Abusing the albatross in the name of politics

By Harriet Staff

The Miami Herald's Michael Doyle brings you the literary understatement of the year by way of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Politics can turn poetry upside down." Poetry fits well into today's talking point-driven political rhetoric, particularly well known passages that function almost like a shortcut to a reader's empathy centers: Oh, I've heard this before, therefore I probably relate and agree.

Plucked from a sprawling poem of nearly 4,000 words, the "water, water" phrase has become the go-to literary reference for politicians.

"There is literally water, water everywhere in Alaska," Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski once said, speaking of an Alaskan water project.

"If we follow down the path the Republicans are leading us, there will be water, water everywhere, but not a drop of it to drink," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi once said, speaking of environmental legislation.

"Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink; that's my biggest fear," a Rhode Island town council member named Dale Grogan once said, discussing a proposed port.

In the current climate, the most popular means of making a point is "staying on message" and repeating that message until it's sunk in and can be passed between constituents and pundits alike in easily digestible bites. No wonder then that a familiar line of poetry, something already tucked away in the audiences' subconscious, can get tossed into this cycle-- even when it's willfully misinterpreted. Does it matter if it misses the original point, as long as it's memorable enough to get the job done?

"When the lines are quoted out of context, I've heard them misrepresented as if they referred to want in the presence of abundance," said [Frederick] Burwick, who edited The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Rather, he explained, "the Mariner is deprived of fresh water and is surrounded by undrinkable salt water."

The Ancient Mariner, moreover, had brought his parched fate upon himself through his slaughter of the innocent albatross. Elusive water couldn't simply be tapped through renewed political will. He'd put it beyond his reach through his own heedless act against another species.