The Cruelest Column Of Them All

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - September 27, 2006

I hate writing this column. Hate it.

No, I don’t mean I hate writing “Mostly Politics.” I mean that I hate writing this particular column, the one that comes out the week after Saturday’s primary election.

You, dear reader, will expect to find my trenchant comments on why so and so won, why whosit lost, how whosit might have prevailed. But I write on Thursday, the Thursday prior to the primary election. So I write in the dark.

You know who won; and I don’t. You’ve already read analysis by the daily political scribblers - analysis by former governors, sitting Congress people, and a mayor or two.

So where does that leave me? Where I am, I fear, too often - in the dark.

That’s OK, I suppose. I don’t really feel like writing about politics anyway. I plead primary campaign fatigue. There’s a banality to politics that can wear you down: the preening and posturing, the exaggerated boasts about one’s accomplishments. When you swim in it as much as I do, it can you leave you tired - and a little depressed.

Which is why I find myself turning to poetry. Listen to this, for example, from Ted Kooser, until recently the poet laureate of the United States, on “Selecting a Reader: First, I would have her be beautiful,/and walking carefully up on my poetry/at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,/her hair still damp at the neck/from washing it. She would be wear-ing/a raincoat, an old one, dirty/from not having money enough for the cleaners./She would take out her glasses, and there in the bookstore,/she will thumb over my poems, then put the book back/up on its shelf. She will say to herself,/ ‘For that kind of money, I can get/my raincoat cleaned.’ And she will.”

There’s not a thimbleful of preening there, or posturing, or exaggerating: just a wonderfully humble image. The poet attempts to do that for his reader every time - and often fails mightily. But always, always, he seeks truth and insight: not a partisan truth, not an ideological truth. Truth. The Minnesota humorist Garrison Keillor has written that “poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart.”

It is also, of course, the most difficult of literary forms. William Faulkner, our country’s greatest novelist, once observed that he became a novelist because he had failed at poetry: He wasn’t skilled enough of poetry.

The poet’s trial is to say much briefly: in a phrase, a few lines, a simile, a metaphor. Unlike the novelist - or the politician - he cannot afford to go on and on and on. No one will stick around - not even long enough to consider the comparative prices of a slim volume of poetry and dry cleaning a raincoat.

Keillor again: “Comedy is a predatory sport, closer to the lynch mob than to the church. Poetry is the church.” And in church, of course, we deal with life’s tragedies - and joys. Ted Kooser’s Year’s End: “Now the seasons are closing their files/on each of us, the heavy drawers/full of certificates rolling back/into tree trunks, a few old papers/flocking away. Someone we loved/has fallen from our thoughts,/making a little, glittering splash/like a bicycle pushed by a breeze./Otherwise, not much has happened;/we fell in love again, finding/that one red feather on the wind.”

Despite the clamor, nothing much does happen, and the poets - those who watch and rework the church, year after year - know that. Politicians, those of the preening class, seldom do.

I would look kindly on any politician who 1) reads, and even more so, if 2) he reads poetry. “The meaning of poetry,” writes Keillor, “is to give courage.” Not certainty, but truth and courage, lent through the medium of humor. Kooser’s Laundry: “A pink house trailer,/scuffed and rusted, sunken/in weeds. On the line,/five pale blue workshirts/up to their elbows/in raspberry canes -/a good, clean crew/of pickers, out early,/sleeves wet with dew,/and near them, a pair/of bright yellow panties/urging them on.”

If, on the eve of the General Election, Nov. 7, you too find yourself in need of antidote to politics, let me suggest the University of Hawaii-Manoa’s Campus Center Ballroom, Nov. 6 at 7 pm. There the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kooser will read his poetry and take questions. On election day itself, and on Nov. 9 and 10, he will be offering poetry sessions (some requiring a fee) at Windward Community College’s Paliku Theatre.

For more information, go to, or call 808-236-9236.

You won’t be disappointed - that’s a political columnist’s and Kooser fan’s campaign promise.

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