Reverie Twenty-Three: poetic rhetoric

First, an announcement: if you haven’t seen it yet, take a peek at last week’s Reverie for the décima challenge thing. I’ve gotten a few emails already; I think I’ll give it until next weekend, and then start posting them anonymously (maybe one per day) for public consumption. Send me your attempts! Meanwhile…

This week: “poetic rhetoric

You can classify most poetry in a couple different ways. There’s the thematic ones: internal vs. external (self vs. the world), emotive vs. descriptive (the difference between a love poem and a haiku), local vs. global. You can categorize them by form and mechanics, or you can classify them by subject matter. Most good poems will straddle lines and take in elements of different points along these spectra, and a good poet will use multiple tools to create the effect they’re going for.

By “rhetoric”, I don’t mean high-minded argumentation, but rather rhetorical devices, which you use all the time without meaning to. As a linguist who did his MA in (among other foci) pragmatics, I can tell you that you do it on a subconscious level, unless you’re a robot who has no use for language other than logical information transfer. Language serves this purpose, and also serves to present that information in a particular way; we can show this by adding/subtracting/modifying/selecting certain words in the sentences we build. But also, we can do it with just the arrangement of phrases on a higher level. If you’re making a list, does the order you put items in affect how they’re perceived? If you want to persuade a person of your argument, do you just outline the points, or do you couch them in background and opinion to give a more convincing nuance?

Poetry has just as much use for these devices as a debate does. The information may be curiously random, and the purpose may be no deeper than attracting the reader, but part of what makes poetry itself is that you apply these devices in artistic ways. We probably shouldn’t count some of the notions of sound (rhyme, meter, alliteration) as rhetorical, though they serve an important role. And some rhetorical devices are so commonplace that people probably don’t think of them as particularly special anymore. Here, I’ll rattle off six: simile, metaphor, oxymoron, apostrophe (address to an inanimate being), synecdoche, metonymy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a non-haiku/non-Imagist poem that doesn’t contain one of these. Two more that you should also know are anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase throughout a piece) and parallelism (repetition of a grammatical structure).

So let’s push the boundaries a little bit. I’ll give you nine. I’ll also confess that my favorite thing about them might be their luscious Classical Greek names:

antanaclasis: repeating a single word with a different meaning each time (“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”)
anthimeria: using a word as a different part of speech, such as using a noun as a verb (“The thunder would not peace at my bidding.”)
antimetabole: repetition of words in successive clauses, but transposed to show contrast (“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”)
chiasmus: similar to above, but not using the same words (“By day the frolic, and the dance by night.”)
epizeuxis: emphasis with one-word repetition (“How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”)
hendiadys: emphasis by using two conjoined words instead of just one (“sound” -> “sound and fury”), called hendiatris if using three words (“friends, Romans, countrymen”)
hysteron proteron: showing the more important of two things by putting the more important one first, usually chronologically (“I put on my shoes and socks.”)
isocolon: parallelism where the elements have the same length, more or less (“no ifs, ands, or buts”), called tricolon when there are three of them
syllepsis/zeugma: using one verb with multiple objects that cause the verb to have multiple meanings (“They opened their doors and their hearts.”)

Let it be noted that “zeugma” is one of my favorite words of all time. Let it also be noted that any one of these will make you the toast of the Scrabble board.

So, the point of all this is that applying one of these to some verse will add a layer of interest. Applying more than one will make it multiply so. Applying too many will cause it to groan under the weight of its own cleverness. Striking the balance is the challenge here. Let’s take a look at what happens with this pair of lines:

Your thigh was written with salt. I practiced
hieroglyphics in the white flesh.

There’s already a thing or two going on here, but let’s see what happens when we add in some chiasmus:

Your thigh was written with salt, and with blackseed oil
your hip was painted. I practiced hieroglyphics in
the white flesh.

Now let’s try adding a zeugma, a bit more parallelism (check the adjectives), and hendiadys:

Your thigh was written with salt, and with blackseed oil
your hip was painted. I practiced hieroglyphics
and sweet religion in
the white flesh and shrinking skin.

That, I think, is about the limit I can muster for one pair of images. Note that even when adding those little rhetorical devices, you still have room to play: don’t make it just “oil” but “blackseed oil” (whatever that means), not just “religion” but “sweet religion”, etc. And finally, we’re going to see what happens when we go too far:

Your thigh was written and rolled from salt,
and with blackseed oil your hip was painted and peaked.
I practiced, practiced, practiced hieroglyphics
and sweet religion in the white flesh
and the shrinking skin
and the hairs that psalmed as I psalmed your hairs.

I’m sure you could probably stuff one image with all of these and more, but at some point, you reach a saturation point that’s just as bad as a dead image. Note that an image standing alone is not the same as a dead image (haiku are certainly not dead), but you can often tell when an image that you want to work with needs some extra life added into it. A thigh, by itself, is not necessarily that interesting out of context.

I don’t want to re-invent the way you write: if the first two-liner about thighs and hieroglyphics would be enough for you, that’s fine. But as always, push yourself to expand your craft and play around with some different ideas. For a challenge, come up with a basic image like this (here’s three possible things to get you started: an animal, a body part, a food item), and try to spin it into more by relying primarily on these tricks of how your lines are structured. Of course, you will need some narrative structure and some nice vocabulary as well, but that’s only part of the impact of your verse.

Some of this may be second nature to you, but breaking it down and examining it from an analytical point of view may help you understand more about why what you do works as well as it does. Come back and share with us your experimentations, and any thoughts that got stirred up by the process!

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7 thoughts on “Reverie Twenty-Three: poetic rhetoric

  1. Joseph, I trust you know that you have a young book here. I’m not quick enough on the draw to do these prompts in a week or a month, but I do collect and study them. They have the makings of a splendid book on poetic craft that’s different from anything I know, and I hope to see it eventually.

  2. Misky says:

    Hello, Joseph. I *think* I’ve included hendiadys, hysteron proteron, and tricolon in this one. I also used the subject prompt from Poetic Bloomings, Water, for this one. If you have a moment, kindly pop over to


  3. Misky says:

    Joseph, would you please delete that? I don’t know what caused that to happen. Sorry.

  4. [...] site and see what others did with this week’s words.  I also had Joseph Harker’s Reverie post in the back of my mind while I wrote this.  He challenged us to take a basic image and add poetic [...]

  5. [...] Harker gives us Reverie Twenty-three: poetic rhetoric. This week we receive a lesson in poetic rhetoric, and can finally go around calling the rhetorical [...]

  6. [...] use in a rhetorical poem along with some of a vast array of figures of speech which you will find here.  I’ve used a few:  anthimeria, synocdoche, anaphora, metonymy – at least I think I have – [...]

  7. vivinfrance says:

    I THINK I’ve written a rhetorical poem, using some of those pesky figures of speech. I love their names, even if I have erred!
    Please Joseph, enlighten me.

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