Noelle McCarthy: Is Bard of New Lynn ready to seize the day

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News of David Cunliffe's poetical bent has me all a-quiver.

John Armstrong's political column in this very paper on Thursday revealed a hitherto unknown side of the Health Minister; the ardent bard, moved by love for his Alma Mater, Harvard, to pen the following lines;

"For one short year or two/I suckled you/with potent milk/of truth and learning /You know my strength, you know my weakness. They are in you/for I am Harvard/And I am yours."

A heartfelt paean to a seat of learning, is it not?

And an interesting choice of metaphor certainly. The abiding image of our Health Minister, MP for working-class New Lynn, suckling at the venerable teat of the Ivy League is not one which will leave my consciousness anytime soon I fear. A sprawling, insatiable infant pawing greedily at the jugs of the JFK School of Government, attempting to wring out every last drop of public policy education. At the very least it should reassure Plunket that the minister is on message with the current ante-natal consensus that breast is indeed best.

Leaving aside a certain queasiness at the suckling, I am thrilled - but not at all surprised - that the young Cunliffe, who attended Harvard as a Fulbright Scholar and Kennedy Memorial Fellow, was sufficiently moved by his experience to attempt to translate it into deathless verse.

Some of the most beautiful poems in the English language were inspired by experiences had at University. Witness Ted Hughes' volcanic, elegiac Birthday Letters, the famous volume that immortalises his love affair with Sylvia Plath. The sequence begins when he first meets her at Cambridge, where she, like our own David Cunliffe, was a visiting Fulbright Scholar.

This from the poem Caryatids(2):

"So, playing at students, we filled/And drunkenly drained, filled and again drained/A boredom, a cornucopia/Of airy emptiness."

It is interesting that Hughes, too, uses the metaphor of drinking to describe his university days.

The heady talk of lactation that flavours Cunliffe's ode is noticeably absent, but the language of libation is common to both.

In elegising his learning experience, Cunliffe, whether he knew it or not, was tapping into a great poetic continuum.

There is no shame at all in being inspired by one's experience of higher learning. And writing poems about it can only add to one's cachet, as the minister will know if he had anything like Ted Hughes' luck with the ladies in his student days.

Shame, then, on his political rivals for attempting to use his lyrical tendencies against him.

The indefatigable Bill English seized on this youthful ode with predictable glee, quoting the lines in Parliament in the hope of inciting derision. This is unsurprising. What hope have we of finding an appreciation of poetry in a politician who is the very definition of prosaic?

I fear that David Cunliffe may now be experiencing some embarrassment. He may even be coming to view his lyric with a certain amount of shame, and wish to cast it on the bonfire of youthful transgressions and misdemeanours, along with all the toga and keg parties I'm wistfully imagining he went to at Harvard.

The mucky world of politics is, after all, no place for the refined sensibilities of a poet, and Mr Cunliffe, I read, has lofty aspirations in this regard.

Well he needn't worry. Being a politician and a poet isn't quite the oil-and-vinegar proposition one might at first assume. It is true, the scaly hide and moronic tunnel vision needed to be a successful MP aren't necessarily the most desirable attributes for a bard, but the two have been married in the past. David Cunliffe wants Helen Clark's job, according to some journalists. Well, he can take heart from the fact that we have had a poet for Premier in the past.

A quick Wikipedia reveals one Alfred Domett, 4th Premier of NZ (1811-1887) and proud author of not one but three volumes of poetry, including A South Sea Day Dream, a remembrance of his "maori experience", whatever that was.

A quick glance through his oeuvre reveals a disappointing lack of breast imagery in Domett's poetry, but that aside, he might not be a bad figure for Cunliffe to imitate.

One thing he should note also: as well as being a poet in his own right, Domett added greatly to his kudos by being a great friend of Robert Browning. Browning even dedicated one of his volumes, Waring, to him.

Perhaps Mr Cunliffe might want to look Bill Manhire up while he's round the traps in Wellington? It would be worth it for Bill English's reaction alone.

- NZ Herald

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