English poet and Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford, Sir Geoffrey Hill (1932 - 2016), United Kingdom, 2015. (Photo by Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

Campaign in bad poetry—govern with the consequences

Michael Gove’s love of Geoffrey Hill was probably not reciprocated
November 10, 2019

In his 1946 essay “The Constant Symbol,” Robert Frost proposes a startling analogy between poetry and politics. Imagining the path that leads to the White House, Frost sees it beginning with the “small commitment” of choosing between two parties, only to end “multifariously closed in on with obligations and answerabilities.” To be president, Frost proposes, is to resemble a poet who decides to write a sestina, a troubadour form in which the same six words have to be repeated six times according to a strict pattern.

Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators,” in other words, are world-class negotiators with language. Some, of course, cut corners. “Loving parents, learn from me, / If your children crave TV / Tell them, OK, what the hell, / You can watch it for a spell… / IF YOU READ A BOOK AS WELL. / (A proper book, you’ll understand, / Like the volume in your hand.)” These grimly jovial rhymes have haunted me through the verbal torture of Brexit. Their author, Boris Johnson, had a hand in that too.

As a poetry critic with an addiction to the news, I can’t help seeing a connection. The hollow doggerel of Johnson’s The Perils of the Pushy Parents (2007) is no more a “proper book” than I’m prime minister. Not a syllable has the subtlety, the suggestiveness, the lightly sounded depth that makes poetry—even in its simplest forms—poetry. Compare the spray paint-thin untruths of the Vote Leave campaign, and the hashtags that have been strapped like sputtering rockets to the Johnson premiership so far: (“#GetBrexitDone”).

A taste for the chewier varieties of verse, however, is no guarantee of greater probity. Also signing off on Vote Leave’s claims was Michael Gove, who as secretary of state for education once wished Geoffrey Hill, “our greatest living poet,” a happy 80th birthday in the Commons.

Gove’s admiration for Hill was almost certainly not reciprocated. The late Oxford Professor of Poetry was a dogged activist for difficult eloquence. Asked for his views on the 2015 general election campaign, he told Newsnight that “simplification in communication was the invention of Dr Goebbels.” His last sequence, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, published posthumously this year, was preoccupied by what might be called the complicity of simplicity.

At one point, Hill sets himself against what he saw as the faux-egalitarianism of poets who settle for the simplicity of “the bosses’ syntax.” “Grammar, the foundation of civic life, is now not even a pedantic gimmick,” he writes, with characteristic syntactical slipperiness. Does “now not even” mean grammatical accuracy is no longer even a worthwhile rhetorical trick? Or is it a denial of this cynical modern view? Hill’s employment of a long verse line like knotted rope to unreel complex arguments, as if in formal defiance of our tweeting bosses, suggests the latter: “UR fired, being of Lord Sugar the grammatical signature.”

Politicians love the snappy poetics of the three-word catchphrase that leaves no room for debate. As the linguist Roman Jakobson observed, Eisenhower’s 1952 election slogan, “I like Ike,” used rhyme and alliteration to suggest “a feeling which totally envelops its object” and vice versa (“I” becomes “Ike”). “Get Brexit Done” is not a cuddly motto, but as a barked command from the boss, it sticks.

Modern poets, on the other hand, have defamiliarised daily language. Terrance Hayes’s electrifying sequence from last year, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, was written in response to the election of President Trump. One poem imagines its shape-shifting antagonist as “both gym & crow,” with the raucous bird locked in the sports hall. Implicit in this image is a child’s mishearing of “Jim Crow,” the racial segregation laws that were a recent memory in 1970s South Carolina, where Hayes was born.

Weighed on the scales of a careful poem, no two words are equivalent in meaning. In the words of Denise Riley, a brilliantly exacting poet who is also a philosopher of language, it is “within naming’s very differences and repetitions, that for good or ill the possibilities of politics arise.”

To trace the semantic wrinkles that poetry leaves in language is to follow the contours of a living thought—and this can be a democratic activity. One admirable fixture of UK poetry culture in the age of the internet has been Carol Rumens’s “Poem of the Week” column on the Guardian’s website, which talks readers through a single contemporary poem, then opens the comments to (unusually thoughtful) debate.

Rumens has now collected 52 of these pieces in a book called Smart Devices. Opposing the online poem to the “crudest banalities” of advertising that surround it, her introduction argues that “we all have interesting truths to communicate and, while not everyone’s a poetic genius, the talent for language is beautifully commonplace.” It is readers, in the end, who make a poem smart.

Frost’s essay “The Constant Symbol” ends, aptly, with a rhyming poem, “To the Right Person.” This riddling allegory about the reading and writing of poetry asks us to imagine “a district schoolhouse,” somewhere high in the hills, which, perversely, has a “tight-shut look” to its doors and windows: “as if to say mere knowledge was the devil.” Instead, those who seek to attend the school end up sitting “on its doorstep as at Mercy’s feet / To make up for a lack of meditation.” Resisting easy access, the poem has turned them around to take in the view.

The anti-colonial poet and politician, Aimé Césaire, once said: “poetic knowledge is born in the silence of scientific knowledge.” The authoritarian leader expects books to give rules and answers.