rhetoric in poetryIntroduction

Rhetoric is a vital element in any successful speech or piece of writing, whether a passing remark or heart-stopping poetry. Far from remaining a leftover from a superseded classical education, rhetoric is an expanding field of study, with fascinating insights into many aspects of language.


Rhetoric was formerly an indispensable aid to writing, and poets were among its most assiduous students. {1} Taxis, or the structure of argument, which shows how lines and phrases work on our affective understanding, usually had a simple shape. Attract attention by producing something of immediate personal interest. Develop 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 its humanity and common sense. Equally obvious and necessary was finding the appropriate words, tone and gestures: lexis.

Rhetoric organizes language to evoke emotion, persuade by argument, or to distract. Of course the last, distraction or entertainment, can be very complicated, but even the direct emotional appeal is no simple matter. Unconstrained outpouring is not art. At the very least we want to know that the emotion is appropriate, that our feelings are nor being cynically played upon. The wellsprings of individual emotions have to be tapped, and these, as any tabloid editor knows, are very obvious. Love in all its forms, the pain of death and separation, the joy of friendship and in the good things of life, the pride of home, family, status and country, loyalty, courage in adversity, simple modesty, service and kindliness — these and dozen others make the world go round. How are the emotions tapped? Not by direct appeal. Not even by showing rather than telling. The reader is a fastidious creature and dislikes being buttonholed.

Rather than clothe a sentiment with illustration, or tag a moral onto a story, the emotion must arise out of the very portrayal of the scene. Poets may seem at a disadvantage, since the greater compass of time, scenes and characters do not require the playwright or novelist to immediately hit the target. But, in compensation, the poet is allowed greater resources of language, since nothing very much in the arts is a raw slice of life. Dialogue in plays and novels may seem natural, but is very far from a transcription of a live performance, which indeed a radio listener realizes immediately. Even in the most realistic novel the dialogue is contrived, and has to be: to move the plot along, display the speaker's character and motivations, keep the reader wanting more. And if dialogue doesn't appear contrived (which it certainly must not) it is because dialogue very subtly uses the understandings and conventions lurking beneath the surface in all social interactions.

Such understandings and conventions constituted rhetoric, which could be an art form in its own right. A sophisticated audience saw through the devices but nonetheless applauded their cleverness. The New Criticism, which focused on the literary devices employed, was not a new phenomenon, therefore, any more than is Postmodernism, which denies a reality outside such devices. All is sophistry, a self-conscious form of amusement.

In entertainment the illustration (exemplum in rhetoric) can therefore become more important than the argument. The correlate is seen as vivid and engrossing in its own right, which enables the speaker or writer to smuggle in extraneous matter. Instead of the argument proceeding step by step, with each step illustrated, the illustrations introduce subsidiary themes, or distract from weaknesses in the central argument. Something similar happens in television adverts when we enjoy the visual display without believing or even remembering the message. Poetry employing this technique becomes very oblique, if not somewhat rambling, but can produce surprising effects.

Importance of Rhetoric

A vast number of terms exist, and details with examples of their use can be found at several Internet sites. {2} Some devices will concern only Renaissance scholars, but many turn up surprisingly often in our everyday lives. Effective speech and writing is scarcely possible without them, which means that they may well enter into the very fabric of thought. We can't avoid them, only use them adroitly or clumsily. Contemporary poetry may distrust the oratorical, or any fine flourishes of language, but the resulting flatness of language has then to look for other effects — novel experiences, taboo subjects, outré expressions. Poets tend not to have good stories to tell, moreover, being unadventurous individuals, so that while we warm to authors who seem one of us, regular guys, we may tire in the end of their local reporting.

Comparative Rhetoric

George Kennedy has reviewed rhetoric across time and cultures. {3} Rhetoric is a form of mental and emotional energy that appears when an individual encounters a situation that offers or denies personal advancement. Some awareness of this energy seems to remain in description of rhetoric — as 'physical thought' and vital force' in Chinese, as 'energeia' in Aristotle and 'vivacity' by eighteenth-century British rhetoricians. Rhetoric can even be recognized in animals, and its most basic use by humans may serve a similar need: to strive for advancement without recourse to physical violence.

Rhetoric seems inherently conservative, seeking to retain past values. Thus Atticism in the Roman Empire continued to be used long after it became incomprehensible to those without special training. Latin remained in formal use in medieval Europe after vulgate languages replaced it in everyday use. And when Dante used a vulgate language for The Divine Comedy he felt impelled to create something that still had the formality of Latin.

Rhetoric of some sort is found in all cultures, but the disputatious nature of Greek democracy led to its greatest development, which was continued in Roman and Renaissance oratory. Only the west recognized the distinction between tropes, figures of speech and figures of thought. Classical poetry was written for the speaking voice, and Hermogenes' {4} instructions would have applied to literary work, law suits and speeches in the Roman senate. There were seven types of style — clarity, grandeur, beauty, rapidity, character, sincerity and force — and for each of these Hermogenes specified the appropriate choice of words, figures of speech, construction of sentences and rhythmic productions.

Language as Narrative

How did language arise? To tell a story, or, more exactly, a parable. Mark Johnson has extended the notion of metaphor to parables: not a word standing for something else, but a whole story standing for a particular description of the world. Narrative imagining — parables, he calls them {5} — allow us to shape and organize experience. We project one story onto another, and humankind may well have developed language to facilitate this process.

The evidence for this intriguing notion? None comes from the origins of language, about which little is certain, {6} and even less from the origins of writing, which arose for accounting purposes. {7} Johnson's theory in fact draws on cognitive science, and advances in psychology, computer science, linguistics and neuroscience. {8}

Human beings use imaginative narratives: they construct stories, and project these stories to give meaning to new encounters. Out of the flux of experience, the human mind learns to distinguish events that can be organized in this way, and then to deploy and modify them. We climb a wall; project the effort into surmounting an intellectual obstacle; talk about long-term objectives. The trial and error process is not smooth, and there are social and cultural skills to be learned. Turner accepts the Poststructuralist view that meanings are not stable, fixed and bounded, but also believes there is no point in dwelling exclusively on the problems. Whatever theory asserts, we generally do make ourselves understood, fill in our tax returns, and go about our normal business. Moreover, contra Chomsky, the primary feature of human speech may not be grammar, which would have conferred little evolutionary advantage, but the propensity to find such patterns in sensory inputs, to make models in consciousness and to react appropriately.

Meanings in fact are made through a complex process of projection, binding, linking, blending and integration over mental spaces. Blending is particularly important in cartoons and parables, producing a mental space differing from its constituents. Proust's description of the sound of the bell announcing Swann's arrival at Combray — two shy peals — seems perfectly acceptable, though is clearly an amalgam of words employed in an unusual way. We adopt different points of view in reading fiction, and each of these views projects narrative imaginings developed in everyday experience. The literary mind is not peripheral to human activity, but our instinctive way of organizing thought and experience.


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. E.g. http://humanities.byu.edu:16080/rhetoric/ NNA. http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm and http://www.eserver.org/rhetoric/ NNA
3. George Kennedy's Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction (1998).
4. Rhetoric. http://51.1911encyclopedia.org/R/RH/RHETORIC.htm NNA. Also bibliography on http://www.wfu.edu/~zulick/300/bibstyle.html. Both 3rd March 2004.
5. Mark Turner's The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language (1996).
6. David Crystal's The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1991).
7. Georges Jean's Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts (1992) and J.T. Hooker's (Ed.) Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet (1996).
8. Alan Richardson's review: Minds, Brains and Tasks. http://www2.bc.edu/~richarad/lcb/rev/mt.html. 3rd March 2004.

Internet Resources

1. Some Definitions of Rhetoric. http://www.stanford.edu/dept/english/courses/
. Handy listing, illustrating the range of views.
2. Classical Theory and Criticism. 1997. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/
. Summary of main developments.
3. Rhetorica ad Digitum. Steve Kaminski. http://members.aol.com/histrhet/rhetfram.html. Excellent summaries and bibliographies, covering the whole field.
4. Hugh Blair's Lecture Listing. http://www.msu.edu/user/ransford/lecture.html. Eighteenth century, but of more than historical interest.
5. Wayne Booth. Randy Harris. 2003. http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/~raha/
. Note, bibliography and links.
6. Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction by George A. Kennedy. http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1998/98.2.13.html. Critical review by Bruce Krajewski of Kennedy's 1998 book.
7. The Body in Literature Mark Johnson, Metaphor, and Feeling. David S. Miall. 1997. http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/reading/BODYMIND.htm. Review of Mark Johnson's earlier work.
8. Stanley Fish and the Constructivist Basis of Postclassical Narratology. Manfred Jahn. 2000. http://www.uni-koeln.de/~ame02/jahn00.htm. Narrative as internal dialogue.
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. Aristotle: Rhetoric III. George Kennedy. http://archelogos.com/xml/toc/toc-rhetoriciii.htm. Commentary in the form of brief notes.
12. Introduction to Hermogenes 'On Issues'. Malcolm Heath. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/classics/resources/
. A general account of Hermogenes and the history of rhetoric.
13. 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.
14. Kairos. http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/. Online journal exploring the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy.
15. Michael Hawcroft , Rhetoric: Readings in French Literature, (O.U.P, 1999) Q


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