Rhetorical Verse: Persuasion in Early Twentieth-century American Poetry

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Belk, John Michael
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 30, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Cheryl Jean Glenn, Dissertation Advisor
  • Cheryl Jean Glenn, Committee Chair
  • Debra Hawhee, Committee Member
  • John Edmond Marsh, Committee Member
  • Stephen Howard Browne, Special Member
  • Rhetoric
  • Poetry
  • Early Twentieth-Century America
  • Political Left
  • Judicial Rhetoric
Between 1900 and 1940 in America, rhetorical verse—poetry with explicit hortatory goals and persuasive ends most often responding to specific political exigencies—became a popular rhetorical tool of the political left. However, through a number of cultural, political, and academic phenomena in the 1940s and 1950s, the artistic status of poetry would come to far overshadow its persuasive potential. As a result, poetry became the domain of the literary critic, leaving a robust tradition of rhetorical verse in the early decades of the twentieth century unstudied by historians of rhetoric. This project traces an early twentieth-century American tradition of rhetorical verse by examining the poetic response to three controversial court cases: the trial of Arturo Giovannitti in 1912, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1918, and the trial of the Scottsboro boys in 1931. Approaching a combination of archival and published material from a historiographical perspective, I contend that the poetry which responds to these trials represents an important example of how the political left often turned to rhetorical verse as a medium for their persuasive aims. Furthermore, I contend that the poems surrounding these trials display common features of rhetorical verse such as simplistic aesthetics, heavy end rhymes, and shared schemes and tropes drawn from the rhetoric of the labor movement. Nevertheless, as this project works to establish these commonalities, it also examines how rhetor-poets chose to deviate from these characteristics and how that effected the persuasive ability of the poems. As a result of its aesthetic simplicity, much rhetorical verse can be and has been dismissed as “bad” poetry. However, reading these poems as rhetorical texts opens rich new ways of rehabilitating a tradition of verse that balances artistic and persuasive qualities in a complex manner. In sum, I use a rhetorical historiographic approach to examine an understudied tradition of rhetorical verse as a major form of leftist rhetoric in early twentieth-century America.