Positive Identification through Being the ‘Occasional Asshole’: A Burkeian Analysis of “Dear John,” by Poet Tony Hoagland

Rosemary Royston, Young Harris College


This paper gives a brief overview of the redemption drama as found in the work of rhetorician Kenneth Burke and applies this drama to the poem “Dear John” by Tony Hoagland. The poem is examined through the Burkeian lens, with special attention to the elements of the redemption drama, while also highlighting the use of humor as an effective rhetorical strategy.

RECALL A TIME WHEN someone said something inappropriate – how the moment was uncomfortable, yet, upon the apology from the offender and the forgiveness of the offended, everyone is suddenly at ease. A moment such as this is exactly what contemporary poet Tony Hoagland describes in his poem “Dear John.” In fact, when examining “Dear John” through a Burkeian lens, it is easy to identify Burke’s redemption drama. In the text, Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres, Karyn and Donald Rybacki describe the redemption drama as a social drama that involves the elements of guilt, purification, and redemption (72). Yet for this drama to be effective, the main concept of Burkeian rhetoric, identification, must be present. Burke saw society as a collection of various hierarchies, with individuals and groups engaging in ongoing struggles (Rybacki 71). Because there are a number of hierarchies (political, social, economic) an individual is unable to satisfy all the rules imposed on him. In his text, The Rhetoric of Religion, Burke outlines the redemption drama in short verse, where order represents the many expectations or “commandments” found in society:

Here are the steps
In the Iron Law of History
That welds Order and Sacrifice:

Order leads to Guilt
(for who can keep commandments!)
Guilt needs Redemption
(for those who would not be cleansed!)
Redemption needs Redeemer
(which is to say, a Victim!).

Through Guilt
To Victimage
(hence Cult of the Kill)… (4-5).

To summarize, in no way can an individual satisfy all of the expectations of the many hierarchies with which he is engaged When the individual fails to keep “order,” he feels guilty. He then needs to redeem himself for his failing and either be the victim or name a victim for the shortcoming. In the end, redemption is needed to alleviate the sin or shortcoming.

However, for this social drama to work, the reader or listener must identify with the rhetor, which in this case is a poet. Without identification between the two, then, the redemption drama will fail as the reader must experience the guilt (even if vicariously) and witness both the redemption and the purification of the speaker. In his work, The Rhetoric of Redemption, Bobbit posits a key question in regard to the redemption drama, “How does the rhetor take the listener from guilt to redemption…how does he or she achieve symbolic purification for the audience?” (41). This paper will examine how the poet does just that, allowing the reader to vicariously experience not only the poet’s faux pas but also his purification and ultimate redemption. As this social drama is enacted, one will also see how Hoagland utilizes many rhetorical strategies in his poem, such as narration, description, and justification. But inevitably it is his use of humor which allows the reader to enter and exit a social drama with an unexpected amount of ease.

All humans yearn for acceptance. We all wish to be a part of a group where shared beliefs, interests, or values exist. And within the first stanza of “Dear John,” the poet describes his desire to be liked as he attempts to make friends with someone to whom he has just been introduced. However, his attempt at bonding fails miserably, as he writes, “I never would have told John that faggot joke / if I had known that he was gay” (1-2). Immediately the reader is thrown into a social drama. The poet admits to cracking a bad joke and instead of welcoming his potential new friend he has likely offended him. The poet continues, “I really shot myself in the foot with that Neanderthal effort / to make a witty first impression” (3-4). Within these four opening lines, the reader has had two opportunities to identify with the poet. First, all readers can identify with the wish to be liked. Secondly, readers (if honest) can also remember a time when they, too, said something inappropriate and offended someone. Yet a glimpse of the character of the poet is revealed as he admits to his “… Neanderthal effort / to make a witty impression” (3-4). Instead of being defensive or making a quick exit after his faux-pas, the reader understands that the poet feels guilty and the next stage of the drama begins: purification.

Purification is evident as the poet justifies the impetus for his off-color joke. The poet simply wants John, the “skinny guy from New York City,” who has just arrived in Vermont and is “nervous about how real the maples really were” to feel comfortable (5, 9-10). After all, the only Vermont John is familiar with is the one “…from the pictures on the side / of a gallon can of Log Cabin maple syrup” (7-8). Hoagland continues, “so I made my tasteless remark to put him at his ease” (11). The reader now has further insight into the character of the poet – he is the type of person who admits to a mistake and whose basic motivation was to make a new person feel comfortable.

Hoagland’s strategy for keeping the reader engaged in the scene has been not only to describe the situation and to justify his acts, but also to use humor as a rhetorical strategy. His humor is directed not only at the outside drama, but also at himself in the form of self-deprecation. In fact, he finds a type of freedom in being a self-acknowledged jerk, as he writes,

there’s something democratic
about being the occasional asshole—
you make a mistake, you apologize
and everyone else breathes easier—(16-19).

The elements of the redemption drama are now all evident: guilt in being the “asshole,” purification through explanation of motive, and redemption as “everyone else breathes easier” (19). Because the poet recognizes his “male idiocy,” apologizes, and is forgiven, he and John become friends (12). The friendship is the ultimate form of redemption as it affirms that the poet has been forgiven. The poet describes how John helps him “…through the whole lesbian thing / when Margie decided to take her feminism in a recreational direction” (20-22). In turn, the poet buys John “…a recording / of simulated gunfire and police sirens” to help him sleep through the quiet Vermont nights (22-23).


In fact, not only does the poet become friends with John by the end of the poem, he has come to love him,

---not for his cuteness (he is)
or for his endearing manner of being always on the brink
of falling apart,
but precisely because he doesn’t ever threaten to love me back (30-33).

At this point in the poem, a shift occurs. The Burkeian social drama has taken a twist, moving away from a generalized outside audience to a much more internal and personal one. The poet continues in the confessional mode,

On someone like that you can lavish your affection
in perfect safety—
that’s nothing to be proud of, I suppose—
and yet, obscurely, I am (34-37).

In short, the poet feels safe in “lavishing his affection” on John simply because John never “threaten[s] to love [him] back” (33-34). This personal observation tells the reader much about the poet’s persona and his view on love. Clearly, the poet is more comfortable loving someone who does not threaten to return the adoration. And while the generalized outside audience has somewhat disappeared, an opportunity for readers to identify with the poet remains. However, any identification occurring will be on a subjective level. Not all people are fulfilled by unreciprocated love. Yet some readers will find this personal revelation similar to their own life situation and will identify. In his ending, the poet has veered away from speaking solely to an outside audience and turned to an interior view – it is as if he is having a conversation with himself to which the reader is privy.

To return to the initial question posed by Bobbit, the rhetor, or poet, has taken the listener from guilt to redemption by becoming the sacrificial lamb at his own hand. Because of the multiple opportunities for consubstantiation or identification, the reader experiences the poet’s guilt, purification, and redemption. Even though the poet takes on the role of the “occasional asshole,” the reader vicariously experiences every crucial element of this social drama. By sacrificing himself through admission of guilt and self-deprecating humor, the poet pays for his sin and is redeemed through the reciprocal friendship. Ironically, it is the freedom experienced from being an “asshole” that enables the redemption drama to operate on both a universal level and a personal level, and it is the rhetorical strategy of humor that allows the reader to have a few chuckles along the way, moving in and out of this social drama with ease.

* Rosemary Royston is a poet with a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University. She currently works as the Vice President for Planning and Assessment at Young Harris College. She can be reached at rainbow_28rr@yahoo.com.


Works Cited


Bobbit, David. The Rhetoric of Redemption. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,

Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Hoagland, Tony. “Dear John,” What Narcissism Means to Me. Minnesota: Graywolf Press,

Rybacki, Karyn, and Donald Rybacki. Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres.
California: Wadsworth, 1991.

"Positive Identification through Being the ‘Occasional Asshole’: A Burkeian Analysis of “Dear John,” by Poet Tony Hoagland"; by Rosemary Royston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.