Even in graduate school, in a supposedly rhetoric-centered writing program, we never used or opened Aristotle’s Rhetoric. We never studied the terms of rhetoric, nor did more than very simple analyses of a few of the standard forms of argument. That really shouldn’t be surprising — at the same institution, for seven years, I taught Creative Writing, including poetry, without being able to scan (I thought I could). Years afterward I began to work the rudiments of meter: I only recently began to be interested in formal rhetoric, but at least this time I’m aware of my ignorance.
One part of that ignorance will be on display here tonight and in the next few non-NaPoWriMo posts, since I can’t name the rhetorical strategies employed in this poem of Paul Goodman’s:
These people came up here
only two hundred years ago.
A half a dozen names
of fathers in the graveyard
have brought us to the farmer
who used to be my neighbor.
But now his sons have quit
the beautiful North Country
for Boston where they will not find
a living or even safety.
The boy has joined the Navy
to bomb other farmers
where our Navy ought not to be.
“I set my mind on Ritchie.
I bought all the machinery for him
and the blue-ribbon cattle.
Now it has no point.”
So they have sold and gone
to San Diego
to see the boy on leave.
There will not be another
generation in America,
not as we have known it,
of persons and community
This poetry I write
is like the busy baler
that Sawyer bought for Ritchie,
what is the use of it?
But I am unwilling to be Virgil
resigned and praise what is no good.
Nor has the President invited me.
[p. 49 in my long out-of-print edition of the Collected Poems: Amazon lists a few used copies of a slightly later edition]
Goodman would have known the terms. Here and elsewhere he displays an easy familiarity with Classical antiquity: Virgil’s Bucolics and Georgics preceed his Aenied, and Goodman, in this (post?) bucolic poem, is refusing to be a poet of Empire — especially of an empire that doesn’t think enough of poets to even ask them to serve that empire. The economy with which he manages that comparison and rejection is nothing short of astonishing.
I want to understand that economy, so I'll be looking at this poem as I begin to explore the terminology and structure of rhetoric. It will be slow, at first, since I am slow and this is NaPoWriMo. The poem may turn out to be a bad choice of starting point — but Goodman’s sonnets were also my first introduction to metrical handling of contemporary matter, especially political matters. I trust him.
And I hope some of you will help keep me from going too far astray.