RHETORICAL BASE TO POETRY

rhetorical base to literary criticism

Rhetoric was formerly an indispensable aid to writing poetry, and some of its approaches are still helpful. Taxis, or the structure of argument, shows how lines and phrases work on our affective understanding. Lexis or diction governs the emotive correlates, and so the appeals to the fundamental human condition. Detailed rhetorical analysis will show how each operates to achieve its ends.

Introduction

Rhetoric is now neglected. Originally it meant the effective use of language, not only to sway the ignorant mob but to persuade one's intellectual peers. And by governing such matters as laying out an argument, presenting the evidence, employing the appropriate syntax and diction, rhetoric was unavoidable — in law, politics, literature and everyday life. {1} But today rhetoric conjures up the specious promises of politicians, the showy ornament of discarded literary styles, and the empty pretences of admen and spin-doctors. Rhetoric even disallows thought, predetermining what our public ideologues must say. Perhaps for this reason contemporary poetry has become rather prosaic, even pedestrian, taking for granted that plainness bespeaks sincerity.

But it was not always so. {2} Even the prodigiously-gifted Shakespeare, the most supremely original and creative of writers, in practice followed the rules of Renaissance rhetoric very closely, depending on it for his most striking effects. {3} His classical education was not wasted, any more than the stories he borrowed and adapted. Rhetoric is not extinct in popular literature. Anyone attending courses on article or feature writing will be taken through the standard devices, which themselves derive from rhetoric. The public expects articles to conform to certain specifications, and something departing too much from the usual is simply not read. Equally, there are conventions for the short story, for novels, and for poetry. Rhetoric has always entered into very fabric of literature — not only to persuade, but to inform, move, entertain, distract and amuse.

The structure of taxis — the overall shape of a successful appeal to an audience — was usually simple. Attract the attention by producing something of immediate personal interest. Make an argument with a few more instances, but not too many, and keep them relevant. Lead to agreement with personal assurances, guarantees, claims on authority. Conclude by complimenting the audience on their humanity and common sense.

Equally obvious and necessary is finding the appropriate words, tone and gestures: lexis. This meant not only avoiding the pompous, the uncouth and insincere, but making some correlation to larger themes, to precisely the tabloid issues mentioned above. No link with the fundamental issues of human existence, and the appeal only ruffles the surface, as is the case with TV adverts, however well made.

Poem

The Architects

But, as you'd expect, they are very
Impatient, the buildings, having much in them
Of the heavy surf of the North Sea, flurrying
The grit, lifting the pebbles, flinging them
With a hoarse roar against the aggregate

They are composed of — the cliffs higher of course,
More burdensome, underwritten as
It were with past days overcast
And glinting, obdurate, part of the
Silicate of tough lives, distant and intricate

As the whirring bureaucrats let in
And settled with coffee in the concrete pallets,
Awaiting the post and the department meeting —
Except that these do not know it, at least do not
Seem to, being busy, generally.

So perhaps it is only on those cloudless, almost
Vacuumed afternoons with tier upon tier
Of concrete like rib-bones packed above them,
And they light-headed with the blue airiness
Spinning around, and muzzy, a neuralgia

Calling at random like frail relations, a phone
Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to,
That they become attentive, or we do — these
Divisions persisting, indeed what we talk about,
We, constructing these webs of buildings which,

Caulked like great whales about us, are always
Aware that some trick of the light or weather
Will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing —
And fill with placid but unbearable melodies
Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     1997

Taxis: Structure of Argument

How is the taxis developed in the poem under consideration? The opening is striking: hyperbole. We should not at all expect buildings to be impatient, and cannot initially understand what is meant. Something to do with their constituents we realize in a line or two, but are then taken off on a roller-coaster of associations. Is there an argument, and how would it appear if set out by the laws of classical rhetoric?

exordium (introduction: appeal to the audience)

They are very impatient, the buildings
(please consider the buildings)

narratio (outline of case)

having much in them Of the heavy surf of the North Sea
(they have the character of their constituents)

confirmatio (supporting examples, precedents, etc.)

the heavy surf of the North Sea, flurrying
The grit, lifting the pebbles, flinging them
With a hoarse roar against the aggregate
They are composed of
(grit and pebbles, for example) the cliffs higher of course,
More burdensome, underwritten as
It were with past days
(which mounts up)
overcast
And glinting, obdurate, part of the
Silicate of tough lives,
(and takes on the rough weather they were conceived in)
distant and intricate
As the whirring bureaucrats let in
And settled with coffee in the concrete pallets,
Awaiting the post and the department meeting —
(and extends into the lives of those who occupy the buildings)
Except that these do not know it, at least do not
Seem to, being busy, generally.
(though they don't know it, or wish to know it)
So perhaps it is only on those cloudless, almost
Vacuumed afternoons with tier upon tier
Of concrete like rib-bones packed above them,
And they lightheaded with the blue airiness
Spinning around, and muzzy, a neuralgia
Calling at random like frail relations, a phone
Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to,
(indeed consciously block it out)
That they become attentive, or we do —
(as we do)
these
Divisions persisting,
We, constructing these webs of buildings
(even as architects, working with the properties of materials)
which,
Caulked like great whales about us, are always
Aware that some trick of the light or weather
Will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing —
(though seeing our constructions as huge, friendly creatures that ask to be allowed to express themselves)
And fill with placid but unbearable melodies
(and ask so plaintively)
Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass.
(that we are won over and are lost in their world.)  

refutatio (anticipating objections)

the cliffs higher, of course,
(which are not docile constituents entirely, already accumulating themselves into cliffs)
underwritten as it were
(if you would extend your imaginations a little)
these do not know it
(I'm not saying it's conscious)
at least do not seem to
(agreed, we can't see into people's minds)
So perhaps
(I'm only suggesting it)
they become attentive, or we do
(or even if they aren't aware of it, we are)
what we talk about, we, constructing
(because of course it's part of our job)
will dress them as friends
(they only appear so)  

peroratio (graceful withdrawal)

Fill... Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass
(and with this unpleasant claustrophobic feeling I will leave you.)  

So what do we conclude? That there is an argument, which is logically laid out, but not very clear? Yes, but there is a more crucial point. To powerfully move an audience the speaker must bear in mind certain maxims:

1. Subject matter must be broadly empathetic.
2. Stance should be direct and uncomplicated.
3. Argument should be compulsively developed.
4. Emphasis should focus on one or two images or correlates.    

Rhetorical Types  

Are these maxims obeyed here? Terminology is difficult, a forest of forbidding names, but as a simple introduction we group as follows: All aspects of rhetoric, everything that gives point and controlling shape to thoughts and observations, we call figure, subdividing figure into scheme where word order and syntax is involved, and trope for plays on the sense or meaning of words. Tropes we further subdivide into those which involve word meaning (e.g. metaphor), and those which more involve the sense of the passage (e.g. irony).

Amongst schemes — for the record, without illustration or explanation for the moment — are anaphora, epistrophe, anadiplosis, climax, symploce, parison, isocolon, chiasmus, hendiadys, oxymoron, zeugma, epizeuxis, epanorthesis, epanalepsis, antanaclasis, polyptoton. Among the word meaning tropes are simile, metaphor, metonymy, sinecdoche, paronomasia and personification. Among the passage tropes are irony, paradox, hyperbole, litotes, aporia, anacoenosis, comprobatio and epitropis. {4}

Taking the schemes in turn:

anaphora (first word or phrase repeated)

we do
what we talk about
We, constructing...

parison (parallel constructions, often in twos or threes)

they are very impatient, the buildings,
having much in them of the North Sea
flurrying the grit
lifting the pebbles
flinging them with a hoarse roar... the cliffs higher, of course,
More burdensome,
underwritten as it were with past days overcast
And glinting, obdurate,
part of the silicate of tough lives, And they lightheaded,
with the blue airiness spinning around,
and muzzy,
a neuralgia calling at random like frail relations we do (become attentive)
what we talk about
constructing these webs of buildings  

hendiadys (two nouns or adjectives of similar or contingent meaning)

More burdensome
overcast obdurate
Silicate of past lives

cloudless
almost vacuumed lightheaded

with a blue airiness spinning about and muzzy,
a neuralgia  

oxymoron (juxtaposition of words with contrasted meanings)

underwritten.. by .. days overcast
distant and intricate
concrete packed above them, and they lightheaded
placid but unbearable  

epanorthesis (recall of a word to suggest more appropriate expression)

calling at random... a phone they cannot get to
these divisions persisting, indeed what we talk about  

antanaclasis (repetition of a word in an altered sense)

Caulked like great whales.. dress them  

And now the word-meaning tropes:

simile

concrete like rib-bones
calling at random like frail relations
Caulked like great whales
Will dress them as friends  

metaphor

they are very impatient, the buildings
having much in them of the heavy surf of the North Sea
the cliffs... more burdensome
the cliffs... underwritten.. with past days
days..glinting, obdurate
days part of the silicate of tough lives
almost vacuumed afternoons
a neuralgia calling at random
webs of buildings.. are always aware
buildings... dress them as friends, pleading and flailing

synecdoche (substitution of part for whole)

the concrete pallets
hinterlands of incurved glass

personification

buildings with the impatience of their constituents.
days part of the silicate of tough lives
lives tough, distant and intricate as whirring bureaucrats.

Finally, the passage tropes:

hyperbole (overstatement)

as you'd expect, they are impatient, the buildings
whirring bureaucrats
unbearable melodies  

aporia (affectation of perplexity)

do not know it, at least do not seem to, being busy, generally
become attentive, or we do...indeed what we talk about... we, constructing

Discussion: Emotive Appeal

Armed with this skeleton of the poem, which is very different from the surface grouping as six stanzas of iambic pentameters, let us begin the diagnosis. It is the extensive use of parison — parallel constructions that pick up a word and extend its associations before drifting on — that seems responsible for the surreal, rather baffling effect. The images appear free-floating and arbitrary, just flat collages of widely disparate elements, and they are not well anchored, either to an underlying content or to each other. Exactly what does flurrying the grit... refer to: the North Sea or the buildings? And More burdensome, underwritten...? Do these describe the cliffs, the North Sea or the buildings? Similarly for other examples of parison: days, lives, bureaucrats, afternoons, light-headedness, architects, webs, whales, hinterlands of glass. The other tropes only spread the confusion: there is as much oxymoron and aporia as hendiadys. It is very difficult to find a central meaning, and it may be that the rhetoric obscures any such meaning. Is this a fault?

By traditional rules it must certainly appear so. Rhetoric organizes language to evoke emotion, persuade by argument, or to distract. And often very subtly. Actors learn to display emotion, but they do so by wholly identifying with the character they're acting. They do not say to themselves, "here comes my big weepy scene, and I must remember to screw up my face and stare tearfully into the camera". They do these things instinctively because they have learnt by year after year of varied practice how to sink their identity into such a part. Emotion has become an integral part of acting, and is no longer a mask donned as required. Even TV presenters, con-men and salesmen must believe in their script to be convincing. No doubt poets seem at a disadvantage. With their greater compass of time, scenes and characters, the playwright or novelist has no need to hit the target squarely with the first shot. But in compensation the poet is allowed greater resources of language.

Nothing very much in the arts is a raw slice of life. Dialogue in plays and novels seems natural, but is very far from a transcription of a live performance, which indeed the radio listener notes immediately. Even in the most realistic novel the dialogue is contrived — inevitably, as it has to move the plot along, display the speaker's character and motivations, and keep the reader on the edge of his seat. And if doesn't appear contrived, which it certainly must not, it is because it very subtly uses various understandings and conventions; it becomes an art that hides art. For the same reason, the diction of good contemporary poetry appears unpretentious, deft and inevitable, but this happy facility comes from a good deal of talent, a training of the ear and endless practice. Clearly the facility is not spontaneous or we'd find it more widely displayed, even in everyday speech.

The issue is one of conventions, what an audience will accept as convincing, and it is this matter that commonly lies behind the proselytizing for naturalness in poetic language. Their practitioners are seeking to widen the acceptance of the own conventions, since it is through such new conventions that their work comes across.  

Be that as it may, how does the poem fare? Does it tap the well-pools of emotion, and obey the orator's maxims. Not at all. The subject matter is remote from everyday concerns. The stance is not direct. The argument floats vaguely on through associations, and employs far too many images. Is that the end of the matter: the poem fails by the standards of classical rhetoric, and can only be one of these intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying Postmodernist creations? Perhaps so, but there is still one aspect of rhetoric that may prove enlightening: rhetoric as distraction.

Rhetoric as Entertainment and Distraction

Rhetoric was an art, and was often enjoyed as such: a sophisticated audience saw through the devices but nonetheless applauded the display of such skills. Nor was this an admission of defeat, even for poetry. New Criticism focused on the literary devices employed. Postmodernism denies that anything exists beyond such devices, poetry being a self-conscious and superior form of entertainment. And in such entertainment the illustration — exemplum in rhetoric — sometimes became more important than the argument. The correlate was seen as vivid and engrossing in its own right, which enabled the speaker or writer to smuggle in matter that had little to do with his theme. Instead of the argument proceeding step by step, with each step illustrated, the illustrations themselves linked to develop subsidiary themes, or distract from weaknesses in the central argument. Something similar is used in TV adverts: we enjoy the visual display without believing or even remembering the message.

Poetry employing this technique became very oblique, if not somewhat rambling, but produced surprising effects: Milton's extended similes that add grandeur to Paradise Lost, Byron's irrepressible digressions in Don Juan. If the images have no connection with the theme, then of course they are simply decoration (which a less austere age was quite happy to accept) but in this modest poem the images do add to the total effect. Indeed they are vital. Baldly stated, without these beguiling illustrations, the argument of the poem is very unconvincing, even preposterous. Show me! says the sceptical reader, and it is these images, coloured by moods and associations, that do duty for reason.

Published Examples

Lilian Feder's John Dryden's Use of Classical Rhetoric (1954)
Walter Nash's Tennysonian Topography (1987)
Elder Olson's Rhetoric and the Appreciation of Pope (1939-40)
H.P. Sucksmith's The Narrative Art of Charles Dickens: The Rhetoric of Sympathy and Irony in his Novels (1970)  

Conclusions: What Needs to be Done

Does the poem operate by the rules of classical rhetoric? A little. And perhaps it's unreasonable to expect more. Contemporary poems do not use rhetoric explicitly, and Postmodernist poems — of which this is arguably an example — generally dislike its organizing powers. Changes involve radical rewriting, and would affect the whole nature of the piece. But if the poem is to be more directly understood, and achieve a stronger emotional, then the following should be attempted:

1. Sharpen the argument. The taxis section above indicates the digressions that should be curbed.
2. Show more clearly how the images are related.
3. Cut some of the refutatio.

Some of the shortcomings have been corrected in a new version, now entitled Office Workers.

References

1. Walter Nash's Rhetoric: The Wit of Persuasion (1989), Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Modern Rhetoric (1958), Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), Geoffrey Leech and M.H. Short's Style in Fiction (1981), Randolphe Quirk's Words at Work: Lectures on Textural Structure (1987), Edward P.J. Corbett's Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (1965), Peter Dixon's Rhetoric(1971), and Brian Vickers's Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry (1970).
2. A.F. Scott's The Poet's Craft: A Course in the Critical Appreciation of Poetry (1957).
3. Brian Vicker's Shakespeare's Use of Rhetoric in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited by Kenneth Muir and S. Schoenbaum (1971).
4. All explained in Nash 1989 and sites below.

Internet Resources

1. Rhetoric. http://www.eserver.org/rhetoric/. Excellent site for specialists.
2. Developments in Sixteenth-Century Dutch Poetics. From ‘Rhetoric’ to ‘Renaissance’. Marjike Spies. http://www.dbnl.nl/tekst/spie010deve01/spie010deve01_001.htm. Short, scholarly article.
3. Rhetoric and Poetry in the Renaissance. Donald L. Clark. http://www.cwru.edu/UL/preserve/stack/Rhetoric.html. Online book at CWRU University: free.
4. A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices. http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm. Commone devices and their uses.
5. Hugh Blair's Lecture Listing. http://www.msu.edu/user/ransford/lecture.html. Eighteenth century, but of more than historical interest.
6. Silva Rhetoricae. http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/silva.htm. Good guide to rhetoric, its terms and uses.
7. Wayne Booth. Randy Harris. 2003. http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/~raha/793B_web/793B2.html. Note, bibliography and links.
8. Rhetoric for Rookies. http://ryk-kypc1.narod.ru/rhetrook.htm. Useful summary of terms.
9. Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry. Charles Griswold. Dec. 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-rhetoric/. Detailed article with excellent (offline) bibliography.
10. Rhetoric by Aristotle. W. Rhys Roberts (trans.) http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.3.iii.html. Free online text.
11. Cicero on the Rhetoric of Poetry. John F. Tinkler (trans.) 1995. http://www.towson.edu/~tinkler/reader/cicero.html NNA. Excerpts from key texts.
12. Links to Rhetorical Resources. Ed Lamoureux. http://bradley.bradley.edu/~ell/notelnks.html. Excellent: notes and links to all aspects, from classical world to present.
13. Kairos. http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/. Online journal exploring the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy.

 

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.