Word of the Week — laureate

All right, scholars, let’s talk about the choice of the second person imperative. Well we know, it’s seldom that a writer of fiction would address the audience as “you.” It’s used in “didactic” writing, referring to texts that are intended to teach, preach or advise. Better watch out if you’re trying to engage your reading audience in a seamless dream of fiction, or if your audience at the political rally happens to be a minority community.

Donald Trump addressing an audience near Detroit, Michigan: “You live in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”

His speechwriters, if they were responsible, should be admonished for many writerly crimes. Aside from doubts about accuracy (58 percent unemployment assumed that all high school aged students were “unemployed”), it was the tone that set people off. For the picky writers among us, the cliché was a problem as well. “Nothing to lose.” “Everything to gain.” We’re not allowed to fall back on those formulas, are we?

I keep returning to the idea of the cliché. Why is it that those phrases feel so attractive to us when we’re trying to express an idea? Are we just lazy? Shorthand? More is implied than we see in the words?

Bob Dylan, official bard of the baby boomers, sang “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. You’re invisible now you’ve got no secrets to conceal.” Perhaps the second image of the invisibility cloak salvaged the cliché. The term, laureate, is an adjective, dating from the 14th century, derived from a Latin term meaning “crowned with laurels,” emblematic of victory or distinction in poetry.

Bob wasn’t afraid of a cliché. The name of that song actually was, “Like a Rolling Stone.” His “nothing to lose” line was repeated and elaborated by Kris Kristofferson in the lyrics of “Bobby McGhee,” “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” first recorded in 1969, then immortalized by Janis Joplin’s posthumous release in 1971. Maybe the freedom image made it work.

Maybe that’s the key: the richness of multiple images. Bob’s Rolling Stone song gave us so much to contemplate: overflowing with elaborate images to associate with the woman who had nothing to lose, she who went to the finest schools all right, but you know, she only used to get juiced in it, in her prime, she did the bump and grind, used to laugh about everybody who was hanging out, and now has to ask, “Do you want to make a deal?” Wow. Is it literature? Maybe.

Favorite images of paranoia, from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Look out kid, it’s something you did …. Girl by the Whirlpool, looking for a new fool…. The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles…. Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

There’ll be plenty of room for discussion about poetry, much less rap, if Bob shows up for the awards ceremony. Meantime, wish I’d written some of that stuff.

Glad I didn’t write the Detroit speech.