“Apes that eat figs”, “Hitler’s deeds”, “Tongue rippling”, “Polycarb’nate roof”: the pick of politicians' poetry

Politicians, both here and across the pond, have written a surprising amount of poetry over the years. Here are some of the best (or worst) bits.

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Current mayor of London and Tory leadership tease Boris Johnson wrote a poem for his friend’s book launch. The Evening Standard reported that Johnson read out his verse at journalist Rachel Kelly’s event to launch her memoir, Black Rainbow.

Here are some of his scribblings:

The book we hail tonight

— and by gum the girl can write —

Has a very simple thesis.

If you’re life has gone to pieces

Read a poem.
 

When no doctor and no nurse

Can seem to stop you feeling worse

And you’re railing at the failings

Of the whole damn universe

Read a poem.
 

When the RMT is out

And your tube is up the spout

And your bus is overheating

And you’ve missed a crucial meeting

Read a poem.
 

When you’ve been stopped from

leading Labour

By your brother’s bad behaviour

Read some Wilfred Scawen Blunt

And forget the little ****.
 

If you’ve been driving much too fast

And Mrs Huhne has grassed

Don’t get cross at Mrs Huhne

Try some Owen or Sassoon

Read a poem.
 

When the awful moment comes

To buy presents for your chums

And you feel the rising panic

Like the captain of Titanic

Give them Keats and give them Shelley

But mainly give them Rachel Kelly.

 

I wonder if there’s a literary term for the device used of ‘wryly and jocularly referring to London mayoralty screw-ups’ – perhaps pathetic fallacity? – but also how many other politicians have put their machinations to one side to put quivering pen to paper and spill their feelings out in rhyme.

It turns out Johnson isn’t primus poet inter pares, as there are plenty of politicos who have written verse over the years – though, like their writing of policies, they vary wildly in quality...

 

Barack Obama

The American president was a poet in his youth, with two pieces he wrote for a student magazine called Feast when 19-years-old emerging a few years ago revealing his writing style.

Here they are:

Pop

Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken

In, sprinkled with ashes

Pop switches channels, takes another

Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks

What to do with me, a green young man

Who fails to consider the

Flim and flam of the world, since

Things have been easy for me;

I stare hard at his face, a stare

That deflects off his brow;

I’m sure he’s unaware of his

Dark, watery eyes, that

Glance in different directions,

And his slow, unwelcome twitches,

Fail to pass.

I listen, nod,

Listen, open, till I cling to his pale,

Beige T-shirt, yelling,

Yelling in his ears, that hang

With heavy lobes, but he’s still telling

His joke, so I ask why

He’s so unhappy, to which he replies...

But I don’t care anymore, cause

He took too damn long, and from

Under my seat, I pull out the

Mirror I’ve been saving; I’m laughing,

Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face

To mine, as he grows small,

A spot in my brain, something

That may be squeezed out, like a

Watermelon seed between

Two fingers.

Pop takes another shot, neat,

Points out the same amber

Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and

Makes me smell his smell, coming

From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem

He wrote before his mother died,

Stands, shouts, and asks

For a hug, as I shrink, my

Arms barely reaching around

His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; ’cause

I see my face, framed within

Pop’s black-framed glasses

And know he’s laughing too.

 

Underground

Under water grottos, caverns

Filled with apes

That eat figs.

Stepping on the figs

That the apes

Eat, they crunch.

The apes howl, bare

Their fangs, dance,

Tumble in the

Rushing water,

Musty, wet pelts

Glistening in the blue.

 

Poet Ian McMillan analysed these works, saying of the first: “There's a humanity in the poem, a sense of family values and shared cultural concerns that give us a hint of the Democrat to come”, and, less politely, of the second: “It's obscure, faux naif, mock profound, and it's got the words "musty" and "pelts" in the same line. It needn't concern us further; it'll rightly end up in the dustbin of history.”

 

Jimmy Carter

It must be a White House thing, but another democrat who dallied in distributing his words as verse is Jimmy Carter, who was the first US president to write a book of poetry: Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems (1995), a collection of 47 poems.

Carter wrote poetry on and off since he was in high school, as well as under water when he was in the submarine force. His poems are on a diverse variety of subjects, titles of which range from ‘My First Try for Votes' and ‘A Motorcycling Sister’ to ‘Life on a Killer Submarine’ and, erm, ‘Peanuts’.

Here’s a couple of tasters from two of his poems:

Itinerant Songsters Visit Our Village

When some poets came to Plains one night,

two with guitars, their poems taught

us how to look and maybe laugh

at what we were and felt and thought.

After that, I rushed to write

in fumbling lines why we should care

about a distant starving child.

 

Hollow Eyes, Bellies, Hearts

Why think of slaves, nameless deaths?

Best be still, as in other days.

Response was bland to Hitler's deeds --

Should we condemn our fathers' ways?

 

The second was written in the White House. A book reviewer from the New York Times wrote in 1995 that Carter is a “mediocre poet” who writes, “well-meaning, dutifully wrought poems that plod from Point A to Point B without ever making a leap into emotional hyperspace, poems that lack not only a distinctive authorial voice, but also anything resembling a psychological or historical subtext”. Lucky he had a rather high-profile day job.

 

Paul Marsden

This former Lib Dem MP who once served as shadow health minister for the party landed himself in a bit of trouble for his particular literary flourishes.

He made the classic mistake of, well, posting poems about his two mistresses on the internet, following admissions that he had had an affair and made other adulterous advances. One, harrowingly, had the title ‘She came in the night’. Here it is:

She came in the night

She came in the night,

Dark hair, alive billowing as a trapped kite,

Marching forward, confident and right,

Her hips swaying and her red lips tight,

Then that smile so devastating in its might,

Tongue rippling across teeth so white,

Breasts rising as I feel the urge to bite.

Eyes stalking its prey, she’s relishing the fight.

Who would mess with this amazing sight?

In awe of womanhood so sexual and bright,

A wondrous sweet smell exacerbates my plight,

Arching her back, stretched to its full height,

I am captured forever, dazzled by feminine light.

As she came in the night.

 

Rarely are political scandals wrought so lyrically...

 

Chris Bryant

Labour MP for the Rhondda and shadow minister for welfare reform Chris Bryant has written poetry about the coalition spending cuts. Even loyal readers on the blog Labour Uncut, where the works were published, didn’t give Bryant the most positive response – but one online reader, called Rod, commented diplomatically: “You are by far a much better poet than a politician”.

Here are the poems:

Supine

One arm stretched out behind my head, dipped back,

I push the other through the water’s swirl

And past my thigh before the next attack,

Propelling me, with languorous aqueous grace

I could not possibly repeat at pace.

The rhythm of the stroke, as lengths unfurl,

Calms down my daily work obsessions,

Inspires free-style inquisitive reflections,

About what happens when we all cut back.

Above me, on the polycarb’nate roof

A single leaf is twisting in the gale.

Each time I pass beneath, it spins above

And chases some imaginary tail.

When I return next week, will it be there?

And will the baths be open in a year?

 

To Autumn

I

Season of trysts and pomp-full conferences

When politicians, in three hordes uncouth

Assemble in up-market hotel foyers

To gossip, flirt, conspire and take the hand

Of every willing voter in the land;

To argue for their version of the truth,

To battle for the future of our schools

Our hospitals, police and uncared youth;

Just sometimes to put forward their pet scheme

For rescuing Britain; and perchance to dream

Of greasy poles they yet aspire to climb.

II

But now the champagne flutes are passed their time -

And late-night, lightweight, internecine strife.

The autumn parliamentary term commences

With all eyes fixed on Osborne’s pending knife.

Statistics, figures, numbers stride the land,

Brought forth by each to stay the other’s hand.

Some worship at the shrine of deficit reduction,

They see a chance to slash the state, scot-free,

They eulogise the Big Society

But in their hearts they make a grand deduction:

Let Alexander, Clegg and Cable take the rap.

III

It’s true, perhaps the sea of faith was full once;

The faith that all our dreams could be enacted by

The simple, legal application of the democratic will;

That honest, good and independent people

Could change the world by sheer determination;

That work for all would pay a living wage,

That poverty, ill-health and destitution

Would be abolished – here and in every nation.

But now the voters issue a redacted sigh

Their trust in politics of every hue in rage

They fear that they will pay a hefty bill.

IV

Which leaves us with the task we set ourselves:

To live within our means but go for growth;

To struggle for the cause of common sense,

Since rapid, ill-considered, swingeing cuts will lead us hence

To double-dip recession, not to economic health.

The songs of Spring still stir our anxious bones,

With echoes of the age-old oath

(Albeit in a voice and accent of today)

To fight for freedom, fairness, and the common wealth.

The people watch, the media barons neigh

And gathering members twitter on their phones.

 

The adroit apostrophe in “polycarb’nate” is a memorable flourish.

 

Hartley Booth

This former Tory MP, who succeeded Margaret Thatcher as representative of the constituency Finchley in 1992, had to resign in 1994 when his 22-year-old researcher, Emily Barr, revealed a poem he wrote for her as part of his pursuit of her. Here’s a snatch of the verse:

You said you seduced me

He who is tall

Has further to fall — and I fell.

 

David Blunkett

The Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough and veteran New Labour frontbencher has often spoken about his love of poetry, and once read out one of his poems, ‘Echo’, on Radio 4, as well as including more of his own works in his autobiography of 1995, On A Clear Day.

Critics were divided on his poems’ literary merits, with the Telegraph reporting one saying, “It shows, rather than tells us something, and that is precisely what poetry should do”, but another quipping that his readers, “may unkindly conclude that if Blunkett was a disastrous home secretary, then he is an even worse poet”.

 

Policies or poetry, our political leaders' creations must always be scrutinised. Dodgy enjambment or not.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.