3 Timely Techniques Poets Can Steal from Classic Rhetoric

March 4, 2019

A glance at the pages of history reveals that poetry is not a young art. Poets from the Greek and Roman epochs were often renowned rhetoricians—their speeches captured the minds, imaginations, and sensibilities of the people in that era. Thus, poetry and rhetoric (the art of persuasion) are not far removed from one another. The Greeks and Romans loved figurative language such as imagery, allusion, and metaphor, and we use these tools today as we wield the power of words.


You might be shaking your head at this because present-day rhetoric tends to lack an aesthetic quality. “It’s all propaganda and manipulation,” you argue. I wouldn’t blame you for holding that view—and I would, to a large extent, agree. But we must remember that the Greeks and Romans give us modern poets no excuses. Instead, they bless us with a plethora of techniques that poets can implement to redeem the structure and flow of today’s modes of self-expression. Here I’ll bring three specific ones into the spotlight (Greek terminology and all): apostrophe, anaphora, and chiasmus.


1. Apostrophe: Speaking for the Dead

Of the three techniques I’m going to discuss, apostrophe is the strangest. You might recognize the word apostrophe if you’re familiar with English grammar—but in this case, apostrophe doesn’t refer to the punctuation mark. In poetry, apostrophe is a figure of speech wherein the poet treats any ordinarily mute entity, whether an object or a deceased person, as if it were able to respond. But why is this even productive as a literary technique?


To find a possible answer, let’s consult one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. In “Death, Be Not Proud,” he addresses the personification of death itself:


Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.


This resembles Emily Dickinson’s concept of “death as the gentleman-caller.” Confronting someone or something that is normally silent displays confidence and power. Donne is airing emotions and feelings that would otherwise remain hidden. When we wrestle with a challenging topic in writing, occasionally we need to humanize it so we can understand it (and ourselves) better. Apostrophe creates an open forum of sorts. You wouldn’t necessarily want to employ this poetic device constantly—like all poetic devices, it has its time and place. But I cannot emphasize enough the value of apostrophe in articulating voiceless thoughts and emotions.


2. Anaphora: Packing a Punch

Anaphora is the deliberate practice of repeating the first part of a sentence or an idea for overall artistic effect. In certain senses, repetition may be unnecessary and even annoying, which will quickly alienate readers. But anaphora can be a powerful way to win readers and help them shift their attitude regarding the idea you’re trying to convey.


William Blake’s “The Tyger” provides a good example of anaphora in action:


In what distant deeps or skies.

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand, dare seize the fire?


And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?


The recurring questions beginning with the word “what” should immediately catch the reader’s eye. Consider what emotions this form of repetition accentuates. As Blake paints the picture of this majestic and fearsome tiger, what is he intending readers to feel? Blake’s use of anaphora functions similarly to Donne’s use of apostrophe. Ultimately, both techniques cause readers (and, hopefully, the poet himself) to wonder, to cultivate a deep sense of awe for the mysterious.


3. Chiasmus: Telling a Story

The first two devices I’ve listed deal with emotions. Chiasmus is no exception (surprise, surprise). Citing a concrete example of it is more difficult, however, because chiasmus encompasses a variety of techniques depending on the story you’re telling. Chiasmus serves as a structure for emotions, thoughts, and ideas that guides readers into awareness of key themes. A simple but universally important demonstration of chiasmus is the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative. Notice how Creation and Redemption mirror each other, with the Fall being the crux or climax.


Another fascinating example (again from biblical literature) can be found in Psalm 1.


Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on His law he meditates day and night.


He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.


Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.


Primarily, the “way of the righteous” and the “way of the wicked” are contrasted. Notice how the first and last “stanzas” (bolded for our purposes) form the bookends. The central section (in italics) marks the crux or climax, where metaphors explain what each of these “ways” look like in practice. Furthermore, the phrases “Blessed is the man” and “the Lord knows” mirror each other thematically.


Chiasmus is not merely a cause-and-effect structure but also a mirror-and-reflect structure. Again, this is not a structure you must apply to every poem for it to be meaningful. But it’s a helpful concept to keep in mind no matter when or what you’re writing, even if it makes sense of things for you alone.


Combining Emotions with Structure

As much as we poets sing and strike fun or interesting beats with our words, we also tell stories—of others as well as our own. The primary takeaway from the myriad of techniques available to us (including the ones I explored in this article) is that emotions are essential to poetry. Without a proper structure and attention to small details, however, unbridled emotion will only muddle our voices. That’s why the techniques the ancients offer are so timely. So when you sit down to write your next poem, try experimenting with one of these. You won’t regret it.


  1. Evelyn

    Ah, yay! A post about poetry. This makes me happy. (:

    • Graham Jackson

      I’m glad poetry makes you happy! Poetry certainly makes me happy. Wasn’t it once said that “man die every day for from lack of poetry”?

  2. Dakota

    Me too 🙂 ! Great ideas here. Thank you for posting

    • Dakota

      You’re welcome.

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