Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Another Kind of Rhetoric

Hannah VanderHart


By Hannah VanderHart

A murmur recently went round Twitter’s writers’ community: Newt Gingrich and the name “poet” had somehow been linked in a CNN opinion piece. The author, Walter Mosely, called Gingrich a “working poet,” defining the “job” of the working poet as “to pack as much powerfully charged meaning into every sentence as he can.” Mosely elaborates: It is the job of the lawyer, poet and politician to stir the emotions of their audience. But where literary poets speak of love and loss, the lawyer vindicates and the politician aims to take the reins of power.

According to Mosely, the lawyer, the poet and the politician are all rhetoricians—individuals skilled in the emotion-stirring art of persuasive speech. So far, so good. Mosely then decides to divide the lawyer, poet and politician’s rhetoric into three simple categories. Like this:

the poet : love and loss

the lawyer : vindication

the politician : power

Now there has been no subject barred to poets since Eliot spread out the evening “like a patient etherized upon a table” in 1920 (and possibly before), and poets today write regardless of traditional themes or “poetic” material. But what is more interesting in Mosely’s categories is the high value he places on the content of the rhetoric, rather than the aim of the rhetorician.

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates names two types of rhetoricians, those “speaking always with a view to what’s best…so the citizens will be the best they can be” and those who “place a low value on the common good” and “[talk] to the populace like they were children.”

What Socrates names is the ugly and the beautiful rhetorician. The ugly says what his audience wants to hear, while the beautiful regards the souls of the citizens and, according to Socrates, “[struggles] to say the best things, whether they’re more pleasing or more unpleasant to those who hear them.”

Socrates is arguing for a division among rhetoricians not—by the subject of their speeches, but by the aim of their persuasion. This seems to be a more useful way to think about poets, lawyers and politicians: listening for that speaker who is struggling to say the best things for the audience, rather than treating the audience like children at a theme park. One mode of speech may sound beautiful, but the other is beautiful by virtue of being good.

Milton was such a rhetorician. In Sonnet XII he argues his case regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant the subject was to his hearers. The sonnet opens on the defense:

I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs

By the known rules of ancient liberty,

When straight a barbarous noise environs me

Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes and dogs.

Milton had written two treatises in defense of Biblically justified divorce, and his contemporaries responded not with harmony, but with the “barbarous noise” that Sonnet XII addresses. Milton compares the public’s response to a chorus of animals—the odd, the noisy and the unruly. If you think the social-media induced phenomenon of “viral backlash” to be a career/organization/business killer, you underestimate the slow (or not so slow) build of public religious anger in 17th-century England, and if you think political bloggers are vicious now, you should have seen the pamphleteers of Milton’s day.

But an unhappy crowd does not mean the speaker has failed. In fact if we go with Socrates’ description of the two rhetoricians, if anything an unhappy crowd indicates a rhetorician who is struggling to say the right things, rather than gratifying his audience with the sound of pleasant words. C. S. Lewis spoke of “the child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

Poets, lawyers and politicians can choose to be alike in this way: They offer the sea to their audience.

 —Hannah VanderHart is a poet and second-year graduate fellow at The Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice in Washington, D.C. (Georgetown University).




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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”