Poetry as Apostrophe

The contrast with other major generic modes of speaking is that in narrative somebody is speaking about something to an audience, and that in drama characters are addressing one other, speaking with one another. In contrast, poetry consists in a subject that speaks in calling upon something, not directly addressing another speaker or an audience.

Poetry can exist because of a specific language situation, then, in which the speaker appears to be turned away in terms of address and speaking. This is why poetry could be defined by John Stuart Mill as a form of “overhearing”. It is as if we listen to someone in secret, or to someone who is not aware, or does not care, that we are eavesdropping on him or her.[3] With respect to this, the function of apostrophe in the realm of poetry was then defined to be fourfold by Jonathan Culler (1981). Apostrophe may serve:

- to passionately express or exclaim;
- to call upon something;
- to direct attention towards the speaking subject in her calling upon something,
- to lend life to all kinds of things and subjects that become life-like because they are addressed.

As we will see, especially the fourth function, which also connotes Longinus’ dealing with the apostrophe, will prove to be of interest when the poetic apostrophe is used in a context that turns it into a successful rhetorical tool with regard to bearing witness.[4]
The poetic definition of apostrophe is not the oldest one. Apostrophe has its origin in rhetoric. Rhetoric is said to originate in Sicily, with Empedocles (490-430 BC) as its founding father (the source is Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric). After the overthrowing of the tyrant Thrasydaeus in 470 BC, Empedocles is supposed to have invented rhetoric in order to address a wide variety of injustices that had occurred under the tyrant’s rule, which had to be solved peacefully. Following this story, one may say that rhetoric finds its origin in relation to the system of justice, and within that context one of the oldest figures in rhetoric may be apostrophe. In this context, the term apostrophe literally means: “to turn”(strophein) “away” or “aside” (apo). It is described by Quintillian as follows: “the diversion of our address from the judge, is wonderfully stirring, whether we attack our adversary … or turn to make some invocation such as, “For I appeal to you, hills and groves of Alba” (Quintilian, book IX, 2:37). So apostrophe indicates that one uses the technique of turning away from the subject one was speaking to, in order to address another one, in a different mode. With respect to this, according to classical rhetoric, the apostrophe may also involve a digression, or change of topic. I will be focusing, however, on the different modes of address.

Note 3: The rhetoricians that Plato attacked were also known as sophists. Like rhetoricians these acquired a bad name in European history, as in “sophistry”. On the origin and history of rhetoric, and also on the rather positive ways in which rhetoric has been dealt with in relation to the construction of politics, society and civilization, see George Kennedy (1994), A New History of Classical Rhetoric.

Note 4: Longinus suggests that apostrophe has ekphrastic powers (on which more later) as a result of which hearing about something may change into seeing it before one’s imaginary eyes and, consequently, experiencing it (Longinus 1995: 200-201).

Frans-Willem Korsten