01 Poetry: A Survival Strategy for Diplomats

Posted on November 2, 2007 by

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Many diplomats have used poetry in their diplomatic work: wrapping words in silk is the diplomat’s job. A diplomat may turn a lie into a ‘constructive ambiguity’ – which is a way of defining poetry. Some poets have been diplomats – Neruda, Claudel, St. John Perse. It’s an occupational hazard: the stimulating place, the sheltered existence – and the ability to paraphrase the unknowable. Few diplomats will admit to using poetry as a survival strategy.

Diplomats are like sentinels at an outpost scrutinising the desert beyond. Expecting the barbarians never to appear over the hazy horizon, they sceptically await the inevitable improbable. Meanwhile, drill replaces skill. From dawn till dusk and deep into the night beyond, on the parade grounds, they are made to practice coherence and coordination as if their career depended on it. In an attempt to strengthen morale and impart character, chanting of ‘public diplomacy’ mantras has been taken up. Numbing menial jobs – arranging ministerial junkets, tripping bleary-eyed through dilapidated factories – replace detention.

Diplomats are like watchmakers: their art is hidden inside a bland, if polished, case. Only a couple of hands, forever going round and round to no apparent purpose, betray the existence of an intelligent design. The best designer is the one who leaves no signature – just invariant perfection. Creating a masterpiece, however, is a rare opportunity.

In daily diplomatic routine one is to judge the quality of a negotiated text not by its content, but by its discards. At the end of the day, under a diplomat’s table one may find crumpled amendments, execrable points of order, and many a plain word. The box of useless qualifiers, the well of slimy compromises, lie about empty.

To survive, a diplomat needs poetry. Filed amidst the many layers of the brief, the short poem will refresh the bleary mind. Poetry brings distance – hence perspective and insight. Poetry reminds the diplomat that the best professional is the amateur.

Most deeply – poetry is truth.