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Sarah Palin, The Anti-Poet

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Watching Sarah Palin resign the other week, I remembered how frustrating it is to listen to her speak. She uses simple words, but combines them into a fog that's hard to penetrate, out of which a few political clichés like "freedom" and "reform" appear. Most politicians, of course, obfuscate to some degree, but Palin is a master, and she does it constantly. Look at how she turns a simple statement into a mind-numbing puzzle (this is from Hart Seely's terrific collection of found poems taken from actual Sarah Palin quotes):

You know,
Small mayors,
Mayors of small towns--
Quote, unquote--
They're on the front lines.

A quick analysis reveals why understanding Palin can be such a challenge. She follows a folksy "you know" with a clear misstatement--"small mayors"--which she follows with a clarification, which she then amends with the inexplicable "quote, unquote." By the time she gets to her point--that small town mayors are on the front lines (which she could have simply said)--one is too bogged down in misstatements, repetitions, poor syntax and folksiness to know what to think. This is, no doubt, why her interviewers often look a bit stunned, jaw slightly agape, when Palin finishes answering a question: they don't have a clear idea of what she said.

When you extend Palin's speaking style (if it's even a style) to a more complex issue like the bailout, it becomes a sort of verbal Armageddon. Here's another found poem by Seely called "On the Bailout":

Ultimately,
What the bailout does
Is help those who are concerned
About the health care reform
That is needed
To help shore up our economy,
Helping the--
It's got to be all about job creation, too.

Shoring up our economy
And putting it back on the right track.
So health care reform
And reducing taxes
And reining in spending
Has got to accompany tax reductions
And tax relief for Americans.
And trade.

We've got to see trade
As opportunity
Not as a competitive, scary thing.
But one in five jobs
Being created in the trade sector today,
We've got to look at that
As more opportunity.
All those things.

Your head should be spinning at this point.

Julian Gough of the UK's Prospect Magazine opined facetiously this past December that "Palin is a poet, and a fine one at that. What the philistine media take for incoherence is, in fact, the fruitful ambiguity of verse." His example of this "fruitful ambiguity" is a found poem he termed "The Relevance of Africa:"

And the relevance to me
With that issue,
As we spoke
About Africa and some
Of the countries
There that were
Kind of the people succumbing
To the dictators
And the corruption
Of some collapsed governments
On the
Continent,
The relevance
Was Alaska's.

Gough elaborated on his tongue-in-cheek theory: "A great poet needs to leave open the door between the conscious and unconscious; Sarah Palin has removed her door from its hinges. A great poet does not self-censor; Sarah Palin seems authentically innocent of what she is saying. She could be the most natural, visionary poet since William Blake." Great poets, of course, do self-censor (even the Beats), at least during the editing process.

Gough's editorial got me wondering if there's any legitimacy to viewing Palin's peculiar speech as a sort of poetry, but I can't think of a poetic movement with which Palin has much in common. Almost all poetry--regardless of its aims-- strives for clarity, precision and some sort of communication. Even if a good poem is difficult, or even surreal, it's carefully crafted to be that way, in order to facilitate a type of understanding. Palin's speech, intentionally or not, works against understanding. Her tangle of folksy obfuscation is the antithesis of poetry, and perhaps more than any other public figure today, she's something of an antipoet.

I do think there are similarities between Palin's statements and a Buddhist ko-an--a deliberately provocative and unanswerable question like "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" But whereas the ko-an aims at enlightenment, Palin offers delightenment--if that were like, you know, a word. Quote unquote. All those things. (Sigh)

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