Category Archives: political poem

Political poem: Leonard Cohen, ‘Democracy’

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That it ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there;
From the war against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all;
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat;
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of state!
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on…

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst;
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming from the women and the men
Oh baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen!
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

The United States is a “flawed democracy” (as defined by The Economist Intelligence Unit, see below). “Democracy” was written by the Canadian poet/singer/novelist Leonard Cohen over three years in the early 1990s. The song as we have it was boiled down from some 60 verses, scattered through seven or eight notebooks. In his book “Songwriters On Songwriting” he explains, “This was when the Berlin Wall came down and everyone was saying democracy is coming to the east. And I was like that gloomy fellow who always turns up at a party to ruin the orgy or something. And I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen that way. I don’t think this is such a good idea. I think a lot of suffering will be the consequence of this wall coming down.'”

There are so many strong lines in this poem that, although written 30 years ago, resonate today. I particularly like

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet

and the mention of America as

The cradle of the best and of the worst

as well as the timeless, human dynamic of

From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat;

Photo: A map of the world showing the results of The Economist’s Democracy Index survey for 2016. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. The USA has been stuck in the third tier for the past few years, scoring below 8 on a 10-point scale. Those in the first tier, scoring above 9, are the five Nordic countries plus New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Note that almost all of the top tier countries use some form of Proportional Representation (PR) to elect their governments. Several of their parliaments include parties with Trump-style xenophobic parties, because it is important to include representatives of all opinions in a democracy. But with PR the most extreme parties of right and left are unlikely to be included in a government, let alone dominate it. With PR the parliament gets the benefit of hearing all concerns and points of view, and the voters get the opportunity to vote more closely for who they want: a choice of libertarian, fundamentalist, green communist, as well as more mainstream conservative, liberal or social democrat. Voter turnout is naturally higher than in a two-party system which fails to address the interests of a large percentage of the population.

Other points that can be made from looking at the truest democracies: 1) Unicameral structures score best, meaning the US could have just the House, no Senate. 2) There is no need for separation of the Executive and Legislative functions; separating them doesn’t provide any benefit, despite the holy mantra of “checks and balances”, it merely destroys efficiency and obfuscates responsibility and encourages confrontation. 3) The Judiciary should not be appointed by the government, it functions best if it is developed with true independence within its own legal system.

The American system is an interesting historical artifact, but long outdated and highly counterproductive to good government. When Americans have written new constitutions for countries that they have taken over, the results have not been good. They should let the Scandinavians do it.

I recommend watching the Danish TV series ‘Borgen‘ (it has English subtitles) for a practical view of a single-chamber, multiparty system of coalition government.

Political poem: Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,–
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring,–
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,–
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,–
An army which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,–
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless, a book sealed,–
A Senate—Time’s worst statute unrepealed,–
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst to illumine our tempestuous day.

Shelley wrote this sonnet in 1819 in response to the Peterloo Massacre: a peaceful crowd of 60,000 had gathered in Manchester to call electoral reform, but were charged into by a local Yeomanry regiment, and then by a cavalry regiment of the King’s Hussars with sabres drawn. Official numbers show 18 people killed, including several women, and 400 to 700 injured: bayoneted, sabred, knocked down, trampled.

Shelley blames the mad King George III and his sons (including of course the Regent, the future George IV), and the ruling class in a time of unemployment and economic recession, and further blames the illiberal army, and harsh laws, and morality-free religion, and a Parliament that was refusing all civil rights to Catholics. They might all be graves of corruption, but Shelley hopes that from their decay will come a glorious new spirit to brighten the world.

Not all of the poem resonates with any particular political situation in the world today; but “an old, mad, blind, despised and dying king”… well, that’s certainly the impression given by the White House in early 2021.

Technically: the sonnet is in iambic pentameter as you would expect, but the rhyme scheme is unconventional: ababab cdcdccdd. The illustration is an engraving of George III in later life, by Henry Meyer.

Political poem: Hilaire Belloc, on elections

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge)
Broke–and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

The precise phrasing of Hilaire Belloc‘s little squib may have been outdated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Kamala Harris… but the complaint by the common voter (or disillusioned non-voter) is valid, that professional politicians live in a very comfortable club that takes care of all its members regardless of who actually wins an election; and no fundamental change occurs.

A nice little quatrain, iambic pentameter, the simplicity strengthened by the bite of the repetition contradicting the idea of change. Easy to remember and quote because – of course – it rhymes and scans.

“2009 Five Presidents, President George W. Bush, President Elect Barack Obama, Former Presidents George H W Bush, Bill Clinton & Jimmy Carter, Standing” by Beverly & Pack is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Political poem: Hilaire Belloc’s epitaph on a politician

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician’s corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

The US and UK have been so polarised for the past several years that it seems everyone has a politician they would like to see executed–or jailed at the very least. But this is neither a recent phenomenon nor a merely Anglo-American one. All round the world notorious pillagers of their countries go to the grave with great pomp, while most of their countrymen and -women are simply glad that they are finally going.

This sarcastic little poem by Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc suggests two things: that all successful political leaders are loathed by a large percentage of the population; and that to make your sarcastic comment truly memorable if it is more than five or six words long, you do well to put it in verse. The rhyme and meter not only make the words easier to remember, they also lend a magical impression of inevitability and authenticity to the idea expressed. Well-constructed verse provides a fraudulent but powerful proof that the idea expressed is valid. Rhetoric and oratory inhabit this area also. Well-expressed ideas have more credibility than badly expressed ones, regardless of the relative merits of the ideas themselves.

Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that few politicians exhibit much interest in poetry…

Photo: “President Cyril Ramaphosa attends former President Robert Mugabé’s State Funeral in Harare” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0