The doublespeak of texts and subtexts: indicting the found political poem

Andrew David King
October 17, 2012
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The found political poem is a sort of chimera, a cross-breeding of two genres in which questions of authorship and ownership—and the fine distinction between them—run amok. One of its parents is the technique of meshing discovered materials into a work of writing, or appropriating them wholesale to create one. In either case, the spectrum of what’s available is widened past its usual aperture of whatever one can generate in a given day’s mental space; with found work, it’s extended to include the pre-formed interjections of the world. Its other begetter, the political poem, lives an even more infamous life. More frequently than not, political poems only foray explicitly into what other poems deliver under the pretense of isolationism: some do earn disdain for bad politics, but some also earn it for what basically amounts to bad manners. Regardless, it’s clear that any territory that wants to worship the two masters of ethics and aesthetics simultaneously is inherently dangerous territory. (I won’t go further into the more complicated theoretical distinctions, or the lack thereof, between the two for now—I’m content to assume this rough binary as a starting point.)

This might be why poems that manipulate overtly political texts, i.e. politicians’ speeches, testimony, documents, etc. are so Möbius-strip like in nature. While the strictly found poem is often looked to as a source of revealing the political nature of superficially un-political discourse, found political poetry (or any other poetic technique that incorporates or manipulates political texts, which I’ll refer to as “appropriated”) duplicates the same set of problems and imposes them on the “source” text. It might do this to make the problems of the source text clearer; poems of this sort inhabit some degree of an ethical mode, spurred by a desire to either yank the masks off the masquerade or find some empirical evidence for their misgivings. Or it might do this to draw our attention to language: what is it that makes political speech political? Are these characteristics logical, or even consistent? And more importantly for the found artist: can they withstand the trials of alteration?

The small batch of appropriated political poems I’ve come across in the past few years appear to me to be interested in both the ethical and the aesthetical. But they unanimously demonstrate that the answer to the last question I asked is a deafening no—whether a profound revelation or not, political discourses everywhere seem to crumble under pressure. When yanked out of the Petri dishes of pseudo-reality in which they’re engineered, they no longer seem hyperreal, but farcical: innuendos, covert messages, double entendres, or even counterintuitive or non-existent themes become apparent. It’s as if the walls have been stripped back and the mechanics behind them have been unveiled in all their slaughterhouse horror. Take, for instance, a few stanzas from Matt Zambito’s brilliant deconstruction of Richard Nixon’s inaugural address, “Because the People of the World Want War,” which appeared in a 2008 issue of West Branch:

Because the people of the world want war,
America will. America, the valley of
turmoil is people. Thank only
material things.

Our empty lives
need only ourselves; when we listen
to angels, we love basic,
simple things. We cannot learn
until we speak quietly enough
so that—

Listen! Listen! The voices,
the voices, the voices: War needs
no God…

The poem takes the form of a sequential cento, if there can be such a thing: it patches together lines from Nixon’s speech in the order they appeared. Zambito’s decision to adhere to a linear timeline in this sense successfully creates, and invites us into, the space of the address as it was first heard. We’re there, too—almost as secondhand witnesses, trying to parse out the odd consequences of its meaning. What the poem does best is mimic the atmosphere of its original delivery by holding onto the speech’s skeleton and Frankensteining its organs. The if-then logic of the first line’s statement, “Because the people of the world want war,” seems the potentially viable beginning of an actual sentence. But immediately, we’re confronted with the decay of both language and rationality: “America will.” This works—as with the poem as a whole—because it fails as a sentence but functions as a sentiment. An oversimplified sentiment, to be sure (they want war, and we will give it to them), but a sentiment nonetheless. Though he has taken only from the text what it has provided to him, though he has not added new words of his own, Zambito has called forth a different text—not altogether, but certainly a descendant of the first.

But did Zambito create it? Let’s confine a discussion of authorship to this poem specifically, and extrapolate what can be found there to the genre. The original text wasn’t his (exempting the consideration that certain political speeches are in the public domain per U.S. Copyright Law, Chapter 1, Section 105); this we know, just as none of the original words belonged solely to Nixon nor were they invented by him. The question can take several tacks. One might say that the author of the original text is responsible for whatever meanings might be embedded into their text. This sort of total-authorship model attributes even chance sequences, or the meanings disparate parts of the text create when joined, to the first author. But if we want to hold onto this assumption, we have to accept some fairly absurd consequences. I hate the way they talk to you becomes I hate you. Or You are found not guilty by the jury becomes You are guilty. The connective tissue between the words in the former versions of these sentences so drastically alters their content that the latter versions bear no similarity in meaning to them whatsoever. Each former sentence contains the possibility of the latter, but only—and only—by another agent’s modification. This idea is extrapolated in the poem “Code” by Camille T. Dungy, which appears to be a sort of journal entry but which creates an alternative, right-margin narrative about the sale of slaves in text both spatially adjacent to, but separated from, the “main” narrative:

Miss Amy wants me down to the market and see if I can’t
find fish     for sale. Two
bushels to be delivered, but the driver’s sick today. Miss
hates to waste      house servants
on errands, but we’ll need the fish come dinner. Mostly
scrod and she-crab(    the female…

Dungy’s hypothesis seems to be that racial discourse, at least in this poem, is buried in normative discourse—but that it is indisputably there. One might say the same about my poem, too, which I created via erasure as a response to the administrative bad faith and bungling of student and faculty protests on November 9, 2011 at UC Berkeley in which protesters were violently confronted by police. The poem, titled “Robert J. Birgeneau” after the university chancellor who sent an email out about five days after the startling event—what I took to be an unacceptable delay representative of an antagonistic administration, prefaced by the excuse that, despite the immediate harm being perpetrated against students and teachers, the chancellor was “only” able to watch videos of the event almost a week after its occurrence. I preserved the spatial presence of the erased text, operated on the level of the whole word, and left capitals as they were:

Dear       Campus Community:
I returned to Berkeley yesterday after a week-long trip to Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai where we successfully advanced some important new partnerships that will benefit our campus.
While away, I remained in intermittent contact with Provost George Breslauer and other members of our leadership team and was kept informed, as much as possible, about the Occupy Cal activities on campus.  However, it was only yesterday that I was able to look at a number of the videos that were made of the protests on November 9.  These videos are very disturbing.  The events of last Wednesday are unworthy of us as a university community.  Sadly, they point to the dilemma that we face in trying to prevent encampments and thereby mitigate long-term risks to the health and safety of our entire community.
Most certainly, we cannot condone any excessive use of force against any members of our community. I have asked Professor Jesse Choper, our former Dean of Law, and current Chair of the Police Review Board (PRB) to launch immediately a review of the police actions of last Wednesday and Thursday morning.  As is normal process, University Police Chief Mitch Celaya is concurrently undertaking an operational review of last week’s events.  He has requested that it be conducted by a senior member of the command staff at one of our sister UC campuses.  This report will be provided to the PRB.  I am confident that Professor Choper will provide a fair and balanced judgment as speedily as possible.
We believe that we can best move forward by granting amnesty from action under the Student Code of Conduct to all Berkeley students who were arrested and cited solely for attempting to block the police in removing the Occupy Cal encampment on Wednesday, November 9.  We will do so immediately.
I believe that as a campus community, we can and must join together and focus on our common goals – inducing the state to reinvest in public education, working to repeal Prop. 13, finding a way to reverse Prop. 209, and instituting reforms that will help California regain its status as the door to the American Dream through public higher education.  Thanks to the efforts of our students who worked effectively with Assemblyman Cedillo, myself and other members of our campus community, we were able to ensure that the legislature in Sacramento passed AB 130 and AB 131 which Gov. Brown ultimately signed.  This example of successful and peaceful activism with students and campus leaders working together can guide us in how we can collaborate to effect real change that will benefit us all.  We share the aspirations of the Occupy movement for a better America.  I am confident that as a campus community we will

But what about Zambito’s poem? Surely it would be too radical to directly attribute to Nixon each of the statements the poem assembles from his speech. This, in turn, creates another problem: what makes the poem appealing if not the idea that, somehow, these messages were encoded in his unconscious from the start? An alternative is the idea that the very apparatuses of these messages are what facilitate their meaning. That language, syntax, stylistic convention, and text itself don’t just make the messages more available, they create them. A further option to consider, even more speculative, is that “Because the People of the World Want War” is the result of a collision of four elements. The first three are inert: Nixon’s unconscious mind, language’s limitations, and the national zeitgeist of the time. The fourth, Zambito’s eye for shape and ear for sound, serves as the catalyst, materializing the invisible. Perhaps this last option, though the most difficult to prove, is also the most convincing for the reason that the poem taps into something we sense in Nixon’s speech—a mood, an attitude, a disposition—we can’t get at otherwise. By the time it reaches our hands, it’s not unmodified. This is a minor concern; was it ever pure?

Notions of intention, and how language twists or enriches that intention, are interrogated even more directly in Kristin Prevallet’s “Cruelty and Conquest.” The poem, which appeared first in The Brooklyn Rail and then How2, deviates from Zambito’s model in that it eliminates any ambiguity as to who is interfering with the text. Over the course of seven segments, the poem increasingly substitutes the word “oil” for words in an address George W. Bush made to the United Nations in September of 2002. The piece begins as a lineated excerpt of Bush’s speech without any other external modification:

The United States has no
quarrel with the Iraqi people; they’ve suffered too
long in silent
captivity. Liberty for
the Iraqi people is
a great moral cause, and a great strategic
goal. The people
of Iraq deserve
it; the security of
all nations requires it. Free societies do not
intimidate through cruelty
and conquest…

Prevallet’s lineation produces a dizzying effect, one achieved by foraying into the internal tautologies of the text itself. By forcing an excerpt whose tone, like that of Nixon in Zambito’s poem, is largely defensive and justificatory into the constraints of the poetic line, she inserts hesitations where none are dictated by syntax. As sound dissolves, so does logic. The achievement here is twofold: on the surface level, it performs the small miracle of making the political seem even more surreal than it already is. And on a more unconscious level, it prompts the sort of free association that happens when one encounters white space at the end of line instead of more words. In Tom Simon’s “There Are No Curtains,” the testimony of William Jefferson Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky trial is subjected to the same treatment, with similar results:

There are no curtains on the oval office
There are no curtains on my private office
There are no curtains or blinds that can close
The windows in my private dining room

The naval aides come and go at will.

Hart Seeley gave former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s proclamations a similar treatment in Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld. One of the poems in that collection, titled “The Unknown,” takes as its fodder one of the official’s most philosophically prodding observations on epistemology from a February 12, 2002 news briefing which turns almost William Carlos Williams-esque:

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

The act of lineation itself dissects Simon, Seeley, and Prevallet’s source texts by dragging them in two separate directions. Their sounds are broken down—what’s more, on the terms of their own mechanics. And the texts are also opened up to a crossword puzzle-like deduction of how the sentences might unfold differently. Simon’s poem is content to conclude with these noisy, paranoiac pathways. As Prevallet’s piece unfurls, though, those pathways are reduced by active and intentional manipulation. Take a look at the penultimate stanza, where “oil” has been heavily substituted in:

VI. 3
Oil United Oil oil oil
oil oil the oil people; they’ve oil oil
oil oil silent
oil. Oil oil
the oil people is
oil oil moral oil, oil oil oil strategic
goal. oil oil
oil oil oil
it; oil security of
oil nations oil oil. Free societies oil oil
intimidate oil cruelty
oil oil…

One might make the case that confirmation bias isn’t all that informs Zambito’s selective editing of Nixon, but it seems indisputable with this poem. That’s not a value judgment, but an observation on the poem’s clear commitment to the idea that oil is behind the intentions of Bush’s speech. The piece takes an angle that is unlike “Because the People of the World Want War” in terms of both ethics and aesthetics. The aesthetics of the poem do not preserve language; they facilitate its decay, first by lineating a selection of un-lineated text. And the poem’s ethical framework is intoned didactically instead of implicitly. Though the word “oil” appears nowhere in the original text, Prevallet inserts it repeatedly until the aura of its presence inverts from alarming—what’s that doing there?—to banal, to the point where the words that aren’t “oil” are what stand out. Is the poem signaling to us that we’ve become so enchanted with hubris that we’ve lose the ability to see the obvious? Or is the poem an act of ethical editing—a rebellion against concealment, a correctional commentary? Either way, its alteration of the text is markedly opposite: Zambito subtracts while Prevallet adds by substitution, which is itself a kind of addition.

Another act of editing occurs in the poem’s title, which makes the same move as many other appropriated political poems. “Cruelty and Conquest” is a phrase that appears in the speech, but it’s called out for attention via its location at the top of the poem. With this placement, the poem highlights precisely that which Bush, in his address, argues that “free societies” do not do. Like Zambito’s poem, “Cruelty and Conquest” darkly mocks the same idea of the sound byte on which doublespeak thrives. It demonstrates that though the act of excerption is powerful when used by the powers that be, it can also be turned against them. In another act of inversion, while the poem proceeds through seven stanzas to gradually increase the volume of “oil” references, at the third stanza other numbers start appearing beside the Roman numerals (see the stanza quoted above, which pairs “VI” with 3). The Roman numerals help document the poem’s movement from including zero instances of oil to its last stanza, in which only ten words of the address remain. Unordered Arabic numbers next to the numerals question that documentation: the consequentialist reasoning of both the original text and the poem has been flipped on its head.

So far, we’ve looked at texts that can be traced back to one person—Nixon or Bush, though they speak for entire bureaucratic apparatuses, still deliver their talks as themselves. This makes debates about ethics, authorship, and appropriation at least seem easier to resolve. But what happens when disembodied amalgamations of text—bureaucratic text, as so often occurs in political discourse—that can’t be practically traced back to individual speakers confront us? Take the USA PATRIOT Act, for instance, the words of which form the basis for the poem “They Met Only in the Evenings” by Geoffrey G. O’Brien in his 2007 book Green and Gray. In a note to the text, O’Brien specifies that the poem was written using “only language from” the Act, and, furthermore, that “subsequently, one word per line was replaced with a word from a translation of Jean Genet’s Querelle.” Not only does the poem face the now-faceless governmental Frankenstein of the Act, whose manifold writers and editors in Congress have vanished after lending it its own alien agency; it must also face the regimented surgery of self-prescribed formal structures in addition, which are constituted in this case by the swapping-out of words in the Act for words by Genet. A few stanzas should illustrate the resultant poem’s character:

Affecting the compound authority
of disclosure in general
purposes at trial in solitary facts

Likely to issue in possession
if available in no voice
written later after daydreams

Of limitation flashed whole or part
grave of a power or intelligence
the intelligence foreign to power

The first of these three stanzas seem almost to comment explicitly on the poem’s own “compound” methodology, its aping of an “authority” that must also deal with the existence of “solitary facts.” But though the poem spends much of its time, necessarily, putting bureaucratic legalese on display, it also breaches into indictment, into clarity, in such a way that the two seem intertwined: “the intelligence foreign to power” is as wry—but also as straightforward—a critique of the Bush Administration, or the executive apparatuses of the U.S. government, as any. What follows these stanzas approaches, as so much of the poem does, the line between enjambed linear sense and incomprehensibility: “A power falling down shall not / striking the atmosphere…” One’s first inclination might be to intuitively correct “striking the atmosphere” to “strike the atmosphere,” thereby connecting the striking to the falling power; but that it is “stirking” and not “strike” in the poem prompts a regression to, and re-reading of, that first line. “A power falling down shall not” isn’t an uncompleted sentence but a complete one—one that concisely captures the self-denial of an empire in decline. It is no accident that the USA PATRIOT Act, which was renewed for four years in 2011 as Senate Bill 990, receives this treatment and not a House Resolution praising the New York Giants for winning Super Bowl XLVI. (The Giants being, the resolution informs us, a “model of resilience” for overcoming “both injury and adversity.”)

There’s no indication that the “language” from the Act was taken in linear sequence—via the pattern with which one reads a text—or if O’Brien’s sampling stopped at the level of the phrase, the word, or even the letter (levels which, as they diminish, open wider and more violent apertures for the “finding” poet to construct new meanings in). There’s likewise no indication as to whether or not the capital letters beginning each triplet are themselves “found” in the text, or if they are editorial insertions. The poem might also be a sort of cento, if one considers the Act not as a whole but as a loose arrangement of fragments from various authors presented as a whole. O’Brien’s poem, though it clings to some semblance of linearity in terms of its syntax (and that syntax’s logic), is both an effort to filter the gargantuan influx of textual material (or detritus, as bureaucratic language seems so often to be laden with) and a reenactment of that material’s inherently conflicted, labyrinthine ontology. On the other hand, it might be read as  an account of how we do, for better or for worse, experientially “parse” such huge texts into process-able, if absurd or indiscriminate, blocks and shards—the failure, to put it differently, of the law to be clear about its own demands.

With works of journalism, much like works of collective authorship such as the USA PATRIOT Act, what might straightforwardly be tracked to one “original” speaker no longer ends with that person. The journalist, especially in events of formidable tragedy, is tasked with the necessary but imperfect work of filtering the slew of yells surrounding the topic. Artist and writer Austin Kleon, whose erasures take newspaper articles as their sources and then proceed to black them out with marker, has explored ways to abrade the sheen off of finished products of journalism to get back to that multiplicity of voices they stem from. Single-author articles, Kleon’s work emphasizes, are conduits: they funnel thousands of voices into the space required for one. And then, in a weird instance of reverse engineering, that one voice bears exponential offspring: everyone who reads it in the newspaper or watches it on TV begins to form their own version of events based on that data, and the cycle is flipped on its head. What’s lost in transmission is a scary question, often too scary to ask, but Garrett Phelan asks its pressingly in “Inside School #1,” a re-interpretation of an article in The Washington Post about the takeover and bombing of a school in Beslan, Russia, in September of 2004. It reads in part:

They were blown out of their shoes,
their bodies torn apart.
“We don’t need sweet medicine,
we need bitter.”

A wall remained mottled
by ten thousand bullet holes
On the wall was a portrait
of Vladimir Mayakovsky
Your son is gloriously sick!
His heart is on fire.”


Two chairs, one with flowers and cookies,
two chocolate love birds and candy animals to eat
in memory of the 350 dead children,
teachers and parents.

Parts of the poem incorporate quotes from survivors; the italicized text is from Mayakovsky himself, inserted by Phelan. The totality of the poem, however, builds up to the dreamlike once one realizes that the poem borrows images from the article but not its phrasing. Though we read “On the wall was a portrait / of Vladimir Mayakovsky…” in the poem, the article reads  “On the wall were portraits of the writers Vladimir Mayakovski and Ivan Turgenev, along with a wooden plaque featuring a Mayakovski quote: ‘I would study Russian if only because Lenin spoke it.’” The decision by the plaque-maker to select that quote in particular was already an act of both inclusion and exclusion, as was the journalistic decision to note this fact; that the poem forgoes this quote for lines from Mayakovsky himself is another, a third-wave interpretation. Likewise, “two chocolate love birds” don’t appear anywhere in the article (unless Phelan is working on the level of letters and words), but they might as well: Two chairs were set up in the middle of the gym for more flowers, as well as cookies and water bottles, another custom intended to lure animals and birds to eat in memory of the dead.” Like the event it depicts, the poem and its reality are both macabre and gorgeous.

Is this poem disrespectful to the dead, or does it honor them by exposing the farce of journalism’s pretension to universality and objectivity? Does it respect the sacredness of what it’s representing? Or is Emmanuel Levinas right when he argues in “Reality and its Shadow” that “nothing is more mysterious than the term ‘world it [an image] represents’—since representation expresses just that function of an image that still remains to be determined”? How much is journalism a finding of its own reality as well as a finding of empirical data-bits? What’s at stake then becomes how much journalism can say with determinacy—and how different, or similar, a manipulation of political texts in the name of aesthetics actually is from that first act of speech or observation. We also need to ask if we think objective reporting is possible—and if so, to what extent. If the poem is trying to convince us of its reality, it’s failing; if it’s trying to persuade us that the details of both the original event “objectively” reported are comparable with any pastiche-like reimagining of it, then it—terrifyingly—convinces. In failing to convince us of its reality, it convinces us of the failed-ness of the article’s reality. And we’re stuck again in that no-man’s-land where aesthetics and ethics communicate but can agree on nothing.

This might be the pinnacle achievement of the appropriated political poem: not to assure us of the plausibility of deciphered meanings, but of their improbability. Whether the poem is a cento-esque assemblage like Zambito’s, a deliberate interrogation of the text like Prevallet’s, a recapitulation of court testimony like Simon’s, or a re-conception of an actual event like Phelan’s, we’re not brought any closer to certainty. Each, through its own process, employs the mechanisms of an “original” text to engineer its conclusion—and in almost every case, its faith in the real is weakened. But this might be important work in a time when political speech continues to devolve. Recently, the Sunlight Foundation uncovered that Congress has fallen a full grade level in speech competency since 2005. And slogans for the forthcoming election (“Believe in America” for Romney; “Forward” for Obama) promise good feelings, not thoughts. The discourse is sliding downhill, and appropriated political poetry objects to that tampered vernacular by tampering with it even further. Cross-sampling this discourse—taking bits and pieces and sewing them together—makes for an exercise in the almost-mythic, as with “Sonnet composed of statements made by George W. Bush in September 2001” by H. L. Hix, parts of which follow:

We’re a nation that has fabulous values:
as a nation of good folks, we’re going to hunt them down,
and we’re going to find them, and… bring them to justice.
Americans are asking: What is expected of us?
I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children.
Go back to work. Get down to Disney World.

Hix’s poem is both hilarious and horrifying—more so the latter, if only because it hopscotches across dates to bring us its gestalt of nonsense. But nonsense is a measurable quantity in politics. In her preface to the Library of Congress’s recently-released anthology of election propaganda, Presidential Campaign Posters, NPR commentator Brooke Gladstone pinpoints the reason why equivocation is so central. “…The most effective campaign posters of every era leave as much as possible to the voter’s imagination,” she writes. “The more specific the image, the greater the risk of creating a feeling of ‘otherness,’ which translates into death at the polls.” In political discourse, feelings of inclusion trump analytic thoughts; Zambino, and other poets who use political language to examine precisely that language, rehearse for us some of our more problematic social tendencies with regard to politics on the fairly neutral theater of the page, perhaps with the hope that we’ll recognize them there and avert their disastrous effects in the world of sticks, stones, and broken bones.

Appropriated political poetry calls out that “otherness,” and finds new “othernesses” beneath the lacquer of ballot-box babble. Such poems capitalize on our tendency torward apophenia, our desire to see what’s not there—or what is. And the voices that claim to speak to all of us (or, as the case may be, from all of us) is most suspect. “All poetry is public…” writes critic David Orr in Public Poetry? “But some publics are more public than others.” Political speech is ostensibly the most public speech available, and the questions posed by poems formed from it can be heirs to its importance. The same impulse that spurred a thousand Beatles fans to play “Revolution 9” backwards on their turntables in hopes of hearing “Paul is dead,” it turns out, might also take the polish off of the State of the Union. No tinfoil hats necessary—just a sense of skepticism, and with it possibility.

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