This is the way one of my professors describes the power of a poem: It is the re-telling of a meaningful experience to a dear friend. And yet it is meant to be overheard by a crowd. The tension of those two ideas keeps the poem balanced with vulnerability as well as readability.
I see a parallel with award show acceptance speeches. It seems to me that the best speeches have a nice balance of emotion and structure (or heart and head, as I’ve heard it categorized). From last night’s Oscars, three speeches come to mind: Lupita Nyong’o (seen above in a beautiful visual depiction of what I’m attempted to analyze here), the husband-wife team who wrote “Let it Go” from Frozen, and, yes, even Matthew McConaughey. Because what I like is the tension – not the perfect balance – between a prepared and yet heart-felt response.
These are the kind of speeches I don’t like:
1. All emotion and no structure – When the winner cries or laughs to excess or simply can’t get a thoughtful word out. I’m even game for a jump or a fist pump (I see you, director Steve McQueen). But it turns me off when the winner makes no attempt at gathering themselves in order to communicate clearly when they knew there was (usually) a 1 in 5 chance they would be in that position. The poem counterpart is one that gushes on and on in abstract phrases, giving you no solid images or metaphors upon which your understanding can catch a foothold.
2. All structure and no emotion – When the winner pulls out a folded 8×10 sheet of paper and begins to read a list of names. This is what Thank You cards are for. A winner should remember that their conversation is being “overheard” and there is an unspoken agreement with that audience that you will not bore them with unrelated details. The costume designer from Australia sidestepped this pitfall by describing her “list” as a team of seamstresses currently at work on a new project. In doing that she gave me both of the things I wanted: to see her being grateful to the people who deserved it but to share it in an economical and interesting way.
3. All emotion and all structure – When the winner is Cate Blanchett. I’m not sure I can describe this one effectively, but this is when things just seem too much of both. I thought Blanchett was lovely and started off strong but then I got a little lost and felt structured and emoted out. Steve McQueen was an example of this as well. He was highly emotional but reading from a piece of paper as plain as if it had come from my ream at home. At least print it neatly on a notecard, maybe? Obviously, I can’t be satisfied, but you get the idea. These poems are just too much; the emotion and the structure seem to be at war instead of complementing one another.
My favorite kind of poem and acceptance speech is the one that seems effortless but is clearly crafted to be sublime. I don’t want to see the structure but I want to feel that it is there, holding things together and making room for beautiful expressions of emotion and truth.
What do you think? Whose speech did you love?