Campaign on Poetry–an interruption

I know I promised “Pedagogy of Jack Grapes, part III,” but like Congressman Joseph Wilson (R-S.C.) at the health care speech tonight, I can’t help but interrupt.

As far as words go, it’s been a big week for President Obama:  one speech many didn’t want students to hear and another speech the GOP’s most excitable member couldn’t help but heckle. Based upon history, the president must be doing something right: Better to have people trying to stop you from speaking your truth than to run from your own words that turned out not to be true.

So let me begin by posing a question: What phrases of President Obama’s speeches do you find poetic?

A moment of silence for the integrity of Rep. Joseph Wilson (R-S.C.).

A moment of silence for the integrity of Rep. Joseph Wilson (R-S.C.).

It’s said that politicians campaign on poetry and govern on prose. Chris Weigant said the health care speech was reminiscent of the campaign. Yet Christopher Hitchens doesn’t believe President Obama’s content is as good as his delivery. So what lines if any in these most recent speeches do you find memorable? Please quote them in the comments below. For you, what are the poetic lines?

Other presidents have had poetic elements. President Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” There is a poetry to that quote: the drama of addressing Gorbachev as “Mr.” instead of “Secretary General” (after all, he said it in English because he was really talking to Joe and Joanne Six-Pack back in The States). And there are those monosyllabic words, each one like a jab to the ribs.

President G.H.W. Bush not only had poetry, he had a poet. Peggy Noonan is credited with writing the lines “thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler nation.” The imagery of the former was a successful campaign line; the latter appealed to a nation starved for a peace dividend after The Cold War. G.H.W.B. was elected in part on Noonan’s poetry.

Pres. Reagan had clever material.

Pres. Reagan had clever material.

Noonan is also credited with writing the line, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” The sad part about this line, which ultimately won the election for President Clinton, is that on one level or another, we all knew it was a lie.

Excuse me. I sounded a bit like Congressman Wilson there. We knew it couldn’t be true. Certainly, Pres. G.H.W. Bush knew it wasn’t true; as Reagan’s rival in the GOP 1980 primaries, he’d dubbed The Great Communicator’s economic policies “voodoo.”

I had been in the crowd at Devonshire Downs in 1980 to hear The Great Communicator talk about what a shame President Carter’s national deficit was. But after the election, it became obvious that cutting taxes while supplying military aid around the planet–including to Saddam Hussein, The Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Honduran Army–would increase the

Peggy Nonan wrote both the lines that elected Bush in 1988 and lost the election in 1992.

Peggy Noonan wrote the lines credited with Bush's win in 1988 and his loss in 1992.

national deficit. When he finally won the presidency, President Reagan did what would later be called “flip-flopping.” He said, “I am not worried about the deficit. It is big enough to take care of itself.” The allegorical turn of phrase doesn’t account solely for Pres. Reagan’s triumph over his own hypocrisy; certainly his acting skills and his audience’s receptivity helped, too.

Things have changed. When Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush addressed the nation’s youth on t.v., no one called it “indoctrination,” as did one well-known author last week. I learned about the opposition to Pres. Obama’s speech last Thursday afternoon when a woman who works at my old school told me how conservative media had told parents to call in. Some parents were scared; some were angry. It was not a fun day at school.  On Friday, the principal of the school spent a large part of the day taking complaints from parents who were sure the speech would include socialist pitches for health care.

As it turns out, the speech focused on learning; nevertheless, the big news was many  have still not learned the liabilities of a preemptive strike. At least on the playground, “He hit me first,” sounds defensive and better than, “He was gonna hit me first,” which smacks of paranoia. How little have we learned from the tortured intelligence on WMD? I shouldn’t be surprised. We live in a culture where wearing a gun to a townhall meeting on healthcare is considered a statement. Is it any more articulate than burning a flag at an anti-war rally?

And what is the symbolism of treating President Obama differently from previous presidents who were allowed to address the nation’s students on their education without protest? Why the double standard for Pres. Obama?

When you revise creative writing is that recreation?

When you revise creative writing is that recreation?

It seems that the impulse to silence others and shout them down is strong these days. Fortunately this week, the impulse to speak positively was stronger. Pres. Obama cited the need to learn and become good critical thinkers and scientists. And when students learn to conduct research, may they also be taught creative ways to say what they’ve learned so they can make language acts as Albert Einstein did: “I am convinced God does not play dice with the universe,” or “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

Poet on.

About brandoncesmat

Brandon Cesmat teaches literature & writing at CSU San Marcos and has taught with California Poets in the Schools since 1993. His books include Light in All Directions (Poetic Matrix) and When Pigs Fall in Love & Other Stories.
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3 Responses to Campaign on Poetry–an interruption

  1. brandoncesmat says:

    I asked the question about quotes because I couldn’t get past the opening of the health care speech: “I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last. ” This had a scary bind-me-to-the-wheel feel to it.

    “[We] did not come here just to clean up crises. We came here to build a future,” was a good turn of phrase and transition from the economy to health care.

    There’s some taut consonance going on here: “But what we’ve also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have towards their own government. Instead of honest debate, we’ve seen scare tactics.”


  2. Brandon Cesmat says:

    Apparently, the furor over the president’s education speech did have an effect:

  3. Brandon Cesmat says:

    For poet-teachers, the conclusion of Pres. Obama’s speech had a resonant narrative: “Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he’s outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school — because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child’s dreams.”

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