Any understanding of the relation between rhetoric and poetics will depend on how each category is conceived. The term “rhetoric” can mean “rhetorical discourse”; or the suasory practices observable in any given piece or kind of discourse; or the art or theory of rhetorical performance. Further, “rhetorical discourse” may be defined narrowly or broadly – for example, as any discourse that intends or causes persuasion. “Persuasion” too may be defined narrowly, as the inducement of belief and the promotion of action; or broadly, as the production of any effect in an audience’s psyche. Likewise, “poetics” can mean the art or theory of poetic discourse, while “poetic discourse” may mean anything from poetry to “literature” very generally conceived. Thus, any discussion of rhetoric and poetics is working with labile terms.
A persistent tradition in modern western culture tends to regard rhetorical and poetic discourse as virtual opposites that may, however, exert some influence on each other. This way of thinking played a formative role in the early twentieth-century revival of rhetoric as a modern academic discipline. Scholars tended to conceptualize rhetoric as primarily an art of practical public discourse, and to regard the subject matters of rhetorical and literary studies as distinct. In North American universities, for example, rhetoric and literature were the provinces of Speech and English departments, respectively. At the same time, however, historians of rhetoric have become conscious of what Florescu (1971) has called letteraturizzazione –the tendency of rhetorical forms to become or interpenetrate with literary forms – so that rhetoric becomes literary, and literature becomes rhetorical.
Another way of viewing the rhetoric–poetic relation is to regard rhetorical and poetic (or “literary”) discourse as intimately related to each other, as sister arts, or even to view one as a subset of the other: poetic discourse as a particular type of rhetoric, or rhetoric as a particular (“applied”) type of poetic discourse. Such views have both ancient and modern warrants. There are, for example, well-known connections between Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics, suggesting that he views them as “counterparts,” just as he does rhetoric and dialectic – or, that he views rhetoric, dialectic, and poetics, along with other verbal arts (such as logic), as overlapping genres or sub-components of a more general art of discourse, each resembling (and differing from) the others in certain ways. Notably, Aristotle insists that poetry must represent a “plot” (mythos) that is a probable and logically coherent sequence of events – that is, a persuasive, cause-and-effect portrayal of how things probably would happen in a given set of circumstances – thereby revealing “universal” truths, leading the audience to insight, and provoking emotion (pity and fear, in tragedy). All of this is clearly related to his discussions of argument by example and the arousal of emotion in the Rhetoric. Aristotle also says that the “speeches” in a drama (or, for that matter, in a novel, film, or short poem) belong to the art of rhetoric.
There is a persistent tendency in ancient thought to divide the realm of rhetoric into practical and epideictic kinds, and to view poetic discourse as a type of epideictic rhetoric (Walker 2000). “Practical” rhetoric is typically represented as discourse of the law court and the forum, where juries or assemblymen vote, while “epideictic” ranges from civic celebration and commemoration to performance for the sake of entertainment, edification, philosophical reflection, praise/blame, and display. As early as the archaic poet Hesiod we find poetic “song” and civic “speech” portrayed as epideictic and practical types of eloquence, both derived from the same source (the Muses) and both exerting the same kind of persuasive, even hypnotic power. Indeed, for Hesiod, the civic orator is practicing an “applied” kind of poetic-epideictic discourse, transposed from verse to prose and serving the pragmatic purposes of everyday politics. Many early poets treat poetic discourse as a medium of epideictic persuasion and argumentation, and this idea recurs in the early sophists associated with the “birth” of rhetoric as an art, especially Gorgias and Isocrates. It persists as well into late antiquity: for example, Hermogenes of Tarsus, in his treatise On types of style, classifies poetry, along with history, philosophy, and civic ceremonial speech, as types of epideictic (or “panegyric”) rhetoric.
Modern difficulties in following this ancient line of thought have much to do with a reticence to view poetic discourse as argumentative or persuasory (which is part of the general tendency to view rhetoric and poetics as opposites). However, modern expansions of the idea of “rhetoric” have also made the ancient view more intelligible. Richards’ (1926, 1936) notion of the radically metaphorical nature of all language goes far toward breaking down that opposition, as does Burke’s (1950) extension of the concept of persuasion to what he calls “identification.” Indeed, with Burke all forms of discourse are rhetorical, from the classical oration to the inward workings of thought and ideology in individuals and whole societies (a view that puts Burke close to the perspective of the early sophists and Isocrates). If all forms of discourse are rhetorical, so must be poetic discourse too. Notably, Burke associates poetic (or “literary”) discourse with what he calls “pure persuasion” – a kind of epideictic persuasion for persuasion’s sake (and the unsettling of ossified ideologies). Richards’ and Burke’s thought is reflected in the important rhetorical-literary theorizing of Booth (1961), and other more recent scholars (e.g., Fish 1989). Finally, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1958) have argued that epideictic discourse is not peripheral but central to the realm of rhetoric, insofar as epideictic serves to establish and sustain (or sometimes revise) the communal agreements about general values and beliefs that necessarily underlie judgment, motivation, agreement, and action in practical civic discourse. If that is so, and if poetic discourse is a type of epideictic, then poetic discourse must also be a “central” type of rhetoric.
- Booth, W. (1961). The rhetoric of fiction. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Burke, K. (1950). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Fish, S. (1989). Doing what comes naturally: Change, rhetoric, and the practice of theory in literary and legal studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Florescu, V. (1971). La retorica nel suo sviluppo storico. Bologna: Il Mulino.
- Perelman, C., & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1958). La nouvelle rhétorique: Traité de l’argumentation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
- Richards, I. A. (1926). Science and poetry. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Richards, I. A. (1936). The philosophy of rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Walker, J. (2000). Rhetoric and poetics in antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press.