(Following the resignation of Poetry Review editor Fiona Sampson…)
The Poetry Review edition of Summer 2011 was entitled ‘The New Political Poetry’.
This was hopeful and well-timed, even prescient. 2011 would turn out to be the most mass-politicised year in living memory. Poetry Review‘s finger was surely on the pulse.
Perhaps, once again, a magazine notoriously straitjacketed by its army of blue-rinse subscribers would overcome itself? After all, it had in the past been transgressive. Two editorships are already looked back on as temporary pirate utopias: Eric Mottram’s and Robert Potts/David Herd’s. Poetry Review is rightly perceived as a ‘straight’ magazine, but a straight magazine that occasionally turns ‘crooked’. In its crooked phases it was capable of publishing real political poetry. These phases would end when the blue-rinsers complained and threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Venus, Juno, Aphrodite, Gaia, the goddesses were as blue-coiffured as they were powerful. No one ever saw them; but they were heard, channelled by accountants, distribution managers, advertising salespeople, fundraisers.
At the back of the book, under the the red, upper-case, bold banner ‘THE NEW POLITICAL POETRY‘ we looked excitedly to read the roll-call of the new political poets. Who would they be, the UK’s Yevtushenkos and Ginsbergs? Would they be as dangerous and hard-hitting as Amiri Baraka or Adrienne Rich? Would they use bad language, or worse, unforgettable slogans? Would they be Hakim Bey-inspired poetic terrorists? Who would be the victims of their lacerating hexes?
(Drum-roll…) John Burnside, Ruth Padel, Neil Rollinson, Jamie McKendrick… and other names too blood-curdling to mention.
Fiona Sampson’s editorial begins: ‘Journalists sometimes ask, Why aren’t today’s poets politically engaged?‘ She continues: ‘Yet everyone who has read John Agard or Jackie Kay, Grace Nichols or Carol Ann Duffy for GCSE English will be aware that contemporary British poetry explores questions of identity, authority and social rights. These questions are unmistakably political.’
Obviously we haven’t been looking hard enough for political poetry, or Shostakovich-like, its subtleties were eluding us. Schoolchildren are being radicalised but somehow it has gone unnoticed by the adult reader. Sampson elucidates: ‘In 2011 poets are continuing these explorations, (my italics) though sometimes, perhaps, using less declarative forms.‘
That a poet is a political poet may not be apparent. ‘For example it is still a political as well as a poetic act for a woman poet to dare to entertain philosophical or metaphysical ideas.’ Even quietism is political, if the quietist is female. ‘Women writing in Welsh and using non-traditional “foreign” forms’ is also political. (They don’t need to write about Devolution or Sellafield to qualify as political poets.) Even Sarah Maguire’s Poetry Translation Centre is political because it increases the poetic voices in English; which is surely democratic.
The logical conclusion, though, of Sampson’s argument is that even for a poet to be apolitical is a political act. The apolitical poem is a political poem. The poets are being ‘politic’. Polite and political are – who’d have thought? – synonyms, sourced in the same root ‘polis’.
You say as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another’s said or sung
‘Twere politic to do the like by these.
But was there ever dog that praised his fleas?
Looking again at the cover, you would really expect the magazine’s contents to reflect the title. You would expect it to contain ‘the new political poetry’, to do what it says on the tin. But as soon as we open the contents page, we notice something different. ‘The New Political Poetry’ is prefixed with a ‘Where is’. A section in the magazine is entitled: ‘Where is the New Political Poetry?’ This is certainly less declarative. In fact, it is interrogative. Who is being interrogated? The blue-rinsers? The apolitical poets? Or is it rhetorical? Was it a misprint? Should it have read ‘The New Politic Poets’?
John Burnside’s contribution is not a new political poem. It’s a letter to Hart Crane. Interesting. I don’t regard Burnside as a political poet. Nor – though I love Crane – do I regard Crane as such. Burnside, however, cites Crane’s ‘Chaplinesque’ and the phrase ‘We make our meek adjustments’ to show how human beings respond to an inhuman ‘social order’ i.e. they compromise… Suggestively, though, it could be read as being about how poets respond, and compromise, to the social order. Meek adjustments. So, it is neither new political poetry, nor does it answer the question ‘where is?’ I’ve no idea why Burnside was asked to contribute. Does writing a commissioned piece of prose suddenly make the non-political Burnside into a ‘new political poet’?
David Harsent’s contribution is a trio of ecopoems, commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, with photographs by his son.
John Kinsella’s contribution ups the ante. A real slice of ecopoetry from a long work-in-progress Paradise Lust, it rescues the edition, because it is both ‘new political poetry’ and an answer to the question. Its seven pages of open form poetics on environmental destruction are a personal-political, fully engaged, eye on the object, lyrical/philosophical workout. ‘New’? In the 2010s we should also be asking of new poetry: is this poem doing anything to justify its status as a 21st century poem? This is.
Ian McMillan’s piece is ‘Letter to the Man I Passed on the Street Today’. It affectionately portrays a neighbour whose face is ‘twisted up in anger’ and slams ‘this ridiculous government of smooth-faced toffs’. Again respectfully, while Burnside and McMillan are both very good at the very different things they do, they are exposed here as inadequate. Like Burnside’s, this is a page that could and should have gone to a new political poet, or to a prose piece about a new political poet.
Gwyneth Lewis writes a letter to John Milton, but what we’re noticing here is the political correctness of a line-up that already includes a Scot, an Ozzie, a Northerner, and now a Welshwoman. Is political correctness political? Does the poet’s Scottishness, Australianness, Northernness or Welshness make even a nonpolitical poet into a political poet, as they end up – by default – representing a geopolitical constituency? Milton is hardly a new political poet, Lewis’s letter is not a new political poem, nor is the accompanying adaption of Greek drama.
Disappointingly, the Jewish contributor to the political section, Aviva Dautch, who is clearly an adept of her own heritage, does not discuss, say, the Jewish prophets as political poets, but Emily Dickinson. She is more fixated by the religious than the political, but there’s no mention of how the two fuse in, say, the Jewish prophets. She ends up, like Sampson, using sleight of hand and semiotics and obfuscation to wriggle out of engagement. In fact, both Sampson and Dautch are really espousing disengagement. Dautch:
‘The word “political” has equally as wide a spectrum of connotations as “truth”. A political poetics doesn’t have to be polemical; in fact, and somewhat ironically, I’d argue it mustn’t be polemical. For a polemical truth is a narrow truth… A polemical poem is a closed poem.’
Apolitical poets always say this kind of thing. You hear it again and again in many formulations. Mustn’t tell reader what to think, mustn’t use poetry as pulpit, mustn’t mistake rhetoric for lyric, mustn’t banner the imagination etc. It’s a fallacy, a professional lie that advances the cause of safe-as-houses poetry, and denigrates the rebellious. It is itself a polemical position, and delimits poetry rather than offering the imaginative expansion it claims.
Dautch’s accompanying poem compares modern LG TV ‘True Voice’ technology with the ancientness of Sabbath. The tawdry political world is escaped from via the religious ritual:
‘All that evening, as we transformed secular time
into Shabbat, everything seemed heightened:
the candles, bread, wine, vibrating…’
This poem should have been included in the ‘…and spirituality?‘ issue of Poetry Review, from Spring 2011, where it would have been saying something.
As it is, Seamus Heaney’s maxim drawn from the demotic of Northern Irish Catholics, is just as applicable to a British poetry scene of which this magazine is a microcosm: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing.’
Ruth Padel’s most famous political act was running a successful smear campaign to keep a black man out of the poetry chair of Oxford and get a woman – herself – elected. (Rumbled, her election was quashed). A direct descendant of Darwin, she also succeeded in bringing neo-Darwinism into disrepute. Here, two poems on the theme of migration are resolutely nothing-saying.
Jamie McKendrick manages to be interestingly non-committal. His letter to Pasolini pays homage to a ferociously engaged maverick genius, of poetry and cinema, who fought fascism tooth and nail. Pasolini’s essays Passion and Ideology are cited, the very title of which says tons. PPP is hailed as ‘a necessary gadfly to the culture’. McKendrick’s mutual admiration club with Tom Paulin then comes into play as the Irish poet-critic is hailed as Britain’s ‘nearest equivalent’. McKendrick then touches on the British debate between ‘mainstream and avant-garde’, a quarrel that he finds mainly ‘illusory and stagnant’. I’d like to read an extended essay by McKendrick on this debate, and he is clearly resentful about being lumped in with the ‘mainstream’. However, as in his poetry, he is saying nothing of political import here. A fine Italianate lyricist is being asked too much. The commission overstretches his sensibility. McKendrick, strangely, revels in Pasolini’s controversies, but has none of his own. Pasolini, of course, is not a new political poet either.
Omar Sabbagh – the Muslim at the table – writes a letter to his parents, and also his (or the) unconscious, and speaks of the dinosaur debate between ‘romantic and classical’. Kindergarten, and completely irrelevant.
Sarah Wardle also writes to her parents and criticises the psychiatric system of which she has been a victim. Someone else is saying something. One feels sorry for her and all who enter the psychiatric realm. Post-Laing, why are so many vulnerable people still force-fed into the M.H. machine? It’s optional, not obligatory. Parents are to blame, not necessarily if their children become schizophrenics, but if they send their children into a nightmare reality of ECT, incarceration, and pharmaceutical oblivion. ‘Father, I voted for you once I was old enough, and since you left parliament have voted left-of-centre, but successive governments have failed mental health patients, and politicians on both sides must address this iniquity. With more government cuts looming, I fear for inpatients, who deserve a better standard of care, tolerance and understanding…’ (I’m guessing her father was Charles Wardle, a Tory M.P. until 2001. She herself was a Young Conservative leader at Oxford University.)
Sarah Maguire argues for translation – especially of Arabic poetry – impeccably. Okay, it’s her and her New Generation pals who’ll get the work, but what the hell. The three translations included are all pleasant, especially the Tanzanian poem ‘Floods’ which is from the Swahili and is Biblically prophetic without trying. A real pleasant surprise. None of the poems, though, seem really political i.e. burning with the passion and ideology of a Pasolini.
Ian Duhig’s three pages of prose are wide-ranging and statement-rich. He is concerned with the academisation of poetry. Quoting Slavoj Zizek’s line that ‘a New York academic has more in common with a Slovene academic than with blacks in Harlem half a mile from his campus’, he distinguishes between academic political poetry and with ‘locally-informed political poetry’. Basing this distinction on his own experience writing about the police tormenting of David Oluwale in Leeds, I’m not sure how generally applicable it is. Roy Fisher, for instance, the William Carlos Williams of Birmingham, and a formidable political poet, worked in a university. But there is a point here. I’ve always questioned Marxist poets who work in universities, all the moreso after the riot-inciting price increases. The CEOs are grossly overpaid, the janitors are crassly exploited, and the Marxist poets write in undecipherable ciphers. Duhig’s ‘Skew Bridge Sonnets’ are well-crafted and jaunty, but pack no punch.
From Scandanavia, Knut Odegard lays the ghost of Knut Hamsun’s fascism; but it’s nothing to do with ‘new political poetry’ or its whereabouts.
Maureen Duffy’s letter to Aphra Benn is concerned with gender discrimination in letters and with inequality in ‘every sphere of life.’ Again, though, the search for the ‘new’ is compromised by the homage to a writer from past centuries.
Neil Rollinson completes the section with a letter to Shelley. He is eloquent and fiery, castigating our ‘cynical and selfish times’. He sees that artists in other media can rise to the issues of the day in the way that Shelley did, but not modern poets. ‘Poetry has gone soft’ he says. ‘The torch of protest is being carried now by songwriters, playwrights, and film-makers, without a whimper from the poets.’ He slams poets taking royal and political patronage. Poetry, he says ‘no longer seeks to challenge the social order.’ This is the other error of the mainstream poets; they assume no one’s writing political poetry. Where has Rollinson been? He praises Moniza Alvi, Jackie Kay, Benjamin Zepheniah, Sean O’Brien, and – more convincingly – Tony Harrison and Peter Reading.
There are loads of political poets in the mainstream but their take is usually personal-political. It’s more about political correctness than politics per se. The poets who trade in this sort of politics are limited to specific areas: gender, class, regionality, nationality. That is their job, their brief, their remit. It goes without saying they’ll never call for the monarchy to resign, for money to be abolished, for Toryism to be criminalized, or for World Anarchism to reign. They’re not Ginsbergs or Dylans, poets of the apocalypse. They focus on and fetishize their Northern Irishness or their lesbianism or their Scottishness or their Yorkshireness. They may even write in an Archipelagan English. There is an embarrassment. Are they allowed to walk on ‘the fine lawns of elocution’? Their politics is subliminally about standing at the door of English letters and asking admittance to the canon. They throw themselves at the mercy of invisible judges and juries in London. It’s more about literary politics than political politics. Books like Tony Harrison’s Laureate’s Block and Heathcote Williams’ Royal Babylon are rare.
Rollinson, talking of Shelley’s and Byron’s attacks on Lord Castlereagh, adds: ‘It seems inconceivable that a major poet would write verse like this today; and certainly not directly about a political leader.’ They never realise that, in time, their safe-as-houses scene will be blown away by the more politicised but disenfranchised poets, whom they presumably regard as ‘minor’. After Mandelstam called Stalin a ‘cockroach’, he had no career to speak of. He wasn’t a ‘major’ or a ‘minor’ poet: he’d ceased to exist as a poet. Rollinson is wronger than wrong, repeating the fallacy-mantra of the mainstream. Fact is, there are plenty of political poets in the modern era who do name and shame leaders. It’s never gone away. Robert Duncan’s ‘Uprising’ is a brilliant anti-war satire on Lyndon Johnson, a hugely influential poem. Peter Reading’s anti-Thatcher poem, in Europanto, is an English classic. Peter Redgrove and Barry MacSweeney were regular Thatcher-bashers also. Clayton Eshleman and Eliot Weinberger have baited ‘Bush’. Sean Bonney’s ‘poem beginning with a line on’ is an accomplished regicidal hex on Blair. Alan Morrison must have tagged ASBOs on whole cabinet-loads of Tories. Tony Harrison wishes to be ‘free to blast and bollock Blairite Britain.’ Though it’s safer to satirise a foreign leader, Jay Ramsay’s ‘Putin’ (in IT) is a chillingly funny portrait of a chronic NPD sufferer. If cartoonists can attack leaders, why can’t a poet? The problem with directly attacking a leader is that the poem dates – is disempowered – when a new leader succeeds, though it remains to signpost history. Dylan’s line ‘Even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked’ is exemplary in its inspiration, memorability, profundity and timelessness.
‘THE NEW POLITICAL POETRY‘ was a section, not an issue, 40 or so pages of a 125 page magazine, which told us nothing about new political poetry, and included one new political poem, Kinsella’s.
A previous Poetry Review from Sampson’s reign, Autumn 2008’s, was entitled ‘Where now for political culture?’ An essay by John Walsh itemised poetry-political cultures of the past to highlight today’s silence. He praises Tony Harrison, David Harsent, and James Fenton, for anti-war poems. But poems about the horrors of war are not necessarily that political, especially if they describe foreign wars in a generalised way. Harrison’s are political because they lay bare with surgical openness what his country does. Walsh says: ‘British poetry needs its own stroppy militiamen, its Geldofs and Monbiots, to reassert the primacy of bold, non-aligned utterance that fired us in the Sixties…’ Important point, but ‘militiamen’ is an injudicious metaphor here.
In the same issue, Blake Morrison, hardly the torch-bearer of the heresiarchy, analyses the past but by the time he gets to the present is concentrating on Heaney and Northern Ireland. Then this: ‘British poetry might not be declamatory but many of the poems I’ve admired over the past twenty-five years … are in (my italics) one way or another, political poems, shedding light on war, colonialism, injustice, and social division.’ Again, the open presumption of the mainstream poet is that there isn’t much political poetry and what little there is is highly restrained. No mention of, say, Douglas Oliver or Linton Kwesi Johnson. He quotes Heaney’s ‘touch the base of our sympathetic nature’ but doesn’t say what is really at stake: political poetry/satirical poetry/engaged poetry/critical poetry, however you conceive it, cannot manifest without offending someone.
And of course, many poets are decent human beings who don’t wish to hurl thunderbolts, or hurt others’ feelings. (Then again, the debates on facebook are murderous…)
‘The Poetry Review Debate’ (as the page headline reads) is not a debate, but an apology for one.
I always blame the ‘court poet’ tradition of English letters, one that is eternally affirmed in English Literature departments the world over. The threat of decapitation still lingers, or the dreaded ‘Tower’. The modern equivalent is ruling yourself out of contention for royal honours, ’empire’ medals. Or worse, your ‘career’ goes out the window. Thomas Kinsella had an embargo placed on his output after he published ‘Butcher’s Dozen’, a poem about Bloody Sunday. Now that Cameron has apologised to Northern Irish Catholics, can someone from English poetry apologise to Thomas Kinsella? It is not the role of political poetry to court controversy, or to shy away from it.
David Gascoyne must be the only lyric genius in the history of English letters who instead of being summoned to the Palace actually took it upon himself to break in, while high on a cocktail of alchemy and amphetamines. One of the greatest political poets imaginable, his authenic leftist poetry was uncelebrated at the end of the 20C, while Auden’s inauthentic leftism was celebrated. Robert Fraser’s biography of Gascoyne – the first – will do for his subject what Alexander Gilchrist did for his.
In the long run the ‘one way or another’ and the ‘less declarative’ political poetry is doomed to extinction. Political poetry needs madness, anarchy, sacrifice, apocalypse. The gold standard for political poetry is the Book of Revelations, an anti-colonial trumpet blast whose ‘Babylon’, a codename for Rome, has become the symbol of all systemic injustice, the ‘Empire’ of Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy. Rastafarians update Babylon to mean London, the capital of the British Empire. But London is also the capital of the English language.
The new is the old.
Poets with progress
Make no peace or pact.
The act of poetry
Is a rebel act.
The answer to the question ‘Where is the New Political Poetry?’ is: not in the Summer 2011 edition of Poetry Review.
Editorless, with George Szirtes and others stepping in as guest editors but later a full appointment to be made, there is always the hope that Poetry Review will swing back to risk and relevance. It’s 2012. We don’t want ‘Diamond Jubilee’ or ‘London Olympics’ editions. And can we finally kill off the New Generation, please, and all blue-rinse appeasement lyricism? A new type of Poetry Review would a find a new type of subscriber.
Image: Nick Victor