3

Wikipedia's Gil Scott-Heron begins:

Gilbert Scott-Heron (April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011) was an American jazz poet, singer, musician, and author known for his work as a spoken-word performer in the 1970s and 1980s. His collaborative efforts with musician Brian Jackson fused jazz, blues, and soul with lyrics relative to social and political issues of the time, delivered in both rapping and melismatic vocal styles.

but I don't see how simply "poet" would not also apply.

The lyrics to his recorded song Pieces of a Man are as follows (my formatting):

Jagged jigsaw pieces tossed about the room
I saw my grandma sweeping with her old straw broom
But she didn't know what she was doing, she could hardly understand
That she was really sweeping up pieces of a man

I saw my daddy meet the mailman, and I heard the mailman say:
"Now don't you take this letter to heart now Jimmy 'cause they've laid off nine others today"
But he didn't know what he was saying, he could hardly understand
That he was only talking to pieces of a man

I saw the thunder and heard the lightning, and felt the burden of his shame
And for some unknown reason, he never turned my way

Pieces of that letter were tossed about the room
And now I hear the sound of sirens come knifing through the gloom
But they don't know what they are doing, they could hardly understand
That they're only arresting pieces of a man

I saw him go to pieces. I saw him go to pieces
He was always such a good man. He was always such a strong, strong man
Yeah, I saw him go to pieces. I saw him go to pieces

The first time I heard this recording it knocked me over. It seems to be told from the point of view of a child watching a scene unfold and trying to process it, and to tell somebody, anybody, "I saw him go to pieces", looking for some combination of comfort, understanding or explanation... something.

It was only months and dozens of listens later that I suddenly realized the line "I saw the thunder and heard the lightning, and felt the burden of his shame" contains so much, but also that it has a literary device(?) that I hadn't noticed. We normally associate thunder with hearing, and lightning with seeing, but they're reversed here.

Question: I recognize that spoken or sung it works better this way than the "correct" way, but I'm wondering if this kind of switching of words 1) has a name, and 2) is more common than I realize (I've never seen it before). Are there other notable examples of this?

1
  • 1
    In his poem Tout entière, Charles Baudelaire writes Son haleine fait la musique, // Comme sa voix fait le parfum!Her breath makes music, // like her voice makes perfume. Baudelaire had synesthesia, so maybe it's a little more literal than it appears at first. But I still think it counts as an example.
    – Peter Shor
    Jul 18, 2023 at 11:22

1 Answer 1

7

This is an instance of the figure of speech hypallage, which Collins Dictionary defines as

a figure of speech in which the natural relations of two words in a statement are interchanged.

I discovered this word by looking at commentaries on Baudelaire's poem Tout Entière, which ends with the lines

Son haleine fait la musique,
Comme sa voix fait le parfum!

Her breath makes music,
Like her voice makes perfume!

and found one where this was called a "double hypallage".

Wiktionary gives another example of this type of hypallage from Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night's Dream:

The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.

I don't know whether there's a specific name for this exact kind of hypallage; double hypallage isn't a bad one — each of the two parts "I saw the thunder" and "I heard the lightning" would be hypallage by itself — but I suspect double hyallage is considerably broader than the specific kind of switching of words the OP is considering.

3
  • Another example of hypallage, from Bob Dylan's song My Back Pages: "but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 5, 2023 at 18:53
  • And another: from Josh Ritter's song Haunt: "I am the ghost that you haunt."
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 5, 2023 at 19:44
  • And yet another, from Leonard Cohen's song What Happens to the Heart: "Now the angel's got a fiddle, the devil's got a harp."
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 13, 2023 at 11:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.