«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
CONCLUSION: ELEGIAC RHETORICS IN COMMUNITIES OF MOURNINGBy reading mournful poems rhetorically, this dissertation expands the concept of the elegy in order to reveal continuities between private and communal modes of mourning. Rhetoric is a crucial heuristic for interpreting poetry's dialogic and
community-building effects. For example, by recognizing Hopkins's "Spring and Fall:
To a Young Child" as representative of the way that encounters with loss may remind us of our own mortality, we may illuminate narcissistic motives for mourning that underlie even seemingly other-oriented expressions of grief. To view mourning as motivated both by the loss of an external other and by a sense of one's own vulnerability to loss and death challenges Sacks's emphasis on compensatory modes of mourning—if mourning is thus fraught by varied, even conflicting motives, then it seems doubtful that a single "consolation prize" or new love object would solve the problem of grief (5). Elegiac poems connect personal and communal modes of mourning through their epideictic arguments, such as Hopkins's implicit argument that mourning for external losses, like Margaret's mourning for Goldengrove's leaves, reflects our grief for the loss of our own lives. Such rhetorical readings of poetry, however, oppose divisions between rhetoric and modern poetry supported by critics such as Lloyd F. Bitzer and Jeffrey Walker.
In "The Rhetorical Situation," Bitzer distinguishes rhetoric from poetry because he sees rhetoric as "a mode of altering reality" that situates its audience as "mediator[s] of change," whereas poetry, he claims, does not "requir[e] an audience in order to produce its end" (4, 11, 8). These distinctions between the aims and audiences of rhetoric and poetry do not seem to hold in the cases of the poems discussed in this dissertation. For example, the desire to change reality seems to motivate the poetspeakers of Dickinson's "After great pain" and Frost's "Desert Places," who seem to want relief from their isolation and emotional numbness. Through poetry, the speakers address and attempt to connect with an audience, even if that audience may primarily be themselves. An audience, whether external and/or internal, is essential for these poems to "produce [their] end" of creating connections with others that may change the poetspeakers' alienation (Bitzer 8). Although the poet-speakers' alienation is itself fictional, it still creates a real connection with readers—a connection that may help change reality.
This connection that might not only have been very appealing to Dickinson herself when she suffered "some mysterious fright" around the time of the Civil War, but may also have appealed to her readers when the poem was published during the Great Depression (Manley 260). Kenneth Burke suggests that a writer may "cultivat[e] certain ideas or images for the effect he hopes they may have upon him," and Dickinson's speaker—if not Dickinson herself—certainly seems desperate for images and connections with an audience(s) to help end her alienation and emotional numbness (RM 38). An external, public audience—especially one coping with loss during the Great Depression or after 9/11—might also find the writer-reader connections invoked by Dickinson's poem appealing. For example, Burke explains in The Philosophy of Literary Form (hereafter PLF) that literature can help all of us "name typical, recurrent situations" and in doing so can show us "what to expect, what to look out for" (293-294).
Literature may thereby help us cope with encounters with tragic losses like the Great Depression, 9/11, or the death of a loved one that feel atypical and are difficult if not impossible to make sense of.
For example, Susan Hess explains how Dickinson's poetry helped her heal after traumatic childhood abuse. Dickinson's "architectural images" helped Hess reconnect with herself, especially with "the uninhibited expressions of [her] childhood," and thereby gave Hess "a path to freedom" (Hess 62-63). As Hess rhetorically identified herself with Dickinson's poetry, Dickinson's lyrics seemed to leap "from the page to meet [Hess's] mental and emotional needs and transformed" her (Hess 63). Hess affirms that Dickinson's poetry is not only rhetorical, but that Dickinson's rhetorical effects were especially healing and consoling. Because poetry and literature can thus serve as "strategies" or "equipments for living" for writers and readers alike, poetry, like rhetoric, can be "a mode of altering reality" that situates its audience as "mediator[s] of change"— indeed, Hess herself was "transformed" (Burke, PLF 302, 304; Bitzer 4, 11).
To view poems as "equipments for living," especially in the face of personal and national tragedies, is to qualify Jeffrey Walker's characterization of contemporary poetry as a merely "minor kind of epideictic" rhetoric (Burke, PLF 302; Walker 330). Although Walker, unlike Bitzer, acknowledges connections between rhetoric and poetry, affirming their common roots in antiquity, he claims that contemporary poetry lacks a "capacity for speaking across boundaries persuasively or for mounting a culturally significant epideictic eloquence that does more than simply reconfirm the group's existing pieties and hierarchies of value" (330). The community-affirming effects of contemporary elegies, however, seem especially appealing and valuable to readers coping with loss. As the essays in Wider than the Sky indicate, poems like those by Emily Dickinson speak across boundaries of both time and place, appealing to readers in the midst of the Great Depression and in the aftermath of 9/11. Such poems may not "simply reconfirm...
hierarchies of value" and community identity, but rather seem to arbitrate the definition of identities and the values in which communities are rooted, as evidenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins's argument that values of and responses to loss and death define the human community (Walker 330). By comparing the rhetoric of Hopkins's "Spring and Fall" with that of the controversies over the Columbine High School shooting memorials, we may situate poetry on a continuum of epideictic, elegiac rhetoric that includes the epideictic rhetoric of public memorials.
Public memorials such as the crosses built by Greg Zanis argue—along with elegies like Hopkins's "Spring and Fall"—about whose death is worth grieving, whose life is valuable, and who is included or excluded from the human community. The speaker of Hopkins's poem suggests that the human community is defined by narcissistic grieving, although Hopkins himself challenges this conclusion by suggesting that the speaker may be rhetorically connected to both Margaret and Hopkins's reader. Much as Hopkins challenges his speaker's emphasis on separation from others as a fundamental element of personhood, Zanis implicitly argued that connections with others are central to humane, ethical communities by refusing to exclude the perpetrators from his memorial of the Columbine shooting (Doss 311). Zanis's argumentative effect is confirmed by Brian Rohrbough's objection to it in tearing down the crosses that Zanis built for the perpetrators—an act that argued the perpetrators were unworthy of commemoration, as if their lives were less than human (Doss 311-312). This opposition between Zanis and Rohrbough lends urgency to the issue of affirming community, which Jeffrey Walker seems to dismiss.
The epideictic rhetoric of Zanis's memorial did not simply "reconfirm" a community's values and definition of personhood, but participated in shaping and defining those values (Walker 330). Elegiac poems like Hopkins's have similar epideictic effects; like Zanis, Hopkins argues about what makes a person part of the human community. In contrast, Rohrbough argues about what excludes a person from the human community—his destruction of the perpetrators' crosses argues that murder is inhumane and that murderers should not, cannot count as members of the human community. Rohrbough, Zanis, and Hopkins all make rhetorical arguments through symbolic actions, demonstrating that poetry belongs on a continuum of epideictic, elegiac rhetoric that also includes public memorials. In making epideictic arguments, Rohrbough, Zanis, and Hopkins also seem to negotiate their own relationship to communities. For example, in building the memorial crosses, Zanis positioned himself as a member of the Littleton community far from his Illinois home, identifying himself with Coloradans' mourning for the Columbine shooting and thereby connecting a national community of mourners.
A similar community of mourners defines itself through Emily Dickinson's poetry in Wider than the Sky. As Barbara Dana explains in the preface, "scholars, writers, actors, poets, weavers, ministers, psychologists, and others all gathered together to share their experiences and perspectives on the healing power of Emily Dickinson," all of whom had experienced first-hand and/or witnessed the consoling effects of Dickinson's poetry (xi). In "After great pain," Dickinson situates her readers as a community of mourners by evoking mournful responses in them, creating not only a writer-reader dialogue centered on mourning, but also the possibility for a community among her mournful readers. She also appeals to readers who identify with her speaker's alienation and absence of emotion following "great pain" (Dickinson 1). Her readers may use the poem's images as "strategies" for understanding their own mourning processes (Burke, PLF 297). By presenting the absence of emotion as an ethical response to loss, Dickinson affirms that the human community includes mourners who feel numbness instead of grief.
These appeals speak to readers across boundaries of time and space, as Wider than the Sky illustrates, creating communities of mourners not only in the midst of the Great Depression, but also in the wake of 9/11—and in response to more personal losses.
Through her elegiac appeals, Dickinson has positioned herself in our cultural memory, insinuating her elegiac rhetoric in diverse communities of mourning. Because elegiac poetry like Emily Dickinson's so strongly shapes our cultural modes of mourning, we must attend to its rhetorical effects. Like the public memorials for the Columbine tragedy, elegiac poetry helps us cope with loss by arbitrating personal and communal identities through epideictic rhetoric that seems more than "minor" (Walker 330).
Short, elegiac poems like Dickinson's may be especially helpful "equipments for living" in part because they are memorable (Burke, PLF 302). For example, Mell McDonnell describes how Dickinson's poem "'Hope' is the thing with feathers" came to her mind when, as the United 232 flight she was on started to crash, she wondered "What's the right way to die?" (65). McDonnell illustrates how Dickinson's poem helped her cope with the plane crash as it was happening by interspersing Dickinson's lines with her account of the events; she writes "The worst is yet to come—is happening now—and I cling to [Dickinson's] words. They are my only shield against annihilation" (66).
Dickinson's words were "a life preserver" for McDonnell, who felt like they were "equipments" for survival (McDonnell 66; Burke, PLF 302). Dickinson's poem had this life-sustaining effect for McDonnell in part because she remembered it in the moment of trauma—and the poem is memorable not only because it is relatively short, but also because it appeal to readers' memory through mnemonic devices like rhyme (i.e. "heard" and "bird," and "sea," "extremity," and "me") and rhythm patterns (every other line of has six syllables (Dickinson, "'Hope is the thing with feathers" 5, 7, 10-12). Other elegiac poems by poets discussed here, including Robert Frost, John Donne, and John Keats, also appeal to readers' memory through such mnemonic devices. Like Dickinson, these poets endure in our cultural memory and continue to inform our understanding of loss and grief.
Poems by poets like Dickinson, Frost, and Donne also endure in our cultural memory because they are frequently reproduced in anthologies and sometimes in other literature, films, and on the internet, as, for example, in S. E. Hinton's references to Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" in The Outsiders. Such poems are easily reproduced and alluded to precisely because they are brief, and their recurrence in our cultural experiences—especially amidst the pedagogical urgency lent to texts that are frequently taught—enhances their memorability. Because these poems are memorable, they readily come to mind when we need names for and/or responses to situations that may or may not be typical, such as abuse or the 9/11 terrorist attack. Short, anthology poems function on both personal and cultural/communal levels as equipment for living in part because they are widely accessible in anthologies and on the web, and are referenced by other works. These poems' far-reaching appeals and effects invite further inquiry into both the rhetoric and ethics of anthologies and other situations in which the poems are reiterated.
The last section of this conclusion identifies some specific topics for further research into the rhetorical situations in which these poems are used and their effects on both academic and non-academic audiences.
Anthologies themselves negotiate communal values not unlike the elegiac poems we have discussed. The anthology genre may be historically linked with poetry, as Jeffrey R. Di Leo suggests in explaining that the Greek word anthologia, originally meaning "bouquet," came to signify "a collection of poems" by the Byzantine era (2).
Poems were the first anthologized texts, and the earliest known anthology, the Garland, begins with poems by Archilochus, a Greek elegist from the eighth-century BCE (Di Leo 3). Today, anthologies function as both "sites of pedagogy" and of "ideologies" because they "preserv[e] valued texts" and strive "to present the best of what has been thought and said—and already published" to students and teachers (Di Leo 4; Germano qtd. in Di Leo 4). By preserving conventionally valued texts for pedagogical purposes, anthologies provide "topologies of... discipline[s]" and exert "formative power" in establishing canons through their authority (Di Leo 1). Anthologies thus seem to affirm communal values, much like the elegiac poems we have discussed.