Citizens divided: Poetry and political rhetoric

Guest post by Peter Filkins

Though it was heartening to see the Poetry Foundation and the Poetry Society of America  sponsoring an event titled “Red, White, and Blue: Poetry and Politics” on Thursday, September 27, in Chicago, New York, Houston, and Washington, DC, there is little hope the paltry, if not embarrassing rhetoric of the current political season will improve in the coming weeks. For what is extraordinary about the rhetoric is not how bad it is, but how empty it is. The Obama-Biden campaign slogan? “Forward.” That of Romney-Ryan? “Believe in America.” Neither candidate says anything, but more importantly, neither wishes to risk saying anything.

It is not a new low in political tactics to which we have sunk (remember Willy Horton? Remember Johnson’s “Daisy Girl”?), but rather a dearth in what makes for effective political speech:  a balance between rhetoric and specificity. Whether on the stump or the airwaves, there is either too much empty rhetoric or cynical manipulation of the facts (Obama is cutting Medicare, when he’s not; Romney killed the cancer patient, when he didn’t). Add to this each camp’s parsing of each miscue to their own snarky advantage, and what we have is a wearing away of the fabric of trust in political speech until there seems to be no trust in words or politics at all.

Poetry’s purpose is to renew our trust in the ability of language to speak to the general and the particular at once, and to move us to embrace our better angels while appreciating human frailty in the face of tragedy. When at the start of “Nineteen Hundred Nineteen” Yeats reflects on the ravages of history and war to pronounce, “Many ingenious lovely things are gone/ That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,” it is the sweep of his rhetoric combined with the understated despair with which it is spoken that convinces us. When Adrienne Rich reminds us in An Atlas of the Difficult World that “A patriot is not a weapon,” her rhetorical play on the name of a missile is done for specific poetic and political effect.

Political speech at its best has always taken good lessons from poetry. Though admittedly it sets a high bar, the final paragraph of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural presents us with a president laid low by war and a country desperate to end it and look to the future while being asked:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Could one imagine invoking “him who shall have borne the battle” in non-partisan terms today? Or are we more likely to roll out Joe the Plumber?

When Barry Goldwater famously asserted that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” as much as one might disagree, at least there was something there to chew on. Even the more pedestrian ring of George H.W. Bush’s declaration “Read my lips: no new taxes” put something on the line. Now what we get are vague nationalist platitudes like Romney’s stand that “We are Americans, it doesn’t have to be this way!”

Poetry cannot save our politics, but what can help is more careful attention to the language we use, listen to, and accept. Coleridge defined poetry simply as “the best words in the best order,” and Todd Akin might have taken a “legitimate” lesson from that, as well as Romney before his “inartful” snub of the 47%. However, our politics has come to be satisfied with “the best name-calling employed for the most cynical means to a temporary political advantage.”

On the eve of World War II, W.H. Auden observed in a poem that “fashionable madmen raise/ their pedantic boring cry,” while also asserting that “Certainty, fidelity/ On the stroke of midnight pass/ Like vibrations of a bell.” There is an equation at work in this. The further our public speech degenerates into vagueness and sinister vacuity, the harder it is to maintain the invisible bonds of whatever shared certainty or fidelity we have left, while the level of our discourse with one another is the only stay against the public discourse that seeks to do our thinking for us. Poetry cannot prevent this from happening entirely on its own, but the discipline and urge to find “the best words in the best order” is a standard we’d do well to hold our politicians to, as well as ourselves when listening to them.

Peter Filkins is the author of The View We’re Granted, a book of poems. He teaches at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA.

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