THR Web Features   /   May 18, 2023

Well Said

Looking and Listening for Eloquence

Michael Milburn

( THR illustration (Granger; Peter Semansky/UPI/Alamy Live News; Alamy))

For many viewers, the highlight of Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War is the reading of a poignant letter from a Union soldier to his wife a week before he is killed in the First Battle of Bull Run. “Sarah, my love for you is deathless,” Major Sullivan Ballou writes from his unit’s camp in Washington, DC. “It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains to the battlefield.” Concluding the series’ premiere episode in September 1990, the letter became the equivalent of a viral phenomenon in that pre-social media age: “Within minutes of the first night’s broadcast,” Burns said a year later, “the phone began ringing off the hook with calls from across the country, eager to find out about Sullivan Ballou….The calls would not stop all week—and they continue.” The letter still resonates today—Senator Chuck Schumer read an excerpt at Donald Trump’s inauguration—and in multiple articles turned up by a Google search, the word that recurs most frequently to praise it is “eloquent.”

Eloquence was in evidence again at Joe Biden’s inauguration, when Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” generated its own viral response, attributable in part to the poet’s performance. Performance likely also influenced the reception for Ballou’s letter, which is spoken on The Civil War broadcast by actor Paul Roebling, whose measured, affecting delivery received as much praise as the writing. Just as celebrated as Roebling’s contribution is its musical accompaniment, a plaintive violin solo entitled “Ashokan Farewell” that sounds as if it could have been playing in the distance as Ballou wrote (it was actually composed in 1982 by Jay Ungar). It’s worth asking how much the letter’s popularity owes to Roebling’s recital, Ungar’s melody, or Ballou’s words. Would as many people have telephoned Burns if they had first encountered those words in print, or in a voice as unmusical as Chuck Schumer’s?

Before reading the commentary on the broadcast of Ballou’s letter, I had paid little heed to the influence of such factors as voice and music on texts ranging from poems to political speeches to song lyrics. Yet what do Paul Simon’s melody and Art Garfunkel’s tenor add to Simon’s lyrics for “Bridge Over Troubled Water” if not eloquence, and what turns Aretha Franklin’s version of the song into a gospel anthem? (Of Dion’s song “Where or When” Bob Dylan writes, “When Dion’s voice bursts through for a solo moment in the bridge, it captures that moment of shimmering persistence of memory in a way the printed word can only hint at.”) These contributions take place independently of literary craft, though writers may think of eloquence solely as the result of their craft. As for audiences, some Civil War viewers might not care what proportion of words, voice, or music go into making Ballou’s letter so moving, but others will want to know what portion of its emotion and conviction comes from the writing. Regardless of the effect, writers should know how much control they wield over these forces, and readers how to recognize their source.

Spoken word poets, like songwriters, regard the oral component of their poetry as essential to its presentation. For all of their pride in their words, they would likely consider a print reading to be an incomplete, inadequate experience, comparable to reading a play script or screenplay. This is why, as much as I love some spoken word poems, it seems clear to me that they require less literary artistry than good print poems, which brings me back to “The Hill We Climb.” My first encounter with it differed from many people’s in that I read the poem in print before watching Gorman’s performance on YouTube and after hearing thatfor many people [it] was the highlight of President Biden’s inauguration,” as the New York Times reported. As with Ballou’s letter, I wonder whether some people who watched the event in person or on television, which captured Gorman’s facial expressions and body language, the reactions of the politicians on the dais, and the audience stretching back along the Washington Mall, would have had a different impression if they’d read the poem first.

The reason I wonder this is that I found “The Hill We Climb” more impressive to hear and see performed than to read in print. On its own, the printed page exposed, as critic William Logan put it, the poem’s “stock metaphors and dreary banalities.” Whether or not Gorman identifies herself as a spoken word poet, she read her work widely in public even before Biden’s inauguration. This experience onstage, evident in her vocal and physical gestures, and her habit of maintaining eye contact with her audience except to subtly glance down at her script, mitigated some of her writing’s shortcomings. Was she counting on these touches to project her poem’s subtleties or to create these subtleties through her performance, the way the Beatles must have known while composing the trite lyrics of their early songs—“She loves you”; “Please please me”; “Love me do”—that these would gain new life through voice, melody, and charisma?

Unlike the early Beatles, Gorman often appears to be trying to sound poetic, and even these attempts improve out loud. Reading the poem before hearing it, and with the buzz about it fresh in my ears, I understood how an impassioned, incantatory voice could make its weaker lines soar, provoking a surge of patriotic feeling as they rang out over the Mall.

We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west…
Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
…and yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

To be fair, writing composed for the voice ought to be appraised as such—even Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech contains some stock metaphors. My interest in “The Hill We Climb” lies with the broader question of how written eloquence differs, in both execution and effect, from what Gorman achieved at the Capitol, not just through her voice and body language, but the context and setting of the inauguration. To gauge by its acclaim, everything about her poem, from its words to her rendering of them, suited the occasion; it’s doubtful that the country’s most honored poet, Louise Gluck, with her often enigmatic lines and droning reading voice, could have stirred the same audience to the same pitch. In contrast to Gorman, who rescues her writing from superficiality, Gluck’s mannered vocal style risks obscuring her poems’ virtues.

This doesn’t mean that good writing can’t benefit from a dramatic setting. At John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1963, eighty-year-old Robert Frost, blinded by the sun and unsettled by the wind whipping his copy of the poem he had written for the day, abandoned it and said “The Gift Outright,” written twenty-five years earlier, from memory. Frost’s struggles and recovery riveted the audience, adding force to his concluding lines:

To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.

Any poem recited for an occasion, whether a wedding, funeral, or presidential inauguration, owes some of its effect to context. Context also influences our reception of Ballou’s letter. The television audience was no doubt charmed to hear such sophisticated language coming from a soldier writing home on the eve of battle, which might not have been the case had a politician or general delivered the same words in a speech. (In fact, Ballou was a graduate of Phillips Andover Academy and Brown University, and probably comfortable expressing himself in this way). But even if Ballou’s writing, like Gorman’s, benefits from extra-textual factors, it differs from hers in one important respect: She knew that she could enhance her poem at the podium, whereas he had to achieve all of his artistry on the page.

Whatever impresses onstage must exist in the writing if one is to apprehend it in a silent reading. Neither the opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms nor the closing one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby needs a human voice, much less a soundtrack, to complete it; these could actually work against the authors’ art. In John Huston’s film adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the Irish actor Donal McCann recites excerpts from the story’s ending as a voice-over accompanying the last scene. This works cinematically, and Joyce’s rhythms and repetition ought to make the passage ideal for saying aloud—“He heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”—but McCann’s emphases and pacing differ from the way I hear the sentences in my head. Anyone who recites literature, including its author, ends up interpreting it as well, depriving listeners of the pleasure of doing this on their own.

If Gorman’s vocal stylings improve her poem, and McCann brings an actorly flair (coupled with an Irish accent) to his voice-over, why do I feel so disappointed hearing the latter say one of my favorite pieces of prose? One answer lies in an aspect of writing that the critic Adam Kirsch calls (with regard to John Donne’s poetry) “thinking in language,” which, it stands to reason, a reader would appreciate more than a listener. I hear Joyce’s sentences on the page the same way that I hear my own thoughts, with no aural or visual accompaniment. Even if Joyce composed aloud—his eyesight had begun to deteriorate at the time he wrote “The Dead”—his underlying thoughts still drove his process. A different speaker from McCann, including the author himself, might better align with my mental version, but I’d just as soon do without an intermediary. The interest of hearing authors say their own words notwithstanding, I’m skeptical of recitation except in cases like Gorman’s where the performative gift surpasses the literary one.

The recent centennial of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” featured public and recorded readings of the poem, many by British actors known for their elocution—Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Alec Guinness, Jeremy Irons—as if great voices and great poetry are naturally complementary. (According to Virginia Woolf, Eliot himself “sang it & chanted it & rhythmed it” on a visit to her home.) Presumably, the celebrity declaimers were expected to do justice to Eliot’s eloquence, but I don’t associate “The Waste Land” with this word, which does not characterize all good writing. Rather, eloquence suggests a breadth of expression that owes more to momentum and pacing than to the stresses and phrasings of the poem’s section entitled “Death By Water.”

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

I don’t detect any cumulative statement or underlying discursive engine humming along here. Instead, the writing achieves its effect through alliteration, assonance, and “force of phrase,” in Woolf’s words. The insistent stresses of “fortnight dead” and “deep sea swell,” and the sharp “cry” tearing into the second line’s sonic fabric keep the reader’s ear tuned to individual words and syllables. The poetry owes more to its own sounds and verbal sparks than to its subject matter or any overarching message. Though this is my favorite passage in “The Waste Land,” it has little meaning for me beyond its immediate story, little appeal beyond its music.

Eloquence, which the dictionary defines as fluent or persuasive speaking or writing, comes to the forefront in Eliot’s later poetry, namely Four Quartets. These lines from “Little Gidding,” completed twenty years after “The Waste Land,” build to a lesson that leaves the reader reflective and improved as opposed to, in the case of “Death By Water,” simply struck.

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:

Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives—unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.

The organizers of the “Waste Land” centennial can be forgiven for conflating vocal and literary prowess. So much of the scope of eloquence lies outside the writer’s craft that it is common to apply the term to non-verbal expression as well, everything from a reaction shot in film to an instrumental concert to a sportscaster’s silence after a game-winning home run. Most politicians achieve it through their oratory rather than the words scrolling on the teleprompter, inspiring more than they persuade. I’m not good at bringing people to their feet. I’m going to try to bring people to their senses,” said Mario Cuomo, one of the rare politicians who wrote as well as he spoke. Another proven writer, Barack Obama, alternates short phrases and pauses in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, giving his audience time to process. What sounds like a speaking strategy is present in the script, with punctuation, particularly commas, serving as guides to pacing (italics mine).

A while back, I met a young man named Shamus at the VFW Hall in East Moline, Illinois. He was a good-looking kid, 6'2" or 6'3", clear-eyed, with an easy smile. He told me he’d joined the Marines and was heading to Iraq the following week. As I listened to him explain why he’d enlisted, his absolute faith in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service, I thought this young man was all any of us might hope for in a child. But then I asked myself: Are we serving Shamus as well as he was serving us?

Perhaps the closest practice to Obama’s is playwriting, where the author labors over lines so that they will sound expressive when spoken. This expressiveness can arise from a naturalistic, folksy style like Obama’s or a more formal one like Shakespeare’s blank verse, both equally artful. Even though Shakespeare’s unrhymed iambic pentameter approximates the rhythms of speech, audiences only accept it as spontaneous utterance in the context of the play they are watching. Any coach who has tried to rally a sports team knows how hard it is to improvise meaningful, uplifting rhetoric, much less the poetry of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech to his troops before the Battle of Agincourt.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

For all the naturalness of his writing, Obama never appears to “let loose and jam” as Taylor Branch describes Martin Luther King, Jr., doing midway through his 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Branch writes that when “King could not bring himself to deliver the next line of his prepared text,” he launched into the “I Have a Dream” refrain that he had used on previous occasions.

There was no alternative but to preach. Knowing that he had wandered completely off his text, some of those behind him on the platform urged him on, and Mahalia Jackson piped up as though in church, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” Whether her words reached him is not known. Later, King said only that he forgot the rest of the speech and took up the first run of oratory that “came to me.”

Reading this section of the transcript, one can’t help hearing King’s vocal flourishes familiar from the recording. As carefully as he had “pared his language” during a long night of writing before the gathering in Washington, it’s the extemporized part of the speech that immortalizes it. It owes so much to “the timbre of his voice” and “emotional command of his oratory,” in Branch’s words, that it’s hard to imagine any speech grounded in literary technique matching its oral power.

Except one. According to historian Garry Wills, Abraham Lincoln “had a dislike for extemporizing” and took “great pains” writing the Gettysburg Address. His reluctance to depart from, much less forgo a script is demonstrated when he declines “for several substantial reasons” to make a speech to supporters upon his arrival in Gettysburg on the eve of the cemetery dedication. “The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make.” Even though Lincoln continued to jot revisions through the morning of the ceremony (one observer said of Lincoln’s process that “it felt like watching a blacksmith forge a chain link by link”), Wills thinks it unlikely that he made any changes “as he turned the written words…into…spoken [ones].” How could he? In Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Wills points out the “subtly interfused constructions,” “grammatical inversion,” and “a euphony and interplay of short and long sentences and phrases.” He quotes one critic’s count of “six antitheses, six instances of balanced sentence structure, two cases of anaphora, and four alliterations”—not the kind of “verbal athleticism” that one summons off the top of one’s head.

If reading King’s words conjures his speaking voice, the Gettysburg Address confirms the sufficiency of Lincoln’s prose. By all accounts, Lincoln achieved what Edmund Wilson calls “an art of incantation with words” more through literary than vocal means. One explanation for why King’s speaking and Lincoln’s writing yield equally powerful public statements is that the former, in his unplanned comments at least, seeks a hortatory effect and the latter a reflective one. King’s written text calls out the country’s racist heritage (explicitly echoing Lincoln at Gettysburg), but from his first use of the phrase “I have a dream” he looks only forward, employing the future tense to envision what will happen “one day.” Lincoln, on the other hand, begins in the past (“Four score and seven years ago”), dwells on the present (“We are engaged…”; “We are met…”; We have come…”), and only invokes the future at the end (“…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”). He ties his vision to “these honored dead” and the eighty-seven-year-old document “for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Oratory may not always suit a forward-looking or uplifting view nor writing a retrospective or contemplative one, but each of these types of rhetoric benefits from style and substance in different proportions. Combining the two perspectives described above, Shakespeare has Henry exhort his troops to future glory by urging them to look back on the battle to come. This contributes to both the speech’s art and its artifice (a coach might instill visions of game-winning feats in his or her players, but probably not the pleasure that these will bring them in hindsight).

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

To call someone or something eloquent signifies approval; the word bears no pejorative connotations. Writers are only worse off for this quality if they try too hard to sound well-spoken. Susan Sontag complained that at times James Baldwin’s “passion seemed to transmute itself too readily into stately language, into an inexhaustible, self-perpetuating oratory.” Yet is this overreach so different from what Sullivan Ballou and Shakespeare’s Henry V do when they embellish beyond their basic communicative needs (“Sarah, my love for you is deathless”)? We accept their ardor in the same spirit that we accept an opera aria’s emotional extremes. Is it the nature of the song, the circumstance, or a combination of the two that makes what might sound contrived in one setting incongruously perfect in another?

The answer lies in part in the writer’s or speaker’s intent, and whether they seek to amplify sincerity, as with the examples above, or to cover up a lack of it. In 1973, Adrienne Rich publicly scolded her friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell for publishing poems that quoted, without permission and with alterations, excerpts from his estranged wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters. Lowell addressed these appropriations in his poem “Dolphin”: “I have sat and listened to too many / words of the collaborating muse, / and plotted perhaps too freely with my life, / not avoiding injury to others,/not avoiding injury to myself—to ask compassion.” Rich called these lines “bullshit eloquence,” an attempt to pass off a hurtful act as the cost of making art. Accusing Lowell of using poetry to obscure his unscrupulousness, Rich contends that the reverse happens—the insincerity undermines the art—and that this distinction is both the reader’s and writer’s proper concern.

As Rich demonstrates, one cannot judge eloquence by the quality of the writing alone. When President George W. Bush went to Washington Cathedral on September 14, 2001, to speak on the World Trade Center attacks, he began in a way befitting both his office and the magnitude of the occasion: “We are here in the middle hour of our grief.” Few people familiar with Bush’s struggles with articulation—one article called him “not-especially-eloquent” and “a mangler of the English language”—could have believed that he wrote that Shakespearean sentence himself (its authorship is alternately attributed to speechwriters John McConnell and Michael Gerson). Even though it struck the appropriate chord of gravity, its incompatibility with the way Bush usually spoke drained it of authenticity and therefore power. “The beautiful speech sounded borrowed coming from Bush’s mouth,” according to one reporter, while another wrote, “His sincerity fades when he reads words prepared by others.”

It took an unscripted moment later that day for Bush to reclaim his voice. Arriving at Ground Zero to address first responders, he climbed on a fire truck, grabbed a bullhorn, and began what sounded like more secondhand remarks: “America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here.” When someone in the crowd shouted, “I can’t hear you,” Bush ad-libbed, “I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” This vow and the cheers it elicited became known as Bush’s “bullhorn moment,” when after almost eight months in office he seized his presidency. “He was not trying to play the role of president, as he had appeared to before,” a witness observed. “He was the president. He deeply felt this event and thus he felt his words, and he communicated that feeling.” Another said that Bush “sounded compassionate—and he sounded in command.” Like Henry on the battlefield at Agincourt.

Although Bush’s repetitions of “hear” make for an oratorical flourish whether he intends them to or not, and the colloquial “knocked those buildings down” suits his surroundings (and his personality) better than the loftier “on bended knee in prayer,” nothing about these four sentences could be described as deliberate—Bush sounds like someone forced off script and buying time as he thinks of what to say. His actual words appear to count for less than the departures from presidential protocol—the truck for visibility, the bullhorn for amplification, the reply to the spectator’s complaint—but they have proved equally memorable. Had Bush continued in the formal vein of his opening remarks, the other improvisations would not have been enough to earn him praise. “If we didn’t have confidence in him as a communicator,” the journalist Carl Cannon wrote afterwards, “we didn’t have confidence in him to do anything.”

Bush proves that one need not write well in order to make a dramatic and lasting verbal statement. But his achievement, like Gorman’s, is tangential to poetry, a matter of rendition rather than creation, of enactment rather than originality, and ephemeral rather than permanent. One could say the same of the broadcast version of Ballou’s letter if the writing was not so impressive on its own—I suspect that many viewers printed it out to re-read for pleasure and solace in a way that they would not have with Bush’s words. Burns’s staging points the viewer toward Ballou’s virtuosity rather than compensating for its absence.

As my understanding of eloquence has evolved, I have attributed to it an aesthetic component not present in the dictionary, which defines it as more functional than beautiful. Whether or not we find beauty in rhetoric, its eloquence depends on its power to persuade. This explains how Gorman’s and Bush’s inelegant language gains grandeur in performance, but not the effectiveness of Henry V’s speech, whose lyricism does more to rally his troops than his martial cheerleading. One way to reconcile these aspects is through what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “a metre-making argument,” wherein the message determines the form that its expression will take. Extending this concept to any writing whose urgency comes embedded in its text grounds eloquence in literary craft. How better to unite Henry’s reasoning, Obama’s conviction, Joyce’s longing, or Lincoln’s or Ballou’s patriotism with the intimacy of their cadences and syntax? Literature has its own case to make, using language in such a way that saying something well says something new.