I read a children’s book over Christmas, a gift from my clever teacher sister. ‘Cloud Busting’ by Malorie Blackman is a beautifully crafted, emotional tale of childhood friendship, and one passage particularly resonated: a teacher asks his pupils to write a poem, encouraging them by explaining that their favourite music, whether rap or pop or punk or rock, is poetry set to music. Of classical music, he says:
‘Classical music creates poetry
In your mind.
And your heart.
And your soul.
Even if there are no words
Being sung or spoken,
It still creates poetry
This is true, for me at least; in certain pieces of music, each wave of sound represents a word, or a sentence, or an emotion that is deeply personal. I almost peed my pants listening to Boito’s Mefistofele at the National Cathedral earlier this year.
This got me thinking about poetry in other forms – and before you get all ‘oh fuck she’s only gonna write about boring stuff’ just hang on, there is a point to all this and here it comes – I thought particularly about the poetry in words that rally and inspire, or provide comfort at times of sorrow and pain. Henry V at Agincourt, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Churchill pretty much everywhere, Reagan at the Berlin Wall, Bluto in Animal House .. all demonstrated a perfect vocabulary of strength and understanding that cemented unity and trust and, more importantly, hope.
Obama is the master at this, particularly at times of disaster. His speeches after the Tucson and Newtown shootings were a balm to the country’s grief. He instinctively gets it. And while the mark of a leader isn’t purely how he or she responds publicly to events, judging the mood of a nation and reacting appropriately has got to be in the top five of Stuff That Makes A Good Leader.
When the scale and nature of the attacks in Paris became known, presidential hopeful Donald Trump responded with an air of gravitas and sense of occasion that has hitherto been hidden from the American public ha ha who the fuck am I kidding, the man could be possessed by the spirit of Mother Teresa and he’d still be a total arsehole. Trump’s response was to criticize French gun laws and suggest that Syrian refugees should be banned from the US.
And the weird thing is, his poll numbers went up.
Trump isn’t a Henry V or a Churchill to you or I, but to his supporters he has shown true leadership. With a callous disregard for the consequences of his rhetoric, Trump has encouraged the fears and anxiety of a section of the population – older, white and less well-educated – who feel isolated and economically bruised in the midst of a rapidly changing world, and who don’t believe that the current political leadership speaks for them. Trump whines with all the spitefulness of the school bully – opponents are losers, dummies, lightweights, stupid, overrated – but his insults have served only to gain him more media coverage and a few thousand yard signs from those who have waited years for someone to tell the political elite to fuck right off.
I still don’t believe Trump will win the Republican nomination; either Rubio (yawn) or Cruz (lunatic) will get that honour, and their battle is the more interesting one, as it will help to define the future direction of the Republican Party. But Trump’s intervention in the race for the White House leaves all parties with a huge challenge to properly understand the sense of abandonment felt by these lost souls; dismissing them as racist rednecks is missing the point entirely, and fear combined with hope can be a powerful force.
Still, it is less than a year until the election, with loads of quality time to discover if Ben Carson is actually fully anaesthetised during the debates. But if you feel in need of a break from all the arguing and grandstanding and sheer arseholery of the campaign, take a moment to immerse yourself in the beauty of poetry such as this.
Happy New Year.