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The poetry of our leaders

Slate has a funny piece by Hart Seely pointing out an interesting paradox of our political leaders. When they’re facing harsh questions at a press conference and are trying to speak evasively, their utterances become so koan-like that they verge on poetry.

Apparently, transcripts of Donald Rumsfeld these days have been increasingly Harold-Pinter-esque:

Every day, Rumsfeld regales reporters with his jazzy, impromptu riffs … Rumsfeld’s poetry is paradoxical: It uses playful language to address the most somber subjects: war, terrorism, mortality. Much of it is about indirection and evasion: He never faces his subjects head on but weaves away, letting inversions and repetitions confuse and beguile. His work, with its dedication to the fractured rhythms of the plainspoken vernacular, is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’. Some readers may find that Rumsfeld’s gift for offhand, quotidian pronouncements is as entrancing as Frank O’Hara’s.

He’s not entirely kidding. When Seely arranges a few of Rumsfeld’s off-the-cuff statements in free verse, the results are almost startling in their weird beauty. An example:

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

That’s almost deep.

As far as I know, in the history of literature, the directly-transcribed words of a political leader have only been printed as actual poetry in one case: Jean Chretien, the Canadian prime minister. When he strangled a protestor with his bare hands (!!) in 1996, his apology was so opaque that the Canadian poet Stuart Ross printed it in his book The Inspiration Cha Cha. I posted a transcription of it some months ago, and you can find it here.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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