Believe it or not, the finger hovering over the red button, holding in check the peace (or annihilation) of the world, has the touch of a poet - at least according to Hart Seely, a reporter for The Syracuse Post-Standard, who compiled and edited what he describes as "the existential poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld" in a book entitled "Pieces of Intelligence."
According to Seely, in his short preface: "Like the epics of Homer, or modern African-American street poetry, Rumsfeld's oeuvre originated as oral improvisation, initially heard only by hard-bitten reporters and round-the-clock viewers of C-SPAN." But the best proof of Seely's thesis are Rumsfeld's utterances on various public occasions, printed in short lines on a page, in the form of a poem.
Here is the most famous one, which was termed by journalists as the silliest thing said during 2003 by a politician, and which metamorphosed typographically into a poem called "The Unknown":
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.
While those are not pentameters emanating from the heart of the Pentagon, Rumsfeld is capable of producing the strictest form of poetry, the haiku - 17 syllables in three lines (5-7-5) - as in "In Command":
A government is
Governing or it's not. And
If not, someone else is.
And there are sonnets, 12 of them, in free verse, all of them dealing in some way or other with East-West relations. Here is one, called "Before Air-Conditioning":
I don't know how many times
I've been to Guantanamo Bay,
But it's a lot.
And it frequently was in the summer
When I was a Navy pilot,
And that was back in the days before air-conditioning.
And it's just amazing,
But people do fine. I mean,
There are a lot of people in Cuba
With no air-conditioning.
I know that will come as a surprise!
But I was in Washington before there was air-conditioning.
And the windows used to open!
Like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdan, who was not aware he was speaking prose all his life, Rumsfeld is an unwitting poet. Does it matter? Davin Avidan wrote: "A poem is something I write as a poem or as a non-poem, but publish as a poem. And now define anew what is a poem."
Poetry buffs will claim that what matters is whether the poems are good or bad. Most of Rumsfeld's poetic oeuvre is based on tautology, some of it is banal, none of it is very good, but one has to admit that he is a born orator. His speech flows freely and rhythmically, and the way he sees the world is very refreshing, imbued with a cosmic existential amazement, enchanting in a poet, and even more so in a politician. There are so many surprising similes, images and metaphors. Here is another poem, "Chasing the Chicken":
If you're chasing the chicken
Around the chicken yard
And you don't have him yet,
And the question is, how close are you?
The answer is, it's tough to characterize
Because there's lots of zigs and zags.
When Seely takes Rumsfeld's words and puts them on a page in short lines, he highlights the silliness and exposes the emptiness of his words. But when he does so before an audience that does not care much for poetry to begin with, he seems to be saying: Look, this is sooooo silly, it's like poetry.
I don't know what this will do to Rumsfeld's reputation. I wonder what it will do to the reputation of poetry.
But Rumsfeld is not running for the post of poet Laureate, and poetry has survived a couple of millennia of politicians and plain bad versifiers, willing or not, witting or un. So let's just finish with one more treat, this time "A Confession":
Once in a while,
I'm standing here,
And I think,
"What in the world am I doing here?"
It's a big surprise.
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