Late night talk-show hosts have often noted that the most significant American presidents were invariably those whose speeches contained sentences, phrases or entire passages that were remembered and quoted. They have cited John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Or quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Some of these hosts were not yet born when either Kennedy or Roosevelt was alive, but the speeches of both outlived their presidencies and resonated with men of another generation, which even further confirmed the memorability of their words.
One of the qualities that makes a statement unforgettable is that it has the originality of utterance. It seems to spring from necessity, like a scream or an oath, but it is more than that. Words at such times fit and often define an occasion or a mood perfectly. They meet Henry David Thoreau’s standard for perpetuity: “That which is done well once is done forever. It creates the power of the imperishable example.”
The real beauty of moments that could truly be called poetic is that they stop us in our tracks. They have the capacity to awe.
The statements of presidents Kennedy and Roosevelt were memorable because they possessed this quality of utterance. It was certainly not present in Richard Nixon’s adaptation of Kennedy’s sentence in his own inaugural: “Let each of us ask — not what will government do for me, but what I can do for myself.” And despite his reputation as a great communicator, Ronald Reagan did not approach utterance when he said, “I want a country where everyone can be rich.”
The difference becomes immediately apparent when you compare the Nixon and Reagan lines with Roosevelt’s “The measure of our greatness will not be in whether we gave more to those who have much, but whether we gave enough to those who have little.” Contrasted with the poetry of utterance, anything less — whether in political oratory or in what is regarded as poetry itself — sounds like jingoism. And it is.
When Robert Frost spoke by heart the prophetic lines of “The Gift Outright” at President Kennedy’s inaugural, it seemed in retrospect almost providential that the blinding sun on that frigid January day prevented him from reading the poem that he had written for the occasion — “Dedication.” Frost had obviously worked long and hard on the latter, but, like almost all “poems written for the occasion,” it comes across as something willed into existence. It lacks what Longinus once and for all identified as sublimity; it does not soar. “The Gift Outright” soars.
What results from the absence of poetry in public speech in political or other forms of discourse is nothing but the one-dimensional language of pedestrian communication. The human spirit hungers for more than facts, information and data. It needs the oxygen of transcendent language at the service of truth itself, not scripted texts at the service of ideology or mercantilism or worse.
The fact that such transcendence is rare in public life in no way invalidates our need for it. It is simply a regrettable matter of fact that poetry is often the exception rather than the rule. Reverting to presidential examples, what presidential statement of the entire 19th century can compare with the poetic prose of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural or the Gettysburg Address? Apparently, there’s one Lincoln to a century, if that. And such rarity is characteristic of numerous other aspects of human expression where poetry, however unexpected, is possible.
And poetry is not confined to language. Coleridge noted this when he wrote that poetry was inherent in whatever originated from what he called the unifying or “esemplastic” power of the imagination. Shelley went even further by claiming that the very creation of governments was poetic in nature.
Both of these men conceived of poetry as a power associated with transcendence and vision. In all the professions where life is a matter of sharing, the respect and need for transcendence and vision is imperative. Take teaching, for example. The joy of teaching happens when open disquisition and discussion lead to insight. This occurs when knowledge as well as admitted ignorance is shared, differences respected and dialogue encouraged in the free and hopefully impartial search for the truth.
When teaching is reduced to putting the teacher in the role of “knowledge dispenser” exclusively — an intellectual banker who expects his students to regurgitate on examinations the knowledge he has unburdened himself of — the joy of learning never has a chance to happen. The student does not feel the elation of discovery. Education in this sense is transformed into a kind of rote exercise, a boot camp of the mind.
One can apply this same standard of poetry to the health professions, the various social services and the law. All of these professions meet a genuine challenge. If the health of the patient is the goal of medical care, the poetry is in the way such care is administered. If the good of the person in need is the ultimate goal of the social worker, the poetry is in the way that good is provided. And if the goal is justice vis-à-vis society and the wrongdoer, the poetry of the law emerges only when that goal is dispassionately served.
The special calling of those in religious ministries is tending to the spiritual aspirations of their co-believers. In the best sense these men and women are essentially the servants of the servants of God. When they fulfill their missions, they justly earn the respect, devotion and even the veneration of those who have been helped or edified by them. But when the genuine values of religious worship and behavior are traduced by the credos of “obey, pray and pay” or the stifling postures of righteousness, the poetry of belief vanishes entirely.
The real beauty of moments that could truly be called poetic is that they stop us in our tracks. They have the capacity to awe. Life then becomes an epiphany and not just part of a historical sequence. Language at such moments speaks to us as felt and passionate intelligence, providing what Robert Frost once called “a momentary stay against confusion.”
The contemporary poet Ron Padgett has a line in his most recent book that further enforces what Frost had in mind: “The day will come when your life will seem to have lasted an instant.” Anyone who has had a close call with death or suffered the loss of a friend or completed a job of work as perfectly as possible would identify with Padgett’s line.
This is a poetic instant, a time when time ceases to matter. The past means little, and the future means less. Now is all that counts, and all of life is suddenly and totally compressed in the instant.
A society that lacks epiphanies eventually stagnates into a mere economy. The sources that should provide epiphanies atrophy. Public speech degenerates into mere talk or gossip. Education weakens into training. The practice of the social professions becomes little more than routine. Religious worship and practice dwindle into ritual.
I have often thought that our almost sacrosanct devotion to sports becomes more and more rabid as the inspirational power of national, social, religious and educational leaders becomes more and more ignorable.
I say this as one who could be fairly described as an ardent spectator of all sports in their respective seasons. I have often marveled at the poetry of the double play in baseball, the completed pass in football, the acrobatics of basketball and hockey.
In my more candid moments I confess to favorite teams and favorite players, so team victories and individual athletic achievements mean something to me. But the coercive power of gain (money and more money) has gradually sapped such blind devotion. I find myself leaning toward the Olympics, where individual athletes in effect compete against themselves in most events, so amateurism can triumph for what is rightly called the “glory of sport.”
Having watched Wilma Rudolph, Bob Beaman, Joan Benoit, Mark Spitz and, recently, Michael Phelps, I have seen the poetry of sport at its best. Compared to what these amateur athletes achieved, the tainted records of Barry Bonds mean next to nothing to me.
The poetry we discover in sport as well as in the social professions at their best will always be apparent to the discriminating eye. Regrettably, the poetry of utterance has never had a central place in American public life or speech. Poets and poetry are often regarded as either marginal or ornamental.
But it is not sufficient for us as Americans to lament this paucity or outright absence. Poetry is always there in waiting. It takes only the lightning strike of inspiration in the right person at the right moment to give it voice in word or action. The result may not be as monumental as Milton’s “Paradise Lost” or Washington’s Farewell Address. It could be as simple as a discreet toast, such as Churchill’s “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few,” or a compliment delivered tastefully in public, such as Gregory Peck’s nod to his wife, “Veronique, you’re the only girl for me. . . . I’ll see you later.”
It could even be an imaginative malediction, like this one from Robert Desnos: “Cursed be the father of the bride of the blacksmith who forged the iron for the axe with which the woodsman hacked down the oak from which the bed was carved in which was conceived the great-grandfather of the man who was driving the carriage in which your mother met your father.”
On the other hand, it could be a well-prepared meal — there are, after all, differences between poetic dinners and prosaic dinners. Or it could be a beautifully arranged bouquet or a tango performed by a couple who are subsumed into the dance. All that’s needed is for those so inspired to respond courageously and creatively.
What is also needed is a sense of appreciation in society as a whole to recognize it when it happens, not necessarily with applause or the usual outward signs of reward but only with assent and the silent praise of gratitude.
Samuel Hazo is the McAnulty distinguished professor emeritus at Duquesne University and founder and director of the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh. He was awarded an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 2008.