Rand Paul’s Misadventures with Poetry

Senator Rand Paul

Senator Rand Paul

Normally you’ll find me celebrating when a politician quotes poetry in his or her speeches, but Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has recently had me shaking my head. That’s because of the way that he recently invoked Pablo Neruda (also Gabriel Garcia Marquez) in a speech before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and then T. S. Eliot in a speech before students at Howard University. In the first case, Rand was guilty of cultural stereotyping, in the second of whining.

After explaining his relative openness (by GOP standards) on immigration reform, in the first talk Rand went on to express his admiration for “the romance of the Latin culture.” Given how he used an excerpt from the Chilean poet’s “If You Forget Me” to characterize said culture, I take it that Rand sees everyone from the Rio Grande to Tierro del Fuego as a hot blooded Latin. Although his thinking is a bit confused, he seems to be suggesting that white America will benefit from an infusion of Latin passion.  Here’s Rand and the poem. Note how he is vaguely aware that he is entering treacherous waters:

So it is with trepidation that I express my admiration for the romance of the Latin culture. I am a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
 In Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez gives some advice that Republicans might consider,

 “. . . human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, . . . life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” 

Likewise, Republicans need to give birth to a new attitude toward immigrants, an attitude that sees immigrants as assets not liabilities. No one captures the romance of the Latin culture more than Pablo Neruda. I love how Neruda in “Si tu me Olvidas”[“If You Forget Me”] issues a passionate threat but ends by saying,

si cada día,
cada hora,
sientes que a mí estás destinada
con dulzura implacable,
si cada día sube
una flor a tus labios a buscarme,
ay amor mío, ay mía,
en mí todo ese fuego se repite,
en mí nada se apaga ni se olvida . . .

if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten. . .]

How can we not embrace such passion? How can we not want that culture to merge with and infuse the American spirit? They are not called the romance languages for no reason.

To be strictly correct, they are called romance languages because they derive from the Roman language (i.e., Latin), but I’ll give Paul a pass there. After all, unlike former Vice President Dan Quayle, he is aware that they don’t speak Latin in Latin America. I also won’t tease the libertarian senator for speaking admiringly of two self-proclaimed Marxists. Poetry belongs to everyone and I think his application of the Garcia Marquez passage to the Republican party is actually rather smart. The GOP really does need to rebirth itself, including on immigration issues, if it wants to win national elections again.

But what is painful to see is how Rand tells a gathering of Hispanic businesspeople that he admires their fiery passion. It’s as though he were to tell a gathering of African American businesspeople that he admires their sense of rhythm. Which is not far from what he actually did tell the Howard University students.

Since this is a literature blog, however, I’m not going to dwell on how he lectured the students on African American history, only to discover that they knew more about it than he did. Instead, I focus on how he applied The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Here’s Paul:

My wife, Kelley, asked me last week: “Do you ever have doubts about trying to advance a message for an entire country?”

The truth is, sometimes. when I do have doubts, I think of a line from T.S. Eliot:

Then how should I presume
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?”

When I think of how political enemies often twist and distort my positions I think again of Eliot’s words:

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall
How should I presume?”

And here I am today at Howard, a historically black college; here I am, a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act. That didn’t always go so well for me. Some have said that I’m either brave or crazy to be here today.

Rand slightly misquotes Eliot’s poem, which actually goes as follows:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
 And how should I presume?

As blogger Adele Stan has noted,

What Paul seems to be saying to his audience is that he feels misunderstood, having been fixed “in a formulated phrase.”

In the poem, Prufrock is frustrated that he can’t say what he really means to a woman because of a social environment that reduces male-female conversation to meaningless banalities. By contrast, as Stan points out, Rand’s formulated phrase is something he himself chose to say: that private businesses shouldn’t be forced to integrate, at least if they receive no federal money. Prufrock at least can blame social propriety for the way that it forces men and women into empty small talk. Paul can’t blame anyone but his libertarian principles.

If you look at how Paul responds to interviewers Keith Runyon of the Louisville Courier Journal and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, you will indeed see him wriggling as he is pressed. (Stan includes the Runyon interview in his blog post if you want to see it up close.) After all, Paul doesn’t like to be associated with the segregated establishments whose rights he is defending, and Runyon and Maddow, doing what good journalists should do, don’t stop pressing him. I can understand why the “pinned and wriggling” image would strike him in a deep way.

Prufrock is filled with self pity and at times is rather pathetic. Rand quoting Prufrock to complain about how the media misunderstands him exposes his own whining disposition.

Stan’s blog post concludes with a very imaginative application of another Prufrock stanza to Rand:

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

“I’ve never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act,” Rand Paul told the students of Howard University.

Ninety-nine revisions yet to go.

I’m not displeased that Paul turns to poets. I’d love to see poetry as part of our daily discourse. But politicians should be aware that, when they use good poetry to justify themselves, those poems have a way of twisting around and biting them in the butt-end.

Added note: Here’s a total digression spurred by the references to butt ends, at least when they are attached to cigarettes. My father once told me about the time he met T. S. Eliot. He was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin and was interviewing Eliot for the Daily Cardinal. Apparently Eliot was a very nervous man and also a chain smoker, and at one point during the interview he stuck a cigarette the wrong way into his mouth. The member of the English Department who was squiring Eliot around reached over without hesitation, took the cigarette out of his mouth, turned it around, and stuck the butt end right back in. Perhaps this had happened before.

The other story from that interview is that my father asked Eliot if he intended a certain literary allusion in, I think, The Waste Land. Eliot said that he didn’t but added, “But it’s there!” I now realize that I need to get the details of that story right away–which will be difficult as my father is currently hospitalized and struggling to hold on to his memory.

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