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19 WORDS: The Poetics of a Viral Rhetoric

Oliver Bray, Director of Arts at Leeds School of Arts has produced 19 Words, a series of visual poems using the language deployed by the government during Covid19.  

19 WORDS the poetics of a viral rhetoric
  • Each poem comprises the 19 words most used during the opening statements at each of the Downing Street press briefings

  • The poems correlate to the initial lockdown period in England (23rd March – 10th May 2020)

  • The size of each word is proportional to its usage in each statement

  • Each poem is presented in the red and yellow style of the government’s ‘Stay Home’ slogan, with the exception of the last poem which is presented in the green and yellow style of the ‘Stay Alert’ slogan launched on the 10th May


Covid19 Poem 1

The careful selection of language in the Downing Street statements represents the engineering of a calculated and highly subjective truth – consequently the poems track a very particular narrative through a unique kind of crisis. Initially, this contrived reality was delivered to the general public through perlocutionary verbal communication. The transformation from oratory to poetry removes the nuance of spoken delivery and exposes the unrefined and manufactured judgements of the word usage. 

Nearly every poem is punctuated with an irrepressibly affirmative “WILL” that sits confidently front and centre surrounded by the pungent textual flavours of the day, including the “CARE”, the “CAPACITY” and the “PLAN” with which we have become so familiar.

The poems starkly highlight a crude desire to present a certain public narrative, but the constraints applied also reveal the casual dishonesty of such an endeavour. The poems show us plainly the overt rhetorical design, the vacuous banality of words without action, and the excruciating power of performative repetition. Indeed, the application of constraint, not only frees one’s self from the chains that shackle the spirit (Igor Stravinsky), but equally reveals the mechanisms of oratory strategy and how a speech-utterance can control, perhaps even mislead, a nation (JL Austin). 

Nonetheless, the journey of the 49 days distilled in the poems, revises the ephemeral to the substantive. These considered words made arbitrary, combine with a blunt and alarming hazardscheme style, to remind us of the dangerousness of repetition and the pre-echoes of a horrendous expedition we are only yet beginning.

View all 49 poems here.

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Dr Oliver Bray

Oliver is the Director of Arts in the Leeds School of Arts.

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