On poetry and politics

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Not many days before he was gunned down, John F Kennedy gave a remarkable speech at the all-male liberal arts college at Amhurst, Massachusetts. Modern US politicians run a mile from the tag of intellectualism. Association with the liberal arts is eschewed, in favour of duck hunting or horse riding. Yet Kennedy, speaking in memory of the poet Robert Frost who had died earlier that year, took as his theme the ‘full recognition of the place of the artist.’

The speech contains the stunning lines:

‘When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.’

‘When power corrupts, poetry cleanses’ is the kind of line, as a speech-writer, I would give my eye-teeth to have written. I first encountered it, printed on a postcard stuck to my cousin’s bedroom wall, a dozen or so years after Kennedy’s death. It has stayed with me ever since.

If you think poetry is for the effete, or has no relevance to political life, you may want to go and shoot some ducks. For me, poetry has an intrinsic connection to politics. Both seek the truth in a given situation; both must be honest to be effective; both engage the mind and emotions in equal parts; both can lift the spirits and inspire you to look at the stars instead of the gutter.

There is, of course, a distinct thread of radical, socialist and left-wing poetry, stretching from Shelley, via William Morris, to the communist poets of the 1930s. You can adopt the egalitarian sentiment of Robert Burns, or the mysticism of William Blake for the cause. Michael Foot, Labour’s greatest man of letters, and a great lover of poetry, was fond of quoting these lines from Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’, written in protest at the Peterloo Massacre in 1819:

‘Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you-

Ye are many — they are few.’

Many of the poets of the 1930s had left-wing views; some where communists. Cecil Day-Lewis (father of Daniel) was a member of the Communist Party until 1938. Stephen Spender wrote poetry in support of the socialist uprising in Vienna in 1934, an event which also inspired a young Hugh Gaitskell. Spender travelled to Spain in 1936. The communist leader Henry Pollitt told him to ‘go and get killed; we need a Byron in the movement.’

It is possible to merely enjoy the sounds and rhythm of poetry, or be intrigued by the mysteries and meaning within it, without sharing its ideological content. TS Eliot falls into this category, as does Rudyard Kipling. You can enjoy ‘The Long-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ or even ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ without endorsing the distasteful anti-Semitism in ‘Gerontion’. Ezra Pound, on the other hand, with his admiration for Mussolini, is beyond the pale.

George Orwell, in his essay ‘Why I Write’, describes the ‘joy of mere words’ on discovering, aged 16, the following lines from ‘Paradise Lost’:

‘So hee with difficulty and labour hard/Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee.’

It is possible to enjoy the craftsmanship of a poem without understanding it, or sharing its sentiment. The millions watching SkyFall this week can enjoy Judi Dench quoting from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ without necessarily knowing the whole poem, or its classical allusions:

‘Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’

Our ears can appreciate iambic pentameter without automatically identifying it. You can enjoy birdsong, without knowing the name of the bird, or the hum of an engine, without being able to change the oil. But as you open the bonnet, and start to see how the cogs and wheels work together, you can develop a deeper appreciation. The best guide to poetry – the Haynes Manual – is Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’ which illuminates poetry more effectively than any English teacher I ever encountered.

Gordon Brown, when asked for his favourite poem, came up with ‘Invictus’ by WE Henley, which is all about the poet’s belief that he is the ‘I am the master of my soul/I am the captain of my fate’. ‘Invictus’ is one of those poems, like ‘If’ by Kipling (said to be Thatcher’s favourite poem) or ‘The Lays of Ancient Rome by Macaulay’ (which Churchill knew by heart) which sound stirring, but don’t bear much close examination. Another one is GK Chesterton’s ‘The Secret People’ which Martin Bell quoted on his election as an independent in 1997:

‘Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget/

For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.’

David Cameron’s favourite poem is ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen, the famous war poem which most of us learned at school. It’s an obvious choice, like saying you like The Smiths.

Those with a richer artistic ‘hinterland’ are usually better politicians. Denis Healey’s autobiography is filled with the poetry which he has enjoyed at every stage of his long public life, from Homer WB Yeats. Healey uses poetry as a way of understanding the political predicaments and problems he faces. He uses the prose of his Sussex neighbour Virginia Woolf in the same way.

On a long train ride the other day, I conducted a pleasing little exercise on Twitter to pass the time. I asked for quotations from people’s favourite poems, recited from memory, not a swift glance at Wikipedia, in 140 characters. The results were amazing. Huw Irranca Davies, MP for Ogmore quoted freely from Blake and TS Eliot; Valarie Morris-Cook, our candidate in Essex for police commissioner, came up with impressive chunks of ‘Practical Cats’; NEC representative Johanna Baxter had a nice line in Robert Burns; Meg Munn MP had some WB Yeats up her sleeve. Councillor Mark Bennet, deputy mayor of Lambeth, shared the opening lines of Macaulay’s ‘Horatius’.

It was an hour of pure joy, and gave me hope that there are plenty of people in politics with poetry in their soul.

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