Ideology, Prosody, and Eponymy: Towards a Public Poetics of Obama and Beowulf

By Clark, Tom | Nebula, March-June 2010 | Go to article overview

Ideology, Prosody, and Eponymy: Towards a Public Poetics of Obama and Beowulf


Clark, Tom, Nebula


Each thing in this world had, as it were, an eponym in heaven, a perfect form from which it was derived--and it shared this derivation with all the other members of its class, or genus.

--Kenneth Burke (1)

1. Introduction

There is a view, which I vehemently support, that public language is a type of poetry, and that public speaking is therefore a type of performance poetry. Public language by which I mean language produced for publics and/or by public figures and/or in a public situation and/or with a view to public purposes (2)--answers to priorities other-than-artistic, as we know. But it is not always distinct, of course--there has always been poetry oriented towards the public sphere, and there is no shortage of public sphere discourse that gets called 'poetic.' In other words, this paper (3) explores an aspect of the poetic within a domain of language whose strategic outlook is typically distinguished from the strategic outlook of poetry. Renegotiating that distinction is an important theme in Terry Eagleton's recent book, How to Read a Poem, in which he proposes that a ' poem is a statement released into the public world for us to make of it what we may.' (4)

This paper attempts a more systematic version of Eagleton's renegotiation. It proceeds by reference to two texts whose differences would normally be taken for granted, but whose collocation serves to illustrate a formal and purposive similarity that extends beyond merely figurative or heuristic considerations. Both texts straddle an important technological and cognitive divide between performed utterance and inscribed text. (5) One of them, Beowulf, has been seminal in the study of English-language poetics. (6) The other, Barack Obama's 2008 election victory speech, seems destined to become seminal in the study of English-language political rhetoric. (7) Importantly, many commentators have attributed to each, respectively, the qualities of political sensitivity and heightened poetics--so much so that the 'political sensibility' of Beowulf and the 'poetic sensibility' of Obama are both cliches of the commentary on each. My focus in this paper is on what, in another cliche, we might call their 'crossover characteristics:' the extent to which Beowulf passes comment upon political communication and the extent to which Obama's victory speech reflects upon poetic communication. In doing so, we are able to identify a poetic aspect to what Burke has posed as a 'dramatistic' phenomenon.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for comparing these particular texts is that both hold such an overtly heroic interest value. Both portray ethnic outsiders who bring their superhuman capacities with them to the nations they serve and protect. (8) In the case of Beowulf, the relevance of a Germanic heroic verse tradition is uncontroversial. (9) In the case of Obama, a hero's critical qualities of sapientia et fortitudo (10) ('wisdom and courage') are evident in the extent of his success (winning an election for the political position most observers would reckon the world's most powerful), in the uses to which he proposes to put that office (economic fireproofing, reducing human contributions to climate change, and demilitarising an extremely bellicose international polity), and in the widely shared and discussed sense that his success was particularly difficult to achieve (winning this election as an African American). That is, Obama's heroism is proven by the historically transformative symbolism of his ascendancy to the presidency of the United States of America.

In addition to their moral and behavioural fathom of heroism, there are stylistic grounds to argue that both texts are pitched in an epic register. For Beowulf, that is a somewhat controversial statement: numerous commentators, at least since Tolkien, (11) have taken pains to distinguish it from the stylistics of classical Greek and Latin epic verse. Nevertheless, Beowulf is certainly epic in the sense that it relates an extensive series of episodes prominent in a grand sweep of (early Germanic) cultural history. …

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