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Poetry and Rhetoric

The virtuoso poet Audre Lorde opened her popular poem “Power” with the following lines:

The difference between poetry and rhetoric

is being ready to kill


instead of your children.

The stanza has puzzled many readers, but there has also been a vibrant and varied critical response. The first stanza is sometimes read as a deft set up for a switch from academic language to the imaginative horror show that follows as Lorde reflects in subsequent stanzas on the 1973 police murder of 10-year-old Clifford Glover in Queens and the 1974 acquittal of the guilty officer, Thomas Shea. Lorde depicts vampire-like scenarios, the devastating capitulation of the sole Black juror, and the rise---truly the creation---of a Black sociopath who commits seemingly senseless violence. These scenes shatter academic civility.

Other readers, Thomas Dilworth, for example, understand Lorde to be suggesting that poetry is a valiant act of self-sacrifice as opposed to the destructive capabilities of rhetoric. Considering the critical response in general, rhetoric comes off as an evil twin, contributing to oppression because of its cheap persuasion and inability to invigorate language and frame the depths of truth properly.


I cannot really locate myself in these latter arguments. After all, just as Lorde’s work is a poem and possessed of significant literary form crafted for emotional impact, it is also a rhetoric, a set of propositions, speculative or not, designed to promote reason. We are to respond with passion regarding Clifford Glover’s fate and with well-considered action, much of which would be prompted by rhetoric, against the system of white supremacism that produces police murders. That’s why I return now and then to the brilliance of Lorde’s artifact.

Unfortunately, poems have had to keep pace with tragedies over the years on into the era of Black Lives Matter. In fact, there already exists a volume of poetry, Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky, devoted to the memory of Trayvon Martin. We have seen or will see similar artistic gestures with respect to Miriam Carey, Sandra Bland, Osaze Osagie, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and others. I’m not choosing between that activity and the oratory of, say, Tamika Mallory. Her rhetoric, on display in Minneapolis back in May and full of poetry, is one of the critical tools we need and has as much potential to effect positive change as any formal poem.

I didn’t come of age choosing between Audre Lorde and orators. For me, all respect to Lorde, the difference between poetry and rhetoric is what you decide to call poetry and what you decide to call rhetoric.


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