Poetry, Obama, Dick-Riding, and E. E. Cummings
Elisa Gabbert noted this review of an anthology of poetry about Barack Obama’s first hundred days in office. The reviewer, Anis Shivani, is pretty brutal about the poems themselves, and I don’t have any reason cross him on that since I haven’t read them, and also because I don’t like occasional poems in general, and a collection of them sounds like a horrorshow of epic proportions. And if his choice of quotes is indicative of the work in this anthology, then the poets come off, as Boondocks creator Aaron Magruder put it in the opening scene of this season’s premier episode of The Boondocks, as dick-riders.
Yes, we poets are as susceptible to charismatic politicians as anyone else is, and we’re just as guilty (as a class) of foisting our hopes into the abstractions of political speech, even though we should probably know better. We’re supposed to be equipped to examine language closely and extract meaning from it, and more importantly, recognize when that language is empty, or when it only has the flavor of meaning, and not the substance.
I’m one of those people who isn’t disappointed with the Obama administration thus far, but that’s not because I think he’s been the bestest prezzie ever. It’s because my expectations weren’t high–not a slam on him, but on the nature of the system we live under. First of all, Obama never presented himself as a Kucinich-esque liberal or a fire-breathing populist a la John Edwards. He was a moderate. His health-care plan was more conservative than Hillary Clinton’s, and he made no bones about his plans to escalate in Afghanistan. There’s nothing in his history that would indicate he was anything other than a moderate, or slightly center-left. The one area where he has been more conservative than advertised has been on civil liberties, and he deserves all the crap that’s been flung at him over that.
His language on the campaign trail was about what you would expect from a person running for national office: a message of hope and change. What do those words mean? That depends entirely on who you are and what you want. The devil is, as they say, in the details.
Which brings us to E. E. Cummings and “next to of course god america i,” one of the poems I use pretty much every semester to illustrate the use of abstractions in political speech. It’s a poem that seems to me to be in the voice of a politician rousing a crowd to action, presumably to get men to join the military. It starts with an evocation of the holy trinity of political speech–god, country, and love–and continues with a reinforcement of patriotic themes.
“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
Pilgrims, the national anthem, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”: for me, these things evoke elementary school
indoctrination history class and Thanksgiving pageants, and triggers some of that nostalgia I’m now so wary of.
The evocation of these memories serves another purpose–to get the audience on the speaker’s side with an appeal to emotion rather than reason. All politicians do this, whether they’re saying “it’s time for a change” or “a thousand points of light” or “country first.” It’s easier, and it’s more effective than explaining how your tax plan will help the largest number of your constituents (assuming it will).
Cummings continues with these half-completed emotional phrases until line 9, the opening line of the sestet (though Cummings doesn’t break his sonnet here) when he says “why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-/ iful than those heroic happy dead / who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter / they did not stop to think they died instead.” This is the most complete moment in the poem, and it’s no coincidence that he links a lack of rational thought to the “heroic happy dead.” It’s an emotional response to political abstraction that got the young men in the military, and that leads to their deaths, he says.
But the politician can’t end it there. He finishes his speech with the line “then shall the voice of liberty be mute?'” Liberty is one of the great political abstractions–its meaning is wholly dependent on the user, and yet it’s something we all want. It’s one of the least communicative words in politics, in language perhaps. And the audience, if the politician has been effective, eats it up, is willing to rush to the slaughter in order to preserve liberty’s voice.
The politician, whether in this poem or on the campaign trail, often counts on an emotional response to crowd out reason or analysis, counts on the audience to embrace abstraction rather than agree with policy. It’s easy to alienate an audience with details–that’s why politicians don’t often offer them on the trail. But liberty? freedom? justice? Ah, we love that shit, as long as we get to define it for ourselves. Problem is, we’re not the ones being elected–they are–and if we don’t know what they mean by “hope and change,” for example, then that’s on us, because we didn’t demand specific answers when we had the chance.