Govern With Poetry
Since it's National Poetry Month, let's talk politics. Earlier this year, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton remarked, "You campaign with poetry, but you govern with prose." As a poet, a failed congressional candidate, and a literary scholar, I know something about poetry, prose, and political campaigns. My immediate reaction was that I had just been called a liar.
I recognized, of course, that Clinton's intention was not to question my vocation or my honesty, but rather to imply that Senator Barack Obama's skills as an orator are greater than any skills he has yet demonstrated at governance. Still, her phrasing made me wonder. Is it true you "campaign with poetry"? Is it true you "govern with prose"? What does "truth" mean in poetry, and does it mean the same thing as it means to be "true" in prose?
Poets sometimes get facts wrong, and, when we do, those errors outlive us more memorably than do the mistakes of mere prose writers—but they don't make the poem less true. Someone surely got fired over "Dewey Defeats Truman," but Keats has been dead almost two hundred years and his "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is still enlightening, even though it erroneously offers us Cortez rather than Balboa as the conquistador who stood on a hill in Panama, gazing out in awe upon the Pacific. So, if poetry can contain errors of fact and still be acclaimed, what sort of "truth" can it claim?
Jane Hirshfield gave a talk in Pleasanton, California, on poetry recently. She said that if it doesn't transform you, or open you up to the possibility of change, then it's not a poem. She said that if it lies about the human condition, if it doesn't challenge you with truth and help you to a larger understanding of your place in the shared universe, then it's not a poem. The critic in me immediately thought of Bertrand Russell's comment that he'd find the rating of philosophers above amoebas more persuasive if amoebas had decided the rankings rather than philosophers. And yet, the notion of transformation coming through hard truths, aspiration, and a general disposition toward greater inclusiveness strikes me still as being a wonderful test for distinguishing between poetry and not-poetry.
By that test, I would have to say that it has been a long time since it was common to "campaign with poetry" in this country. For most of my life, it seems that how you really campaign—at least, if you want to win—is with sound bites: "All the Way with LBJ," and "compassionate conservatism." Where are the hard truths there? Where is the movement toward transformation?
The language of politics has gotten so far from poetry that whenever I hear the current resident of the White House speak, I find myself reminded of Molière's bourgeois gentleman—a wealthy mediocrity who is tremendously proud to learn he has been speaking prose all of his life. And you tell me, Hillary, was "Mission Accomplished" an example of governing or of campaigning? It certainly wasn't poetry.
When I voted for Senator Clinton in February, it was because I remembered how—when there was little to gain politically and much to lose—she and her husband tried to make ours a more caring country, a country which recognized decent health care as a basic human right. Even though they failed, she showed great vision. And I think the attempt withstands the test of poetry.
Please then, candidates, consider at least the possibility that the most important job of a president is to lead us toward a fuller realization of our highest ideals. That's not a job for prose. Prose has its place: the House, the Senate, and Cabinet department offices. Feel free to legislate, regulate, and negotiate in prose, but—if you truly want to be the leader this country needs now—please, aspire to campaign and then to govern with poetry.
–Kevin Hearle is the author of Each Thing We Know Is Changed Because We Know It, and Other Poems, the editor of The Essential Mary Austin, and the revision editor of the current critical edition of The Grapes of Wrath. In 2006, he came in second out of three candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 12th California Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.