Oratory, rhetoric, poetry and prose

So the saying goes, as does a session at the Melbourne Writers Festival, ‘Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose’. If you have an interest in the power of words – or politics – it will be one for you. It’s a session, ‘about political rhetoric in America in an election year,’ says Sally Warhaft, anthropologist, broadcaster, former editor of ‘The Monthly’ magazine and author of ‘Well May We Say: The Speeches that Made Australia’.

Warhaft will chair the event with panelists Don Watson, Martin Indyk and Tom Clark. The stellar line up alone will interest politicos. But I reckon there’s something in it for writers too. At the core of it, Warhaft says, is, ‘what speech and words can and can’t do.’ This session is exploring rhetoric.

Too often rhetoric borders on being a dirty word – a shorthand for the phrase ‘empty rhetoric.’ But rhetoric can be a beautiful thing. It can move people, it can inspire. Rhetoric can capture imaginations. It can tell a story.

In his 2008 election campaign (and well before it) Barak Obama used great oratory and rhetoric to capture the imagination of a nation and the world. The promise of Obama and his campaign of hope are central to this session.

It will look at, ‘the tension between [Obama’s promise], what the reality has been, and what was probably going to be the reality (of being the president in very challenging times),’ says Warhaft. ‘I would like the audience to walk out with a real sense of that tension.’

If Obama’s been governing in prose will he become a poet again anytime soon? ‘I suspect he will. I think it’s just within him,’ says Warhaft. ‘You probably don’t have to be a natural to give a great, important and memorable speech.’ But, ‘you’ve got to say what you believe. The things that used to be important are no longer important. It used to be essential that you had a big booming voice – before amplification. But people have to believe you. And for people to believe you, you generally have to be telling the truth as you see it,’ she says.

Confidence is also a factor. It’s easy to be lifted by the oratory of Josiah Bartlet and Matt Santos (fictional characters played by actors in Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed TV series, the West Wing). ‘President Bartlet made some wonderful speeches that you never forget,’ Warhaft says. ‘But then you ask yourself, “If Aaron Sorkin gave up a year of his life and came to Australia [to write speeches for] Julia Gillard… Would that actually help?” I think the answer would be, “only a little bit”. You need somebody to deliver as well.’

As oratory is a part of making a memorable speech the session will no doubt consider the hallmarks of convincing delivery. And though you may think it a long bow to stretch, delivery is becoming more relevant to writers. (At a seminar last week, an editor stated that he no longer hires writers who can’t write for video or present to camera). But rhetoric and oratory aren’t the only aspects of your writing life the session is likely to inspire. The speakers are all writers, and have their heads in the wider sociopolitical environment.

The session may also ask whether the state of political communication reflects the state of a culture. ‘In Australia I think that our culture is healthier than our political culture. But I think there is also a relationship,’ says Warhaft. ‘We’re living in a culture that prizes things that aren’t always that interesting – like consumption. And there’s an emptiness… I really hope we don’t get the government we deserve.’

Speaking of governance, we discuss the curatorial responsibilities of chairing. ‘I love chairing. I think it’s a challenging thing to do,’ says Warhaft. ‘You’ve got to read their work. You’ve got to study it. But then you’ve got to let go as well. And just relax. They know what they’re talking about.’

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose,’ will be at 11.30am on Sunday 2 September.