Opinion Column as Villanelle | www.splicetoday.com


When I was growing up in DC it seemed like everyone was reading The Washington Post every morning and talked about it. Over breakfast, my brothers might be arguing over who got the sports section first for the latest on Sonny Jurgensen or Elvin Hayes, but I was still focused on the last inside page of the first section: the oped page. My heroes were columnists such as George Will, William Raspberry, Carl Rowan, Mary McGrory and James J. Kilpatrick, who could say anything they wanted about anything they wanted and who, with magnificent confidence, often turned the terms of the public debate in Washington.

A few weeks ago I hung out with Clarence Page, the veteran Chicago Grandstand columnist who was the first lecturer at Dickinson College, where I teach. I had read several of his essays from the 1980s, and went back and read many more in preparation. Often I disagreed, as I am a very opinionated person. But what strikes me now is the craftsmanship. Page writes a classic 700-800 word opinion column that is clear, punchy and well-formed, every time.

As Page and I spoke, it appeared that we were both melancholy about the state of opinion writing. It’s no surprise, as the transition online has changed every aspect of journalism. But the loss is particularly significant on the opinion page of newspapers of yesteryear. The classical opinion essay could be compared to poetic forms such as the sonnet or the villanelle: it is an outwardly prescribed and strict structure. The rigor of the form gives meaning to any derogation. It’s like solving a puzzle to shape one’s opinions to the demands of the genre.

The “lede” will intrigue and invite you (Clarence Page on May 10, on Musk, Trump and Twitter: “Hold on, my mama used to say, or you lose your toys. You listen, Mr. Trump?”) It’s composed in lines: one- or two-sentence paragraphs, mindful of rhythm and flow. The position taken may be familiar, but there will be some unexpected surprises, quips, or twists. you’ll probably come to the end, which will tie the composition together with an arc, leading you back to the initial phrasing or anecdote or else sending you into an unexpected connection (“Maybe Trump should change Truth Social to Troll Social. I thinks he would still make a fortune if he didn’t lose his toys anymore”).

The length of the classic opinion column was partly determined by the size of the physical page. Getting five full columns (or more) on the opinion page meant that none of them could exceed 750 words or someone else would only have 500 left, although editors had the used to thinking in terms of column inches rather than the word count. 750 was also an excellent length for making a background point (usually just one) without challenging attention spans or making it impossible to look at the rest of the paper before leaving for work or school. This encouraged sharp formulations, striking slogans. You had to go straight there and then get out right away. Each expert, like each modernist poet, wrote in a distinctive style.

Over the past few years, the column of editorials has grown, shrunk or died out: fading away, we might say. The transition out of paper opens up all sorts of possibilities. It also undermines a very viable structure. Many publishers started worrying less about word count around the turn of the century. The electronic page could contain 10 columns, 15, at 1000 words, or 3000. If you had your own blog (and who among the very opinionated didn’t?), the length was not a problem. and you were tempted to ditch crafting entirely, posting your impressions as quickly as possible. In the 2010s, many people were getting their opinion from podcasts and hour-long newsletters that could go in any direction at any pace.

And opinion journalists have migrated en masse to Twitter: editorial in the form of haiku, or perhaps a series of hard-hitting aphorisms, separated into boxes. The shape spread and shrunk.

The New York Times opinion section still contains a few traditional columns and columnists (Maureen Dowd and Michelle Goldberg, for example), but what looks like an Ezra Klein or Kara Swisher column is likely to be a teaser for a podcast or digested from a newsletter. The average guest essay is selected because of the status or expertise of the writer, but almost never for the quality of the writing, which is often a cliche grind. Guardian columnists like Arwa Mahdawi feature mini-newsletters on the page, focusing on one topic and then giving a digest of several others, a sort of compendium or diary.

The the wall street journal is one of the few publications that is still (roughly) confined to the classic form, partly I guess because it still emphasizes hard copy distribution. While he, like many outlets, is confused between pundits and political consultants (the WSJ features Karl Rove, for example), he’ll also give you a crisp classic Barton Swaim column. Even there, Peggy Noonan, for example, manages to overtake, as she should.

But the perfect punch of a Clarence Page chronicle, like Petrarch’s sonnet, fades into history. That leaves breakfast wranglers like me and long-time sonneters like Page feeling a bit bewildered.

Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell


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