Elegiac Rhetorics: From Loss to Dialogue in Lyric Poetry



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By reading mournful poems rhetorically, I expand the concept of the elegy in order to reveal continuities between private and communal modes of mourning. My emphasis on readers of elegies challenges writer-centered definitions of the elegy, like that given by Peter Sacks, who describes how the elegy's formal conventions express the elegist's own motives for writing. Although Sacks's Freudian approach helpfully delineates some of the consoling effects that writing poetry has on the elegist herself, this dissertation revises such writer-centered concepts of the elegy by asking how elegies rhetorically invoke ethical relationships between writers and readers. By reading elegiac poems through Kenneth Burke's rhetorical theories and Emmanuel Levinas's ethics, I argue that these poems characterize, as Levinas suggests, subjectivity as fundamentally structured by ethical relationships with others.

In keeping with this ethical focus, I analyze anthology poems, meaning short lyric poems written by acclaimed authors, easily accessible, and easily remembered - including several well-known poems by such authors as Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Robert Frost. Anthology pieces invite ethical evaluation in part because they represent what counts as valuable poetry - and also, by implication, what does not. Because anthology poems are read by broad, diverse audiences, I suggest that a rhetorical methodology focusing on writer-reader relationships is essential to evaluating these poems' ethical implications.

This rhetorical approach to poetry, however, questions rhetoricians and aesthetic theorists from Aristotle and Longinus to Lloyd F. Bitzer and Derek Attridge who emphasize distinctions between rhetoric and poetics. I address the ongoing debate about the relationship between rhetoric and poetics by arguing, along the lines of Wayne C. Booth's affirmation that fiction and rhetoric are interconnected, that poetry and rhetoric are likewise integrally tied. To this debate, I add an emphasis on philosophy - from which Plato, Ramus, and others exclude rhetoric and poetry - as likewise essential to understanding both poetry and rhetoric. By recognizing the interrelatedness of these disciplines, we may better clarify poetry's broad, ethical appeals that seem so valuable to readers in situations of loss.