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'Drum thumps' from the stump

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

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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.


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