Poetry and Politics

Politicians “campaign in poetry, but govern in prose,” somebody once said.  But in this presidential campaign season, I’ll be damned if I can find the poetry. Romney hasn’t found a keeper line yet, and the President’s campaign motto is simply “forward!”–as if he were giving instructions to a hapless student driver who hadn’t mastered the gear shift yet.  Maybe we have sunk so far down in a morass of partisanship and daily sniping that poetry isn’t possible even in the campaign season.  And maybe it’s just as well since the comment reveals just another typical American stereotype regarding poetry: that it’s flowery, exalted, idealistic language that has no connection to the “real world,” to “hard facts,” to “political reality.”  But the fact is that “poetry” has always laid the linguistic foundations of our genuine political aspirations.  Re-read the opening of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Or this, also from the Declaration:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Technically, this is prose, but it employs many of the techniques of poetry: figurative language, rhythm, assonance, and alliteration.  Many poets would give their eye teeth to have written something as resonant as “that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” or the masterful use of the foundation metaphor in that long, last periodic sentence. Eventually, Jefferson’s Declaration does get around to prose: a long list of grievances against the the British crown, and historians have pointed out that many of these are questionable.  But America was not founded on a complaint against King George, but on the idea that Americans derived their rights not from the King’s grace but from the Creator directly. And this claim is an act of poetry. 

There is an even more powerful example of the infusing power of poetry altering our political destiny in the language of Abraham Lincoln.  Re-read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural Address and then notice how the goosebumps you feel are created in part by Lincoln’s masterful marshaling of rhythm and image to serve his Union-saving purpose.  Examples can be gleaned as well from FDR and Martin Luther King and even Barack Obama, as a candidate in 2000. “Without a vision, the people perish,” someone else once said.  Poetry provides that vision and directs the prose of governance.  Without it, our nation’s state is like the lines from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”: 

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

 

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Published in: on October 1, 2012 at 2:22 am  Leave a Comment