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Palin the Poet

Written By: Robin Lakoff on July 22, 2009 4 Comments

Recently I have encountered several analyses of Sarah Palin’s speeches as “found” poetry. One example comes from a wonderful piece by John Lundberg in the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-lundberg/sarah-palin-the-anti-poet_b_237935.html):

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.

Of course these analyses are intended ironically (Lundberg’s piece identifies Palin as an “anti-poet.” But to work as irony a comparison needs to have at least a grain of plausibility – something about Palin’s rhetoric has to be what we recognize (seriously) as “poetic.”)

What can that be? Well, prose is prosaic, in the sense that its unraveling requires relatively little from the reader (or hearer). There is some collaboration involved in the business of making the meaning of the text, but prose normally is relatively straightforward, and all the reader need do is apply some real-world experience (framing) to the task. Most of what is needed is right there on the page; connections are signaled when they are not explicitly spelled out.

We engage in an act of poetic meaning-making forewarned and forearmed. The warning is necessary: readers will have to roll up their sleeves and collaborate meaningfully with the poet to make the poem. Hence, the poet needs to play fair: leave the right margins unjustified and lots of white space around the piece. That signifies” Poem: Beware. Reader, if you are not willing to do your part, turn the page.

Poems omit, hint, and sometimes – as Plato remarked – they may even lie. The reader has to accept that the writer is not exactly playing fair. But the reader has been fairly warned and should know what is expected and be willing to provide it, as the poet took special pains to provide something worth struggling with. The two thus form co-contractors, bound to work together to make the poem.

So, more than a work of prose, a poem is a uniquely social endeavor. By forming their connection, writer and reader agree that they share enough context, enough experience, to encode and decode something in common. To call this work “social” may seem strange: one could argue as well that reading poetry, like writing it, is best done in solitude. But the coming together on the printed page is a social act, the signing of a social contract. And when a poem works, the reader is both welcomed and flattered.

So if there is something somehow poetic in Palin’s rhetorical effusions, if her speeches can be heard as poetic by at least some hearers (minus the irony), that might explain why many people are delighted at her speeches. To experience them as poetry is to experience trust, connection, and flattery: we are the same, we share the frame. (Ah, poetry!)

It is interesting, then, that the same speaker using the same words can be experienced by one set of hearers as producing the social experience of poetry, and by others as barely speaking (highly prosaic) English. But that’s what frames are about.

It is also reasonable to argue that, to be legitimately seen as a poetic encoder, the poet must be consciously making poetic choices: the difficulties or aporias should not result from laziness or incompetence. That is, of course, the trouble with the concept of “found” poetry: real poetry never gets lost. It is not at all clear that Palin should be considered a legitimate player in the poetry game. But at least the “found poetry” theory offers an explanation of Palin’s complex role in our current political drama.

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4 Responses to “Palin the Poet”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 23 July 2009 at 11:33 am

    Thank you for this very engaging and thought-provoking piece. I am a little astonished to report that I did a search for “Palin” AND “poetry” on Google, and came up with 1,730,000 results! The “poetic” quality of her speech definitely has discursive traction! [Though one must point out here that an overwhelming number of results (it appears to me) are liberal sites, intending to be ironical. It’s a wonder her own fan base is less focused on her “poetic” talents].

    Julian Gough, in an article entitled “Sarah Palin for poet laureate,” notes (tongue in cheek) that:

    “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.”


    Most of the articles I came across focus on her “poetic” skill (a quality that was seen to be internal to her speech), which is why I find your analysis-of how we ourselves, in a way, imbue her speech with poetic flavor-especially provocative. In struggling to make sense of her speech, we decide that it must be poetic, for it can not be recognized as “prosaic.” We, the interpreters, “create” her “poetry.”

    We “found” poetry in her speech. And I bet someone, somewhere, is wondering if we could only find some sense in it.

  2. Youki on: 23 July 2009 at 4:35 pm

    wonderful post, and it does make sense that the “poetic” qualities of Palin’s speech (or anyone’s) are socially mediated.

    Which begs the question: in what ways can a critical analysis be applied to Obama’s speeches? Am I so biased to think that when Obama draws from Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” that it’s just inherently poetic?

    If Palin’s speech lies in one trajectory, and Obama’s in another, where does the “bias” lie?

  3. daveski on: 24 July 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Interesting post, and very glad to see it here! I was struck by several things…like Usree and Youki, I think the “finding” of poetry in someone’s speech or written transcripts as a joint and social creation is a fabulous idea. It might suggest a “poetic potential” or “latent poeticity” in people’s everyday speech (I know, that word was perfectly awful). After reading over John Lundberg’s Huffpost piece, I do share his sentiment that there ought to at least appear to be something *intentional* about the poetic nature of what’s being said or written, though I don’t necessarily think it has to be “finely crafted over time”…how else to explain the poetic nature of spoken word, live performance? So I guess I like the notion of “found poetry” that draws from the verb “to found” rather than “to find”…. we do “found” poetry in her speech. Maybe like we found meanings in translation? 🙂

    And as for the bias between textual trajectories, I’d guess that lies in musical performance, the vocalization of poetry in real time and place.

  4. Aaminah on: 24 July 2009 at 9:34 pm

    Great post. I can’t help but wonder if we always experience “trust, connection, and flattery”? If we, experience mistrust, disconnection, and insult is it still poetry? Is the purpose of poetry to experience visceral emotion?

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