September 19, 2012

"Drawn by your own sweet skill"

I was going to post this a couple of days ago, but I got caught up in Mitt Romney's Craptacular Flustercluck.

This, of course, is Bill Clinton's knock-em-dead speech at the Democratic Convention. The content has already been analyzed ad nauseum, but take it from me: He pounds the Republicans into the ground and spreads chicken manure over the remains. He also does it all with a wink and a smile and enough good-ole-boy electrified zingers to bring Zombie Reagan shambling across the stage.

The speech is wonderful in and of itself; I've watched it twice. There was a bit of factchecker grumbling, but in the main Bill's facts and figures were found to be accurate. What I wanted to talk about was not the content but the delivery--the sheer poetry of the entire thing.

Good speaking, like good writing, has a distinctive pace. You can't be a single-beat thumping drone, or you'll lose your audience in the first five minutes. Likewise, you can't be a sixteen-note staccato (the way Yngvie Malmsteen tried to play, for those who remember the fiery 80's guitarist) or your listeners' heads will explode. You have to have a rhythm, a structure, a variation--start out strong, then pull back; take a minute to reflect and regroup; lay the groundwork for your next point (or next chapter) and head there, quickening the pace like climbing a mountain; at the summit, stop and look around, soaking in the majesty you've found, before heading down the path towards the next peak.

Bill Clinton's speech did all that pretty damn well. Maybe some got the impression that he was hurrying too much, but I don't think that at all. Surely the man knew he was already running overtime, but since I'm sure he figured that since he still had the networks' attention (and he knew he had the audience's) he was going to wring this thing out to its triumphant end. Nevertheless, he still slowed down. He paused to let his "brass"-isms sink in, and of course he had to pause for cheers and applause (although the bursts of applause were actually when I noticed he would try to get things going again, so he wouldn't appear to be stumping too heavily for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment).

Bill's speech was poetry. More than poetry, it was a Shakespearean sonnet. Barack Obama's speech, by contrast, was more of a workmanlike free verse; it didn't need to soar and inspire. Not only had Bill Clinton already done that, I think more of Obama's 2008 rock-star hysteria would have fallen flat in today's political atmosphere. He's dealt with way too much crapola over the past three and half years to fly so high again, even if the mood of the country would permit it. The President you're seeing now is battle-tested, scarred, and rapidly going gray, and he's earned every one of those steel curls.

Which of course left Bill Clinton free to take Steve Miller's advice, and man did he ever dive and wheel and soar with it. I didn't pay much attention to Bill during his time in office--I was preoccupied with other stuff. That's too bad (although I'm certainly not sorry to have missed the impeachment claptrap). Bill Clinton is the 2nd-best person Barack Obama could have chosen to be his standard-bearer (after Michelle), and I'm glad I got to witness it.

Sonnet 16

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time's pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

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