Sunday, February 17, 2008

Barack Obama, poet

For students of language, American Presidential elections (and primaries) are always fascinating events, fertile ground for examining the effects of speeches, debates and slogans. Right now, the main angle of attack on Barack Obama by Hillary Clinton (and now John McCain) seems to be on his rhetorical skills, and the suggestion that such linguistic facility is suspicious.

Ben McIntyre of the London Times recently examined Barack Obama's 'creditable' early poetry, and commented that it revealed

a lyrical sensibility and a refreshing awareness of the power of words. No less a critic than Professor Harold Bloom of Yale, America's doyen of English literature, has said of Obama's poetry that 'it shows a kind of humane and sad wit. There is a mind there.'

McIntyre points out that there is a 'long, if patchy, tradition of presidential poetry' in America, and says that if Abraham Lincoln was the best poet in the White House, then Jimmy Carter was undoubtedly the worst, 'though he deserves some sort of prize for the least enticing poem title in literature: "Why We Get Cheaper Tires from Liberia".'

Mr Obama has been hailed as the new JFK; and as the most poetic presidential candidate for a generation inches closer to the White House, it is worth recalling the closing lines of the poem Dedication by Robert Frost, which Kennedy commissioned for his own inauguration in 1961: “A golden age of poetry and power/ Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.”

Meanwhile, points out that 'it's hard to imagine that Obama would be as much of a phenomenon if his name were, say, Tom Smith.' You can access Slate's Encyclopedia Baracktannia here. There's Obamania, Obamage, Barackroach, Obamatic Pilot, Obamamatopoeia ... and more are being added all the time. At the moment, of course, he's got Obamamentum.

More seriously, it has a detailed analysis of Obama's rhetoric in an article by Jack Shafer here.

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