Campaign in poetry, govern in prose. The phrase attributed to New York Governor, Mario Cuomo, might make you wonder why successive governments haven’t always been as supportive of the arts as they might be. Could it be that they don’t want any more campaigners?
The dictionary defines a poem as being characterised by words chosen for their sound, suggestive power and sense and is even described in a Peppa Pig episode as a magical way of using words that puts a picture in your mind. Yes, of course, I looked Peppa up. Given the programme’s recent elevation in political parlance, how could I not? Whereas prose is distinguished from poetry by its lack of marked metrical structure, language in its ordinary form. Some might say soundbites versus the dull discourse of facts and evidence or the wishful thinking of dreams contained and restrained by the language of possibility on a page of reality.
My background is in local government, a place of precedence, protocol and procedure, all founded in the political decision making of those elected to serve. We often criticise them, but they are the ones brave enough to place their heads above the parapet or on a lamppost, some even ending up on a bonfire, driven to do so mainly because they wanted to make a difference in their community.
The effects of imagery and emotions conjured up on the campaign trail and in the acceptance speeches, are edited, sometimes redacted, by the logistics of converting them to policies that bring meaningful, constructive change. Think of the architect who envisions your hopes and dreams, then consider budgetary constraints, planning permissions, contractors and sub-contractors, groundworks, complaining neighbours, environmental issues. If left unmanaged, the design may evolve far from client expectations as few of us can offer a blank cheque. If the devil really is in the detail, how many want to listen to it on our doorsteps or read it in campaign leaflets?
So do we expect too much of our politicians? Do we prefer the poetry, the catchy soundbites or are we up for chapter and verse? I’ve recently joined a writing group, as I found that poetry provided a home for my emotions after my father’s death. We’ve seen a resurgence in poetry during the pandemic as we struggled to articulate feelings, and it’s no coincidence that poetry is often part of a funeral service. But the reality, the prose, is sitting with a loved one, making end of life decisions, registering a death, organising a funeral, carrying out their wishes and dealing with all the family perspectives and fall-outs that often ensue. The politics of life.
Poetry may help us make sense of it, capture an aspiration, draw attention and focus minds. But, taking action requires the diligence of a novelist who will painstakingly research, redraft and sit at their desk, day in and day out, until they see it through. And the reader must invest themselves in a longer-term relationship and trust that the novel meets the expectations raised on the cover.
We need both. At least I do. But there are not many who can deliver both. And, maybe we elect poets hoping that their chapters of governance will construct our dreams and should they fail, finding themselves in muddy prose puddles, we imagine them, fairly or not, with their snouts in the trough of self-interest.
Let’s be honest, politics is no party – see what I did there? But, of course, you did. A quote attributed to Julia Child that a party without cake is just a meeting may be dusted down for explanatory purposes in the days and weeks ahead. And many of us will recall office parties where we wondered if anyone might lose their job, but a year afterwards?
With all the sticks and stones and weasel words of playground politics, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at references to children’s tv heroes during an address to business leaders. But, unfortunately, I can only hark back and hope that Romper Room is on the watch list as we need some Do-Bees. And if you’re of the same vintage as me, you’ll recall that Pop Goes the Weasel was replaced as the theme tune, and I don’t believe they even voted on it!
Karen Mooney lives in Moira and after a long career in local government, she switched from writing memos to scribbling poems and lyrics. You can follow her on Twitter. Penned In, a pamphlet of poetry co-written during the pandemic with Gaynor Kane, was published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press with sales supporting Action Cancer.