Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What had to work with

Obama's speeches are often called"poetic." In what sense is this so? He doesn't often wax metaphorical. He does employ a kind of stylized, compressed storytelling, taking listeners on quick marches through history (or an envisioned future) in which each era or event or action is evoked in a kind of metonymy, a naming of a thing by one of its attributes, or synechdoche, a substitution of a part for the whole. Take, for example, that 106 year-old woman whose story Obama told in his acceptance speech last night. She was herself a kind of synechdoche, an embodiment of America's last century. Each event she witnessed was evoked by its icon:
She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination.
But Obama's speech is also "poetic" in a more primal sense, in its rhythms and pacing. Mostly it's a matter of strong repetition. The sentences are often long, with clause piled on clause. But those clauses are bound together by parallel structure -- most often by anaphora, the repetition of beginning words. There's really nothing fancy about it: anaphora is almost his only grammatical figure. There are few backflips or pirouettes such as Maureen Dowd loves, in which one phrase rings a slight variation on its predecessor and inverts its meaning -- as in "fail to plan, plan to fail." A long Obama sentence is like a row of Doric columns. The mind follows without fatigue, buttressed by the graceful repetitive structure.

Leave aside for the moment the content of Obama's acceptance speech last night. Here, in selected sentence fragments, is the cadence that so many have keyed into:
If there is anyone out there who still doubts
who still wonders
who still questions
tonight is your answer

It's the answer told by lines that stretched
It's the answer spoken by young and old
It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to
be cynical

It was built by working men and women
It grew strength from the young people
from the millions of Americans who volunteered

But I will always be honest with you
I will listen to you
I will ask you join in the work

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism
Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything
Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores
To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you.
To those who seek peace and security - we support you.
And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright -

At a time when women's voices were silenced
When there was despair in the dust bowl
When the bombs fell on our harbor

A man touched down on the moon,
a wall came down in Berlin,
a world was connected by our own science and imagination.

This is our chance to answer that call.
This is our moment.
This is our time...
time -
This signature repetition underpins, I think, the power of's "Yes We Can" song. "Yes we can," by itself, has a kind of brainless insistence. But the speech that the song lip-syncs winds down to each "yes we can" by evoking historical moments united by grammatical parallelism as they are by theme: that each defining act of American history is an embodiment of this can-do "creed":
It [yes we can] was a creed written into the founding documents...It was sung by immigrants...It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballots, a president who chose the moon...a King who took us to the mountaintop..."
Almost every Obama speech tells the same story: of a country struggling in chapter after chapter to fulfill the promise of its founding documents. He borrows the concept from Lincoln: we strive in each generation to form a "more perfect" -- never perfected -- union. His sentence structure and rhythm express this aspiration -- giving us the momentum of an idealized past to make us feel we can roll back the oceans.

Related posts
A nation's education: Obama's conversation
We've been here before: how Obama frames our history
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

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