by Carol Despeaux Fawcett
My mom loved puzzles. She spent most of my childhood in our little mom amd pop grocery store, and in between ringing up customers, stocking shelves, and keeping me occupied, she loved to work on puzzles. Crosswords. Cryptograms. Hangman. Word search. Maybe this is where my love of words came from.
I never enjoyed puzzles like Mom did, but it dawned on me a few years ago that writing poetry is my form of puzzle work. I enjoy hunting for just the right word. Sometimes I wonder if the joy I feel when a poem finally comes together is what Mom felt when she successfully completed a crossword.
Another part of puzzling together a poem is the fun I have in playing with rhetorical devices. What are rhetorical devices?
Rhetorical devices are language used in a certain way to persuade. I use rhetorical devices to evoke an emotional response in my reader or to get them to see something in a particular way. I am very fond of metaphor, simile, and alliteration, so I have to be careful not to overuse them, otherwise my work will feel as disjointed as an eight-legged wolf spider.
You can combine rhetorical devices, too. Sometimes, I use metaphor and anaphora and parallelism in the same paragraph. (The last sentence contained polysyndeton—using a conjunction between a series of words in a list of three or more).
If you rely mostly on a handful of the same devices in your writing, I suggest that you explore and practice with others. You could even create a fun rhetorical device practice. Sometimes, I’ll set a timer for 15 minutes and just word play ideas for a character from my novel-in-progress. I have a folder in my Scrivener program just for this word play.
Below is an example from my novel. This is the first time my protagonist, Caitlin, meets the novel’s main antagonist, Julian:
“If the eyes were a window to one’s soul, then Julian’s soul was deep and fathomless and so old there was a reptilian shine to it. Something in there watched and waited and counted on winning whatever game was in play. A chill crawled up my spine, coiling at the base of my skull.” (Polysyndeton and alliteration).
Another example from my novel: “Anya’s lips were as bloated and botoxy as overinflated water wings.” (Simile and alliteration).
I use rhetorical devices in my poetry, too. My poem “Second Year” from my poetry book, “The Dragon & The Dragonfly” is about what the second year of grieving felt like after my husband died. It’s one of my favorite poems because it moves from grief to hope, from loss to the possibility of new beginnings.
I chose to write a list poem of “first times” to reflect the rhetorical device of anaphora—the beginning of each new stanza repeats the same phrase. (Content and form working together).
Did I sit down with this intention in mind? No! All I had was the tail of an idea and then I let it evolve on paper organically. When I edit is when I am more purposeful with my rhetorical devices.
Besides anaphora, what other devices do you see? Post them in the comments. You may find some I didn’t notice!
First time I laughed out loud, then looked around
for the person making that raucous noise.
First time I slept through the night and went
an entire day without crying.
First time I shed happy tears,
holding our newborn grandson.
First time I went to the movies by myself—
didn’t feel a million eyes staring.
First time I slept in our old bedroom in a new bed
and went 2 days without crying.
First time I visited Seattle’s butterfly museum for your
birthday—didn’t fall apart—didn’t stay in bed for a week.
First time I went hiking in the woods by myself
and was not afraid I’d get lost.
First time I lived alone in 50 years,
and didn’t cry for 7 days straight.
First time I noticed another man’s smile
across a crowded coffee shop.
First time I took myself on a dinner date, reading
“A Moveable Feast” over spaghetti and meatballs.
First time I imagined kissing another man,
2-day stubble against my cheek.
First time I said out loud: I want to be here.
I want to fall in love with love.
There are over 50 rhetorical devices. You can find some of the most common with examples here: Rhetorical Devices & How to Use Them.
Exercise: Choose five devices that you’ve never used before and incorporate them into your own word play.
You can learn more about my writing on my website.