'Drum thumps' from the stump

An unconventional view of America's conventions from a past poet laureate.

People say they have trouble understanding poetry. Some say it is modern poetry that they can't understand or enjoy - implying, as the critic and poet Randall Jarell once pointed out, that they frequently spend an evening reading the works of Milton.

But what about politics? After a few days at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, listening to experts, politicians, fans, and dilettantes talk about the subject, I have discovered that all of the supposedly troublesome elements in poetry infest political discourse.

For example, a peculiar, almost poetic undercurrent is created when a speaker makes inadvertent, irrelevant patterns, as when "swing" voters are referred to in the same sentence as "bounce" and "state-hopping," evoking a shadowy, weird big band era or playground. In that dim terrain, understanding wanders off.

Then there is the sense of dark or hidden meaning called obscurity, sometimes in the form of arcane references and proper names. I'm getting used to the idea that Al Franken and Arianna Huffington have become major national figures. But who in the world is Brian McKnight, presented as a headliner? And then there are acronyms: Are you sure you understand what a pro-WTO Senatorial ADC is? Another kind of obscurity is the unknown content that appears in all areas of life, especially charged in a political context: An African-American woman in a suit is interviewing a casually dressed African-American man, who is using a lot of body emphasis as he crouches over her microphone, almost dancing, waving his arms. As he speaks, she rolls her eyes and looks contemptuous, exasperated. As I pass, I hear him respond to her gesture, his voice deflated, almost whining, "It's true."

What was he saying?

Wanting to know is a sensation like reading certain poems by John Ashbery. A more traditional kind of poetic difficulty is the paradox: as when one candidate says that he will preserve Social Security, but his opponent says that he, on the other hand, will preserve Social Security.

As to difficult images, Mr. Bush has been quoted by Garry Trudeau as saying that we need to "make the pie higher," and as asking, "Will the highways on the Internet become more few?" Perhaps all of us create such bizarre imagery inadvertently, as we speak, clots of language as adventurous, if not as cogent, as the poems of Marianne Moore. Somehow such windows into the strangeness of our minds is even stranger when political concepts are involved. Today at a press briefing I heard an official say, "We always thought blood was thicker than water, but in this case Bush stood it on its head." I think he was speaking about an unexpected endorsement - but I didn't really understand.

Imagine that a poet like Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem repeating a single abstract word insistently, so that the word became like a drum-thump, at once charged with a kind of bodily significance and drained of ordinary meaning, the word twisting away from all its ordinary uses, chiming with other words with similar sounds:


Opportunity with a purpose, strength And security with a purpose, prosperity with a Purpose, President with a purpose -

What would Ginsberg mean? What would opportunity or security without a purpose conceivably be? The consonants of the words collide and coincide until all seem pure, incomprehensible: Prosperity, President, Purpose, Security. High-sounding beyond understanding, these phrases are the main headings in the National Convention's official "Order of Business."

Perhaps the best invented word of the 20th century is H.L. Mencken's brilliant coinage, "bloviate," as in "the Congressman responded to the question by bloviating for several minutes." The word defines itself, with its echoes of "bloated" and "oblivion" and "blowhard" and "deviated," among others. The word gives pleasure because of how immediately and thoroughly we understand it.

It also gives pleasure because it cunningly denotes the use of language partly to avert understanding. Sometimes what we understand in language is simply that it is deliberate baloney, totally or in part: bloviation. And penetrating the bloviation is a pleasure.

Poetry is hard to understand? Yes. And as with rock music or opera, part of the pleasure is gradually letting the meaning of the words seep through on repeated hearings: It would be disappointing if one understood every syllable the first time through.

Bloviation doesn't offer that satisfaction.

Robert Pinsky recently completed 3 years as US Poet Laureate.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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