Tony Hoagland’s Paradox

Blog post by Victoria Doose (CUPID Associate and senior PWR major)

Elon has a whole English concentration about how rhetoric connects to professional writing—but what about the other English concentrations? Does rhetoric have anything to do with, say, creative writing?

According to award-winning poet Tony Hoagland, it absolutely does. In Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, the opening essay “Altitudes, a Homemade Taxonomy: Image, Diction, and Rhetoric” talks about rhetoric as a distinct “center of power” in poetry. Hoagland admits that rhetoric is an under-used and under-appreciated method in contemporary poetry, but he thinks it can be used to great effect if poets really understand its value.

But I find it strange that in Hoagland’s take on rhetoric, he seems to regret the view of rhetoric as empty, manipulative, and distant yet also uses those exact terms to describe its application in poetry. He variously says rhetoric is “the willful shaping of attitude in a poem” (p. 2), “a moment of flourish…in terms of elevation and gesture” (p. 10), impersonal with a “striking degree of detachment” (p. 10), and the muscular shaping of empty space in a poem (p. 11). In an oddly contradictory move, he laments the pejorative view of rhetoric while also making the conclusion that rhetoric is empty of content but rich in presentation.

I completely agree with Hoagland that rhetoric has a place in poetry. What I don’t agree with is the idea that rhetoric has a certain level of emptiness, even if Hoagland finds flourish and gesture (as he calls it) to be powerful components of effective poetry. I see it this way: poems are written about certain things in certain ways that are meant to speak to certain emotions or experiences common to humanity—and isn’t rhetoric centered on considerations of audience, the writer, purpose, and how all of those things connect?

Hoagland gets closer to my understanding of rhetoric’s role in creative writing when he says that “since rhetoric is described as the art of persuasion, its broadest meaning encompasses all speech acts that take place outside the shower” (p. 9). That first part is a little iffy (not everyone sees rhetoric simply as the art of persuasion anymore), but he’s right in saying that rhetoric is an integral part of everyday communication. As a result, its use is evident in everything ranging from poetry to emails, and even blog posts…but maybe that’s a topic for another time.

If you’ve read Hoagland’s essay, did you interpret Hoagland’s definition the same way I did? How do you think rhetoric connects to creative writing?

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 4, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Victoria, I agree with you!