Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: This St Patrick’s Day, at the “Friends of Ireland” lunch in Washington DC, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, read aloud a poem by the self-effacing philanthropist Bono that reimagines the legend of St Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland as a metaphor for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
To treat this harrowing subject with the dignity it deserves, Bono has, of course, opted for the limerick form. (Perhaps this is a nod to the fact that Ukrainians have their own tradition of short, ironic verse called “Chastushka”, or perhaps Bono just bloody loves a limerick. The beauty of poetry lies in the fact that the reader may bring their own interpretation to the work.)
Oh, St Patrick he drove out the snakes
With his prayers but that’s not all it takes
OK Bono, you’ve got MY attention. It’s a strong start with a rousing “Oh” followed by the undeniable fact that St Patrick, he did indeed drive out the snakes. Some might say that “Oh” and “he” are simply padding out the line here, but not I. It brings a much-needed grandeur to proceedings.
The second line brings a twist. That’s not ALL it takes? Tell us more! Bono does a valiant job here of sticking to the anapestic trimeter of the limerick form: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. If it feels like he’s smuggling in extra syllables, that’s testament to his control of his craft.
For the snake symbolises
An evil that rises
And hides in your heart, as it breaks
Wow. When was the last time you read the word “symbolise” in a poem? Bravely disregarding the conventional choice to leave room for subtext, Bono comes straight out and tells us what his images mean in the text itself. So rarely do modern poets have the guts to tell you in literal terms what a snake represents. (Evil. The snake represents evil.)
And the evil has risen my friends
From the darkness that lives in some men
Evil — she’s making a sexy comeback! She’s here, and she lives in some men. But just SOME men, OK?!
We’re now in line six, making this an extended limerick. The pleasingly grandiose tone continues with the nice flourish “my friends.” Also — we’re all officially now friends with Bono!!!
But in sorrow and fear
That’s when saints can appear
To drive out those old snakes once again
Subtext — she’s making a sexy comeback! The snake symbolises evil, but also… Vladimir Putin?
And they struggle for us to be free
From the psycho in this human family
I think this last line might be the best in the whole poem, as Bono breaks up his olde Lorde of the Ringes epic voice with an injection of some valley girl slang. No, it doesn’t scan — and why should it? When you’re saying crazy things like “the psycho in this human family” you don’t need it to scan! You can just call Putin a total psycho and be done with it!
Ireland’s sorrow and pain
Is now the Ukraine
I also like the implication that before the war in Ukraine, the world had not known pain and suffering since Ireland was last plagued by all those snakes in the fifth century.
And St Patrick’s name now Zelensky
Mic drop. Subtext found rotting. What more is there to be said?