This Writer's Life

Flowers of Rhetoric: A List of Obscure Literary Terms


I found this list in a 2003 letter from my father. At the time, I was beginning my MFA degree in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. My father was worried that I would succumb to the “tricks of rhetoric, which are the opposite of poetry.” In the same letter, he went on to state that “Aristotle mentions them not in his Poetics but in his Rhetoric.” He included a quote from Kenneth Rexroth regarding Petronius: “he is a master of all the flowers of rhetoric, but he knows they are paper flowers and he delights in showing them up by setting fire to them.” Take that, New Critics.

amphibole: meaning understood more than one way: the shooting of the hunters.

anacoluthon: a sudden change of direction in speech, often signaled by a dash: I was listening to the news – this man, he was a C.E.O. – the police arrested him.

antonomasia: replacing one name or designation with another: San Francisco is the Paris of the West.

aphaeresis: loss of the first part of a name: copter for helicopter, plane for airplane.

cacophemism: using a disparaging or cruel name: she called him a jerk.

chiasmus: repeating a phrase in reverse word order to reverse its meaning: This man I thought had been a lord among wits; but, I find, he is only a wit among lords (Johnson on Chesterfield).

hendiadys: equal words joined by and instead of made into a phrase: nice and warm instead of nicely warm; gloom and doom instead of gloomy doom.

hypallage: adjective attached to the wrong noun: the prisoner is in the condemned cell.

hyperbaton: inversion of the usual word order or talking like Yoda: Fred his name is.

litotes: positive statement by denying a negative: No Small Courage (book title).

prolepsis: treating a possible event or a future event as if it were real and in the present: if you stop to think you’re dead.

zeugma: word followed by two or more words that go with it but not together: the morning brought misty weather and the newspaper. 

The New Critics, whose heyday has thankfully passed, used these and other terms to analyze poetry as if it were a science rather than an art. But the practices of New Criticism still linger in American universities, confusing rhetoric with poetry, and confusing students. If, as my father stated in his letter, “rhetoric is the opposite of poetry,” then analyzing poetry in this manner is the quickest way to render it a lifeless pile of words. Persuasive writing – i.e., rhetoric – is not poetry!

Here’s an abbreviated description of New Criticism.

Categories: This Writer's Life

1 reply »

  1. DRNM = dearreadingnichemind of ERICA GOSS

    Do I understand that right…
    Po’try or Po’sia are not… persuasive writing?

    Since my days of studies in Oxford Ruskin College in 2006 I am waiting for a simple definition of RHETORIC suitable to fit into my own mind set and thus find
    PERSUASIVE WRITING finalmente elegantly filling the gap …sooo…
    gratitude is my attitude with an adoring publishing smile from teresahewesufabencinic

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