Poetry and politics make for strained companions. The politics of poets is unreliable, inclined to the spree of metaphors that makes the overly confident practitioners of practical judgement uneasy in their thrones. The imaginative thought of politicians can be banal and conceited, if not downright oxymoronic.
Oil and water, maybe? Still I have one foot in both camps, which makes for an interesting life. But both sides of my world – both the part that writes and the part that governs – reels back in revulsion at the state of politics today in modern liberal democracies.
In the course of writing the Burning Archive, I have from time to time, put in prose the disappointment and despair I feel from time to time about our republics in distress. In my series 13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat explored many dimensions of this troubled familiarity with how we are governed – beginning here, in the seed of an idea on perspectives planted by Wallace Stevens’ poem, and ending here, in contemplation of the long waits of winter that I must endure until the season of our politics turns again to some ordinary virtues of governing well. I have written of citizenship as a spiritual experience, of democracy’s discontents, the unravelling of empires, and predicted both Donald Trump’s victory and his failure. Politics is for me an ongoing concern, however much I am distancing myself from it in more recent years,
But today, let me share a poem I have written on the state of politics. It was written against the background of serial leadership challenges in the Australian state, a self-destructive debate on a carbon tax, and a creeping loss of faith that we still have the habits and institutions to resolve our differences and so make a civil life together. Instead we are infected with a culture of gotcha journalism and spiteful twitter smart alecs. Amidst this ruin, the ghost of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito rises, and provides his own report from a corrupted city.
The state of politics
Dr Cogito is reborn
Amidst our gadgets,
Displaying pixelated ruin
For ceaseless fireside chats.
On a panel two figures say:
Disunity is death is inevitable
Is the pragmatic choice
Because we know
There is no alternative.
Dr Cogito jumps to the mike
But the queued questioners
putting passion first
To complain of taxing the elements.
Every questioner must twit the panel
To try 144 characters of fame
To display their chosen name
To win the acid-tongued mobs
On the panel two figures say:
We hate our shrunken state
If only clear air would set us free
From all this aimless hate.
Dr Cogito taps his tablet – but too slow
The dark grieving for Lycidas begins.
Unforgiven. Blue bloody murder
Patrols these dark Scottish halls.
Dr Cogito hears Das Rheingold‘s opening note,
And so the story goes:
We still dig from deep water’s mud:
The ring, the ring, the ring.