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The Poetry Of A Political Speech

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Presidential nomination acceptance speeches surely aim to create great quotes, not to repeat them. So I should have figured that when I went digging around in such speeches this past week looking for lines of poetry, I'd come up empty handed. Well, almost. George McGovern quoted William Butler Yeats in '72: "Count where man's glory most begins and ends, and say: My glory was I had such friends," but went on to win just one state and 17 electoral votes. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the political power of verse.

It's not that candidates never quote. Many, including Obama Thursday night, pull from the Bible, and everyone, and I mean everyone, quotes Lincoln. Gerald Ford, oddly, quoted himself in his acceptance speech. Twice. He then--and I'm not making this up--quoted an imaginary voter saying, "Jerry, you have done a good job, keep right on doing it." Eisenhower, in his '56 speech, quoted the great 19th Century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen: "I hold that man is in the right who is most clearly in league with the future." Because nothing says America like 19th Century Norway!

While poetry may not be referenced often, the best speeches are full of poetry themselves, most notably in their emphasis on rhythm. I'm not thinking of the metrical regularity of formal verse, but rather the cadences of the bible--seized upon by great preachers like Martin Luther King--which Walt Whitman turned into his grand and rolling verse. It's rhythm as Mary Oliver described it in her book A Poetry Handbook:

"When we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, the sweet grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven."

What's "body-heaven"? I'm pretty sure that it's what happens when you listen to Barack Obama speak.

Repetition is another commonly used poetic technique. When it's well delivered orally or on the page, repetition ratchets up the intensity of a poem or speech--each reappearance of a familiar phrase becomes a brief moment of pleasure, and repetitions build on each other, heightening the effect. Look at the power of refrain in this famous speech Winston Churchill delivered on June 4, 1940, during the early, dark days of World War II:

"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender..."

Obama, too, is masterful at building momentum through refrain, as he did in this excerpt from his speech Thursday night:

"Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their job and caring for a sick child or an ailing parent.

Now is the time to change our bankruptcy laws, so that your pensions are protected ahead of CEO bonuses, and the time to protect Social Security for future generations.

And now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day's work, because I want my daughters to have the exact same opportunities as your sons."

Of course, when it's poorly presented, repetition can seem stilted and suffocating. Remember McCain's speech before that infamous lime green jello backdrop: "That's not change we can believe in....he he he ..." (shudder).

Finally, one of my favorite poetic and rhetorical tricks is the chiasma. The term is related to the Greek letter Χ and means "crossing". Chiasmas have a symmetrical/mirrored structure, and have the effect of subconsciously signaling a conclusion. Here's a simple example from Romeo and Juliet:

"This love feel I that feel no love in this."

Shakespeare's is an interesting line, but a good chiasma is a literary firework--an "OH!" moment -- and Bill Clinton's delivered a great one Wednesday night:

"People around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power."

It's a simple idea--one that you've surely heard before. Delivered poetically, as it was, it smacked of brilliance.