Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Aaron Belz


By Aaron Belz

November 10, 2014


What could English spoken-word poet John Cooper Clarke and recently appointed Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, the Rt. Hon. Michael Gove MP, have in common? Besides both being incredibly British, they are, as one might suspect, almost entirely different creatures.

Clarke’s career began in the legendary British punk scene of the 1970s. His poems—often caustic and funny, delivered rapid-fire into a microphone—depict tough street life, drug use, and sexual activity in a mode perhaps reminiscent of Tom Waits. That is to say, Clarke’s“honest and outlandish rhymes” embrace the counterculture in an over-the-top, romantic way. And he’s had a great deal of success: he has toured with the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Fall and shared stages with more mainstream groups like Elvis Costello and New Order. Clarke has released five full-length LPs, one of which reached number 26 in the UK Album Charts. In short, he’s a very popular, almost mythic icon of the radical Left.

Gove, on the other hand, is the former UK Education Secretary whose efforts to provide every school with a King James Version Bible and“Britishise” high school literature standards were met with general incredulity. A longtime journalist and skilled writer, Gove ably defended himself, but the impression many Brits have of their young MP lingers: a “bogeyman” who “won’t be remembered fondly,” a “muppet,” “divisive,” one who “always took it as a badge of honour when people disagreed with him.” (Read more at “Michael Gove: 'bogeyman' or 'the greatest education secretary ever'?”) In short, Gove symbolizes almost everything Clarke spent his career satirizing. He’s the type of authority figure Clarke wrote about in the lines, “The bloody chief's a bloody swine / Who bloody draws a bloody line / At bloody fun and bloody games” (“Evidently Chickentown”).

But Clarke confessed last week that Gove, during his tenure as Education Secretary, got at least one thing right: compelling students to memorize poetry. The statement was made in a BBC interview that, short of shocking the Western world, at least identifies a unifying principle in human culture. The entire political spectrum benefits from memorizing, mentally encoding, its historically significant texts. Whether one agrees with such texts or spends a lifetime defying them, they are benchmarks by which human behavior can be judged. They are what the Bible calls wisdom, and, beyond that, they indwell us with verbal music.

Memorization per se cannot be considered virtuous, however. So much depends upon the selection of text. Proverbs 6 explains that the best texts to memorize are “your father’s commandment” and “mother’s teaching”: “Bind them on your heart always; / Tie them around your neck. / When you walk, they will lead you.” Other passages refer to loving God’s law, remembering the words of the apostles, and in several instances “meditating day and night” on laws and precepts.

John Cooper Clarke’s “laws and precepts” include poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Alexander Pope. When a Guardian interviewer asked, “What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?”, Clarke replied, “Find a poet whose style you like, emulate that style, then deal with things that you know about—don't waste your time looking for your own style.” This conviction, held by the fiercely individualistic and unique Clarke, may seem counterintuitive, but it reflects a deeper humility. Ecclesiastes teaches that no person has a brand new thing to say or add to his moment in history. The best humans do is memorize the truth and imitate the good. These are not only best practices, they are vital—lifesaving.  

So the small overlap between the worldviews of Michael Gove and John Cooper Clarke is actually a huge one. “I’ll tell you how we got the knack,” says Clarke in the minute-long sound bite, “by learning poetry off by heart… These days I think the emphasis is too much on ‘What did he mean by that?’ and ‘What is the meaning of this poem?’ As a thirteen-year-old you’re not going to know what a thirty-five-year-old is talking about… So I’d say, learn it off by heart.”

This is precisely the posture humans have before God’s word. Based on the assumption that we can’t perfectly know what it means—based, that is, on epistemological humility—we “learn it off by heart.”


- Aaron Belz has published three volumes of poetry, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007), Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010) and Glitter Bomb(Persea, 2014). He is the poet laureate of Hillsborough, North Carolina.


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