Modal Difficulty and Political Speech

The Slate article “The Poetry of Sarah Palin” put me in mind of Donald Rumsfeld’s poetry (compiled by the same Slate writer):

A Confession

Once in a while,
I’m standing here, doing something.
And I think,
“What in the world am I doing here?”
It’s a big surprise.

and Jean Chrétien’s:

A Proof is a Proof

What kind of a proof?
It’s a proof.
A proof is a proof.
And when you have a good proof,
it’s because it’s proven.

(which is a bit unfair as a criticism, since English isn’t his first language). It was online awhile back formatted as a poem, from memory as above (the quote isn’t from memory – it’s all over the damn place). I wish I could find the original link.

I’m not so much interested in the politics of these satirical pieces (which made me laugh despite how humourless I’m about to sound), but about what they say about the public conception of poetry. The underlying assumptions seem to be (a) that anything broken up into lines is poetry and (b) that poets talk funny, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. What the satirists are really saying is that these politicians talk a non-standard version of English from which they (the satirists) suffer a modal difficulty – and if they (the politicians) aren’t speaking in prose, well, what’s left? It must be poetry. There’s no third thing, right?

There’s a possible third thing: nonsense. (Ask me to define the difference between poetry and nonsense and I’ll have to refer to that old saw: I know it when I see it. I doubt I could come up with a definition which includes Wallace Stevens and Wesley Willis but excludes the above. I can only hope you all know what I’m talking about.) But these politicians aren’t speaking nonsense – what they’re saying makes sense if you can just ignore their bizarre sentence structure – so if it isn’t (quite) prose and it isn’t (quite) poetry and it isn’t (quite) nonsense, what is it?

4 thoughts on “Modal Difficulty and Political Speech

  1. I’d have to say that I don’t think anyone speaks in prose. Isn’t that one of those things prose writers have to learn: that dialog on the page is nothing like real-life dialog?

    I don’t think we should replace your current categories (I rather like nonsense, myself, although not in my poems) but add to them.

  2. That Sarah Palin “poem” reads like Engrish to me… something that would show up on a graphic T or hoodie with a totally unrelated graphic on the streets of Tokyo.

    Two of my six parental figures are politicians. I tend to think of political speech as an entity unto itself. The higher up you get (municipal -> provincial -> federal in Canada) the more abstract and convoluted the modes of speech become. The more local you get, the more definite and personal the speech becomes. The larger you get, the closer you get to nonsense.

    During the current Canadian election, I mentioned to my husband how the heavily-accented English of French-speaking politicians, and the heavily-accented French of English-speaking politicians, is a distinctly Canadian phenomenon. I kind of love it. I feel like Chretien’s and Dion’s Englishes have their own inherent poetry. But that might just be my patriotic sentimentalism showing.

    I would love to find out what the general populace thinks poetry is. Any way we can wrangle StatsCan into doing that?

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