Unquotable Quotes

Each Monday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org. 

Al Gore recently made minor headlines by incorporating poetry into a speech at the United Nations Climate Summit in Lima, Peru. The Daily Caller reported that Gore had “recited” poetry, the Washington Times that he’d “gotten lyrical”—when in fact he’d merely quoted three poets. The selection was topical, each passage proclaiming the virtue of continuing to forge ahead where no trail has yet been blazed:

Hope is a path on the mountainside.

At first there is no path.

But then there are people passing that way.

And there is a path. –Lu Xun


Traveler, there is no path.

You must make the path as you walk. –Antonio Machado


After the final no, there comes a yes

And on that yes, the future world depends. –Wallace Stevens

These selections, however, like most such selections, are mostly taken out of context. Lu Xun’s is the most on-point but has been trotted out previously in support of ecological progress. Machado’s beautiful poem is not about communal persistence, but individual transience, ending with the lines, “And turning, you look back / at a way you will never walk again. / Wanderer, there is no road, / only wakes in the sea.”

And Stevens’s “Well Dressed Man with a Beard” has nothing at all to do with hope or progress or even men with beards, but is a modernist meditation on the self in which Stevens focuses not on the “yes” but the “no”—the “rejected things, the things denied”—the tiny, singular impulses that won’t go away. It ends with the poet trying to find a way “out of a petty phase,”

Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:

The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,

The aureole above the humming house . . .

It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.

Maybe it’s not a great poem, but it is very modern and very Wallace Stevens. It is an exercise in negation.

The problem with reducing complex texts into pull-quotes, blurbs, and slogans is the same problem political rhetoric tends to have reaching any intelligent, self-respecting audience. The poems of Machado and Stevens are both far more appealing in whole cloth than snippet, because good poetry gives and takes. Good art both shows and doesn’t show; it reveals in part, not in full, lest its seductive power be diminished. And great art contains and, in some way, accounts for death.

One suspects the same is true of social and political principles. When a cultural leader like Al Gore advocates for cooperation among nation-states to reduce carbon emissions, he actually has quite a bit of source material at hand. He can summon examples of cooperation from other multilateral challenges such as fair trade and nuclear disarmament. The case to be made is not a pithy one nor even a particularly inspirational one, but a historical and precedential one; unless, of course, Gore wishes to spite his audience’s intelligence.

Maybe this is the largest problem with political rhetoric, and it’s one that afflicts preaching and teaching as well: It doesn’t take its subjects as seriously as its audience wants to take them. It doesn’t trust its stuff. If television shows such as The Wire and Law & Order can be popular while still delivering complex legal and political principles, one would imagine political rhetoric can, too.

In seminary homiletics we were taught not to lean on “three points and a poem” as a sermon structure. At the time I thought the teaching reflected a bias against poetry, but now I realize it was meant to preserve poetry in its proper context. Taking subject matter seriously means following its natural contours, refusing to impose canned wisdom on it, no matter how such wisdom might seem to elevate the speaker’s rhetoric.

- Aaron Belz has published three volumes of poetry, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007), Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010) and Glitter Bomb (Persea, 2014). He is the poet laureate of Hillsborough, North Carolina.