Poetry is often in my mind. It’s because I used to work in local government. (The alternative to recalling poetry was to listen to the debates.)
It struck me recently that there are big similarities between poets and politicians. No, really, there are! Of course there are differences too.
It is about the way they use words. Both politicians and poets are very alive to the meaning and sound of words. They search for words that will echo in our minds, rhythms that will get us hooked.
They are most interested, both poets and politicians, in words with multiple meanings. They produce words with layers of meaning, connecting with many parts of our minds at one and the same time. So when Auden says that “One is always real” the reader may think of the number 1, and of oneself, and of being “at one”, and of the One from whom no secrets are hid.
But the two professions seek multiple meanings for different purposes. The poet wants to evoke as many responses as possible, cramming many thoughts and resonances into a few words. They make each word work overtime, not just time and a half, but treble or quadruple time.
Politicians, it seems to me, are increasingly concerned to collect words which can mean lots of different things but, at the moment they are uttered, do not mean anything very specific at all. The advantage is that, when they are challenged at a later date, they can defend: “Ah yes, I did say that, but what I really meant was …” And then the strength of their poetry becomes clear. Their words are so rich in potential meanings that it is almost always possible for them to find a way out.
Politicians of an earlier style would have crammed their words into our ears against the stomach of our sense. Modern politicians know they must be bland. They do it by being so full of possible meaning as to be effectively meaningless.
Both poets and politicians are, in a way, a kind of opposites to the Quaker ideal of speaking plainly. I know which group I would rather listen to.