Send in the Clowns, er, Poets

I felt this past Wednesday morning what most of us, Barack Obama included, probably felt: a kind of exhausted elation. The length of the campaign and the overwhelming coverage leaves us weary, even though we feel proud of our country and cautiously optimistic about the future. Hopeful, you might say.

Hope, of course, is an example of a word that has been co-opted by political rhetoric, a word that now carries a different weight than it did before Obama’s improbable run. One of the interesting things about a presidential election is that people actually pay attention to language. Everything the candidates say is looked at from different angles and dissected, while certain phrases are repeated until they become slogans. Then there is the endless discussion and punditry, prognostication and analysis. There is a point when it seems like nothing new can possibly be said about the race, the candidates, their families, or the excruciating minutia of their tax plans.

The New York Times seemed to reach this point on Wednesday, and in the post-election silence ran the following on their Op-Ed page under the heading The Measure of Democracy: “What’s left to say after this seemingly endless campaign? The Op-Ed editors asked five poets to answer that question.”

Here’s what they came up with.

At first I thought it nice, to read a little poetry in a place usually reserved for a different kind of linguistic maneuvering. But really it was a backhanded compliment, and I know a polite evasion when I see one—don’t we all?  I can’t help but ask: why is poetry only of value when no one has anything left to say?

Poetry has long been considered a medium for certain emotions, and people who would not read or think about poetry at any other time will choose a poem for a wedding or a funeral. What is it about these moments that make poetry seem appropriate? The ability to frame human feelings and experiences in imagery and allegory? Are we comforted by its “beauty”? In the context of the Op-Ed piece, do we expect it to have a unique way of describing the democratic process that will illuminate the election like nothing else could? Or were all the columnists hung over and looking for filler?

There isn’t much left to say after this historic election. We traded boastful ineloquence for a man who quietly quoted Faulkner in a pivotal speech about race. And now that we have some dead space…call the poets. Surely they have something lying around that no one has read.

by Renee Lorion

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