When I was seventeen years old and barely aware of poetry, with no idea what good poetry might be, or even what if anything might please me, a friend, just back from his English class, rushed breathlessly into my room at boarding school, book in hand, and cried, “Listen to this!”
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level | underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing . . .
and I felt a chill go up my spine. Poetry could do that? Sometimes it takes a spectacular gesture to get one’s attention. In the more than fifty years since, I’ve come to appreciate—and strive in my own work for—far subtler effects, but I remain convinced that poetry, while sometimes narrative, sometimes meditation, sometimes rational argument, sometimes dream, is at bottom a practice of rhetoric. In this discussion I want to look at rhetorical technique and the ways it fuses with the denotative and connotative meanings of poems to arrest our attention and stay in our minds, or—to put it less artfully—to move us and to thrill us.
This is not intended as a systematic guide to rhetorical tropes—something as tedious as it is unoriginal. It’s intended rather as a provocation to critics looking to develop or refine a nose for the remarkable passage, as an oenophile might develop a nose for superior wines. But because I want to start from consensus and work toward discovery, my first illustrations come not from out-of-the-way rarities but from familiar treasures, widely acknowledged, of the century just past.
In treating them yet again I hope to illustrate my conception of a critic’s central obligations. These stem from the defining characteristics of a poem, of a construction in words that, as David Rothman puts it, both says something and does something. To make that formula a little more explicit, we can say that a poem, being a creature of language, has meanings that are conveyed through linguistic means, and being also a creature of sound (which is not incidental as in prose but structural), has the potential to affect the hearer’s sensibility through auditory stimulus, including rhythmic patterning, the repetition or modulation of phones (speech sounds), and the strategic deployment of silence. To the extent that a poem exploits that potential, it is up to the critic to analyze—or at any rate to understand—what is being said (unless of course he cannot understand it, in which case he is obliged to say so), and also to observe how the sounds of the poem do or do not contribute to its total impact. Sound, which we often hear only in our minds as we read, has a manifold effect that is difficult to pinpoint. On a simple level it can be calming and slightly hypnotic; at times it can heighten tension; occasionally it can illustrate or imitate a meaning; and very often it serves to organize what we are hearing—which during the course of the poem is, if we are attentive, the world of our experience.
Before proceeding, I need to point out that this division between sound and meaning is not the same as that between rhetoric and plain speech, since rhetoric comprises various ways of organizing and presenting meaning as well as the manipulation of strictly sonic elements. It is a more inclusive term with a long history in critical discussions. In what follows I will frequently speak of rhetoric and rhetorical techniques, but it should be borne in mind that these stem from the poet’s ability to manipulate both sound and sense and that, at least in most of the poems we’ll be looking at, the purely sonic patterning—one aspect of rhetoric—greatly exceeds that which is ordinarily encountered in prose.
To get down to cases, let us consider Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.” For all its seductive language, the poem is structured like a legal brief, with clear syntactic markers showing just where we are in the progress of the argument. The question before the court is whether a particular occurrence is natural or man-made. Stevens wants to draw a clear distinction between the two, and to persuade us that what we have been hearing – a woman singing – goes far beyond mere natural phenomena, however much it might incorporate their influences. Thus the first line of the poem states the entire case of the brief in a succinct sentence of ten syllables:
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
And we are to understand “genius” as comprising the ideas of “spirit,” “nature,” and “utmost capability.” A series of declarative sentences follow, each advancing a component of the claim. The advocate asserts that the sea did not take on the features of mind or voice. The assertion is coupled with an arresting simile: “Like a body wholly body, fluttering / Its empty sleeves.” The essential human element, the animating spirit, is absent.
The poem asserts next that neither the sea nor the singer was a disguise (mask) for the other, that the sounds of singing and of water did not blend but were distinct, and that even if wind and water sounds echoed in her phrases, “it was she and not the sea we heard.” I am deliberately reducing the poem to its bare rational statements, but this is not hard to do, for the syntax is plain and the sentences straightforwardly declarative.
Having made its point that the song contained an element quite different from the sea-sound, the poem addresses the obvious question: “Whose spirit is this?” and proceeds to consider the options that the spirit was only the “dark voice of the sea” or “the outer voice of sky / And cloud.” In that case it would have been repetitious and without meaning (“sound alone”). But in fact it had an additional and remarkable quality—and this is the part of the argument that readers most often miss. It had the force to make us see things differently. It enhanced vision and “made / The sky acutest at its vanishing.” In effect, it created a world that had not existed before.
At this point the poem calls in an expert witness, Ramon Fernandez, though he doesn’t get a chance to speak. But in addressing him the advocate rounds out his argument: see how the lights in the fishing boats lying at anchor have “portioned out the sea,” creating order where there was only randomness and in the process shaping our experience of the night. And, it is implied, just as a simple man-made thing like a boat light (or, we might recall, a jar in Tennessee) can transform its surroundings, so can a song. In that way the human spirit achieves finer distinctions (“ghostlier demarcations”) and sharper perceptions (“keener sounds”).
So much for the argument; what do the rhetoric and the sound patterns add?
The poem is in iambic pentameter. It starts out seemingly in blank verse, without rhymes at the line ends. But very soon rhyme appears—at first hardly noticed, as when “ocean” at the end of the first section chimes with “motion” four lines earlier; then unmistakably in the second section, when “heard” is echoed four times in five lines. Coupled with its irregular but persistent rhymes, the poem gives us complex alliteration, as when three initial m’s are followed by five initial c’s (“its mimic motion / Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry”) or alternating g’s and w’s alliterate in “the grinding water and the gasping wind.” This is not to suggest that these effects contribute to the poem’s meaning (pace Rothman), but that they are part of the hypnotic, incantatory quality in which the poem clothes its rational argument.
That quality is furthered by the use of what we’ve come to call Homeric epithets: twinned adjectives in which the second element is often a past participle, as in “The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea,” and by the strategic repetition of words:
If it was only the dark voice of the sea …
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone.
Here repeated words or phrases are underlined; repeated sounds are noted with italics. (Note too that even the Homeric epithets can be inverted: the “tragic-gestured sea” is matched by the “sunken coral, water-walled.”) Thus among a few blank verse lines, lacking end-rhyme, there are densely interconnecting patterns of consonance and repetition.
An exhaustive analysis of the rhetoric of this poem would be exhausting. But I will note one more device: the progressive intensification of words presented as if they were synonyms, somewhat in the manner of Lincoln’s “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” Stevens’ three words are also verbs, but in participle form: “Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.” The first is an order of space; the second an order of emotion or perception; the third an order of the spirit. We accept the first, so we are led to accept the second, and then the third. Lincoln and Stevens were both lawyers. They knew how to insert the thin end of the wedge and take advantage of the opening.
Let us move from the orator frankly contriving to seduce with words and listen now to a meandering tale about a bus trip through the countryside of eastern Canada. It’s told in six-line stanzas, in accentual meter (syllables not counted), two or three beats to the line. There are rhymes, but not in a regular pattern, and not on all the lines. Usually just one or two pairs will rhyme in any stanza, and sometimes the rhymes will be inexact. The poem is “The Moose.” The poet, Elizabeth Bishop, is out to lull us with normalcy.
Her first sentence, meandering like the bus, spreads itself over six stanzas and thirty-six lines. The subject of the sentence (the bus) is not arrived at till the fifth stanza, and once it is mentioned the narrator has us wait further while another traveler, about to climb aboard, bids leisurely and affectionate farewell to seven relatives and a dog.
Although the stanzas are of regular length, the poem is divided implicitly into paragraphs. These occur whenever a sentence ends on a rhyme, as in the ninth stanza:
the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.
The concluding rhyme is deeply satisfying. Even with the rhymes, the diction in this stanza seems so ordinary that we scarcely notice the repeating e’s in “sweet,” “peas,” “bees,” “creep,” and “evening” or the alliterating w’s in lines two and three, and the repetition of “white.” (In fact, we’re hearing an instance of the subtle chiasmus, where the sounds /w/ /hw/ in line two are answered by /hw/ /w/ in line three.) In short, the reader’s ear is being gently mesmerized even as the passengers on the bus are lulled into somnolence by the passing landscape, the drone of the motor, the muttered conversation, and the onset of night.
The poem is not to be rushed. With the coming of darkness the focus shifts to the inside of the bus, and to sounds more than sights. We heed the almost aimless conversations, and we take them seriously, even when we’re amused by them:
He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.
We become privy to the soft, intermittent dialogue that sounds like the pillow talk of old farm couples tucked in for the night, made secure by the very ordinariness of their surroundings.
Bishop has seduced the reader not with fine language (though it is language of considerable ingenuity and delicacy) but with an illusion of security and calm. Halfway through a placid stanza the illusion is broken.
─Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.
A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.
The only full rhymes in the stanza point up the disjunction: the creature from the impenetrable wood has come to nose the hot hood, an artifact of overheated human contrivance. (The road, a half rhyme, mediates between the two.) Notice how Bishop maintains the artifice of casual speech even here: She starts to say the moose “stands there,” then corrects herself and says “looms, rather.” But it wouldn’t do to keep only the verb “looms” in the line, quite apart from the need for two beats. We need both the unassuming verb and the afterthought—and the tone of spontaneous improvisation is right (though of course the poem is carefully crafted), for we must believe we are hearing a leisurely story, of the sort one might tell to friends after dinner.
And then in one of the few stanzas wholly without rhyme, the narrator calls the moose otherworldly, and we recognize the rightness of the adjective, for the moose represents something altogether different from the comfortable humdrum of rural human life. It is a visitation from the beyond, and its purpose is to strike awe into the soul. But there is something else as well, something ineffable:
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
The only rhetorical heightening comes from the repetition of why and feel and from the repeated long ee sounds. We’re not being swept off our feet, but we’re nonetheless being richly rewarded.
I want to turn now to two more recent, and less famous, poems that illustrate by their differences the strong role played by diction and sonic patterning.
Bruce Weigl’s “Snowy Egret” might well be called a short story in thirty-four lines. It’s told in a language hard to distinguish from prose, and it shares with the short story form a concrete situation in which something happens that connects the past, the present, and a projected future. The action is straightforward: the narrator is wakened in the night to find a neighbor boy down near the shore, burying a snowy egret he has just shot, and overcome with sorrow and fear. Sorrow for having killed the bird, and fear for what his father might do if he finds out. The narrator comments on the scene and by interpreting what he describes assumes some of the functions of the traditional poet.
However, the poem is not in verse. It is a poem in that it fulfills the looser modern definition: a short, intense piece of writing evoking strong emotion in brief compass. In general it is unmetered. There are patches of what can be construed as iambic meter, but similar patches occur in many random passages of prose, even in the daily paper. It is hard to see a conscious metrical shaping at work, except in the third line:
and in the moon he’s blasted a snow egret
(where the substitution of “moon” for “moonlight” and “snow” for “snowy” indicates a pull toward iambic pentameter) and again in the poem’s final lines:
wiping out from the blue face of the pond
what he hadn’t even known he loved, blasting
such beauty into nothing.
where the penultimate line is scannable as iambic pentameter with an anapestic first foot and a trochaic substitution at the end. In fighting the usual pattern, “blasting” commands attention, and the final line, with only three iambic feet, feels suitably abrupt.
(I note in passing, as have others, that many ostensibly free-verse poems drop into iambic meter in their closing lines, as if to take advantage of the extra force and ease of recall that meter imparts.)
The poem achieves its considerable pathos without attempting large generalizations. The lines just quoted are a kind of summation, and they are introduced by the poem’s closest approach to an inclusive comment: “What a time we share, that can make a good boy steal away.” (And I would argue parenthetically that that is the poem’s least convincing line.) Instead of arresting expressions the poem gives us physical details: the “dewy grass,” the egret’s “blood-spattered wings,” the incongruous “man’s muscled shoulders” on the distraught boy. As with most good fiction, the feeling of this poem stays with the reader, even if the words do not.
And yet this straightforward narrative is not without rhetorical flourishes. The narrator relates the boy’s words when explaining how he killed the bird without meaning to. And at first they seem like words, and even repetitions, a boy would really use:
He says he only meant to flush it from the shadows,
but only meant to watch it fly
but the shot spread too far. . .
But then the boy’s report is embellished by the language of a more sophisticated adult: “ripping into the white wings spanned awkwardly for a moment / until it glided into brackish death.” These are the narrator’s imaginings—he was not there when it happened, and the boy would not have said this – yet we accept and even welcome the elaboration. We’re in the presence of another kind of rhetorical stroke: not the seductions of sound but the suffusion of detail, something done to convince us that we ourselves might have witnessed the event.
It is instructive, I think, to consider this poem in relation to another on a similar subject—the death of a beautiful bird by human hands. Despite a superficial resemblance, “Angle of Geese,” by N. Scott Momaday, is fundamentally a different kind of artifact.
To start with, Momaday’s poem has not one subject but two. In fact it offers an unusually clear example of a poem’s ability to juxtapose two quite different situations and feelings so that they react against and comment upon each other. The conjunction is, in the poem’s words, “more than language means,” but the emotional meaning becomes evident as the poem proceeds. The immediate situation is the death of a child, about which the survivors find it difficult to speak. The second situation is a hunt during which a goose is shot and killed. It is told in the past tense, as if recalled at the present moment of sorrow. The beauty of geese in flight and the pathos of the dying bird are felt simultaneously and are presented “in the wake of” the talk of the child’s death and the attendant grief. The poem ends with the “dark distant flurry” which we realize is simply surviving life, seen on the way out.
Formally the poem is unusual. In each stanza, lines one and three rhyme and are in headless iambic trimeter (except for the fourth stanza), which means they are five syllables long. Lines two and four, by contrast, are seven syllables each, unrhymed and to my ear unmetered except for the syllable count. The effect is one of order and control set against a more open-ended, indeterminate form. It is not the case that each type of line applies to one of the situations the poem describes; the alternating scansions are carried through the entire poem, regardless of content. But the oscillation or weaving between “closed” and “open” forms offers a subliminal commentary on the experiences the poem is attempting to come to grips with. Not everything that can be felt can be contained. Hyper-awareness is not always subject to rule.
If the diction of Weigl’s poem is that of the modern short story, the diction of Momaday’s poem is that of elevated discourse. From the first two lines—
How shall we adorn
Recognition with our speech?—
which are nothing like conversational idiom, it is plain that we are in a realm of formal convention that does not imitate ordinary language but grants the adroit user the ability to express complex ideas in condensed form.
The scene is shown clearly, but from a long distance. We do not know whether it is warm or cold, we do not feel the marshy grasses or smell the autumnal air. All the components of the poem—grievers, hunters, and bird—are condensed to their essence. The poem is sober and the tone is one of solemn meditation.
Yet in the ostensibly plain style there is subtle rhetoric. We have alliteration: “More than language means / the mute presence mulls and marks.” And in the next stanza, almost, mind, measure, mere, margin. “The mere margin of repose” is a phrase that strikes the awareness before its import registers. It refers to the small space amid the surges of grief where one can momentarily rest. Similarly, the grandest phrase in the poem, the “pale angle of time / And eternity” inspires awe even before it is understood. It is the point of death, where time stops and timelessness begins. And the wedge of geese, which seems to represent this point in the abstract, suddenly demonstrates it concretely, as the great goose falls and dies. The alliteration continues through the last stanza, with hope, hurt, and held, and the dark distant flurry.
The tools of this poem, then, are its exalted style, its striking and large-minded expressions, its metrical complexity, its rhyme and liberal use of alliteration, and its fusion of two experiences, one present and one past, into a single perception that exceeds the sum of its parts. What it sacrifices are the conversational style and the narrative method so ably used in Weigl’s poem to render an immediate human interaction. Each poem has its excellences; let us not just now choose one over the other—only recognize the technical resources out of which those excellences emerge.
What a poem says is its meaning; what a poem does is to convince, through all the resources of sound, rhythm, tone, and imitation at the poet’s command. It is the combination of meaning and rhetoric that delights and moves, and it is the critic’s onus to bring these elements to readers’ attention in deprecating or championing any particular poem.