Poetry and Rhetoric

Today I was wondering about the difference between poetry and rhetoric.  Let me explain.  When I say the word “poetry,” I’m uttering a set of sounds that stand for a whole constellation of values, preoccupations, basically a whole heady world of philosophy packed like anchovies inside the tin can of the word “poetry.”  And for me, those values entail a complex music, a music of words suitable for dealing with the complexity of life as we know and live it.  Poetry: an art form of words sophisticated and raw enough to meet our very complicated and primal-deep need for beauty, defining beauty as you may.  That’s what I mean by poetry – what Harold Bloom has called, in the context of poets like Emily Dickinson and James Merrill, a “cognitive music.”

But here’s where it gets complicated.  Because poetry is, essentially, rhetoric: like rhetoric, which we can define here as the “art of persuasion,” poetry uses a series of tropes, combined with sound, with rhythm, to “convince us” of something – perhaps the aesthetic dignity of the poem, the epiphany that that poem is peddling, the realistic nature of the poem’s speaker, the emotional honesty of the poem, the irony of the speaker – poetry can and does try to convince us of so many things, and in that way, poetry is a kind of supreme art of rhetoric, convincing us on multiple levels while shadowing forth its own kind of poetic argument for the validity of its style, form, and content.

I’m torn by this formulation of equating poetry with rhetoric, while at the same time I’m troubled by any easy idealism that comes along when you call poetry anything except rhetoric.    Meaning this: I don’t want to say that poetry is not rhetoric, because that would land me in the uneasy world of dreamy naiveté, a world where poetry is untouched by the everydayness of the world and its language as we know it.  And yet as the same time I want to somehow reserve a place for poetry, distinct from rhetoric, in order to say, “No! There is a difference between group-speak and poetry, and we need to preserve this distinction!”

So what then is the difference between group-speak and poetry, between rhetoric and poetry, as I am attempting to define them?  Am I short-changing rhetoric?  Short-changing poetry?  Is it fair to equate real rhetoric with group-speak?

Let me back up.  I think the difference between poetry and group-speak (if not rhetoric) is context and irony.  A good poem is, in some way, shape or form, ironic about its own language, by which I mean aware that even the language it is using is contingent, based upon the time at which it is written.  It is therefore aware of the context out of which it rises and falls, and of the endless contexts within which it is embedded.  A bad poem, conversely, is unaware of its own historicity; it turns sentiment, which can be a good thing, into a manipulative tool.

So let me restate my argument.  I think poetry and rhetoric are the same.  Poetry, like real rhetoric, tries to imagine as many alternatives as possible to one’s present belief, (Rorty), so that it can reach a more knowledgeable, or beautiful, or poignant place from which to come to decisions about what one values.  So poetry and rhetoric – real rhetoric – are bedmates.  And it’s group-speak, then, that I think can be a problem.

  1. tyjcar said:

    HI Andrew. I think this is interesting, and a distinction that I’ve been trying to figure out for some time as well. I absolutely agree that poetic language is contingent upon its context. And would go on to say that while poetry is concerned with its own internal cohesion (based on whatever local contingencies are relevant), rhetoric is concerned with affecting an audience to do something, or more generally, rhetoric is concerned with having some kind of discernible affect on the world.

    That said, I think the question of if poetry is rhetoric comes from the land of rhetoric. After all, does poetry really care about how somebody else would label it? And if it did, could it maintain any kind of internal cohesion? I guess I’m thinking in terms of composition here, that when I begin to consider audience and what a poem is going to do in the world (before it’s even finished!), I lose touch with whatever impetus was driving the poem in the first place.

    Of course this shift from thinking about audience to “writing poetry” occurs at a rapid pace, and many times during, say, any kind of writing, I oscillate between the two modes. My point is poetry is rhetoric, it seems, only when we stop to consider it that way, and vice versa, rhetoric can be gotten to through poetry. The answer to this question only matters to a rhetorician, but the process in arriving at this answer is, I say, entirely poetic.

    • Hi,

      Thank you for your wonderful response. As a practicing poet as well, I totally agree that, in the process of writing a poem, most of the questions that rhetoric concerns itself with, (audience especially) are not exactly at the forefront of my mind. Usually I’m trying to be true to whatever is appearing before me as the words appear and change, and that takes enough concentration as it is, without worrying too much about who is going to read it. I agree therefore that a poet’s fidelity to the poem and to the language of the poem outweighs concerns with audience, and that this fidelity, as a poetic phenomenon, is much more interesting (at least to us, hehe) than as just a rhetorical one!

      There is a great essay by a composition theorist named Peter Elbow – have you heard of him? – in which he writes about writing without thinking at all about audience. I always loved that essay, because I love visionary writers, I love eccentricity (to a certain extent, I guess), and I think that, like Elbow, worrying too much about audience tends to quell intuition (that fuzzy concept) and creativity, instead of inspiring those twin qualities.

      The only thing I would add to this discussion is that there is a way of talking about rhetoric more robustly, if of course one wants to do that. Personally, I don’t know if this is a huge concern of mine, although, if it was – hell, I’ve been blogging about it, so it must be – Martha Nussbaum has written excellently about the relationship between Aristotle’s notion of moral philosophy,and more generally moral reasoning, i.e. wondering about the effect of works of literature on the reader, and how these works affect those readers. So it’s sort of like talking about rhetoric, in the sense that what is being wondered about is the effect on the reader.

      I guess I should add that I was thinking about Harold Bloom when I wrote this post, for he has of course written extensively about poetry as both defensive mechanisms and (apropos of our conversation) rhetorical tropes. It’s a heady system, and I’ve always found it so severely psychoanalytical as to be both intimidating and exasperating, but Bloom’s virulent emphasis in the 70’s on poetry as a system of rhetorical tropes – as poems commenting on other poems, period – is nothing if not, well, rhetorical, but more importantly it’s kind of interesting, I think, because it’s both disenchanting and disillusioning in the best sort of way. It’s funny, because sometimes we can forget how sobering Bloom can be, despite his bombast. And its disillusioning mainly because he is arguing that poetry is, well, rhetoric. Period. (I think.)

      Well, thank you again for writing,,and please come back again. It was such a pleasure to hear what you had to think. I noticed you are in graduate school; what are you studying?

      all best,


      • tyjcar said:

        HI Andrew,

        Thanks for the reply to the reply. Sorry it took me a week but I’ve been busy here in Indiana. But yeah, I am a grad student, in my second year in the PhD program in rhetoric and composition at Purdue. I came across your blog because a friend of mine, Kamal, passed on your last post to me. I believe you know Kamal? Is this conversation public? I think so. Anyway, in addition to my academic work here, I also write poetry or poetic like things, and got an MFA in 2005.

        But thanks for the hot tips on more writers who have weighed in on this subject. Feel free to send me an email, maybe off the comments page, first name last name at gmail.

  2. badvogato said:

    By Audre Lorde

    The difference between poetry and rhetoric
    is being ready to kill
    instead of your children.

    I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
    and a dead child dragging his shattered black
    face off the edge of my sleep
    blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
    is the only liquid for miles
    and my stomach
    churns at the imagined taste while
    my mouth splits into dry lips
    without loyalty or reason
    thirsting for the wetness of his blood
    as it sinks into the whiteness
    of the desert where I am lost
    without imagery or magic
    trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
    trying to heal my dying son with kisses
    only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

    A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
    stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
    and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
    there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
    this policeman said in his own defense
    “I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
    only the color”. And
    there are tapes to prove that, too.

    Today that 37 year old white man
    with 13 years of police forcing
    was set free
    by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
    justice had been done
    and one Black Woman who said
    “They convinced me” meaning
    they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
    over the hot coals
    of four centuries of white male approval
    until she let go
    the first real power she ever had
    and lined her own womb with cement
    to make a graveyard for our children.

    I have not been able to touch the destruction
    within me.
    But unless I learn to use
    the difference between poetry and rhetoric
    my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
    or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
    and one day I will take my teenaged plug
    and connect it to the nearest socket
    raping an 85 year old white woman
    who is somebody’s mother
    and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
    a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
    “Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

    Audre Lorde, “Power” from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. Copyright © 1978 by Audre Lorde. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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