Soaring rhetoric?

I must unburden myself.

Many people, especially in the media, have bought into the claim that President Obama is a great speaker, an elemental force of public speaking.  I beg to differ.  He reads a well-crafted speech with polish and seeming conviction.  His extemporaneous performances are rough.  No doubt he will improve in time, but he is not a good speaker without a text.

It is that American’s are so starved for good public oratory that this seems to soar?  Have our standards of education, of formation in the substance and literature of Western Civilization is so enervated that this seems elevated?

During the inauguration ceremony four soul annihilating minutes were inflicted by the poem, composed and declaimed Elizabeth Alexander.  She is a professor at Yale and a personal friend of the Obama family.

As you read it or listen here, remember that the first poet to read at an inauguration was Robert Frost.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Emil Berbakov says:

    Was that a poem or an essay?

  2. JM says:

    Looking at other things she has written, I’m not surprised she came up with this rubbish. Take a look at her website if you want to continue the torture.

  3. TJM says:

    I agree with your entire statement Father Z. Also, Obama is not in the same class with a Winston Churchill. Now there was a great orator! Tom

  4. Kateri says:

    I could not endure listening for more than 2 minutes and 5 seconds. There are better ways to use or to waste my time! I bet that there are Elizabeth Alexander poems being read in Purgatory.

  5. RANCHER says:

    Whatever that qualifies as, it makes about as much sense as most of what Obama said (with or without teleprompter) during his campaign. By the way, he updated the White House web site right after taking the oath of office. Look under his “Agenda” and look for his positions on moral issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research and the like. Those “catholics” and other Christians who justified their vote for him in spite of his immoral positions claiming that once elected he would change those positions have, at the very least, been deceived. The same sort of rhetoric that comprised that “poem” (or whatever it was) was consistent with Obama’s whole misguided approach to important issues. Yep, Father, I admit this is a one time excursion into the rabbit hole.

  6. TNCath says:

    Indeed! When I heard Ms. Alexander’s poetry, my first reaction was, “This is the worst poetry I have ever heard.” She made Edgar A. Guest sound like Tennyson.

  7. Jason says:

    I don’t know what a “great speaker” would be, since I’m certainly not one myself. But I tend to agree that I have never understood the praise for Obama’s speaking ability. He’s a decent speaker, gets his point across, etc. But he has always come across to me as most any other American politician would. I haven’t been particularly inspired by his speeches, although my disagreement with some of his political views probably affects my perception of his speeches.

    I’m always struck by the Pope’s speeches. He seems to go out of his way to deliver them without much expression. But that keeps the focus on his message, and not on him. Not that everyone necessarily has to take that approach, but it works for him.

  8. Genna says:

    Lasted 30 seconds. Surely she’s a parish liturgist?

  9. Jenny says:

    “I must unburden myself.”

    That made me laugh!

  10. Baron Korf says:

    All that was missing were sunglasses and bongo drums. Granted I could only make it through about a minute before I either had to shut it off or break the speakers. This is to poetry what McDonald’s is to cooking (but at least the big mac has a catchy tune). But that is because we live in a quick, easy, McDonald’s culture. Everything is so formula and bland that rising above the standard is child’s play.

  11. shadrach says:

    Standards have definitely fallen. However, listening to the radio broadcasts of Winston Churchill shows that he had very many ropey moments. Very many. He did his job very well during the second world war, but he was never the gold standard of oratory. Subsequent editing and sound-biting improves him.

  12. opey124 says:

    He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’. (Robert Frost)
    I must go reinforce mine, maybe barbed wire?

  13. don Jeffry says:

    But she did make a reference to Fr. Z & Co. and churches “…built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.”

    don Jeffry

  14. Marilyn says:

    Father, you ask if our standards have fallen so low that this seems elevated. Yes, they have. I have been teaching for too many years now, and I have watched it. If I had young children today, I would be home-schooling them.

  15. Joe says:

    “Many people, especially in the media, have bought into the claim that President Obama is a great speaker, an elemental force of public speaking. I beg to differ. He reads a well-crafted speech with polish and seeming conviction. His extemporaneous performances are rough. No doubt he will improve in time, but he is not a good speaker without a text.”
    — absolutely ! NPR did an analysis on the candidates and the consultant said the same thing.

  16. LarryD says:

    That poem sounded like it was composed via a random word generator, or a Mad Lib. I was reminded of the schtick Steve Allen used to do, reading rock n’ roll lyrics like classical poetry. (at least, I think it was Steve Allen). Made the poem a little bit more bearable because I was laughing.

  17. Liam says:

    Poetry does not belong at American inaugurations. (Btw, remember that Monday was the bicentenary of the birth in Boston of the first internationally renowned American poet – Poe – a fact that did not even merit a single mention in Boston’s paper of record, but I digress.)

    We cannot have great general-topic oratory in American political rhetoric anymore. It has to be tied to a specific
    topic or event. The problem with inaugurals is that, in order to be bipartisan, the event of change has to be dulled somewhat (in fact, witness the complaints of them who perceive that Obama did not dull his remarks enough in that regard). Which invites platitudinous discourse.

    Lincoln 1 & 2, and Jefferson 1, were unique moments in political fissuring in US history, and their better addresses rode those specific moments.

    FDR 1 had a couple of moments.

    But rhetoricians would be out of easy writing gigs during Inauguration week if they de-mythologized the reality of this context.

  18. Michael R. says:

    I went back and read the poem Robert Frost composed (but did not entirely succeed in reading) at the JFK inauguration, and, truth to tell, it wasn’t particularly good, either. It was, however, recognizably a poem.

  19. Mila says:

    Liistening to that poem was painful. Fortunately I was in the kitchen (making Fr Z’s wonderful leek soup!) and was spared most of it.

    And as far as Obama’s abilities as an orator…he has none. He can read well; but there’s a big difference.

  20. Gaaaaaah!!! Run. Get wine! Drink a lot!!!!

    and Father, here I considered your website a place of refuge and peace and good sense. What just happened?

    We are the sane in the kingdom of the mad.

  21. Sid says:

    Blame it on TV. The late Neil Postman observed in Amusing Ourselves to Death that the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were attended by average folk who had the ability to follow long sentences and complicated argument — nothing but words for three hours without charts, diagrams, and pictures of any kind. The audience was well aware of the details of the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Compromise of 1850, and the Walker Tariff. In 1856, Lincoln and Douglas debated for 8 hours!

    Postman added that The Gettysburg Address, with its long sentences and difficult words (“score”), would be largely unintelligible to a TV audience.

    Think about Cicero’s first Cataline! Think about the beginning of the Letter to the Romans, a long winding sentence that the RSV gives complete and dumbed-down translations (NAB) give broken up into baby sentences. Heck, aren’t most of the Latin collects one sentence?

    Hey, Father! How ’bout a blog called “How Does the Sentence Really Read”!

  22. Eric the Read says:

    An English professor at George Washington University fisked the poem itself here:

    I was entirely unimpressed, but her analysis brings my unimpressment to a whole new level.

  23. Cathomommy says:

    Vogon poetry would have been better!

  24. Ygnacia says:

    ‘four soul annihilating minutes’

    Perfectly said. I listened to it live via the radio, thinking at the time that both the poem and it’s delivery was simply the worst.

    I love Mad Libs comment…

  25. RichR says:


  26. Jillian says:

    That “poem” sounds like some banal children’s picture book (that probably the library would toss out!). And her delivery was like a six year old sounding out words after he’s just learned to read.

    I am shocked she is a college professor (at any college!).

  27. Romanrevert says:

    If an infinite number of monkeys typing an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite number of years could create a work of Shakespeare, I think it would have only taken a couple of hundred monkeys about 45 minutes to come up with that poem. Awful. I am thankful for the inventor of the mute button on my TV.

  28. Gladiatrix says:

    I thought the worst part (aside from the patronising and arrogant BBC talking-over, ooops sorry commentary) was the invocation. If this is what Evangelists have to put up with on a general basis, I am glad I am an Anglican.

    It was not so much an invocation of the Almighty’s protection and love as wittering at Him. There was no identifiable theme or structure. I accept that there are many different ways to pray but it was not a prayer of any kind.

  29. GOR says:

    I can’t comment on the ‘poem’ as I switched channels as soon as she appeared. I think I watched something on wildlife – which probably made a lot more sense, animals not being given to ‘poetry’…

  30. Garrett says:

    Fr. Z asked: “It is that American’s are so starved for good public oratory that this seems to soar?”

    After eight years of George Bush, I think every reasonably sane person can say, without hesitation: yes!

  31. Thomas says:

    The inauguration was the last straw. I cancelled the cable today.

    “‘Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.”

  32. LA says:

    After hearing Maya Angelu give the inaugural poem for Bill Clinton, I thought I’d never hear a worse poem. I did yesterday.

  33. little gal says:

    Re: Ms. Alexander, I was confused whether it was prose or poetry that she was reading and solved the dilemma by leaving the room that the TV was in.

    Re: Pres. Obama, as I observed him giving his speech yesterday, I was struck by how much he appeared to enjoy having the attention of the crowd. He’s definitely someone who has sizzle when speaking, but I am more interested in how he structures what he says to accomplish his goal. Tom Roeser, a local blogger, wrote about one of Obama’s techniques–

    “The very first time I interviewed Barack Obama on radio…shortly after he won his state senate seat…I noticed how adroitly he took questions from call-ins. He sounded so preeminently reasonable. Then I realized what he was doing…something he has carried through to this very day with his latest news conference as president-elect.
    Not that he has been the first to ever think of it…but–. With me as now, he stitched together two contradictory views and linked them with a “but.”

    I am sure there are other techniques as well…

  34. Greg says:

    I also agree. The poem, if one can call it that, was unbearable to listen to. If that is an example of how the “arts” will be given a more prominent place in this White House, we have four years of intolerable banality ahead of us. I also have to say that one cannot discuss outstanding oratory skills without mentioning Fulton Sheen. My DVR is programmed to record each episode of “Life is Worth Living” on EWTN. His lessons are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. His skills are beyond reproach and his words are infinitely more inspiring than any I can imagine President Obama uttering over the next four years.

  35. Sam Orsot says:

    Well, regardless of how great a speaker he is, or his positions, he is now our president. Nothing we can do about it now. I for one, am placing my full support behind him, and is praying for a miraculous conversion. May Our Lord bestow true wisdom on President Obama, and guide him as he leads this country.

  36. Jayna says:

    Compared to the recent past, he’s a great speaker working from text (I agree, not so great without it). I’m an absolute wreck with or without text, so compared to me he’s amazing.

    The poem was terrible, though. I’m not even sure it can count as a poem. And if we want to talk about poor public speaking…

  37. wmeyer says:

    I am old enough to remember Robert Frost’s reading at inauguration.

    And this woman is no Robert Frost.

    How far we have fallen.

  38. Andrew says:

    That needed to be said Father. No one has ever said that George Bush was a great speaker. Quite the opposite actually. You only need to watch Leno or Letterman to hear the ridicule. I don’t know what they are going to do without him. Obama is not a great speaker. Reads a mean speech though.

  39. Christina says:

    There IS something rotten in the State of Denmark, Thomas!

    Forgive me for saying it, but the poem, the speech and the invocation demonstrate the triumph of civil religion in our day.

    And the whole debate over whether Pr. Warren is “controversial” as an alleged “conservative” just shows how anthropocentric our collective epistemology has become. The benediction was no better. What started so promising turned into a stand up act.

    Once upon a time, our nation prayed to God. Now we the people pray to ourselves. WE FEW WE HAPPY FEW need to pray all the more for the nation… and for good taste!

  40. Jonathan says:

    this could quite possibly be one of the worst poems i have ever heard. i saw know continuity of thought. she just seemed to run on, and on, and on…

  41. Kathleen says:

    I almost never watch TV, so have heard Obama mostly on radio, and I hear a
    monotonous cadence to his speaking/shouting. It seems he cannot write very
    well either. Jack Cashill, author, editor, and producer, has examined Obama’s writing and
    concluded that he had a lot of help writing “Dreams from My Father”. The identity of the helper is cause for dismay. If you go to his web site you can read about it.
    You might also be interested in his DVDs: “Tradition” the TLM, and “Pilgrimage.”

  42. joy says:

    At least there were no poetry appreciation chairs around to be strapped into!

    BTW, Fr. Z, all the posts below this one have lines through them, as though they were being crossed out.

  43. Kristin says:

    I like what Rush said: This woman sounded like the voice on the GPS!

  44. Tomas says:

    But don’t forget, Father, Professor Douglas Kmiec thinks this guy is the best thing since Cicero.

  45. Paladin says:

    Cathomommy wrote:

    Vogon poetry would have been better!

    (LOL!) We have a winner!

  46. Byzshawn says:

    Yikes! Take a look at her website. The Emperor has NO clothes.

  47. David Kastel says:

    There are 2 major “changes” with the change in regime.

    1) The new president is black
    2) The new president is capable of making a grammatically correct statement

    I agree with “The Who”

    – “Meet the new Boss…Same as the old Boss”

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