Literature Matters, yet again!

The Web has been recently awash with literary analyses of the inaugural, of all things.  Some of this is due to the excitement surrounding the fact that Obama had an inaugural poet.  Well, I’m glad to have poetry present on the national stage, but I’ll be honest that I thought the poem was a yawner and tone deaf to the moment.  Too much writing for other intellectuals at Yale instead of the man and woman in the street.  Maybe I wanted something more incantatory and straightforward.  Walt Whitman.

There’s also a good bit of literary kerfuffle over the state of Obama’s prose in the inaugural address.   Charles Krauthammer derides “the mediocrity of his inaugural address. The language lacked lyricism. The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln’s second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush’s second inaugural.”  Ok, I might take this more seriously if Krauthammer didn’t try to assert the oratorical superiority of our last president, but he’s not alone in finding the speech tame.

On the other hand, Stanley Fish–sorry, I’m on a bit of a Stanley Fish kick these days–gives a thorough going literary analysis of the speech, spying in Obama’s use of parataxis a biblical rhetoric fitting for the occasion:

But if we regard the text as an object rather than as a performance in time, it becomes possible (and rewarding) to do what the pundits are doing: linger over each alliteration, parse each emphasis, tease out each implication….

Of course, no prose is all one or the other, but the prose of Obama’s inauguration is surely more paratactic than hypotactic, and in this it resembles the prose of the Bible with its long lists and serial “ands.” The style is incantatory rather than progressive; the cadences ask for assent to each proposition (“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood’) rather than to a developing argument. The power is in discrete moments rather than in a thesis proved by the marshaling of evidence.

Paratactic prose lends itself to leisurely and loving study, and that is what Obama’s speech is already receiving. Penguin Books is getting out a “keepsake” edition of the speech, which will be presented along with writings by Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (You can move back and forth among them, annotating similarities and differences.)

So the prose is Lincolnesque….or not.  It’s enough to make one believe in the kind of reader response criticism that Stanley Fish largely abandoned, wherein the reader makes up the text as he goes along.  Still, I guess if I had to choose a reader to trust, Stanley gets my vote. (Disclaimer:  Fish was my prof at Duke in grad school, and Krauthammer has irritated me for years, so what do I know).

All I know is that it is good to know we have a President whose language calls for attention that reaches beyond ridicule.

2 thoughts on “Literature Matters, yet again!

  1. carmenmccain

    I was sitting in a staff club with about 25 lecturers from Kano’s Bayero University, watching the inauguration on CNN, which kept cutting out whenever someone’s cell phone rang. They all went out to pray towards the end of Obama’s speech, and one came in about half way through the poem and asked what was going on. When I said she was reading a poem, he said, “That doesn’t sound much like poetry.” “Mmmphhh” I said, having written plenty of “poetry that doesn’t sound like poetry,” myself, but thinking he was probably right. This is probably why I have moved away from writing “poetry” and more towards writing prose–I became frustrated with the very limited audience that “my kind” of poetry had and was, frankly, a bit bored with other people’s “academic poetry,” too.

    I think that the kind of “poetry” “most” people enjoy is actually music. And if you think of the history of poetry in most places in the world, the popular is most often linked to music. (For example, popular Hausa poetry is sung [and song] and “scholarly” written Hausa poetry still follows form, usually rhymed). My interest in poetry is returning, but more as an interest in popular music, esp. in Kano. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally read an “academic poem” in English that makes me stop and gape, but that it is usually occasional. Ai me, confessions of a former English major and poet…..


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