Robin Lakoff: Palin the Poet

Recently I have encountered several analyses of Sarah Palin’s speeches as “found” poetry. One example comes from a piece by John Lundberg in the Huffington Post:

Look at how she turns a simple statement into a mind-numbing puzzle (this is from Hart Seely’s terrific collection of found poems taken from actual Sarah Palin quotes):

You know,
Small mayors,
Mayors of small towns–
Quote, unquote–
They’re on the front lines.

Of course these analyses are intended ironically (Lundberg’s piece identifies Palin as an “anti-poet.”) But to work as irony a comparison needs to have at least a grain of plausibility — something about Palin’s rhetoric has to be what we recognize (seriously) as “poetic.”

What can that be? Well, prose is prosaic, in the sense that its unraveling requires relatively little from the reader (or hearer). There is some collaboration involved in the business of making the meaning of the text, but prose normally is relatively straightforward, and all the reader need do is apply some real-world experience (framing) to the task. Most of what is needed is right there on the page; connections are signaled when they are not explicitly spelled out.

We engage in an act of poetic meaning-making forewarned and forearmed. The warning is necessary: readers will have to roll up their sleeves and collaborate meaningfully with the poet to make the poem. Hence, the poet needs to play fair: leave the right margins unjustified and lots of white space around the piece. That signifies” Poem: Beware. Reader, if you are not willing to do your part, turn the page.”

Poems omit, hint, and sometimes — as Plato remarked — they may even lie. The reader has to accept that the writer is not exactly playing fair. But the reader has been fairly warned and should know what is expected and be willing to provide it, as the poet took special pains to provide something worth struggling with. The two thus form co-contractors, bound to work together to make the poem.

Hence more than a work of prose, a poem is a uniquely social endeavor. By forming their connection, writer and reader agree that they share enough context, enough experience, to encode and decode something in common. To call this work “social” may seem strange: one could argue as well that reading poetry, like writing it, is best done in solitude. But the coming together on the printed page is a social act, the signing of a social contract. And when a poem works, the reader is both welcomed and flattered.

So if there is something somehow poetic in Palin’s rhetorical effusions, if her speeches can be heard as poetic by at least some hearers (minus the irony), that might explain why many people are delighted at her speeches. To experience them as poetry is to experience trust, connection, and flattery: we are the same, we share the frame. (Ah, poetry!)

It is interesting, then, that the same speaker using the same words can be experienced by one set of hearers as producing the social experience of poetry, and by others as barely speaking (highly prosaic) English. But that’s what frames are about.

It is also reasonable to argue that, to be legitimately seen as a poetic encoder, the poet must be consciously making poetic choices: the difficulties or aporias should not result from laziness or incompetence. That is, of course, the trouble with the concept of “found” poetry: real poetry never gets lost. It is not at all clear that Palin should be considered a legitimate player in the poetry game. But at least the “found poetry” theory offers an explanation of Palin’s complex role in our current political drama.

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