I’ve always tried to be a “glass half full” kind of person. When disaster looms, I’ll either wave it off on its merry way or if it decides to stick around and make itself a sandwich, I’ll tell myself it’s a necessary precursor to things getting a lot better; a moment’s pause to help me appreciate the good that will follow. Well, that’s the plan anyway.
Recently, however, I must admit, I’ve been a little perplexed. This feeling of unease started just around the time it was first announced that the UK would be holding a General Election on Thursday 12th December. A line from Alfieri’s opening prologue to “A View from the Bridge” (by Arthur Miller) took up residence somewhere in my consciousness and I couldn’t quite encourage it to leave. He admits, in considering the demise of Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman from Red Hook, Brooklyn, that he is “inclined to notice the ruins in things.” In the same way, it seemed that many parliamentary hopefuls, were doomed from the start, their “ruin” inevitable rather than unexpected. Why inevitable? Because we were told so, again and again. Each failure to secure power was aided by a rhetorical device as simple as repetition. Yes, repetition. Repetition, I’ve said it again. Ah, all hail the tricolon, the three part trick that rams the message home.
Repetition, we know, has long been the preferred hammer of politicians and spin doctors. Simple, memorable and lasting – another tricolon – we just can’t help ourselves. Lulled by the cadences of persuasive speech, we know full well it won’t be long before we’ll be using those same cadences on others too. Pythagoras regarded three as the ideal number; it had a beginning, a middle and an end. Aristotle’s exploration of rhetoric proposed three types of appeal (ethos, pathos and logos) and so the triadic list goes on. Rhetorical devices are, or, at least, have been, beautiful tools to employ; it’s just that overuse has currently rendered them a little tarnished. We just don’t know when to stop.
I remember when I first discovered the beauty of repetition. We were reading a selection of Keats’ poetry at school and I read ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ for the first time. The stark simplicity of the ballad form, the repetition, the juxtaposition helped to create a poem of delicacy and power – or so I thought as a thirteen year old. I struggled to articulate what it was that I found so moving. It had such poise, such control. It knew where it was going and how to fulfil its poetic objectives. Of course, I couldn’t say all that then. It was more “I really, really like that” or something similar. It encouraged me to look at how repetition was managed elsewhere – and led me to discover some dreadful examples as well as some powerful contenders for the title of favourite. The Elizabethans served up a few beauties. In Tichborne’s Elegy the power of its antithetical phrasing makes your breath catch in your throat:
“My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain:
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.”
I could go on but instead I’ll move onto Sir Walter Raleigh who, like Tichborne, was executed for treason (oh, the Tudors and Stuarts certainly knew how to treat their poets). His image of the court shining like “rotten wood” in his poem “The Lie” seems to my 21st century ear frighteningly relevant and, thus, utterly compelling,
“Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Say to the church, it shows
What’s good, and doth no good.
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie.
Tell potentates, they live
Acting by others’ action;
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by a faction.
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.”
Mind you, Raleigh’s part in the English (Protestant) suppression of Ireland and in the massacre of unarmed Spanish and Italian soldiers sticks somewhat in the craw – but then Chidiock Tichborne was a Roman Catholic, so I hope you’ll appreciate the balance in my examples, if nothing else. Their religious convictions may be starkly opposed but the political net in which they found themselves offered the same fateful end. Fast forward to 1930s Europe; Auden’s use of the ballad form in “O what is that sound”, in which he warns us of fascism’s advance, is chilling in its accuracy. The predictable ballad features he uses like the question and answer structure give it an innocent quality, totally at odds with the nightmarish image in the final stanza,
“ Their boots are heavy on the floor
And their eyes are burning.”
In considering the power of poetry (and of repetition in particular), you’ll often hear the advice to stop at three; any more and you’re overstating your case. Not so. Anyone who, like me, is an ex-teacher and has taught the poem “Timothy Winters” by Charles Causley to groups of students without the advantages of the Eton poshboys who seem to dominate our TV screens, will know what I’m talking about. It’s a poem that has moved even the sternest critic. As for the final stanza, well, Charles, you had me at “Amen”,
“At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than themselves
And the loudest response in the room is when
Timothy Winters roars ‘Amen’
So, come one angel, come on ten,
Timothy Winters says ‘Amen,
Amen, amen, amen, amen.’
Timothy Winters, Lord, Amen.”
Of course, politicians and journalists are well aware that purposeful repetition gets the message across. Any child knows that. Put a three year old in a toy shop and see what happens; go on, I dare you. The atmosphere of the last election campaign (and indeed the run-up to it) was “febrile”, even “toxic” apparently, according to political commentators, no doubt prompted by campaign press releases; it had everyone “doubling down” even though not all journalists were completely sure of its precise connotations, conflating it with “hunkering” which had a completely different meaning (emphasising that we learn mainly by context rather than by looking things up). Then of course there was “Get Brexit done”, a reshaping of “Take back control” – three words again; a little like “veni, vidi, vici” or “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, I suppose, but with less style.
To begin with, it was amusing to count the numbers of times that Mr Johnson used the slogan during any public announcements but then it became all so sad because it just emphasised the low regard in which the electorate was held. We had to be told again and again or we might forget. All I wanted to shout was “I know what you’re doing, I’m not stupid” while at the back of my mind I heard Alfieri’s concluding words “Most of the time we settle for half and I like it better”. Some of us would do anything to shut out the noise. Well, sorry, I feel far from settled and, furthermore, I don’t like it at all.
As poets and writers, we have a duty to safeguard the language we use – and to use it well. You’ll have no doubt noticed that the examples I’ve tended to use throughout this article are either ballads or elegies. Their structures and rhythms lend themselves to the precise, at times unembellished, communication of ideas. I’ve tried to do the same in the poem I offer here. I’ve called it “A Sea Shanty” and talk of Francis Wharf, a place that to my knowledge exists only in my imagination. I wanted it to stand for all the places abandoned and then exploited by the government. Why Francis? Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe and is a character steeped in cultural significance, even if his treatment of suspected mutineers and prisoners was more than a little suspect, to say the least. We may as poets strive to follow Dante’s directive to talk of “things that are true expressed in words that are beautiful” or just hope that we’ll be able to give “the clear expression of mixed feelings” as Auden suggested. Whatever the angle we choose to take, perhaps this election has taught us never to underestimate the power of repetition, to be mindful of Shylock’s words in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and to see the hope shining within, “It will go hard but I will better the instruction.” But, on reflection, even that is a poor example; Shylock’s words after all proved his undoing. Perhaps Alice Oswald’s words at the beginning of “Dart” might offer more useful guidance,
“The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
Trying to summon itself by speaking…”
Even if we’re lying low in darkness, our language calls our ideas into being.
So let’s use our words wisely and may they always find their mark. Thank you for reading.
A Sea Shanty
(missa in angustiis)
On Francis Wharf the sunlight smirks,
The rain spits smut at hanging shirts,
Horizons dim into the dark,
Babies bawl and wild dogs bark
On Francis Wharf.
On Francis Wharf, I learned the ways
Of sea and steel and furnace blaze;
I grew to love my salt-tinged toil,
When times were good before the spoil
Of Francis Wharf.
On Francis Wharf, time paces slow
Past berths made empty long ago –
Westminster says, ‘Oh, what a shame!’
Then shakes the dice and plays the game
Of Francis Wharf.
On Francis Wharf, they scuttle by,
Those men in suits with navy tie,
They wash their hands as they’ve been taught
And never give another thought
To Francis Wharf.
On Francis Wharf, I’m living still,
While rents are cheap but soon they will
Evict us all to build anew
Their bijou flats with bijou view
On Francis Wharf.
On Francis Wharf, you’ll find no sign
To celebrate a job like mine:
Decommissioned, bare, bereft,
There’s no heart now, there’s nothing left
On Francis Wharf.
On Francis Wharf, the time will come
When they will see what they have done –
They’ll never say that it’s their fault,
Quaffing their fill of single malt …
Cheers, Francis Wharf.