poetry, prose and politics

School tie knotted round vine trunk

In a piece on the BBC website Magazine section, the historian David Cannadine talks about ties. The article starts:

The former governor of the state of New York, Mario Cuomo, once observed that in a modern democracy “you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose”.

which certainly caught my attention.

But Cannadine then makes a strange leap to connect this to the subject of ties:

Translated from speech to dress, […] suggests that you campaign wearing an open neck shirt, but govern wearing a tie.

To press the flesh and get yourself elected, it seems essential to dress down and appear casual, like ordinary voters, rather than be buttoned up or formal.

Even if you include the phrases I’ve snipped from the quote, the gist of this opening seems to be that poetry is less formal than prose.

Since Cannadine doesn’t mention either poetry or prose again, it’s a bit hard to know quite why he uses Cuomo’s quote or what he really intends by it, but I find it slightly offensive to have poetry compared to “wearing an open neck shirt,” while prose is “buttoned up or formal.” This suggests that ‘anything goes’ in poetry while prose is limited by stricter rules.

I’d argue that (good) poetry isn’t less strict, but that it conforms to additional norms and discipline.

Both poetry and prose are bound by rules of grammar, syntax, spelling etc. And then poetry adds in a whole lot more rules and strictures of form, metre and rhyme, which surely could be seen as making it more disciplined rather than less so.

Thinking about this made me look closer at the Cuomo quote. Here, I can see what’s intended – that the campaign calls for oratorical skills while the actual governing calls for practical action – but I think that this is also a misrepresentation of poetry. It implies that poetry is all about rhetoric and emotion, that it deals with promises and dreams, and that it isn’t rooted in reality and it isn’t functional.

I believe that poems can – and possibly should – deal with real life; I think that good poetry can be effective in conveying information and ideas succinctly, and that it tends to be more memorable than prose. Which rather suggests that, in some ways at least, it is more functional.

As for dress code, it’s certainly true that politicians on the campaign trail tend to unbutton their collars and take their jackets off as they mix with ‘the people’. Then, once in office they don jacket and tie again. It seems to me, though, that this is all the wrong way round.

When you apply for a job, even if you will need to wear overalls and a hard hat when you’re actually at work, that’s not what you wear to the interview. You are expected to look your best, so you dress ‘tidily’, which may or may not mean a suit and tie.

Isn’t the campaign trail a kind of interview where the voters get to see the candidates? Shouldn’t the politicians be trying to impress?

Once you’ve got the job, you dress appropriately. It doesn’t matter then what you look like; what matters is that you get down to work and do what you do as best you can. If that means politicians taking their jackets off, loosening their top buttons and rolling up their sleeves, I don’t think it should matter, as long as they actually do some work.

Now, of course, I’ve turned the premise on its head and have unbuttoned collars and discarded ties as indicative of hard work rather than casualness and bonhomie. Maybe I’m not so offended with them being linked to poetry after all.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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