Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Poetry 'n Politics

     The role of poetry in politics moves in lockstep with poetry's status in the society at large. Currently, that translates to excerpted song lyrics and lines from popular movies. Memes.

     Typically, politicians have used portions beginning and ending with accented syllables. The first captures the listener's attention while the stressed terminus suggests resolution. If dealing with iambic verse, then, the initial syllable is either omitted (acephaly) or stressed (spondee), as Ronald Reagan did in various usages of that opening line from "High Flight":

 [Oh,] I | have slipped | the sur|ly bonds | of earth

     Another ploy is to invert the first iamb, as in the William Henry Harrison (the "hero of Tippecanoe") and John Tyler 1840 U.S. presidential campaign song:

 Tippe|canoe | and Tyl|er, too

     An exception is this quote from John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address, which begins and ends with unstressed syllables:

  "Ask not what your country can do for you;
   ask what you can do for your country."

     At first blush this is a rhythmic hodge-podge but if we sense pauses after the first "do" and second "you" we get perfect amphibrachs (de DUM de). To wit, where "[x]" marks missing unaccented syllables (i.e. the iambic substitutions), we see:

 "Ask not what | your country | can do [x] | for you; ask
  what you [x] | can do for | your country."

     There is another technique illustrated here--a rather common one that, as far as I know, doesn't seem to have a name in any human language: "country" is featured because it is the only dysyllabic word amidst exclusively monosyllabic ones. At least as often we will encounter the opposite: a string of polysyllabic words coming to a thudding conclusion with a monosyllabic one. If you have spent any time on a park bench you know that this is the basis of squirrel communication. We call it "chekla". But I digress...

     Given that the English language itself, along with its verse, is predominantly iambic, it follows that the poetry in contemporary politics would be as well. That is entirely logical. And entirely wrong.

     Consider these examples:

Go ahead. Make my day.

 - Ronald Reagan, quoting "Dirty Harry" (see also "Do you feel lucky, punk?")

 Yes, we can.

 - Barack Obama, derived from "Si, se puede" (see also "Hope and change" and "Please proceed, Governor")

     The dominant cadence in today's sloganized politics is the cretic (DUM de DUM), also known as the amphimacer or "the rocking rhythm". Dislodging entrenched voters is, apparently, analogous to rocking a vehicle out of a quagmire.

     Of what importance is poetry? If you were watching as Barack Obama gave his "Yes we can" speech you didn't need to be a poet, a prosodist or a songwriter like will.i.am to feel history turn.

     Many of the examples we see above are as bad as poetry gets: clichés, platitudes and vacuities. Nevertheless, the next time people quote W. H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats", saying that "poetry makes nothing happen", ask them how many poetic phrases from losing candidates they can bring to mind. More than polls, pundits or promises, the single most accurate predictor of politicians' fortunes is the quantity (if not the quality) of poetry in their speeches.

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