I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird
It was Mario Cuomo, now dead former liberal democrat, governor of New York, who first said that “you campaign in poetry, and govern in prose.” It is a phrase that has become a licence for political deceit. After all, poetry is grand, and prose is dull, are they not? So surely the public must understand that the political vaudeville is compressed and imaginative words that carry us away from the hard and prosaic accounting of compromised governing?
There is a misunderstanding in Cuomo’s words, that is never questioned when this licence to deceive is repeated to excuse every broken promise, every disappointing decision. Poetry and prose overlap; they are not separate realms. Poetry can be beautiful, and it can have a terrible new beauty. Poetry can be like God-given speech and it can be machine-written. Prose can be exquisite, of some other world, like Thomas Browne or his modern echo Max Sebald,; and prose can be execrable, unintelligible, devoid of all sense and purpose and beauty.
I have known moments of lucid inescapable rhythms in my working life as a bureaucrat. Once indeed I was called upon to write some poems. The Cardinal once decided that the Australia Day oath was not to his liking. A talk back host had objected to its corny lines, and the Cardinal wanted to impress his master with a better result. So he asked me to write some alternative poems to replace the oath. I wrote three. The one I liked best, which lilted to a Presley song and conjured toes curling in the sand of a summer beach, was rejected, and another took the place of the doggerel oath.
Other times, action has had noble accents. I have stood vulnerable before drug users and wanted to make changes to how we treat addiction to consecrate their pain. I have stood in a life and been confronted with the deepest questions – what is culture? And how do we change it – and gone on to answer the call responsibly as best I could.
In all these moments, the bureaucrat has been involved too. Beans have had to be counted. Forms filled out. Commands obeyed. Details checked. Poetry and prose intermingle in the culture of governing.