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.