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Poetry and prose in diplomacy


 By Biljana Scott.
Professor at Oxford University, Senior Lecturer at DiploFoundation and Visiting Professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy.

‘To campaign in poetry and govern in prose’[1] is a pithy adage known as a chiasmus: a rhetorical construction in which the second part of a sentence reverses the key words of the first part, and in so doing, redresses the initial proposition with a more desirable world view.

The chiasmus is frequent in motivational speeches, and is often the device which makes a speech memorable.[2] Remember Kennedy’s ‘Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate’, and ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’.[3] And on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’, we all recall his words:

‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ [4]

In addition to King’s refrains, which captivate attention through rousing rhythms, his speech is perhaps most memorable because he ushers, with every dream, a vision of the future which redresses the reality of today, and does so in heightened language. This is evident in the alliteration of /k/ and also in the rhythm of the final clause ‘by the color of their skin …’ which is strongly iambic up to the last word ‘character’, which takes a stress on every syllable for added emphasis.

Whereas the poetical language of motivational speeches may seem better suited to politics than diplomacy, aspiration and redress are nevertheless central to diplomacy too. Where agreement cannot be found in the present, a shift of focus to the future may break through the current impasse: we all aspire to a better world for our children. And where the future seems too distant, we appeal to the values which define and guide us.

The chiasmus ‘campaign in poetry; govern in prose’ is particularly well suited to diplomacy, which campaigns for redress, yet does so with an attention to detail which may appear as prosaic at times. Without the poetry, there is no vision or momentum, yet without prose, there is no progress.

[1] Used by Hilary Clinton during the 2008 US presidential election campaign, this adage was originally coined by Governor Mario Cuomo. http://www.dmiblog.com/archives/2007/09/campaign_in_poetry_govern_in_p.html

[2] For a discussion of the importance of the chiasmus to politics, see my article The Cadence of Counterbalance

[3] Delivered on Friday, January 20, 1961. Available online at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/

[4] Delivered at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, 28 August 1963. Speeches that Changed the World 2007:149-155, and available online at: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/

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