Friday, September 01, 2006

Reader's Diary #149- Hugh Shea: The Poetry of Newfoundland's Hugh Shea (up to "We Do")

In an earlier post, I asked the question "What is a poet but a politician with not as much at stake?"

Since then, I've had time to rethink. Poets and politicians have one thing in common; words are their raison d'etre. But that's where the similarities end.

Politicians often use simple words to conceal the truth, while poets often use abstract words to reveal the truth. Does this mean a politician cannot be a poet? Yes.

Exhibit A: The Poetry of Newfoundland's Hugh Shea.

(Disclaimer: This collection was published posthumously and it is possible Shea would have edited these or even chose not to publish them altogether.)

Hugh Shea was a Newfoundland politician, involved with both the Conservatives and then the Liberals, during the 70s and 80s. And while he doesn't use the "simple" words I spoke of above, he's still no poet.

Shea's biggest fault as a poet is his poor sense of rhythm. As a man with two left feet, I feel silly condemning another for being rhythmically challenged, but this is poetry- not dancing.
"He died and everyone swore to a man
They voted for him every time he ran.
A harmless thought and set as though by rote
Now dead, it seemed he did deserve their vote."

- from "The Politician"

That is the opening stanza of the opening poem. I've read and reread the third and fourth lines and they still seem awkward to me. Sometimes poets justify it. A poem about penguins for instance could get away with clumsy phrasing- it would mimic their unrhythmic gait. But every poem in Shea's collection, regardless of subject matter, has equally awkward lines.

To me, that is one mighty hurdle. If the poet screws that up, it's hard to take anything else serious. But I'm continuing to read through them, so I thought I might as well try. Yet, that wasn't his only downfall. Coming from a political vantage point, Shea's poems are often too blunt and intentional for my liking. In "Look Again" for instance, he takes on those who have negative stereotypes about Newfoundlanders: "If you want a Newfie, then find a fight." I'm not a fan of overtly political poetry. I've read some of Che Guevara's poetry, Milton Acorn's poetry and now Shea's. All throw subtlety to the wayside for attacks on bigotry, classism, etc. They might all make for good speeches or rallies, but not for poetry. Margaret Atwood's best poems seem to know how to walk the fine line, the aforementioned poets do not.

Shea does have some poetic sensibilities. Take any line individually and you can sense an appreciation for the "right" word: "Not realizing that this gaudy dove", "Or the haggish sea" etc. Perhaps Shea was on his way to becoming a poet, but he passed away before the transformation was complete.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Interesting take on the differences between poets and politicians. I think you are onto something there. The rhyming stanza you quoted is awkward and stilted, I think some of it may have to also do with the way in which it rhymes, in its obviousness (does that make any sense?).
I keep thinking of you as I am reading Lynn Coady's Mean Boy, as it is about a poetry student being mentored by renegade poet/professor in a small east-coast university (and you are the only poet I know).

John Mutford said...

A poet? Me?

While I appreciate the title, I don't deserve it. The way I see it, poets actually write poems. Me, I'm only a poet a small fraction of the time. I lack the discipline. Always working on the research, but never the thesis. Maybe someday...

Anonymous said...


How did you come across Che Guevara's poetry? I've searched and there doesn't seem to be anything published.

Best regards

John Mutford said...

Anonymous: Some of Che's poetry was published in Jon Lee Anderson's biography simply titled "Che Guevara." If you go here and scroll down to p.43 you can see the first one. There are a few others in the book as well.