“A SINGLE VERSE by Rimbaud,” writes Dominique de Villepin, the new French Prime Minister, “shines like a powder trail on a day’s horizon. It sets it ablaze all at once, explodes all limits, draws the eyes to other heavens.” Here is a rather different observation, uttered by George Bush Sr in 1998, that might stand as a motto for his dynasty: “I can’t do poetry.”
In that gulf of sensibility lies the cultural faultline of our times. For George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld words are blunt instruments, used to convey meaning, not feeling. Actions speak louder. The President of France, by contrast, rocked by the rejection of the EU constitution, has attempted to shore up his Government by appointing a poet as his Prime Minister, a patrician intellectual in the French romantic mould, a true believer in the transcendental and redemptive power of words.
These are the polar extremes of poetry, Rimbaud in one corner and Rambo in the other: the French patron saint of sensitive, tortured adolescents alongside the monosyllabic American action man.
To the Anglo-Saxon mind there is something dodgy, even dangerous, in the man who rules the world by day and writes verses by night. As W.H. Auden wrote: “All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornados, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman.” Indeed, the precedents are not happy ones, for there is a peculiar link between frustrated poetic ambition and tyranny: Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Castro, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh all wrote poetry. Radovan Karadzic, fugitive former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, once won the Russian Writers’ Union Mikhail Sholokhov Prize for his poems. On the whole, you do not want a poet at the helm.
Yet in France, proof of a refined literary consciousness is a prerequisite of high office, and the virtue that eclipses sin. When François Mitterrand died, French commentators touched only briefly on such aspects of his career as wartime collaboration, cynical political opportunism and obsessive adultery, while devoting acres of print to his love of books and remarkable literary output. Every French politician is expected to produce a trophy bouquin. Before writing the ailing EU constitution, former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing penned sensitive novels.
From the UK Times comes this gem that left me in grins.