This election has caused me to look closely into areas I’ve shut down with my own particular brand of liberal cliché. Lately I’ve felt less like asserting some “truth.” I’m still absorbing this cataclysmic political shift. I’m trying to see what the truth might be. I won’t ever know, of course. Causes and conditions are infinite. But it seems that even the New York Times is looking at their coverage to see when and where they may have failed to see with clear eyes. Again, they’ll never get it “right,” but even the intention to see without prejudice is good enough to satisfy the heart of Freedom, I suspect.
I’ve never known more talk about language in politics. Not the usual kind of talk, but about nuance and how it matters.
I say, who better to look at word usage than poets? I propose a national committee of poets to sift through rhetoric and post weekly what they see! A Committee of Poet-Examiners (COPE)! When anyone pays any attention to poets at all, it’s often in scorn of our nit-picking concern with exactness, but it’s that very practice at looking closely that can be of great use to us now.
“America will no longer settle for anything less than the best. We must reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring. We have to do that. We’re going to dream of things for our country, and beautiful things and successful things once again. I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interest first we will deal fairly with anyone.”
The poem begins with “America,” its four syllables that take over the line by their sheer weight. “No longer settle for” of course, marks the coming era as new, changed, fresh. The alliteration of “less” and “best” accentuates “best,” just as the repetition of “reclaim” accentuates “no longer settle.” The conjunctions that separate “big and bold and daring,” forcefully punctuate each adjective, evoking an image of, say, John Wayne, chin lifted toward some possible danger to be faced.
It is important to note that the speaker in this poem, by emphasizing “We” (three sentences begin with it), makes this a group project, one that has no concrete goal, allowing the listener to imagine his or her way into the poem. Once the rhetoric is raised in this way, the words become chiefly triggers for individual dreaming. “Beautiful things and successful things,” empty of attribution, translates the entire poem into a dream.
The change in rhetoric in the last line quickly and decisively brings the poem to earth, in one-to-one conversation with the “world community.” Within the context of that rhetorical closeness, now the poem reinforces again the sense of threat, the need to “put America’s interests first,” while simultaneously defusing it with the concluding words “deal fairly with anyone.”
The rhythmic movement of the poem is, on the whole, level. There is no rising to a peak or falling off. Each sentence is its own declaration and doesn’t need the others. There is no need for cooperation to move from one idea to the next.
“I know how disappointed you feel because I feel it too, and so do tens of millions of Americans who invested their hopes and dreams in this effort. This is painful and it will be for a long time, but I want you to remember this. Our campaign was never about one person or even one election, it was about the country we love and about building an America that’s hopeful, inclusive and big-hearted.”
The poem begins with “I” in relation to “you.” The relational aspect informs the whole poem. The word with the most syllables is “disappointed,” and it will resonate throughout. The first sentence is long, and expanding: from “I” to “you” to “tens of millions.” Its rhythm is almost iambic, a flat-footedness that encourages the impact of the final word, “effort,” which echoes off the end and leads immediately to “painful.” The reference to “invested” in “hopes and dreams” is a reminder of all sorts of investments, monetary and otherwise, that have failed through no fault of the investor.
The controlling language, by its placement, so far, is “disappointed,” “effort,” and “painful.” Followed by the repetition of “long”—“a long, long time”—the poem takes on the quality of a bedtime story. We are prepared, then for a moral of the story—that there is, or can be, a gradual accretion from one person to the whole, from disappointment to a love which is “inclusive and big-hearted.”
The sentences rely on connections to each other. “This” in sentence two refers to what must be remembered from sentence one. “Our campaign” refers to the “you” of the previous sentence. The poem has led the reader, hand in hand, through the Slough of Despond to the Heavenly City, where there will be inclusive love.
Did I interpret as I interpreted? Yes, of course. But am I seeing how language works here? I stand on my many years as a poet and writer when I claim that, yes, I am seeing accurately how language works. I am, as much as I know how, minding my own business as an interpreter. I am watching the movement and the word choice. I am being the best journalist I know how to be.
And what do we learn from this? Again, the COPE will not write the editorial page! That’s not their job here. Their job is not to push, not to pull, and not to shut down.
I dedicate this post to my friend and colleague at the University of Delaware, Charlie Robinson, leading scholar in the works of Mary Shelley, particularly her novel, Frankenstein. Charlie died today. He loved words, and how they work together. He had a great sense of humor and would have enjoyed this post, I think. I will always miss him.