‘We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected we’re forced to govern in prose’. So said then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo in 1985.
As someone interested in political fiction of different kinds – films, novels, television dramas and plays – I have shied away from poetry. However, I know it’s out there. Spike Milligan for example wrote a poem in which Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock get a mention. More recently (and perhaps more seriously) one of Carol Ann Duffy’s first poems as Laureate was called ‘Politics’ and, according to the Guardian, was a ‘powerful, passionate commentary on the corrosiveness of politics on politicians and the ruinous effect on idealism’.
So, imagine my surprise and delight when I learnt that an interview I gave to Sarah Lyall of the New York Times during the 2010 general election campaign had inspired a poem about politics. Of the leaders’ debates I claimed viewers were likely to regard politicians performing on television in the same way they looked on protagonists in fictional dramas. ‘It’s not that they confuse them with TV characters’, I said, ‘but that they see them in the same framework. The leaders’ debates exaggerate that by encouraging voters to focus on the minutiae rather than the policy’.
Gershon Hepner a resident of Los Angeles, expatriate Brit and self-confessed ‘prolific poet’, some of whose work can be found here read those words and was inspired, thus:
THE FICTIONAL DRAMA OF POLITICS
When on TV the politician
perform, the sight of inhibitions
may harm them. They must all hang loose,
ending with the truth their truce,
declaring covert war on it,
a fact which they do not admit,
acting in their soap box dramas
as wooly as lost long-haired llamas.
Every line that they have quipped
follows a most careful script
protagonists will never write,
be they center, left or right,
since their narrative’s depiction,
though not factual, being fiction,
must ring more true than fiction does,
so that voters get a buzz.
Providing that they focus on
minutiae in their marathon
they hope to win in polling booths
before unslanted, sordid truths
emerge, which they can then explain
away on TV, that takes pain
away, because when people focus
on pundits, policy seems bogus.
On television all depends.
That’s where the fiction always ends,
glossed by the commentators who
will tell you what is false or true,
which fictions that you may to believe,
and ones from which to take your leave,
performing without inhibitions,
as if they, too, were politicians.