Thursday, January 22, 2009

Poetics or Clarity?

Aside from choking on my sobs of happiness, the thing that struck me most at the inauguration was the poetic language. First, Obama:

”The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.”

image My first thought was “that’s beautiful!” But when I closed my eyes, I saw my internal editor put a big red line through it.

And it was not too long ago, when watching National Treasure, when I completely agreed with the character who, after reading the Declaration, said, “They don’t talk like that anymore.”

But they do:

"America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."

Those are words so beautiful and inspirational, you could eat them. And Elizabeth Alexander’s poem is, I’m afraid, much more beautiful on paper than the way she read it, but either way, clearly poetic.

Then Rev. Lowery’s benediction:

"God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand -- true to thee, O God, and true to our native land."


"Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream."

Isn’t that poetic?

image What does all this mean? Are we dumbing down our language too much? Are we losing something beautiful in our pursuit of clarity? Is this the beginning of a new trend, of a turning towards more poetic language? Just a coincidence? Is poetic language making a comeback, or is it only reserved for historic events?

What do you think? And if you could choose, would you prefer a trend toward more poetic language, or not?

And I have to leave you with the performance that thrilled me to no end, plus a thank you to MSNBC for being the only network who didn't talk OVER the music:

34 bonus scribbles:

Anonymous,  1/22/2009 10:08:00 PM  

Um...well... *ducking head* I'm about as poetic as Dr. Seuss.

I think it takes a special person to come up with something poetic enough for me to understand. Give me clarity over poetic anyday. However, things that stick with me the longest are those that are both poetic and clear. I guess that's why I'm a HUGE Langston Hughes fan. ;-)

Eric Mayer,  1/22/2009 10:47:00 PM  

For the written word I prefer concision and clarity. But for the spoken word, I think it is different -- the sound is important. It's somewhat like music.

Edie 1/22/2009 11:45:00 PM  

I think you can speak powerfully and with great emotion in the language we normally use. It seemed stiff to me, though I listened to all of the inauguration. Most of it. When Rev. Lowry spoke, I read a book until he was done.

LaDonna 1/23/2009 01:50:00 AM  

I love both, Spy. And there's certain fiction authors that brush their work with such poetic beauty I want to weep. Words are powerful, and the longer I write the more I'm fascinated with the energy they bring.

Bevie 1/23/2009 07:25:00 AM  

I like poetic, but I'm not very good at it. Eric Mayer said it's like music. I agree. There's a fluidity which draws one onward as in a river's current. However, as marciacolette indicated, for it to work it has to be both poetic and clear.

Wish I could be both.

writtenwyrdd 1/23/2009 08:42:00 AM  

I enjoyed the poetic nature of the inauguration, especially since it was also clear and not filled with tangled sentences. You should notice that the President's speech was so lucid and yet poetic that his meaning never was lost, and the layers of meaning, though subtle, were also there if you looked. And you could figure these latter out on the fly, and not after rereading the text! Now THAT's an achievement in speechwriting!

Rhonda Leigh Jones 1/23/2009 09:23:00 AM  

Yes, we are dumbing down our language too much and I would like to improve it. There is little appreciation of language anymore, and as a writer who can do more, who has to write in short, simple sentences just so people will read it, I'm a bit bored. If we require people to know how to read--and by read, I mean be able to handle complex sentences and ideas--then they will make the effort to learn it. As it is, though, the way we use language is changing. It's natural I suppose. As our needs change the way we use our tools change. But it does make me a bit sad.

spyscribbler 1/23/2009 11:28:00 AM  

Marcia, I love Dr. Seuss! Poetic and clear sounds perfect. That's the thing about Obama: he's both!

I have to check out Langston Hughes!

spyscribbler 1/23/2009 11:28:00 AM  

That's a good point, Eric. The spoken and heard word is different. For one, the delivery of poetic language can make it more clear, while the reading of it is more difficult.

Anonymous,  1/23/2009 11:29:00 AM  

I agree with writtenwyrdd...we were treated to both poetry and clarity on Tuesday. What a refreshing change from the past eight years of getting neither.

spyscribbler 1/23/2009 11:34:00 AM  

Edie, it was different. I was, at first, taken aback by the language. It was markedly different from what I'm accustomed to, for sure!

I did enjoy Rev. Lowry's benedictions, at least the words of it. I sorta thought the whole thing was a little too Christian for my taste, but that's okay!

spyscribbler 1/23/2009 11:35:00 AM  

LaDonna, the power of words fills me with awe, often, too! It's amazing to me. So very cool, you know?!

spyscribbler 1/23/2009 11:36:00 AM  

Bevie, I think you're right, in that fluidity is needed for poetic language to be clear. It does have to draw me along, or I get distracted!

spyscribbler 1/23/2009 11:37:00 AM  

Writtenwyrdd, you are right! His words sort of echoed in my head all day, even before I found the transcripts. It was a fantastic speech! And definitely layered. He's amazing. (Although, I would have chosen a different order for it; I think the way he presented it made it anti-climactic.)

spyscribbler 1/23/2009 11:39:00 AM  

Rhonda, I agree. And I notice, with myself, that I can no longer get through the classic literature, like I could when I was young. The language is too rich and complex.

After I read it for awhile, I get used to it and can understand it again. Which makes me think that if we start writing that way, people will start understanding it more.

Great point. I agree heartily. I long for those days!

spyscribbler 1/23/2009 11:40:00 AM  

RJ, so true! He was a pretty uncommunicative president, while Obama appears to be the opposite. He's got a blog! Isn't that something? His is going to be a special presidency. I just wonder, now: who's going to be able to fill his shoes?

Aimless Writer 1/23/2009 12:14:00 PM  

talking over the music?
Several times I was thinking "just shut up". Why do the commentators think we tune in to hear their chatter during something like this?
I think Obama's speech was uplifting and beautiful.
And yes, I think we need more flowers in our speech. I love to listen to books by Dean Koontz for just this reason. His words are candy to the ears.

WendyCinNYC 1/23/2009 01:37:00 PM  

I like a mix of both poetic and direct language, even in the books I read. I'm another huge Langston Hughes fan.

L.C. Gant 1/23/2009 02:13:00 PM  

Wow, thanks for the video clip, Spy. Simply beautiful.

I think there's absolutely a time and place for both concise and poetic writing. I love reading both, but I can't write poetically to save my life.

During difficult times like this, it's so important for the President to inspire the nation with his words as well as his leadership. To me, poetic language is more effective at doing that; thus, you hear it in most of Obama's speeches. It helps that he's an incredible orator as well.

Interesting tidbit: That first part of Rev. Lowry's prayer? It's the last verse of the Black National Anthem ("Lift Every Voice and Sing"), word for word! I had to memorize it as a kid. Srsly. Pretty cool, huh?

Lauren 1/23/2009 02:15:00 PM  

I think that what we call "poetic speech" is expressing yourself in creative ways and expanding the way you look at objects and emotions. I think the more people speak poetically the easier it is for others to do the same because it becomes more natural. I think in the current time people aren't as used to hearing it. Historically, poetic speaking was pretty much the norm.

Since a speech is pre-written, the writer and the person giving the speech has additional time to think about the verbiage choice and can arrive at deeper levels of meaning. Because of this, I think that using poetic language in a speech should be the goal more often. It gives depth of meaning and intention.

I didn't say that very poetically. Probably would have been much more meaningful if I had. :-P. I was making fun of myself on that sentence, just to make that clear :)

ARCHAVIST 1/23/2009 04:57:00 PM  

Each breath in life is poetry

Melanie Avila 1/23/2009 05:15:00 PM  

I enjoyed his speech because it was thoughtful and to the point, yet still sounded pretty. imo. I especially liked that he referenced the winter during the Revolution; people always quote the founding fathers, but rarely from the war itself.

I just read the comments and writtenwyrdd said it MUCH better than me. :)

Marsha 1/23/2009 08:27:00 PM  

I hope he serves the country well. I'm excited about the new president.

Kath Calarco 1/23/2009 08:29:00 PM  

I loved it all, but especially Elizabeth Alexander's poem as read by her, although she's no Billy Collins. :)

Robin 1/23/2009 10:59:00 PM  

I thought the speech was lovely. I vote for a return of poetic language, esp. when one wants to inspire people. For conveying information, crisper and to the point might be more appropriate. Luckily, the speech writer, whether Obama or his employee, seemed to understand that this was a time for beauty and inspiration.

spyscribbler 1/24/2009 09:02:00 PM  

Aimless, I was thinking the exact same thing! Do they think we watch to hear their commentary? They are not that interesting, let me tell you. (Actually, let me tell them, LOL!)

spyscribbler 1/24/2009 09:03:00 PM  

Wendy, I must check out this Langston Hughes. I feel so ignorant! Poetic and direct: I like it!

spyscribbler 1/24/2009 09:05:00 PM  

Wow, LC, I've played that a lot, but I didn't make the connection! It's been awhile, and I was playing the piano, not paying attention to the words, LOL.

Obama has, if anything, showed me the power of words to inspire. Just amazing.

spyscribbler 1/24/2009 09:07:00 PM  

Lauren, I think you're right on all counts. We get used to what we hear. I'm not sure dumbing things down to a fourth or fifth grade reading level is wise. (Newspapers and, I think I read, most of the bestselling authors write at that level.)

spyscribbler 1/24/2009 09:07:00 PM  

Archavist, I love that! Thank you!

spyscribbler 1/24/2009 09:09:00 PM  

Melanie, that was nice. It was all those things at once. This is going to be some president.

I liked that he referenced the Revolution, to, and the fact that slaves built the White House. I didn't know that!

spyscribbler 1/24/2009 09:10:00 PM  

Kath, I wasn't crazy about the way she read it, but then I'm not experienced with the way poets read their poems. I enjoyed reading it, though!

spyscribbler 1/24/2009 09:11:00 PM  

Robin, LOL, I had to check and see if that was you! You rarely don't joke, LOL. :-)

I heard Obama wrote most of it himself in a hotel room after he was elected. But who really knows, you know? It doesn't matter. He delivered it well, and it inspired!