In the 1970s, I had the good fortune of taking a course in modern poetry from Marshall McLuhan. For the first three months we all waited patiently, but he never even looked at a poem. Instead, we learned about Ciceronian rhetoric, in particular its five parts: inventio, dispositio, elecutio, memoria, and action.
We were baffled. What did this have to do with modern poetry? By December we launched into our first poem (Yeats) and quickly realized rhetoric was the underlying organizing principle for many of the classically trained writers of the period. But we also began to see it extended its influence well beyond the merely modern. As a non-linear organizing principle, rhetoric can be found at the very root of how our language forms itself, as well as its role in the art of persuasion; it is a shaping, organic structure that drives forward both form and content. For those who care to look closely, it is the primary organizing principle behind my poetry book, Taking Shape.
In a previous entry (Why a Poem Knows What it Doesn’t Know – Thinking Through to the End), I also compared the growth and evolving shape of a poem to a flock of birds “constantly adjusting to unseen reasons for movement, this way or that. Possessing the illusion of collective wisdom, the flock really is responding to new and subtle directions communicated from the outer edges of the group.” Describing this process, scientists believe the behavior is “not a property of any individual bird, but rather emerges as a property of the group itself. There is no leader, no overall control; instead the flock’s movements are determined by the moment-by-moment decisions of individual birds, following simple rules in response to interactions with their neighbors in the flock.”
Spurred on by the addition of new words or phrases, the creative direction, diction and syntax of a poem emerge as much from the often unintended interaction of the words as from the more formal and structured planning of the poet. In this sense there is a kind of spontaneous and parallel response in which ideas and actions from multiple origins integrate into the context of the poem. Like the flock itself, the shape and direction of the poem take cues from constantly changing sources. The creation of the poem is both centralized in the poet, as with rhetoric, and decentralized in the emerging interaction of words within the poem; in this sense the poem can be seen as part planned, and part self-organizing. This self-organizing principle, also known as emergent behavior, is at the heart of my next book of poetry, Birds Flock Fish School.