Saturday, June 11, 2011

Poetry in the wild: Longfellow edition

I love these instances of poetry in the wild—moments when you see poetry being deployed to unlikely ends, or when you see the general public being called upon to recognize something that you're usually called a hopeless nerd for studying. A few weeks ago I took note of a Businessweek article that was briefly viral, whose most quotable and quoted line was
"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," he says. "That sucks."
And then there is this gem, from a pharmacy in Rockridge:

So I couldn't help being struck by the widespread mockery of Sarah Palin's mangling of the story of Paul Revere. It's not that she wasn't wrong--of course she was wrong, completely. It's that everyone knew with such certainty just how wrong she was, and that they had the goods on the truth about Paul Revere.

And why did everyone know the real story of Paul Revere?

Do I even have to ask? Because of Henry frickin' Wadsworth Longfellow. Everybody heard that poem in grade school and knows at least bits of it by heart.

Here's how Comedy Central blurbed Jon Stewart's June 6 segment on Palin. Note the direct quotation from Longfellow.

Stephen Colbert likewise quoted Longfellow in his segment on Palin. In fact, he comically bowdlerized the poem, and getting the joke depended on remembering the original:
"It's just like we all learned in grade school.'One if by land, bells if by two, hey, British, you're warned, sailed the ocean blue.'"
Both Stewart and Colbert take special note of Palin's language, a "folksy word salad," as the Stewart blurb calls it, "a random string of words," as Colbert puts it. The focus on the disorder of Palin's words seems to register some indignation at the departure from Longfellow's rhymed, aggressively accentual verse, which neither can help quoting.

Normally nobody cares at all (or even notices) if a politician messes up some history; in fact, outright misrepresentations and lies are pretty par for the course in politics. Yet this particular screw-up briefly had everyone in a lather, and I think it has everything to do with the poetry. Sarah Palin did fail a sort of knowledge-test, but it was more a test of national folklore than of history (even though of course the national folklore is being called history). It seems to be less offensive to most people that she got the history wrong (which of course she did) than that she didn't know Longfellow's poem. One if by land, two if by sea! What, were you raised by wolves?

From a historical perspective, the idea of Henry Wadsworth "I wrote The Song of Hiawatha" Longfellow as some kind of neutral, unimpeachable historical authority is pretty hilarious. And from a literary perspective, it's puzzling to be reminded how powerfully such a bad and, in some ways, marginal poem has lodged in the national consciousness, while poems we poetry critics might all think of as central—Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning," for example—languish in relative obscurity. Who decides what poems (if any) get taught in elementary school, and for what reason? How many teachers have taught "Paul Revere's Ride" not as poetry (fair enough!) but as history? For how many people is this one of the few poems they learned in school--or even the only poem?

This is why poetry is so interesting to observe in the wild. You never know what it's going to do.

[UPDATE: Jill Lepore does it better.]


refugee from reason said...

I came across your venue and found it both interesting and fun. That noted, I was struck by the Sarah Palin comment. Caveat: I'm an old Left Wing Liberal from New York City. All of this to say, it is remarkable to me that the broad gets so much attention, especially in the media and it feeds itself.

As an old ex-reporter who covered Washington for years, I can tell you that my editors would never have let those stories go. Ben Bradlee talks about this sort of thing in "The Good Life," by the way.

All of this just to say, I enjoy your writing and will visit often.


Natalia said...

Thanks for your comment, and for your kind words about my post.

Do please refrain from calling Sarah Palin or anyone else a "broad" on my blog, however. I recognize that the question of whether the word "broad" can be reclaimed is contentious, but in any case I don't think it can be reclaimed by you. Dismiss Palin because she's terribly incompetent, not because she's a woman.

refugee from reason said...

Mea culpa Old New York Doctorate, by the way, was on Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, 100 years ago, it seems.