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MU poets evaluate presidential candidates' rhetoric

Saturday, November 1, 2008 | 10:06 p.m. CDT; updated 10:13 a.m. CST, Tuesday, November 4, 2008

COLUMBIA — Once Missouri poet Chad Parmenter started to think about it, he realized Barack Obama reminded him of Robert Frost.

Frost wrote visionary poems, often rhapsodizing about nature, Parmenter said. Obama's political speech has taken on a similar character.

Further, Frost "wrote a lot in iambic pentameter," said Parmenter, a doctoral student in poetry in MU's English department. The title of Obama's best-selling book, "The Audacity of Hope," is in iambic meter.

As presidential campaigns draw to a close, the Missourian asked Parmenter and other poets at MU to pinpoint the style and content of the candidates' rhetoric in terms of poetry. In doing so, the poets looked at McCain and Obama in uncommon and perhaps thought-provoking ways.

If Obama is a politically tinged Robert Frost, Parmenter said that Sen. John McCain resembles Edgar Allen Poe, both in his speech style and themes. McCain's reference in recent debates to "Joe the Plumber" is in trochaic meter, Parmenter said.

"We do have this kind of looking back to the past, and (Poe) talks about his troubled childhood — sort of like McCain and his war record," Parmenter said.

He believes the country is yearning for Frost's poetics; he plans to vote for Obama.

Scott Cairns, an MU professor and a published poet, had no trouble distinguishing between the candidates.

McCain speaks in clichés and sentence fragments, allowing listeners to interpret his words any way they wish, Cairns said. Obama, on the other hand, speaks "thoughtfully," in complete sentences, alluding to biblical tropes and political ideas made famous throughout the years.

"(Obama) offers what I would call considered speech," said Cairns, who directs MU's Center for the Literary Arts and intends to vote for Obama. "It's the way poets speak."

Obama's ideas make people think, he continued.

"There's a language that visionaries use that some people would call idealistic, but it reminds us of what the democratic process is," Cairns said. "It's a huge experiment. Can an open society flourish?"

We don't know how responsible the presidential candidates are for the ideas espoused in their speeches, said Walter Bargen, Missouri's poet laureate. It might be the speechwriters who deserve the praise or criticism.  

Even so, Bargen has observed a clear distinction in presentation.

"There's a fluidity to Obama that McCain just doesn't have or rarely has," said Bargen, who works at MU's Assessment Resource Center. "McCain's speeches are generally a little more clipped. The sentence structure is more direct. Just in the way they sound, (his sentences) have a harsher edge."

Bargen employed a metaphor, as poets are inclined to do.

"One is a stream that flows easily and smoothly, and the other seems to be flowing under a much more coarse bottom," he said.

Elaborating, Bargen said McCain's speech patterns are designed "to convey somebody who is ready to run out and confront problems and tackle them, whereas Obama's style is one which conveys more thought and more depth, a more considered style."

The candidates' political speeches approach but can rarely be equated to poetry, Bargen said.

That is not to say political speech can never be poetic.  Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, Bargen said, is "the height of poetic political rhetoric."

Phillip Aijian, a graduate student studying poetry at MU, said he wouldn't vote  solely based on poetic language.

"I have not been persuaded by poetics alone," Aijian said. "And I think it's dangerous to be persuaded by poetics alone."


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