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Literary Saturday: The American Foreign Policy Poem Part 1

This semester I’m teaching a class on the public intellectual in the age of the internet; we are thinking about how the rise of the internet does and does not change the relationship of writers and thinkers to society. The students are also learning to write short blog-type post that we workshop together in class.

One of Via Meadia‘s guiding ideas is that the internet while very radical and revolutionary in some ways is also acting to revive some very old forms of communication. The 18th century was in some ways an age of blogs; publications like the Tatler, the Spectator and even the Federalist Papers were written more the way blog posts are written today than like the labored, worked over pieces that appear in the mainstream media.

In the internet age, individual writers are able to do what they used to do three hundred years ago: speak directly to a mass audience without the intervening filters of editors and publishers. In that time as well as this one, the new freedom to communicate led to a proliferation of new voices from many different perspectives, and raises another question for young writers especially: how can you make your voice heard when it is just one among so many.

For class we’ve been reading examples of writers who managed to make themselves heard in the first, pre-wifi coffeehouse age — people like Swift and Dafoe. I’ve been encouraging the students to look at some of the strategies these writers used to lift their voices above the general murmur, and it’s striking how many of the same strategies work well today. Satire worked for Swift — we read the terrific Bickerstaffe Papers — and Dafoe used it even more effectively against his conservative opponents than Jon Stewart uses it to mock his enemies today.

In the last couple of classes we’ve been looking at a strategy that many writers used at that time: writing about political and other non-lyrical subjects in heroic couplets (rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter lines). It was a way to show your mastery of English style and vocabulary and when done even reasonably well it made your work stand out and drew readers to you.

Back when I was trying to teach myself to write, I used to do quite a bit of this, and while the experience may not have led to any great poetry, it developed my ear for language and helped me get the kind of critical distance from my own work that is very hard for young writers to achieve.

To show the students what contemporary expository writing in heroic couplets might look like, and to polish up my old skills, I began to write a poem about American foreign policy and grand strategy. I’d forgotten how much fun this kind of thing is to do; it’s a very engaging way to write and forces a much tighter focus on meaning and word choice than prose. Over the next few weeks I’ll put up excerpts from it as I write and revise; perhaps if we had more rhyming wonks the country would be in better shape.

Survey the world from Mali to Peru
And ask what the United States should do:
Attract the love of peoples far and near
Or force their grudged compliance through their fear?
Confine our use of power soft and sweet
To global institutions wrapped in neat
Procedures? Or take hard power’s way
And let the others hate us but obey?
Is endless war man’s fate and constant scourge
Or can a peaceful world somehow emerge?
If so, is trade our key to lasting peace
Or human rights the way to make wars cease?
Do democratic governments show the path
To peace? Or will the hatred and the wrath
Sectarian passions loose just bring more woe
As demagogues and scoundrels steal the show?
Should we send mighty armies over seas
To keep the peace and curb our enemies,
Or should the eagle, pinions tightly furled,
Brood in its nest and shun the restless world?

Some years ago in Special Providence
I argued that the historic evidence
Supports the claim that four contending schools
Compete to set the agenda and the rules
By which good captains ought to navigate
The course that best preserves our ship of state.
Of all the schools the most coherent one
Is that identified with Hamilton;
It thinks America’s destiny is tied
To following the model Britain tried.

The greatest, freest empire ever known
(Though harsh and cruel, too) before our own
Was that whose cunning, enterprise and worth
Gave us our laws, our liberties and birth.
The British watched the Dutch and learned the way
That leads the wise to wealth and global sway –
Three centuries watched this five step plan unfold;
I wrote about it once in God and Gold.

More to come…

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