What do Barack Obama and Clive Palmer have in common? Not much you might think but in fact both are – away from their day jobs – published poets. Obama in a 1981 issue of the Occidental College literary magazine and Clive with a 23 poem volume Hopes, Dreams and Reflections. The latter, of course, a poetry manuscript which preceded the party manifesto.
Mitchell Welsh, a Melbourne based poet, cemetery administrator and poetry editor, reflected on this odd combination in Australian Poetry Journal (Volume 4 Issue 2) published late last year. While it is boringly predictable for people to quote Shelley on poets as our unacknowledged legislators the more interesting reality is about the legislators who are unacknowledged poets.
Mitchell says of Clive’s poetry: “You can almost hear the white shoes tapping along to the singsong rhythms that conceal the vacuum of his imagination……Every poem parses like a Hallmark card written by Sovereign Island’s own resident Dr Seuss.” Now the blog is ready to concede that Clive lacks poetic sensibility but certainly not imagination – dinosaurs, creating a new political party, forming a fleeting alliance with Al Gore and obstructing much of the Abbott ideological budget war are hardly unimaginative. However, it is hard to forgive the Palmer lines Welsh quotes: (‘Robert was a Kennedy/He wasn’t you or I/He was a soldier of peace/Why did he have to die?’) or even worse (‘I dream of Peace/of flowers in the sky’). Who knew Clive wanted to bring back flared trousers, Paisley shirts and awful folk songs?
There are lots of other political leaders who saw themselves as poets. Mao Zedong was prominent among them and no doubt Keith Windschuttle can still recite much of his poetry from memory. Stalin was another and even, initially at least, spared Mandelstam. Welsh points out how terrible Jimmy Carter and Radovan Karadzic were as poets although one went on to be a warrior for peace and the other never stopped being a warrior and war criminal. Adam Lindsay Gordon was briefly a member of parliament but after a short-lived career shot himself. A NSW politician and women’s rights pioneer, Dowell O’Reilly’s, poetry is rescued by Welsh and the lines (‘The everlasting boom of broken waves/Like muffled thunder rolls about the graves’) are an example he cites in suggesting that O’Reilly is “relatively underappreciated.”
Welsh also highlights the political and poetic enmity of NSW Premiers William Forster and Henry Parkes – at least as vicious as the enmity between various poetic schools. Alfred Deakin is also mentioned for his hundreds of verses many infected by his sometimes strange philosophical beliefs. Menzies contributed verses to Melbourne University Magazine of which he was the editor. But in more recent times Welsh singles out Labor member Les Haylen and Sir Paul Hasluck. Both were probably the most significant parliamentary poets of the past few decades with Haylen’s anti-war poetry and its interplay with the work of Dame Mary Gilmore being moving and rare examples of goodish engaged verse. Hasluck’s poetry was as elegant and intelligent as his prose as shown by the Dark Cottage collection. Geoffrey Bolton’s wonderful new biography of Hasluck has an extensive discussion of his literary and poetic interests as well as outlining his significance to indigenous policy.
But, Welsh says, “The narrative of the poet politician in the twenty first century seems to be the story of an ever-dwindling rump of outliers gradually spreading out. The ALP and the Greens seem to preselect many poet-candidates for both state and federal elections, but generally in unwinnable seats.”
Perhaps the most significant of these was Alan Wearne who was an ALP Legislative Council candidate in the 1970s. Steve Bracks, of course, rather than pre-selecting novelist and poet, Joel Deane, gave him a job as speechwriter – a role which produced both memorable speeches and the memorable poetry collection Magisterium. Welsh says the highest-ranking poet – in parliamentary if not always in critical terms – is current Victorian Legislative Council President Bruce Atkinson, who got there thanks to Green votes. To Atkinson’s credit he might pass muster on Orwell’s good bad poetry criteria.
Most Australian politicians’ poetry might be characterised by what Georges Perec referred to as l’infra-ordinaire – a sort of antonym for extraordinary. Nevertheless, one can’t help feeling parliaments would be much better places if we had parliamentary poets less ordinary than Clive and worthy of the title of being both acknowledged poets and legislators.