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Sarah Palin: The Walt Whitman of Wasilla

Donald Trump's new sidekick belongs to a noble American poetic tradition.

Hulton Archives/Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“You campaign in poetry,” the late Mario Cuomo wrote in the pages of the New Republic in 1985. “You govern in prose.” As one of the most celebrated speechmakers of his era and a respected governor of New York, Cuomo was a master of both the poetry and prose of politics. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, has shown little interest in governing. Her term as Alaska governor was truncated by her hasty resignation. Yet she excels in the other half of the equation: She is perhaps the most vividly poetic of all contemporary American politicians. President Barack Obama’s words are more eloquent and meaningful, yet Palin’s unique diction and idiosyncratic syntax have caught the imagination of poetry lovers. 

In 2011, Michael Solomon released a Kindle single entitled “I Hope Like Heck: The Selected Poems of Sarah Palin.” The book consisted of Palin speeches reprinted word for word but broken into poetic lines. Solomon isn’t the only one who has noticed that Palin’s much-mocked speeches make more sense if formatted as poetry. Writers for both Fusion and the Huffington Post have taken Palin’s speech endorsing Donald Trump and re-cast it as vatic verse. 

Here is a fragment of Palin, with line breaks from Jason O. Gilbert of Fusion:

I Sing the Body Apoplectic

We all have a part in this, we all have a responsibility.
Looking around at all of you, you hard-working Iowa families.
You farm families! And teachers! And teamsters! And cops, and cooks!
You rockin’ rollers! And holy rollers!
All of you who work so hard,
You full-time moms!
You, with the hands that rock the cradle!
You all make the world go round,
and now,

Our cause is one! 

And here is another memorable section of the speech, as versified by Jedediah Purdy in the Huffington Post:


Turning safety nets into hammocks, and all these new 

Democrat voters that are going to be coming on over the 

border as we keep the borders open.

How ‘bout the rest of us?

Right wingin’, bitter clingin’, proud 

clingers of our guns, our god, and our religions, 

and our Constitution. 

Tell us that we’re not red enough?

There is a strong consensus among Palin scholars as to where she fits into the poetic pantheon: She is heir to the tradition of free-flowing democratic verse that runs from Walt Whitman to Carl Sandburg to Allen Ginsberg. As Michael Solomon writes, “Not since Walt Whitman first heard America singing has a writer captured the hopes and dreams of her people so effortlessly—and with so many gerunds.”

Jason O. Gilbert agrees. “Many critics derided [Palin’s] speech as ‘rambling and ‘insane,’” he notes. “These critics are wrong. With a little proper formatting, this speech was poetry, in the tradition of Walt Whitman.”

Whitmanesque poetry is sprawling, headlong, rambling, as wide open as the prairies with its run-on sentences, free and gregarious in using commas to splice together disparate thoughts. This is democratic verse that tries to encompass the world in a bear hug. Palin achieves her Whitmaneque effects through heightened language: alliteration, habitual gerunding, and marathon-long sentences.  

Now that Palin is back in the spotlight, it’s hard not to hear her voice in her great precursor Whitman. Palin’s alliterative apostrophe to the common folk of Iowa (“You farm families! And teachers! And teamsters! And cops, and cooks!”) calls to mind the egalitarian inclusiveness of Whitman’s many lists, as here from “I Sing the Body Electric”:

The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles, and their wives waiting,

The female soothing a child, the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,

The young fellow hoeing corn, the sleigh-driver driving his six horses through the crowd,

Whitman’s heirs, notably Sandburg and Ginsberg, gave a political edge to this demotic embrace, using it in the service of opening up poetry as the voice of the common man. Sandburg said his aim was “to sing, blab, chortle, yodel, like people.” Palin certainly achieves the blabbing part. As a right-wing populist, Palin shifts the political valence but keeps the allegiance to the ordinary. As much as any Whitmanesque poet, she claims to be the voice of those who are never listened to. 

Many of the great American poets have had disagreeable politics: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens come to mind. There’s little to love about Palin’s worldview. Earlier today she blamed President Obama’s alleged neglect of veterans for her son’s domestic violence arrest. But like any poet, Palin deserves to be judged for her words alone.