Ward Farnsworth, rhetoric and the modern politician

Farnsworth Classical English RhetoricOne of my favourite go-to bloggers, Stefanie (So Many Books), recently posted about a book by Ward Farnsworth titled Classic English rhetoric. (Her post, though, was titled for his second book, Classical English metaphor.) I was intrigued, particularly when she described the letter from the author himself that accompanied this second book. Stefanie writes:

Also in the package was a cheeky letter from Mr. Farnsworth expressing his disappointment when he saw that about a year after he sent me his book I had posted about A Tale of Two Cities and mentioned the book’s use of repetition wondering what it was called. He takes me to task in this letter because in his book he names this technique and uses Dickens to do it. He goes on to say that he has enclosed the paperback copy in case the hardcover he originally sent me was no longer handy because “Every household should have one in case of rhetorical emergency.” This made me laugh out loud.

Well, I had a rhetorical emergency earlier this year when I was preparing for my reading group’s discussion of a book, Steve Toltz’s Quicksand. It used a literary (or rhetorical) device that I knew had a name but I could not remember it. Eventually, through Google, I found it, but it took a little while. The device is asyndeton and yes, it is in Classic English rhetoric, which I have now bought on my Kindle – the perfect place for a dipping-into-cum-reference book like this. No more rhetorical emergencies for me!

However, this is not my main reason for writing this post. I have started the book and, while with fiction I always read the introduction last, with non-fiction I read it first. In this book, it’s called the Preface, and Farnsworth uses it to define rhetoric (“the use of language to persuade or otherwise affect an audience”) and argue for the worth of his book. There is a decline, he says, in rhetoric. It is possible, he continues, to write well without using rhetorical figures “but most of the best writers and speakers – the ones whose work has stood up the longest – have made important use of them”.

The opposite also occurs, he says. That is, “rhetorical figures show up in a lot of bad speech and writing”. And here we get to the point of this post. He writes that:

When used in contemporary political speeches and read from teleprompter, figures often sound tinny – like clichés, or strained efforts to make dull claims sound snappy. This is partly because today’s politician tends to be a creature of very modest literacy and wit who spoils what he touches, but there are more specific reasons as well. First, figures sound splendid when used to say things worth saying. They can show a worthy sentiment to great advantage. But they merely are grating when used to inflate the sound of words that are trite or trivial in substance …

Hmmm … “to say things worth saying”. Farnsworth is really socking it to our* political leaders. I do despair at the type of speech-making we hear today, at the lack of real oratory. Is it because of our sound-bite world? Or because politicians seem more focused on vote-getting or sniping at their opponents, than on presenting a vision to us who vote for them? Oh, for a leader who will inspire and lead.

I could go on and name a few of Australia’s good orators or great political speeches – we have had them – but my plan was to keep this post short, to just share this idea and ask what you think. Can you name a current politician who can regularly be relied upon to make a beautiful – and meaningful – speech? Do you have a favourite political speech, past (I’ll allow that) or present? I promise not to test you on its rhetorical figures.

* I’m not sure whether he meant American or something more global by “our”, but what he says can certainly apply down under.

14 thoughts on “Ward Farnsworth, rhetoric and the modern politician

  1. Joe Bullock, a politician I loathe – I had to number 71 squares to put him last in the last senate election – apparently made an excellent retirement speech with classical references (despite his no.1 position on the Labor ticket, he was once at university and in the young Libs with T.Abbott). The only speech I actually remember listening to was Gough’s from the steps of Parliament after the Dismissal.

    • Haha, Bill … those Senate forms eh? I wouldn’t be surprised if that speech of Gough’s has to be one of the most memorable of our generation. I have a couple of others, but I don’t want to preclude others coming forward with their own.

  2. Interesting post. I will look up more about it. Thank you, Sue.

    From now on, I am going to borrow your habit. I am going to read the Introduction last with fiction henceforth. I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s introduction for Diana Wynne Jones’s ‘Dogsbody’. He wrote in his introduction, “Read the book. And come back.” 🙂 I followed like a good reader and it was rewarding.

  3. Thanks Deepika. I love that from Gaiman, but I’d say to Neil Gaiman (and all those responsible for writing or publishing introductions) why can’t we just have an Afterword!

  4. This will surprise you, but I’ve heard my local member made a great speech. I went to a fundraiser for the Australian Republican Movement and she was brilliant. There were three speakers, Clare Wright (as in The Forgotten Women of Eureka), Angela Pippos (sports media) and Clare O’Neil (member for Hotham). All of them were excellent, and all tackled the topic differently, but apropos your topic here, Clare was eloquent, passionate and witty. I’ve followed her on Facebook ever since, where she occasionally posts speeches that she’s made in the House, and they’re good, worth listening to. (Her thoughts made me buy her book too, which she co-wrote with Tim Watts, it’s called Two Futures, Australia at a Critical Crossroads, which I reviewed on my blog).
    Paul Keating was our most eloquent politician IMO, his Redfern speech was and still is magnificent, and Rudd’s Sorry speech was unforgettable too, but that may have been partly because we had waited so long to hear it and we were all emotionally invested in it before he said a word. And John Howard, after the Bali bombings too. Howard was good at sorrowful occasions but not strong on visionary ideas.
    Turnbull is an interesting case. We used to think he was inspiring, but that was before he became leader. We realise now that what we got was the edited version. Left to ramble on in his prime ministerial press conferences he is, from a making a speech to a captive audience PoV, all over the place, thematically, and philosophically. (I don’t know if he writes his own stuff).
    In my view what we hear and see of our politicians is what is delivered to us by a lazy media that has persuaded everyone that all we want is a 10 second soundgrab, preferably with a gotcha moment. Lindsay Tanner wrote about this in his book, Sideshow (also reviewed on my blog). Yet the world is riveted when we see someone like Obama make his inspiring inauguration speech, and the popularity of those Ted speeches (e.g. Monica Lewinsky’s)shows that we will make online time to listen to good rhetoric, we might even be craving for it as an exhortation towards being our better selves.
    Anyone who wants to check out their local MPs speeches (and other stuff) can do so at https://www.openaustraliafoundation.org.au/projects/they-vote-for-you/
    PS I note you don’t mention the role of speechwriters. Not all politicians, but Paul Keating did, famously, Don Watson. So who is really the great speechmaker? Well, the Spouse used to be a speechwriter, and he says that in his experience the politician comes up with the ideas and a broad sketch of what he wants to say, sometimes a back-of-the-envelope draft and the speechwriter turns it into a speech, and then maybe the pollie tweaks it again…

    • Thanks for all this Lisa. Yes, I certainly had the Redfern speech and the Sorry speech in mind. Also Gillard’s Misogyny speech. Nice to hear about your local member. I didn’t want to get into who wrote the speeches in this post because my point was the actual speech and the language used and because who actually wrote the final speeches isn’t always clear! But I certainly thought a lot about Watson as I was writing this post, and nearly got out my copy of Death sentence to check if he talked specifically about rhetorical figures. I was also wondering about who wrote Gillard’s speech.

  5. I have heard a few good speeches from politicians on both sides. Whitlam, Keating, Howard and Turnbull. Whitlam’s speeches will always stand out. Noel Pearson, I always like listening too. I think all of the above have a commanding presence, and to me that is important, I think Turnbull’s speech on gay marriage was excellent as was Keating’s Redfern speech. There should be good speeches in Parliament, but most of the time it is childish rhetoric. Sometimes on the ABC National Press Club you can hear some interesting speeches.

    • Yes, Meg, great points, particularly re Press Club being a good source (at times). And thinking of indigenous leaders, Stan Grant’s recent speech on racism was a good one too. I need to listen to that again. I listened to Gillard’s Misogyny speech again last night. She uses some of those formal rhetorical devices strongly in that.

  6. Dear WG

    Just now flying out of Havana, Cuba on to La Ciudad de Mexico en route back to Miami to-morrow. From the land of Ché and Fídel – of grand and truly rhetorical oracíones which have inspired this nation over the last 57 years. Prior to arriving in Santa Clara a fortnight ago – our Intrepid tour leader – a man of inspirational qualities himself – after first – in excellent teaching style – eliciting from us the things we collectively knew about Ché or Ernes(tit)o Guevara – born in Rosario. Argentina to a wealthy but unconventional family – a doctor – an awakening social conscience – meeting Fídel Castro in exile in Mexico – etc – he told us details from the story of Ché as our bus rolled through the countryside to Santa Clara – where lies Ché’s Mausoleum. Then he asked if one of the group might read the translation of Ché’s letter of farewell from Cuba, resignation from his Ministerial position – heading off to the Congo – and within two years or so thereafter his death in Bolivia – basically at the hands of the CIA. The reading fell to me. Powerful rhetoric. Moving.

    WG – over dinner last night in Havana – the historico ciudad – with an English couple we had chummed up with during the course of the tour – at its end – he speaking of a reading group he had formed with various fellow train commuters some years back from where he lives in Hertfordshire to London – and how enjoyable it has been as they bring their various perspectives and experiences to the reading and their communal assessment. I mentioned that Jonathan Shaw and you are nowadays my reading group – of sorts. Your reviews -the two of you – and introductions – are leading me on a brilliant reading path – mostly because you both write so well and clearly – but also it must be said because I have not been dealt a dud review amongst all the books I have subsequently purchased into my iTunes Library or into my Kindle app library on my iPad device. On the same pages metaphorically and literally. Thank-you. Jim KABLE

    PS Agree absolutamente with your assessment re the abysmal, appalling and bizarre level of present-day political speech. As a former teacher most of the speeches would all be returned marked: See me – and – re-write with ethical underpinnings. Trite rubbish as is!

    Jim KABLE shoin@me.com


  7. Wow, Jim, that’s a lovely thing for you to say about Jonathan’s and my blogs. I feel really chuffed that you respect our reviews and recommendations so. I must say, I miss you when you don’t comment but then, you suddenly pop up from some part of the world and share interesting experiences, so thank you too. It’s commenters like you who make blogging such a pleasure.

    I must say that as I was writing this post, I was thinking about the big radical/revolutionary/rebel leaders of the twentieth century so I’m very glad you mentioned them. Rhetoric was critical for them to get people on-side wasn’t it.

    We’ve only done one Intrepid tour and it was brilliant, particularly in terms of the leader, we had. We aren’t overly keen on tours but have said we’d do another Intrepid tour when we want to go to a place that’s not easy or efficient to get around on our own. Your Cuban trip is just the sort we were thinking of. Next up though is a short tour to Lake Eyre! A tour for a different reason – remoteness, time limitations, and not being 4WD people.

    • I fear that the cultural capital of both the politicians and their audiences are far too depleted for modern speechmaking to move beyond cliché and populism. Also there is a scepticism about political rhetoric. I am mildly left but I suspect that a lengthy dose of Castro rhetoric would not work too well today.

      • That’s a good point you make, Ian, regarding scepticism. Skilled speakers can probably still get away with strong, passionate, declamatory speeches, but it is harder. And, probably, it does need to be short, not lengthy – but then, brevity is never a bad thing.

  8. I am glad you are finding the book so useful! President Obama speaks really well but I am not sure he is inclined towards making the kinds of speeches that get remembered and studied for their literary value. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches are beautiful to listen to and read and I’d say in the US at least there is no one that comes to mind as being a great speech maker from the 70s onward.

    • Thanks Stefanie. I was thinking exactly the same about Obama. He speaks from the heart but I’m not so sure about that more grand oratory. And yes, of course, MLK. Was hoping someone would mention him.

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