This is the official blog of Northern Arizona slam poet Christopher Fox Graham. Begun in 2002, and transferred to blogspot in 2006, FoxTheBlog has recorded more than 670,000 hits since 2009. This blog cover's Graham's poetry, the Arizona poetry slam community and offers tips for slam poets from sources around the Internet. Read CFG's full biography here. Looking for just that one poem? You know the one ... click here to find it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What is rhetoric? How to use rhetoric in poetry

Define poetry:
We speak life in the colloquial tongue.
We think life to ourselves in prose.
We feel life in poetry.
Poetry is the captured sincerity of a moment.

We experience all of life's moments in poems. Because they come to us without words, we can experience them in their purity with an unlimited vocabulary.

For instance, there is no word in English or any other human language for the experience of looking through a window into the dawn sky in autumn just after waking on your day off and hoping for whole day of light drizzle because it brings back memories of rainy days during childhood. But we can feel it, envision the image, the feeling of cool air and slight moisture in the air ... but we can put ourselves there.

In poetry, we can pen the lines to reimagine that moment and the feeling of being there.
The poet's wordless feeling --> translated into a poem --> re-imagined by the reader into the wordless feeling

In prose, we can remove the magic a bit, but add the details of specificity. The beauty of the moment is replaced with accuracy. We take the prose into our understanding of language and recreate the image in our skull, effectively:
The author's wordless feeling --> summed up into a collection of poetic images --> translated into prose --> interpreted into imaging the author's specific moment --> re-imagined by the reader into the wordless feeling

In the colloquial, we do the same thing as prose, but with only our limited 1,000 word everyday vocabulary:
The speaker's wordless feeling --> summed up into a collection of poetic images --> conveyed through simple words --> interpreted by the listener --> re-imagined by the listener into the wordless feeling

Poetry is as near as we can come through language to sharing feelings short of telepathy. Poetry is the core of language that prose and everyday language clutter up for the sake of filling space and sound. In short, poetry is the Cliff's Notes of language.

Thus, understanding rhetoric, the study of how to use language most effectively, is paramount to being a good poet and a good slam poet as well.

That being said, I plan on exploring how to use rhetorical strategies in poetry over the next few weeks.

Rhetoric looms! Fear not! It is our ally, our tool, our weapon!
Most people hear "rhetoric" and cringe. That's because "empty rhetoric" has come to stand in for "'real' rhetoric."

However, once you understand the tenets of good rhetoric, you begin to understand that it's effective because it's so rational. Rhetoric is not complicated or bombastic or difficult to incorporate. It is actually quite simple, terse, and honestly beautiful.

Take a line from a film or a historical quote that you find particularly moving due just to the language and it likely incorporates a rhetorical strategy whether conscious or not.
"We shall go on to the end,
we shall fight in France,

we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,

we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender"
-Sir Winston Churchill's
"We shall fight on the beaches" speech from 4 June 1940 employing the rhetorical strategy of "anaphora" or repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses, sentences, or lines.
We remember certain film quotes, political states, corporate slogans, mnemonic devices, headlines, and romantic phrases because they naturally fit the rules of rhetoric. I started writing poetry at 18 just before college. After I became an English major and began studying rhetoric, I realized that a lot of what sounded "good" in my poetry and the poetry that moved me fit rhetorical patterns whether the poet knew it or not. Rhetoric is naturally pleasing to the ear.

In a previous blog, I analyzed Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in the context of a poem. It is a beautiful expression of rhetoric in one of its highest form. One of the most obvious lines: "... We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow ..." Just 12 words, but it uses a plethora of rhetorical strategies. It does not seem artificial in the least, but beautifully poetic. Ta-da! That's the beauty of rhetoric.

Language is essentially a complex mathematical problem. We're trying to express an idea by using a series of words like numbers and grammar like operations to most closely equal it. We use collections of the these sentence equations to add, subtract, multiply and divide from each other to move our audience through a mathematical proof from theory to solution.

The thing is that we often know that certain strategies work in a poem or story but not often why. Rhetoric is the why.

So what is rhetoric?

Plato: Rhetoric is “the art of winning the soul by discourse.”

Aristotle: Rhetoric is “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.”

Cicero: “Rhetoric is one great art comprised of five lesser arts: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronunciatio.” Rhetoric is “speech designed to persuade.”

Quintillian: “Rhetoric is the art of speaking well.”

Francis Bacon: "Rhetoric is the application of reason to imagination “for the better moving of the will.”

George Campbell: “[Rhetoric] is that art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. The four ends of discourse are to enlighten the understanding, please the imagination, move the passion, and influence the will.”

A. Richards: “Rhetoric is the study of misunderstandings and their remedies.”

Kenneth Burke: “Rhetoric is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic and continually born anew: the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.” “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric, and wherever there is rhetoric, there is meaning.”

Richard Weaver: "Rhetoric is that “which creates an informed appetite for the good.”

Erika Lindemann: “Rhetoric is a form of reasoning about probabilities, based on Assumptions people share as members of a community.”

Andrea Lunsford: “Rhetoric is the art, practice, and study of human communication.”

Francis Christensen: “Grammar maps out the possible; rhetoric narrows the possible down to the desirable or effective.”
“The key question for rhetoric is how to know what is desirable.”

Sonja and Karen Foss: “Rhetoric is an action human beings perform when they use symbols for the purpose of communicating with one another . . , [and it] is a perspective humans take that involves focusing on symbolic processes.”


Anonymous said...

nice post. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did you learn that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again.

Anonymous said...

really interesting, thank you :) keep writing!