The Law of Poetry

With talk of an early election in Australia and the media bombardment that is the US presidential primaries it is time to re-think the mediating links between poetry and politics. After Conceptualism, we might want to reverse Percy Shelley’s dictum and say that legislation is the unacknowledged poetry of history. Legislation is, of course, the outcome of legislating and there have been poets who have made work from the recontextualisation, sampling and quotation of this pragmatic political legal language – see Michael Nardone’s ‘Settler Conceptualism’ in Jacket2 for more, or even refer back to Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.

Yet, in today’s Australia, legislating means we find poetry of a more traditional, and colonial, definition than that common to discussions among contemporary poets. This should not be surprising. In every language context there are specialisations and silos and different cadences, registers, rules, fields, axes. But if professional politicians look desultorily upon contemporary poets, precisely because of their utter absence in the political record, perhaps it would behove us to understand their criticisms and look at our own language lest we fall victim to the failure of being too far inside our own experience. Who wants to be so far up their own ass that they can’t even talk properly to someone else?

In the Australian iteration the public record of legislating means Hansard, and Hansard means there can be searches made of ‘poetry’ and ‘poem’ in the record as spoken by federal representatives. So, what kind of poetry matters for politicians? I have only examined the years 2013 to 2015. This is in order to understand a contemporary situation, but I would encourage similar studies across a longer historical timeframe and in other places. Such a study could contribute to our understanding of the decline of poetry in public life, to an idea of how language use has changed and what the formal expectations of poetry are in official culture. There are 80 and 82 references respectively to ‘poetry’ and ‘poem’ in the archival record for the aforementioned parliamentary years. It soon becomes apparent that the poetry itself, and the approach to its use, is didactic, moral and instrumental. It is always in service of something else – a justification for troops say – even as politicians can suggest that the work is emotionally moving. It just so happens that it is moving us further towards some pragmatic concern not towards a new linguistic reality that might, in and of itself, help change the needs of constituents. But reading this work, one can ask: what is poetry for Members of Parliament (MPs)? What is the genre of poetry that dominates? Who are the poets that matter?

Poetry for MPs is something that rhymes. Indeed, almost every poem quoted consisted of true rhyme at the end of a line. This includes poems by well known poets and by constituents who fall into an amateur local category. In a speech on terrorism from November 26th 2015 Craig Kelly (member for Hughes) quoted from Auden’s September 1, 1939. His selection featured the rhyme ‘afraid’ and ‘decade’.[1] Matthew Canavan (senator for Queensland) in his tribute to the retiring Greens leader Christine Milne on June 24th 2015 quoted from Tennyson’s In Memoriam using the lines:

But they must go, the time draws on,

And those white-favour’d horses wait;

They rise, but linger; it is late;

Farewell, we kiss, and they are gone.[2]

In a speech on national security from October 1st 2014 Fiona Scott (member for Lindsay) closed her speech with lines from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:

Man never is, but always to be blest:

The soul, uneasy and confined from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.[3]

Other parliamentarians quote from stylistically similar poems by HG Wilkinson, John Donne, Omar Khayyam and Joyce Grenfell. And there were tributes made to Yeats and Heaney.[4] This preference for a poetry that announces itself through an obvious formal device (rhyme) was arguably even more pronounced in the amateur poetry that was quoted. Member for Fowler, Chris Hayes, made this clear in his speech from August 11th 2015 when he said:

I would like to share a poem written by a very special young woman in my electorate, Ashley Allum, herself a sufferer of a disorder known as gastroparesis, and she is a very committed advocate for fellow gut-disorder sufferers. She wrote:

Over three years ago my life had changed,

Just like that, my diet had to be drastically rearranged.

Felt like a cold that comes on real quick,

Just woke up one morning feeling incredibly sick.

No words can describe how this feels,

When all I can eat are very small meals.

To go from feeling healthy to oh so sick the next.

This unknown illness seems to have everyone completely perplexed.

Pain, nausea and fullness too,

These are the words that describe my illness to you. 

It is not my place to judge the aesthetic merits of this work, to say how it functions in an artistic way. The point of this poem, of indeed all of the poems quoted above, is to heighten emotional resonance as politicians see it. The speakers are very often ‘moved’ by a poem, particularly one composed by a constituent. This is even more pronounced if it is by someone marginalised – a school child or a senior citizen are the most likely, or even someone like Ashley Allum with a specific issue. There were poems too from Jay Weatherill’s adolescence used to demonstrate his hypocrisy on uranium; a member’s father; refugees from Manus to highlight deplorable conditions there; and anti-capitalist workers speaking on industrial relations.[5] We could speculate, depending on our predisposition towards politicians, that this use of poetry is for their own gain (in other words it makes good politics) or because they actually care (in other words they are genuinely affected by the poem). The reality is somewhere in between, and these two functions are not necessarily at odds with each other, but the observation holds that poetry is essentially about iambic pentameter rhyme.

The genre of poetry that dominates is the elegiac. On more than on any other occasion poetry comes out in parliament in connection with ANZAC troops, which suggests something of the militarisation of verse. The phrase ‘lest we forget’ has in and of itself become something of a slogan decontextualized from its original poetic environment. It is used now from footy to supermaketing and is a barometer for patriotism and consumer culture in its own specific way. But if we are to judge Hansard poetry it is the most common phrase tied to national mythmaking and the central lament, defeat, sorrow that is Gallipoli. When one searches ‘poem’ for example a full 18 of the 80 citations are in speeches about ANZAC, far more than any other field of reference. And ‘lest we forget’ emerges in many of those. In the ANZAC speeches though people quote poetry by Eluard and Binyon, Kipling and Sassoon, David Harkins and Dame Mary Gilmore. They simply add a little colour to the speech being made, which is supported by member for Forrest Nola Marino’s speech on May 14th 2015.[6] Some do though depict a multicultural present – Ann Sudmalis from Gilmore, 12th August, 2015 [7] and Tim Watts from Gellibrand on 7th September 2015 – and this is where they reflect their communities more accurately and incisively. But most of them display a shortminded historicising that does nothing to understand Australia’s ongoing contemporary militarisation or armed situation in the present. There is not a common pacifist deployment of poetry in parliament.

If ANZAC poems are the nationalist frame of reference for poetry, perhaps it is unsurprising that one can also glean the sense of who our national poet is. Dorothea Mackellar and Banjo Paterson dominate the record in this regard. But references to Mackellar revolve mainly around her poem ‘My Country’ rather than her work as a whole. Paterson’s voice is the one that dominates above all others. This might be due both to the enduring myth Australia tells about itself as being a type of bush frontier rather than suburban nation. It might also be that Paterson is early educational fodder and many politicians do not have a background in literature beyond high school. Paterson though is referenced, quoted, and used as the basis for satire. On this final point it is worth quoting David Leyonhjelm (senator from New South Wales) in full:

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around

That the cops from Border Force were on their way,

And had joined the tram conductors—’tickets please’ would be the sound,

And ‘your papers please’—’you may have over-stayed’.

All the armed and muscled black shirts, led by their new czar

Were primed and ready for a fight,

For the black shirts love to hunt where the brown and black boys are,

And the Commish sniffs the limelight with delight.

There was Von Quadbike, who left the cops to run the Customs crew,

He stripped them of their cardigans and smiles;

He injected fear of migrants and scary imports too,

No journalist could peek into his files.

And Tony, Scott, and Peter were keen to lend a hand,

Giving power to the black shirts warmed their souls;

With weekly tales of freedoms to be banned,

It’s the best way to pick up in the polls.

And one was there, a pollie with a thin and reedy bray, Nothing like the statesman that we need,

If the black shirts want a crackdown Mister Shorten will obey, Foreign workers are a problem, he agreed.

But the people saw the press release and rallied in the streets, This should not happen to folk with different skins.

We like to think Australia is young and free;

And to jaywalk while brown is not a sin.

The crackdown—it was cancelled—and now Shorten’s white with foam, While pollies claim they never saw the plan.

But Border Force is still on foot, the black shirts free to roam:

Our freedoms only safe ’til next week’s scheduled ban.[8]

‘The Man from Snowy River’ then provides a template, reference point, structure in which this poem is not only acceptable in parliament but also able to be deployed with political effect.

If we look at the composition of the 43rd Parliament we notice the previous occupations were mainly pragmatic. No one is listed as being an artist, let alone a poet, for example. (See this table.)

One cannot expect a sophisticated view on poetry necessarily, but such a marginalised one is to be lamented especially given the monocultural make up of these representatives. Only Senator Milne was aware of the modernist revolution (her citation of TS Eliot) and seems to take an interest in contemporary, living Australian poets (Geoff Page was mentioned). With her departure, poetry in parliament will probably be even less of a feature. Poetry adds more than emotional resonance though. It can also add difficulty, abstraction, play and far more besides. That so much thinking happens in language means that we need to pay attention to the art of language and the language of power lest we fail to apprehend the circumstances we live in. Without that we may stagnate in an unchanging scum of mediocrity and in this case a conservative, militarised, outdated one. I agree then with John F. Kennedy when he said “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.” Burning in the heart of every Australian is a desire to decolonize. Poets and politicians both must lead the way. How we shall teach them remains to be seen.





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Robert Wood holds degrees in economics, history and literature from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania. He works for the Australian journal Overland.