can’t see the forest

The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld

Posted in foreign policy, humor, Literature, Social and Politics by Curtis on 9/2/06

You might have seen this piece by Hart Seely in Slate a few years back…I again stumbled across it the other day, and I couldn’t resist pulling it back up to the surface. It’s just one of the most deliciously scathing pieces of observational humor I’ve ever read.

Donald Rumsfeld -- Suppressed Bard

Recent works by the Secy. of Defense
Slate Magazine – Hart Seely – 4/2/2003

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is an accomplished man. Not only is he guiding the war in Iraq, he has been a pilot, a congressman, an ambassador, a businessman, and a civil servant. But few Americans know he is also a poet.

Until now, the secretary’s poetry has found only a small and skeptical audience: the Pentagon press corps. Every day, Rumsfeld regales reporters with his jazzy, impromptu riffs. Few of them seem to appreciate it.

But we should all be listening. Rumsfeld’s poetry is paradoxical. It uses playful language to address the most somber subjects: war, terrorism, mortality. Much of it is about indirection and evasion: He never faces his subjects head on but weaves away, letting inversions and repetitions confuse and beguile. His work, with its dedication to the fractured rhythms of the plainspoken vernacular, is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’. Some readers may find that Rumsfeld’s gift for offhand, quotidian pronouncements is as entrancing as Frank O’Hara’s.

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.
–Feb. 12, 2002, DoD News Briefing

Glass Box [I haven’t heard this address—but he is talking about going after “al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan, I believe]
You know, it’s the old glass box at the—
At the gas station,
Where you’re using those little things
Trying to pick up the prize,
And you can’t find it.

And it’s all these arms are going down in there,
And so you keep dropping it
And picking it up again and moving it,

Some of you are probably too young to remember
those— [What? I’m only 26 and I remember them
Those glass boxes,

But they used to have them
At all the gas stations
When I was a kid.
—Dec. 6, 2001, DoD News Briefing

A Confession
Once in a while,
I’m standing here, doing something.
And I think,
“What in the world am I doing here?”
It’s a big surprise.
—May 16, 2001, New York Times interview

You’re going to be told lots of things.
You get told things every day that don’t happen.

It doesn’t seem to bother people, they don’t—
It’s printed in the press.
The world thinks all these things happen.
They never happened.

Everyone’s so eager to get the story
Before in fact the story’s there
That the world is constantly being fed
Things that haven’t happened.

All I can tell you is,
It hasn’t happened.
It’s going to happen.
—Feb. 28, 2003, DoD News Briefing

The Digital Revolution
Oh my goodness gracious,
What you can buy off the Internet
In terms of overhead photography!

A trained ape can know an awful lot
Of what is going on in this world,
Just by punching on his mouse
For a relatively modest cost!
—June 9, 2001, following European trip

The Situation
Things will not be necessarily continuous.
The fact that they are something other than perfectly continuous
Ought not to be characterized as a pause. [Um…okay.]
There will be some things that people will see.
There will be some things that people won’t see.
And life goes on.
—Oct. 12, 2001, DoD News Briefing

I think what you’ll find,
I think what you’ll find is,
Whatever we do substantively,
There will be near-perfect clarity
As to what it is.

And it will be known,
And it will be known to the Congress,
And it will be known to you,
Probably before we decide it,
But it will be known.
—Feb. 28, 2003, DoD News Briefing


Thank you, Hart Seely, for bringing these gems into the daylight. Rumsfeld’s language is curt, yet sonorous—it sticks to the ribs. Clearly we are ready for Volume II.

America needs a little poetry now more than ever.


2 Responses

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  1. zilla said, on 9/5/06 at 5:15 am

    My kids love the skill crane, but, man, Rumsfeld makes a skill crane sound like a bad acid trip.

  2. […] Former CIA head Robert Gates has been tapped to replace everyone’s favorite politician/imagist poet. […]

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