The Poem in the World: Daniel Hoffman’s “A Democratic Vista”

Like many people, I tuned in to both party conventions this past summer with a higher degree of interest than usual, and, though both events presented us with baffling decisions in communications, celebrities from the past and the present, and speakers who shared powerful, personal messages with viewers, I was once again drawn to the lofty rhetoric of President Obama, who was making perhaps his final high-profile speeches of his presidency, late in the evening on the final Wednesday in July.

Nearly ten minutes into the speech, addressed the tone of the Republican National Convention from the week before:

“[W]hat we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican—and it sure wasn’t conservative. What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world. There were no serious solutions to pressing problems—just the fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate.

“And that is not the America I know. The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous. Sure, we have real anxieties—about paying the bills, and protecting our kids, caring for a sick parent….There are pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures; men who took pride in hard work and providing for their families who now feel forgotten; parents who wonder whether their kids will have the same opportunities that we had.”

And it was during the President’s mention of “factory closures” when one of the Sanders supporters in the back of the crowd shouted, “No more TPP!” This line was of course uttered in protest of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade agreement supported by the President and demonized by Sanders as another example of valuing economic “globalization” at the expense of economic equality in America, and Sanders supporters heckled many of the speakers with it throughout the week.

Hearing that line shouted from the crowd had not bothered me until that point. While I had not been an active supporter of Sanders, I had found his message compelling, and since the anti-TPP message ran counter to the theme of a convention that was thoroughly scripted and corporate, I did not mind having it emerge from between the familiar platitudes of the Democratic speakers. (Even if the protest itself felt scripted.)

And yet, though I hesitate to admit it, I cringed at the shouts when they rang out during Obama’s speech. And yes, there is only one reason that explains my response: I was uncomfortable with the lack of decorum and respect shown for the President. And yes, my response signifies that I have finally become my parents, which I never thought possible.

I suppose it is useful to distinguish my discomfort with the heckling of the President with any further desire to have the hecklers removed from the convention hall, something that we all know has happened—quite violently—at numerous Trump rallies throughout his campaign.

American politics, when it has been good, has always been a messy thing, and, social media seems to have made it seem even messier; the more scripted the political speech event, the less likely people respond in the way that is expected or desired.

As the speech wore on, it was not the anti-TPP shouts that became a distraction. Instead, for those listening intently to the President’s words, his rhetorical spell was intermittently broken not by cat calls but by wolf whistles.

In terms of annoyingly distracting sounds, the wolf whistle was a bizarre choice to direct at the President’s speech, as this particular type of whistle is the same one most commonly associated with a sexist male jackass when an attractive woman passes by. Was the speech that “attractive” that it inspired this type of response? Was it meant as a bizarre “response” to the President’s “call”? Was the person responsible (because it certainly did seem to be the same person) confusing the appropriate rhetorical context for his whistling? (Not that there is an appropriate context for the wolf whistle.)

In the final stages of the speech, the “wolf-whistle guy” began to get on the nerves of other viewers (not to mention those who were present at Wells Fargo Center), and there were plenty of people on Twitter who would have supported the right of the anti-TPP heckler to remain but had the “wolf-whistle guy” escorted from the premises:

Can someone tell their uncle in the crowd that the wolf whistling has got to stop.
Here's to you, wolf-whistle guy: someone will explain it to you later.
We get it, person in the hall, you can wolf-whistle.
It's never appropriate to do the "wolf whistle," especially not when @POTUS is speaking... ahem, that *one guy* in the audience.

It was this last tweet, with not only its call to muzzle the whistler, but also its wonderful decision to designate the whistler as a “bro” rather than a “guy,” that sent me back in time for a moment, to a seemingly “kinder, gentler” era—the fall of 2007—to an episode that featured a nationally known political figure giving a public speech (John Kerry) and an individual in the crowd who was eventually prevented from making his voice heard. Yes, the episode in question is known by the the infamous “Don’t Taze Me, Bro!” line, and though its notoriety has faded a bit, it still ranks as one of the most viral of videos and one of the most famous memes of the internet age.

American High Bro Culture

And why is that? It seems clear that if the episode persists in our collective consciousness, it is not because of our disgust over the violation of the speaker’s right to free speech. I doubt we remember it because of the “men serving the state as machines” approach taken by the security officers on the scene or even because of the disturbing footage of the event itself. (Certainly, against the backdrop of this Summer of Disturbing Footage, this infamous tazing seems tame.)

No, it is because “Don’t taze me, bro” borrows heavily from the poetic.

The line evokes an emotional response that it simultaneously works to contain. Though it is both imperative (“Don’t”) and exclamatory in nature, it successfully “arrests” the listener, but any anguish that we feel is diminished at line’s end through the use of “bro.” (Let us call it a “hipster anguish.”) At the same time, when we regard the line as an example of iambic dimeter, it scans—to my ear, at least—as two spondaic feet, which, if anything, fortifies the intensity of its tone.

and evokes in him a sort of “hipster anguish,” as the use of “bro” at

our sense of empathy instead of escalating it.

Democratic Convention

Sanders fans yelling, young

Messy, but necessary

Hacked into emails


Not on same level, but it was almost nine years ago this September, one year before Obama first broke upon the scene, “Don’t Taze me, bro.”

Now, why do we remember it? Why such a big deal? Not for its prevention of free speech. Not for the conspiracy theories.

History of “bro”. “Black brother.”

Metonymy – you become the bro by using bro.

Rise of the Tazer.

Something so innocent about “tazing.” In a summer in which we have been treated to footage of people being shot, to heckers being beaten at Trump rallies, there is something attractively nostalgic about being “tazed.”

The sound of the line: Don’t taze me, bro.

Discuss the poetry of the line. Vowel sounds. Arrangement. Wallace Stevens combination.

If Stevens would have loved “taze,” Whitman would have been more attracted to “bro.” Which brings me to a poem published in New Criterion in July of 2008, run up to the 2008 Convention, Daniel Hoffman’s “A Democratic Vista.”

Poetry of the Camerado

The poem is set at a “Symposium on Poetry and the National Purpose,” a fictive gathering, but one that, according to Hoffman, recalls an actual 1968 rally, an event that turned out to be less about poetry and more about Vietnam War protest. (Hoffman served as one of its poet panelists.) The poem’s publication year of 2008 is ostensibly its temporal setting, though, since the only provided landmarks vaguely suggest the post-WWII period, Hoffman’s forward-looking “Vista” on the “National Purpose” could easily be read as a look backwards, to years such as the volatile 1968, which provides the text with an additional layer of possibility, along with a trace of personal history.

The first five lines establish a playful tone, mainly through the self-conscious juggling of the words “poets,” “poetry,” and “crowd.”  In line five, we are introduced to “The Poet,” who we recognize, with the help of the title and several subsequent allusions, to be Whitman, whose poetic vision is modeled on Emerson’s “The Poet,” an essay that reads as a want-ad job description for anyone seeking the position of national bard.

In lines 6 through 14, Hoffman’s “Poet” begins to address the crowd, and his message echoes Emerson via Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass:

[N]othing is as significant as Poets,

For it is poets who are the prophets of the race 

As well as its annalists, yes, its analysts who notice not

Only what has happened and is happening to the race

But announce beforehand what is going to happen

—And that isn’t all; they make it happen,

They change your lives.

Such grandiose pronouncements are worth comparing with Whitman’s own:

Of all mankind the great poet is the equable man….He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportions neither more nor less. He is the arbiter of the diverse and he is the key. He is the equalizer of his age and land.

Amidst such lofty declarations, just as Hoffman’s poem seems to be shedding its playful tone, the speaker interjects a homonym in line 10, transforming the poet’s role as the recorder of national history (“annalist”) to something closer to either a soothsayer or a shrink (“analyst”), the latter suggestive of a nation that may need to talk through some of its issues.

But this is only the beginning. Two lines later, we see Hoffman’s Poet “chanting the terrific openness of the ego,” which marks the beginning of a long, 21-line open “barbaric yawp” section where every line is enjambed and Whitmanisms abound: the “ego” is equated to a “continent uncontained” (in his Preface, Whitman boasts that the poet “incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes”); “outcasts,” “whores,” “battle-losers,” and “captains of wrecked ships” form a mini-catalog, representative of American diversity; and everyone, including the “amorous bodies of young men” are invited to a great “feast,” which is the culmination of an extended metaphor in which a “hero sandwich” (“with relish”) is taken from the “great variety counter” that is America.

Through it all, America is as “uncontained,” “plenitudinous,” “unmetered,” and “immeasurable” as Whitman’s poetry, for it is this openness, this yearning to “keep from being fenced in by anything by being the self,” which is, according to the poem, “the American Way.”

And, just as, at the close of Song of Myself, the speaker “stop[s] somewhere waiting for you,” Hoffman’s “Poet” celebrates all for us (“c’est nous”), for we—readers, Americans—we are, collectively, The Poet’s “Camerado,” one of Whitman’s frequent epitaphs (along with “Comrade”) for “friend,” “bed-fellow,” “mate,” or, bro

The opening lines, poets at a symposium, a public speaking event, The Poet launches into a long “spiel” in which he celebrates, as Whitman may have done once or twice, the American people–cest nous in the poem.

Lack of punctuation, a yawp-of-consciousness, what any bro-poet would do if he is given the mic without word limits.

Magic spots of language



The turn of the poem is signaled by the turning of the page, from the speech to the text of Whitman’s Vistas


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