence it was what Aristotle or Aquinas would have called a judgment or a proposition. He would say "This is this," or "That is that." He was utterly untroubled by the degenerate philosophical squeamishness which denies that the mind has the authority to make objective statements about reality. He knew that he could trust his five senses and with them his innate rationality. Even as a child I was aware that an alarmingly large number of people in today's world were in paralyzing doubt about this matter, and that this doubt had diminished both their characters and the quality of their lives. I intuitively sensed that people who could not bring themselves to utter judgments about the world were intellectually and morally disabled.

 The attitude of my grandfather was totally at odds with the epistemological gutlessness of contemporary college students, who cannot say anything without adding a rising tone of interrogation at the end of every sentence. I'm always infuriated when my undergraduates speak with the kind of hesitant tentativity that is a mask for intellectual cowardice. They think that it makes them sound properly impartial and non-judgmental, but in fact it only makes them contemptible. My grandfather would have had no patience with them, and I have inherited his impatience.

 What does this have to do with figurative language? Well, the plain fact is that you cannot make effective use of tropes if you cannot spit out a judgment. If a person is psychologically disinclined to say "This is this," then why would he be any more comfortable making the more intricate statements that are involved in a trope? I strongly suspect that a lot of the wretched barrenness of modern poetry is rooted in the philosophical distrust of language that has polluted contemporary thought. When language is denigrated, poetry starves--and it shows all the signs of anorexia today.

 Language did not starve in my grandparents' house. There it was abundantly and luxuriantly alive. Consider that simple trope known as the simile. My grandfather's similes--which tended to be explanatory or comic--were unforgettable. When he said that one object was like another object, it was often a way of telling me or my brother something we wouldn't otherwise understand. I remember one night asking him about the sliver of moon in the sky. My grandfather smiled and said La menzaluna e` com' un' amu indoratu pi pigghiari li ancili. This meant "The crescent moon is like a gilded fish-hook to catch angels." A brilliant simile, to be sure, but also a great answer, for it was infinitely more satisfying than some tedious explanation of the lunar phases and the earth's shadow. And like all good similes it was not self-contained, but allowed the listener to elaborate the imagery in an even more startling direction. I found it unnerving to picture God as a cosmic fisherman casting a golden hook to catch winged angels. Why would He do this? I couldn't guess, but the simile itself was an intellectual provocation.

 Humorous similes abounded when my grandfather told stories. Many of his tales involved the fictional character Giufa`, a well-known Sicilian comic figure akin to Simple Simon in English nursery rhymes. Giufa` was always doing something foolish or bizarre, and all the stories told about him are filled with good-natured contempt. In the course of one tale my grandfather said Giufa` aveva 'nu mussu comu 'nu sceccu malatu ("Giufa had a face like a sick jackass.") I was immensely delighted and amused, even though I had never seen a jackass, much less a sick one. Good similes have an effective logic of their own, even if the listener is not personally familiar with their component parts. I knew that what my grandfather had said about Giufa` was pungent and insulting, and that was all I needed to know.

 He also related animal fables to us, all of which were traditional and probably as old as Aesop. These were little allegories of human life, often starkly pessimistic in their suggestions. Our favorite was his story of the old man and the mouse (too long to repeat here) which, in its mockery of the emptiness and futility of human endeavor, is as bleak as anything in Kafka. Stories such as this forced one to think figuratively and symbolically, thereby prompting speculation that the visible world might not be the only possible reality.

 Similes and metaphors, however, played second fiddle in my grandparents' home to the really potent verbal lash of cursing. My grandfather had a hairtrigger temper, and at the slightest provocation could erupt in a fit of swearing. Sometimes his anger was brief and comical, as when once, in a moment of impatience, he snapped at my mother Malannuazza nti pedi! ("A great big sickness in your feet!") My mother--long inured to his rages--simply laughed in delight at the creativity of the curse. But when he was really irate, my grandfather would bellow out Sangu di la Madonna, puttana di San Giuvanni! These words meant "Blood of the Virgin Mary, Saint John's whore!" This atrocious blasphemy alludes to Christ's words on the cross, when He commended His mother into the keeping of His favorite disciple, the young John. As a devout Catholic boy I always cringed at this curse, for it suggests that Christ acted not as a loving son, but as a filial pimp. Many years later I recounted this particular curse to Dr. Reinhold Aman, an internationally known philologist and the world's foremost authority on maledictive speech. Dr. Aman said it was one of the most potent blasphemies he had ever heard, surpassed only by certain violently scatological ones in Hungarian.

 Language of this sort, with its raw, insouciant brutality, could sometimes be frightening. But it was also utterly refreshing and liberating. Remember that this was the mid-1950s, when the saccharine idiocies of Walt Disney and the bland pieties of Brotherhood Week were constantly shoved down the throats of American children. No one could say hell or damn on TV, everyone had to "be nice," and American popular culture was reflected in the witless faces of Betty Crocker, Beaver Cleaver, and a host of corn-fed ballplayers. By contrast, the little piece of Sicily that was my Grandparents' home crackled with an absolutely vital violence, with a language that was alive with the possibility of insult, lampoon, and savage reprisal. I was scared by it, but I secretly loved it. I recall once leaving my third-grade classroom (where we had to recite by rote some vapid bromides about UNICEF), and then going to my grandfather's house, where there was a passionate political or anticlerical argument going on. It was like leaving a soporific croquet game to enter a live combat zone. This sort of thing concentrated your mind wonderfully, as it honed your skills in language.

 The fact that it was all so real was what gave me a sense of stability and security. Nothing was real in that third-grade classroom, with its pathetic assimilationist cliches. Everything in school was a pretense, a false surface, an illusion--like what you saw when walking through a house of mirrors in some amusement park. But in my grandfather's house there was reality and certainty, as well as conflict and contestation. And that reality and certainty ratified the worth of language for me, and made it possible for me to be a poet.

 It was probably also in the cards that I would be a polemicist and a satirist, for I learned these trades quite early at my grandfather's knee. He truly excelled at satire and lampoon. In fact, they were my grandfather's chief contributions to Don Giovanni when he wrote for that newspaper. I recall him leafing through popular magazines like Time, Life, and Look, and when he found something egregiously idiotic in them he'd save it as possible material for a future column. No brainless fad or silly trend escaped his pen. Hula hoops, the space race, dieting, political campaigns, rock n' roll, absurd hair styles and clothing fashions--my grandfather mocked them all. I think if he were alive now he'd be utterly overwhelmed by the rich satiric possibilities in daft publications like Cosmopolitan, Psychology Today, or People magazine.

 My grandfather's satiric and sarcastic streak showed me that language could be used as an unanswerable slap in the face to obnoxious fools. I found this out very quickly, and in complete opposition to the conciliatory blandness that was peddled by my American teachers. In 1963, when I was fifteen, I was a member of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in our local parish. A pushy, officious priest in that organization sent me a rather peremptory note ordering me to do something for him. His arrogant communication came at a very inopportune time (I was studying for midterms), and its presumptuous authoritarianism ticked me off. I fired back a dismissive and supercilious letter of refusal, pretty much telling him where he could stick the CCD. The priest went into a rage, furious that a mere teenager would write to him in such tones, but in fact he could neither reply to my points nor force me to act against my will. He never bothered me again.

 This incident with the priest opened my eyes to something. In the nineteenth century, after Samuel Colt's invention of the chambered revolver, a saying developed in America: God created men but Colt made them equal. This meant that the smallest man, if he had a pistol, could face down any larger bully who might attack him. I had discovered the dangerous truth that a typewriter, guts, and a combative prose style can make you a lot more equal than most people. If anyone tried to attack me in words or in print, I could disembowel them with my verbal skills. My grandfather had passed on to me a weapon deadlier than a Colt revolver, and I had no compunctions about using it. This has caused me trouble at times, but I honestly don't care.

 Being Sicilian saved me from the prissy mind-control of American schooling. The entire thrust of American education is to geld and denature language, to strip it of its power to describe and imagine, to argue and refute, to lash out and maim. Americans are threatened by sophisticated wordcraft, which is why they do everything in their power to render themselves vague and inarticulate. They distrust and fear difficult vocabulary, complex syntax, and any kind of figurative language--it's all too dangerous and upsetting to their platitudinous conformism. After all, someone who can handle a sentence well just might explode their illusions.

 This is the real reason why language arts in the American schools are virtually dead. American education has no real interest in teaching subject matter, but only in training students in the etiquette of getting along with others. I despised this suburban middle-class agenda and the semieducated hacks who pushed it. My grandfather wasn't interested in getting along with others--he simply wanted to produce the best poetry and prose he could, regardless of outside opinion. This was the experiential foundation for my committment to the principle of l'art pour l'art, though I did not learn of that particular formulation until much later. I knew, instinctively, that one produced linguistic artifacts primarily to please oneself, and the pleasure (or pain) of others was merely a possible side-effect. My teachers considered this attitude profoundly "anti-social" and "undemocratic," but I had long ago ceased caring what they thought. By the time I got to high school, my Sicilian grandparents had provided me with impregnable armor against American stupidity.

 I noticed that I had become, under my grandfather's influence, much more attuned to rhetoric and its uses than my fellow students or even my teachers. Americans seemed to think that literary texts existed merely as vehicles for abstractable meaning, and that any figurative language was just window-dressing to be brushed aside. (You'd be surprised how many people still believe this philistine absurdity today.) I knew that good texts had an intrinsic beauty of their own, based on rhetorical architecture. For example, my grandfather had once explained to me the rhetorical figure called chiasmus, in which two contrasting pairs are linked in a crossed arrangement. Later on, in a history class discussion of the Declaration of Independence, I mentioned that Jefferson had employed this very figure in his phrase "enemies in war, in peace friends." The teacher--an overpaid unionized cow--gave me a look of bored indifference and dryly asked if that taught us anything important about the American Revolution. My temper flared, and I said it didn't teach us anything except that Jefferson obviously knew a lot more about rhetorical structure than she did. That quip earned me a reprimand and a trip to the guidance counselor. But my grandfather would have been proud.

 Incidents of this sort continued. Once in college, during a Victorian literature class, we were discussing FitzGerald's version of the Rubaiyat, which by coincidence my grandfather had translated into Italian quatrains only a few years earlier. I ventured to suggest that the talking clay pots in that poem were an extended allegory of human beings (anyone with half a brain can see this, but for some reason it had not been mentioned either in the professor's lecture or in the subsequent discussion). Incredibly, the professor asked if I could "give support to such a reading." I replied that this reading was confirmed by the fact that the Rubaiyat speaks of God as "the Potter," and that God in Genesis fashioned the first man from clay, and that "clay" is a standard trope for "human flesh" in Western literature, and finally that the clay pots in the Rubaiyat spoke and acted as if they were real persons with human concerns. When I finished there was a short silence, and then some pompous moron piped up: "That doesn't mean anything--they still might just be pots." I didn't know what to answer to such pig-ignorance, so I simply laughed out loud. This nearly led to a fight, and the terrified professor reverted to straight lecture for the rest of the term.

 Every time I tried to mention rhetoric and figurative lanauage I met either active hostility or blank incomprehension. In graduate school I remarked in an Irish literature class that Don Juan's famous speech in Man and Superman was an example of extended anaphora, making use of the phrases "They are not" and "They are only" in parallel antithetic structure. Such anaphora is a staple of European literature, and I was sure everyone would recognize it. The entire graduate class, including the professor, looked at me as if I were speaking Mesopotamian. They wanted to talk about Shaw's "social ideals," and hadn't the slightest interest in the man's rhetorical genius.

 It slowly dawned on me that American politicians, businessmen, and teachers had all contrived to keep the country's speech vague and abstract, so that everything we say comes out as inoffensive, soft-focus schmaltz. Sharp precision in language was considered dangerous, and even immoral. As a consequence, the ignorance of contemporary Americans on the subject of rhetoric was boundless. This meant that they were condemned to be the slaves of it. They were delighted by praise, and outraged by attack, but had no idea how the mechanisms of praise or attack functioned. For example, they loved the sentimental gush of FDR, and hated the brisk sarcasm of Mencken, but couldn't conceive what went into the production of either sentimentality or sarcasm. Like all unconscious types, Americans simply reacted to stimuli produced by those few who knew better. The consequence was that a trained rhetorician among them was like an anteater on an anthill. It was just too easy.

 In time I realized that the people around me could not comprehend figurative language because, being typical Americans, they had never actually lived it. A metaphor, a simile, a synecdoche, or a metonymy was simply a strange Greek vocabulary item for them. They had never used one, or if they came from an older subculture that did, the use was quickly bred out of them by their middle class teachers. After all, America is a land of money-scroungers and careerists, all of whom think in terms of practicality, utility, and the bottom line. They have no time for frills and fancies like metaphors, which are totally unbusinesslike and profitless. The habit of seeing the world via analogy and allegory and similitude is foreign to America, and only survives among those of us who, in a real sense, remain foreign.

 So this memoir of figurative language is really the story of my escape. My grandfather's poetry (rooted as it was in two and a half millennia of Sicilian literary tradition) provided me with an exit visa, so to speak, from the necropolis of modernity. I am reminded of a stanza from his magnum opus Lu Sonnu Di Nu Mbriacu, an epic-length dream vision:

Vulai tantu iaut' e luntanu
Lu munnu, chi cridia tantu vastu,
Paria na biritta di ortulanu.
Chi purtintus' e magicu cuntrastu!
E pinsari chi l'omu, sanu-sanu,
S'attacca fittu-fittu com' un crastu
A stu strumentu d'espiazioni
Ristrittu tantu di dimensioni!

These lines can be translated as follows:

I flew so high and so far that
The world, which I thought so vast,
Seemed like a gardener's cap.
What a portentous and magical contrast!
And to think that mankind, supposedly sane,
Attaches itself as tightly as a snail
To this instrument of expiation
So restricted in dimension!

In this long poem from 1938, my grandfather was describing a visit to the divine world. But I can never read these words without thinking of the perspective, distance, and overview that he and his work provided for me in a culture-less and ahistorical place. In a word, he made me free.

                                     Joseph S. Salemi

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