The concept of argument and rhetoric as craft elements of poetry is very new to me and still feels slippery in my mind, which is why I wanted to focus on it. It’s a novel way to approach the art form and calls attention to a poem’s ability to persuade. According to Wikipedia, literary argument is a brief summary at the beginning of a section of poetry or prose, often used to orient the reader within a larger work. Another definition of argument is a poem’s central idea or thesis. Argument is the thing being said, and rhetoric is the way it’s being said.
In his book Poetic Argument: Studies in Modern Poetry, Jonathan Kertzer writes, “poetic thinking demands an intricate display of reason, which must call forth and submit to its mysterious double, known variously as unreason, the irrational, visionary, intuitive, or transcendent.” This extra element, which gets beyond the purely prosaic and into the realm of unconscious beliefs, yearnings, and desires, is the one that seems to baffle those who “don’t understand poetry.” Prose writers also employ rhetoric and appeals to emotion, but poetry allows for leaps of intuition and seemingly random association more difficult to sustain in prose.
William Carlos Williams famously said, “no ideas but in things.” The poetry of Denise Levertov illustrates this aesthetic. While her poems easily evoke a particular feeling or even an idea, it can be difficult to tease out a poem’s argument, especially without converting it to dull prose. For instance, the argument of “A Turn of the Head,” is that moments of inspiration are fleeting and must be enjoyed as they happen. The rhetoric of the poem relies on the image of the hummingbird and its action. She uses the words “Quick!” and “whirr” in the first stanza to evoke that sense of a fleeting moment. She also elides words (“rubythroat,” “tigerlilies,” “breastmilk”) to add to the sense of speed and urgency. The fact that she uses synecdoche (“rubythroat”) at the first mention of the hummingbird intensifies the sense that this is a moment of poetic inspiration. In a turn peculiar to poetry’s use of unreason, the hummingbird becomes both the object and subject of the inspiration: “only a passionate baby / sucking at breastmilk’s so / intent.” The word “sucking” calls to mind attachment, a desire to keep the moment close even as it pulls away. Finally, in the fourth and fifth stanzas, we get the argument more explicitly in a quote from Emerson: “Look sharply after your thoughts,” and “Worlds may lie / between you / and the bird’s return.” She describes the moment of the hummingbird as “a fractional sharp / sweetness” and then extends her argument to say that fleeting moments of inspiration are enough, and so sweet because of their fleeting nature: “Can’t take / more than that.” And ends the poem with a description of the tiger lilies, “no more buds,” to connote the passage of time. Nowhere in the poem does she say “time is fleeting; enjoy these moments while they’re happening.” Instead, she encodes the argument within the precise and detailed imagery of the poem. She circles around the argument with the quote by Emerson but lets readers make the final leap for themselves.
This to me seems one of the most difficult jobs in poetry: striking the balance between heavy-handed exposition and an argument so encoded no one understands it.
Levertov states her argument more explicitly in some of her poems. In “The Tide,” she writes, “Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive / to action and inaction,” then illustrates the argument: “anemones / shrivel in rock pools no wave renews.” These lines don’t start the poem, though. It starts with an abstract question: “Where is the Giver to whom my gratitude / rose? In this emptiness / there seems no Presence.” While this concept resonates with me, and while I enjoy the witticism of the second stanza, I had trouble entering this poem because of the abstract nature of its start and the seemingly disconnected images (“blue smoke,” “eager mornings.”). Calling them “a myriad images / of faith” anchors them, and by the end of the poem I realize that the alternation between abstract and concrete, as well as the pattern of stanza indentations (in/out/in/out) mirrors the actions of the tide itself. So that the structure of the poem actually reinforces the argument that faith is like a tide. She ends with a return to the original concept of emptiness. What at the beginning seemed to contain no Presence now contains the ocean.
When I first began re-reading Levertov’s poems with argument in mind, it seemed – as I said earlier – slippery and hard to grasp. Where were the arguments to be found in these spare poems with such an emphasis on the thing itself in the moment itself? But the more I read, the more I saw that there is a difference between a poem that simply describes and one that interprets what it describes. As Erin Belieu pointed out in workshop this summer, the red wheelbarrow poem is good because of its argument: “so much depends on a red wheelbarrow.”
Levertov’s poetry reminds me of the importance of earning the right to say grand, sweeping statements with the use of precise and beautifully worded images, or with other structural elements that tie together the central argument and its image in some way.
- Kertzer, Jonathan. Poetic Argument: Studies in Modern Poetry. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988. Print book accessed via Web. Accessed August 27, 2016. https://books.google.com/books?id=n9Exk22SlKwC
- “Argument (literature).” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed August 27, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_(literature)
- Levertov, Denise. “A Turn of the Head.” Oh Taste and See. New Directions, 1962. p. 32. Print.
- Levertov, Denise. “The Tide.” The Stream and the Sapphire. New Directions, 1975. p.25. Print.
- Smith, Hazel. The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing. Allen & Unwin, 2005. Print.
- Lasky, Dorothea. “What Poetry Teaches Us About the Power of Persuasion.” The Atlantic Monthly. October 13, 2012. Web. Accessed August 27, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/what-poetry-teaches-us-about-the-power-of-persuasion/263551/
Referenced in the essay above:
A Turn of the Head
Quick! There’s that
low brief whirr to tell
Rubythroat is at the
only a passionate baby
sucking at breastmilk’s so
sharply after your thoughts, said
Emerson, a good
Worlds may lie
and the bird’s return. Hummingbird
stays for a fractional sharp
sweetness, and’s gone, can’t take
more than that.
tigerblossoms have rolled their petals
all the way back,
the stamens protrude entire,
there are no more buds.
– Denise Levertov, from Oh Taste and See. New Directions, 1962. p. 32. Print. Emphasis the poet’s.