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Lyndon Hood: Political Poetry Through the Ages

Political Poetry Through the Ages

By Lyndon Hood

I have always maintained that the whole of human experience is reflected in literature. There is much to be learned from careful study of the great classics. To prove this point, I was inspired by this week's Poetry Day to sort through my own small knowledge of world literature, seeking works from the past that could perhaps shed light on our current obsessions.

My first point of call was, of course, that bedrock of high English literature, the King James Bible. After a few pleasant hours I moved on to the Apocrypha and the little-known book of Electoriasties - Chapter 3, verses 1-8:

To every thing, there is a season and a time to every purpose in Parliament:

A time to be born, and a time to be ACT; a time to spend, and a time to spend more;

A time to be tough on immigration, and a time to claim crime is out of control; a time to criticise, and a time to not offer solutions;

A time to contain foot'n'mouth outbreaks, and a time to inform the public; a time to be Speaker, and a time to given a diplomatic post;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to mend window panes; a time to asperse, and a time refrain from making overblown aspersions that you won't substantiate;

A time to keep assets, and a time not to draw attention to your plans to sell assets; a time to tax, and a time to borrow;

A time to waffle, and a time to equivocate; A time to keep silence, and a time to lie

A time when it's a good idea to win an election, and a time when Winston Peters is your most likely coalition partner; a time to vote, and a time to not announce when the time to vote will be.

Onward then, to more modern times – given our current international obsession with wars, perhaps something from Tennyson. This is one of many redrafts of his most famous work:

The Charge of the Reactionary Brigade

Half the vote, half the vote,
Half the vote they sought so hearty,
All in the Election
Rode the National Party
'Forward the Reactionary Brigade!
Charge for the house!' he said.
Into the Election
Rode the National Party.

Sisters to the right of them,
Sisters to the left of them,
Sisters in front of them
Hairy and nasty;
Stormed at with dirt and smear,
Bodly they rode out the sneer,
Into the jaws of the Election,
In the mouth of hell
Rode the National Party

Show'd all their scandals there,
Posted billboards high in air
Stripping the incumbents bare
While all the world wondered,
If these men, so starchy,
Did govern, what they'd do
And added two and two
On service cuts and war.
And so, in quite a screw,
Or at least partly,
Away from foreign policy
Fled the National Party.

Nukes to the left of them,
Iraq to the right of them,
And thund'ring behind them
The fact that they are scary monetarists from the nineties,
Storm'd at by MPs and Press,
They therefore forever blessed!
Honor the the Reactionary Brigade!
Noble National Party!

Those of you with a less martial, more contemplative frame of mind, may find more relevance in the work of Robert Frost:

Stopping by the Foreshore on a Evening of Uncertain Weather

Whose shore this is I cannot say.
I'm told that it was given away;
Others say it belongs to me:
I'm not sure if I'm allowed to stay.

My little knowledge seems to be
Quite hazy, and my memory.
Either the People or some Iwi;
I think it was stolen from somebody.

So even though I am a Kiwi
I vaguely hope no-one will see me.
I would move on (perhaps by boat),
But Left or Right? Which way's more seemly?

The beach is lovely: I would gloat,
But I have promises to note
And weeks to go before I vote
And weeks to go before I vote.

No survey of this sort would be complete, I think, without a mention of T S Eliot. I considered including here the searing psychological tragedy of The Love Song of R Phillip Hide, but in the end decided on something lighter, from Old Possum's Book of Impractical Politics.

The policy's a mystery; it called "the hidden plank",
A platform under cover, or that may be simply blank:
The bafflement of pundits and the Government's despair:
For when they try to analyse - the policy's not there!

The policy, the policy, when do we get the policy?
Though making no commitments shows at least a kind of honesty.
They promise that they'll find the cash (perhaps pulled from thin air),
But when you try to ask them, how? The policy's not there!
Not in Finance, or Defence (though they won't cut Health this year)
Or Employment: if you look, the policy's not there.

The policy 's being drip-fed; and so it seems quite thin,
But if you try to guess the rest, you surely cannot win.
You may resurrect old statements, which state things plain and clear,
"But you can't do that," they say, "you see, the policy's not there!"

The policy, the policy, when do we get the policy?
The election will come either way, but was it just frivolity
When they promised us a shadow budget shortly after Mike's?
And now they say the Labour Party should be on their bikes,
And the country is collapsing (a thing they cannot bear)
But when the Government's criticised, the policy's not there!

But this is of course, for children. The same sentiment was expressed many years earlier in brush-strokes by that master of haiku, Basho:

Silent on your plans
After election? This too
Can be policy.


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