Slave Songs and Symphonies
Wednesday, 16 August 2017 15:16

Slave Songs and Symphonies

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison reviews one of the new Culture Matters poetry pamphlets.

This new series of poetry pamphlets under the Culture Matters imprint of Manifesto Press are glossily produced and complemented by specially commissioned illustrations throughout, all of which is to emphasize CM’s mission to spread progressive and accessible literature to a wide class-crossing readership (funding from the Unite union puts a stamp to that). This is a bold and brave cultural mission, especially in such reactionary times, not unlike that of Pelican back in the 1930s.

The superbly eclectic and engaging CM website (one can almost imagine the ghost of Christopher Caudwell personally endorsing it) has already proven an enormous success attracting a significant readership but above all a broad and hugely varied contributor base. 

Slave Songs and Symphonies by Glaswegian poet David Betteridge is a consummate and immediately engaging introduction to this new series of poetry pamphlets, a passionate, intelligent but still highly accessible collection of poems that serves as an accomplished primer of contemporary political poetry. Akin to the very Blakean ethos of Culture Matters, the emphasis here is very much on poems as ‘songs’ and Betteridge’s verse has some key aspects in common with the Blake of Songs of Innocence and Experience, and not simply in its associative title. Like Blake, Betteridge composes cadent polemical poems that are ostensibly accessible while offering figurative depth for those readers looking beneath the surface narratives, allusions and dialectics.

The first poem in the chapbook, ‘So Long’, opens with a quote from Italian Marxist writer and political thinker, Antonio Gramsci, a statement of allegiance starting: ‘I am a partisan, I am alive’. This dialectical narrative poem charts the development of historical human consciousness and to its close launches into a kind of Hegelian thesis asserting – in italics – a profound Marxian conception of ‘the Fall’ as humanity’s lapse into feudalism and capitalism:

namely the class divide that brought such woe
into the world, out of a Bronze Age melting pot.

Elites took power to own and rule,
against the interests of the rest,
whose role it was to labour, die, and rot.
the class divide: it is our Original
(and continuing) Sin, to be redeemed, if ever,
only in a Commonweal.

‘In Brecht’s Bar’ starts with a brilliant quote from the eponymous groundbreaking German dramaturge: ‘Who built the seven gates of Thebes?/ The books are filled with the names of kings./ Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?’ This is a short dialogue poem, a verse vignette set in a pub in which one punter speaks to another about the absence of written working-class history:

‘I overheard you talking.
Seems History’s your thing: mine, too,
though all the dates and names
that interest me
are never put in any books at all.’

‘Fighting Back’ is in similar vein, a charming vignette of an elderly veteran protestor who salutes goodbye to a fellow traveller with a ‘thumbs-up, then clenched fist’ –Betteridge is an often very witty poet. ‘Giving Back Riches’ is juxtaposed with a striking photographic collage picture by collaborative artist Bob Starrett featuring the impressive black actor, singer, Communist, political activist and icon of the Harlem Renaissance, Paul Robeson. Betteridge pays emotive tribute to Robeson:

Carrying a deep wound, his and the world’s,
dreaming a generous dream,
following the rainbow and the dove,
he was a giant, serving the people.

He personifies him as many mighty rivers, and other geographical features:

He was Clyde and Volga,
Mississippi, Ganges, Amazon and Nile.
He was Vesuvius.

Robeson was truly a force of nature in many respects, artistically and politically, and an especially courageous man considering the more racially prejudiced times he lived and worked in. As an outspoken Communist, he was also included on the McCarthy blacklist. Betteridge’s eulogy rings directly: 'His echo lingers, loud/ for those with souls to hear'.

The longest poem in the pamphlet is ‘Showing a Way’ and depicts the Upper Clyde Shipyard Work-in of 1971-2, previously commemorated in the excellent Betteridge-edited A Rose Loupt Oot (Smokestack Books, 2012), and reviewed on The Recusant. The poem begins fittingly with an aphorism from Work-in leader Jimmy Reid: ‘We are witnessing an eruption not of lava but of labour’. The Vesuvius of the previous poem and the lava quoted at the top of the following one gives a volcanic quality to the imageries of this selection.

‘Showing a Way’ begins with a passionate assertion that is all the more striking because of its simplicity of expression:

Once upon a time – here,
in the real world, for this is not a fairy tale –
a bold idea changed If to That.
Imagine, acted on by many,
took on the force of hard material fact.

There’s a consciously naïve quality which arguably makes its point more succinctly and potently than anything more poetically oblique could:

This happened many years ago:
the place, the shipyards of the Upper Clyde.
The wonder is, given the world’s wounds since,
the bold idea has not yet died.

This ‘bold idea’ we might conclude is Socialism or Communism. Betteridge’s most sublime poetic moments stand out strikingly amidst his more accessible and direct phrasing and diction – again we have something of a threading leitmotif in the image of ‘rivers’:

All rivers have their storied past,
in part the same, in part unique.
more than a few have known the pride
of ships well made and safely launched;
and also known, when fortunes ebb,
a shadow-side; but here, at UCS,
a Labour victory was ours,
and Capital, out-classed, endured reversal,
and a loosening of its powers.

From the leitmotif of ‘rivers’ to the volcanic leitmotif, reiterating Jimmy Reid’s quote from the top of the poem:

Big on any scale, a volcano, not of lava
but of Labour, burst into flame.
The action that eight thousand workers took
filled the bright skies of politics.

Betteridge venerates the UCS Work-in as a significant victory in the history of class struggle, something groundbreaking even for the more politically restive and radicalised Seventies:

Briefly, social order’s deep assumptions shook.
That is the core of Clyde’s especial claim.

The forces of Capital marked out the shipyard as a ‘Lame duck’ of declining industry. ‘Never mind the lives invested there,/ the teeming skill, the order book!’ Betteridge rightly protests. Then, more defiantly: ‘Dead duck was what it wished to see,/ little knowing that our bird would fly’. There’s then a note of triumph in the following pithily expressed, part-rhyming stanza:

Unite and fight!
In tandem, and in full,
heeding the maxim’s dual elements,
not from the dole outwith the shipyards’ gates,
but working from within:
there lay the workers’ stratagem,
that helped us win.

[The term ‘outwith’ is Scottish and means ‘outside; beyond’]. For this was the unique strategy of this particular strike, a strike which, ingeniously, involved not a downing of tools and a walking off the premises but oppositely a continuation of production as part of a Work-in, or labour lock-in if you like. Like the striking miners of the mid-Eighties, the UCS working strikers were sustained by donations of money, provisions and, just as importantly, messages of moral support, to help keep their bodies and minds together:

This shipyards’ mail bag,
like a farmer’s sack of seed,
spilled out its daily bulge of contents:
news received of rallies, demonstrations, strikes;
well-wishers’ words, and sometimes flowers;
and cash, from corner shops,
from churches, children, unions,
and the whole wide listening world,
sums both large and widows’ generous mites,
sent in comradeship, to keep
the struggle’s fire alight.

But next Betteridge turns his attention to the state of play today:

The yards were saved: the bold idea,
in act, had proved its worth.
But now, several decades on, what’s left?
In place of gain, a creeping dearth.

It is indeed a bleak prospect:

Not only ships have sunk, or gone for scrap,
but yards as well, and jobs, and skills,
and with them, hope.

Capitalism has long laid waste to much of British society, not just industry but communities, solidarity, the hope of socialism. The Thatcherite Tories put paid to such aspirations of fellowship, community and equality, having learnt many strategic lessons from such rare proletarian triumphs as the UCS Work-in (e.g. such as when the Thatcher Government stocked up on coal prior to bringing in its toxic policy to shut down most of the country’s coal mines, having anticipated the immediate effects of miners striking). Thus Betteridge laments:

For Capital, the battle that it lost
was clarion-call and school;
it learned far more than we.
It learned to hone its tools of shock,
displace, lay off, and rule.

Betteridge continues pessimistically using brutalised language to express the brutalisation of the industrial proletariat:

Ganging up and doing down,
it made too many of us settle, first for slices
of the loaf we made, then beggars’ crusts,
then bugger all; ruthlessly,
it grabbed again its habitual crown.

Betteridge perfectly expresses the despair of the Left at the atomisation of the working classes, the chronic decline in social solidarity, and their political alienation from globalisation, all of which has made ripe pickings for the duplicitous populism of Ukip and the embroilment of Brexit:

For us, a tragedy ensued,
its playing-out still under way;
comrades at loggerheads and each others’ throats;
lost sense of purpose and common cause,
parties pulled apart, offering least, not best, resistance
in a losing war.

Betteridge then reflects on the UCS Work-in: ‘how might we have built on it/ and built afresh; how might we, even now,/ still launch upon our carrying stream of deepest need’. So to a defiant historical materialist rallying-cry, a concrete crescendo of class determination in the face of only apparently triumphant capitalism – bolstered by ecological and geological imagery, tectonics, volcanic etc.:

This world shifts restlessly;
a rising flood of tremors agitates beneath;
fresh rifts in what we thought was solid mass
appear.

Deep energy demands release.
Eruptions can’t be far: the forest’s clear.

Present struggle cries to know
the complex story of its past.
Take it, save it from erasure,
or revision’s grasp!

What happened here in ’71 and ‘2
can be no Terra Nullius of the mind, open
for errors to invade: it’s where,
ablaze and wise, we entered history,
and showed a way whereby a future
might be made.

Perhaps my favourite poem in this chapbook is ‘A Fish Rising’, which employs a beautiful metaphor of the carp for the seemingly slow even glacial emergence of socialism from the muddy depths of the capitalist pond, of socialism’s dormancy, that even at times when it seems to be absent, it is still with us albeit invisibly beneath the surface of vicissitudes, and that it can take a long time for it to slowly float up and break through that historical surface. But socialism is always there as long as there is oppression; it is the ineffaceable shadow of just outrage cast by the planted colossus of capitalism – its anathema and ultimate nemesis.

Betteridge begins with a profound quote from revolutionary figure Rosa Luxemburg: ‘The revolution will raise itself up again…/ it will proclaim: I was, I am, I shall be…’. ‘A Fish Rising’ is perhaps an example of what William Empson defined as ‘covert pastoral’ in his book Some Versions of Pastoral (1935): that is to say poetry which appears on the surface as pastoral or bucolic in terms of imagery but which is actually polemical, even politically subversive, in its underlying messages. Betteridge presents us with natural imagery and metaphor to evoke the sometimes dormant but ever-restless spirit of socialism:

From the bottom of an ancient pool,
said to be bottomless,
up to the film of its meeting with the still air,
hungry, in search of fly or grub,
a fat carp rises.

The use of natural imagery here is reminiscent of Seamus Heaney and, at times, the darker twists of Ted Hughes – the following is a beautifully wrought trope:

With a barbed kiss,
it breaks the surface and the silence
of this summer’s day, and eats;
then, glidingly, it noses
back to the cool of its brown deep,
a world away.

The striking phrase ‘brown deep’ is distinctly Hughesian; the enjambment after ‘deep’, partitioning off the trope ‘A world away’, is particularly powerful in expressing the sharp separation between idealism and reality. Betteridge then casts an eye back through history as he contemplates this deep ancient pond:

Romans in their heyday were the first
to stock this pool; thereafter, monks
hymning their dead
and risen god, tended the fish,
until in turn
their fortunes, like the Romans’,
fell.

There then ensues a beautifully phrased, profound trope which is at once rueful as it is hopeful:

Now, at another epoch’s ruined end,
the world in flames,
I pace the foot-worn path around the pool;
heavy with thought,
I count the failed resurgences
that history has seen, brief flowerings
of the people’s will.
they grew wild, their early promise
of a new-style beauty, unremembered now,
or else despised.

The phrase ‘brief flowerings/ of the people’s will’ is particularly emotive of the struggle of socialism and its' only periodic surfacing. Betteridge again defiantly appropriates lost battles in the cause of socialism as instructive vicissitudes: ‘succeeding Calvaries along the way may serve/ as school and seed of future victory’. The poem’s momentum becomes almost visionary:

Eurydice sang, a women’s choir.
I had heard them at a May Day years before.
Now, at the fish-pool’s side, in my mind’s replay,
they sang again, ballads in praise
of two dead giants of our foundering cause.

Then there’s a flourish of Glaswegian idiolect:

Forward tae Glesga Green we’ll march in guid order…
aye there, man, that’s johnnie noo –
that’s him there, the bonnie fechter.
Lenin’s his fiere, an’ Leibknecht his mate…

Betteridge then depicts two past figureheads of the historic Left, Scots Bolshevik and founder of the Scottish Workers Republican Party, who died at just 44 after his health had been destroyed through forced feeding while imprisoned, John Maclean, here a spectre ‘pale-faced, hoarse-voiced’, and the aforementioned Rosa Luxemburg, a socialist martyr, who died at the hands of German soldiers in the aftermath of the failed Spartacist uprising of 1919 – she’s invoked by Betteridge thus:

The other: passionate, an optimist,
convinced that everyone can contribute a mite,
or more, to all our hope’s refashioning,
until a soldier’s rifle butt abruptly put a stop
to all her eloquence, cracking her proud head
like a coconut.

Maclean and Luxemburg:
their lives’ example burns,
sticking in our consciences,
reproachfully,
like sulphur flames.

Betteridge brings this brilliant poem to its defiant end in an almost incantatory tone which stirs the spirit:

I see a movement in the pool,
a glimpse of mottle, a sun-reflecting curve,
a twist of tail and fin.

One speck of dirt, or gold,
can tip the heaviest-laden balance
from the straight.

(Taking hope, I count some auguries
of hope.)

One fact, discrepant with the dogma
of the orthodox, can breach its errors’ edifice,
admitting light.

One wound, one cry, one song,
one name can travel faster than a Caesar’s hate.

We are – or might become –
a force more powerful than earthquakes,
cyclones, lava-flows, or a river’s wearing-down
of mountains to peneplain.

Slowly rising, the carp begins once more
to stir, to swim.

It’s interesting to see again the leitmotifs of ‘lava’ and ‘rivers’. The restraint of the final trope abruptly arrests the onward rush of the verses leading up to it but tantalises by ending on infinitives, which indicate continuation, action: in this case, socialism is in the process of resurfacing again as a causal force.

‘Pulling the Plug’ is a poem-polemic expressing opposition to the reprehensible and remorseless welfare reforms of the past six years although this is not explicit in the poem itself (the Notes at the back of the pamphlet elucidate this). Betteridge captures well the sense of outrage and moral disgust at the apparent insouciance of ministers who have seemingly with impunity salami-sliced hundreds of thousands of the unemployed, sick and disabled out of existence. Betteridge’s invective pulls no punches in its directness:

The killer nods, pretends to listen,
curves his mouth in a lean grin.
I see a shark, in his element,
sure of his next and every win.
The killer manages a judicious tear.
(‘I empathise; I go to church; I care…’)
I see an obvious reptile here.
The killer laughs.
I see an ape, exulting in his dominance.

Betteridge’s explains in the Note to this poem that this is a ‘composite’ of various ministers, but it’s almost impossible to read this particular stanza without picturing the chief culprit of the benefit cuts and so-called ‘welfare reforms’, the egregious and pathologically arrogant Iain Duncan Smith who is certainly reptilian in manner and is a self-proclaimed Roman Catholic and church-goer.

No doubt IDS is a particular figure of hate in Betteridge’s native Glasgow, since, it was in the deprived Easterhouse – which is, I believe, part of the larger impoverished area of the Gorbals – that the future Work and Pensions Secretary apparently had his ‘Damascene moment’ on first witnessing abject poverty there. IDS apparently shed a tear on that occasion, and also later shed ‘a judicious tear’ when being interviewed by Ian Hislop in a documentary about the history of British welfare provision when talking about a young destitute single mother he’d met.

IDS’s answer to such cases: strip state support from the third child up! Duncan Smith certainly is a reptile in the sense he cries crocodile tears. The poem’s title is a double play: it’s the incensed Glaswegian TV viewer pulling the plug of the TV set after having enough of watching Tory ministers justify the unjustifiable, while also summoning to mind the what the Government has administratively been doing to countless incapacitated and seriously ill claimants over six years.

‘The Tug of It’ remembers the countless past half-forgotten proletarian lives that once gave shape and spirit to various streets, houses, objects and tools of trade. After an aphorism on the sempiternal nature of history by the recently departed John Berger, this partly ekphrastic poem begins with a meditation on static written history, on less-remembered and under-recorded working-class lives and histories, and conjures the ghosts of these proletarian pasts:

Sitting among books, listening inwardly,
we sense each writer importune:
Free me from the limbo of the printed past.
Let me join you; let me hear, through you,
my silenced tongue at last.

There is then what might be termed a class-Dendrochronology:

Looking at the tools we have,
thinking as we work with them,
we meet the many hands before us
that have altered, useably, their make
and fit: a chain of rafts runs back,
and back, and we can feel the tug of it.

On a prosodic note, the use of internal rhyme here is a deft touch, and one is almost reminded at times in Betteridge’s more metrical passages of Martin Bell, Tony Harrison and Andy Croft. Betteridge pays tribute to numberless shadowy working-class lives as he is happily haunted by class-ancestors:

Standing in a field of stooks,
or wandering the streets of any town,
we see at every turn
the trace and monument of many folk.

That latter phrase is particularly striking [‘stooks’ is a term for a clutch of sheaves set upright in a field to dry]. The stanza continues evocatively:

That path across the well-worked rigs –
those whose feet first trod it,
those who came each year to plough
and sow and harvest, and maintain the ditch,
while empires grew, then died…
that house or factory or school or shop –
those who gave to it their given time,
in living there and work…

Betteridge concludes the poem on a note of eternal remembrance: ‘They are all accessible through memory/ to us, and in memory persist’.

‘Essential Gifts’ is a glorious song for socialism primed on a simple but profound aphorism from Scottish mill worker and socialist activist, Mary Brooksbank, which invokes the socialist aspiration of a material heaven on earth: ‘This surely was what you were created for,/ to make this here a hereafter’. The poem is a part-lament for a historically maltreated Scotland:

Generations left this land.
Emptied glens, and mills and mines
grassed-over now, and hard-built hopes
knocked flat by the frequent wrecking ball
bear witness to a long ebb
of clearance, exile, and decline.

Driven by hunger and the loaded gun,
seeing no future here worth dying for,
wave upon living waves, our forebears travelled
far, no continent unmarked by the ill
or good of their setting there;
but this plot of earth to which we cling,
can feast us all, and others too, who join us now,
if only tended with a lover’s care.

It’s an almost hymn-like paean to proletarian Scotland but one which, in Betteridge’s signature tone, rises to a defiantly optimistic close:

There are riches heaped around,
ready for our harvesting, essential gifts
of sea and air and common ground.
We, by hand and brain, can labour them,
creating goods, enough to share.

Our class has made a start.
Things change; we make them change,
as we, like fortune, like the seasons,
like the seas’ tides, turn; and, having turned,
we see in full the great worth
of our now and future land.

The collection closes on ‘Only in a Commonweal’. The poem is preceded by another aphorism of Rosa Luxemburg’s: ‘Where the chains of Capitalism are forged,/ there they must be broken…’. This poem is again a kind of proletarian hymn that reminds how it is the common citizens of capitalist societies that keep it functioning and producing and manufacturing, the same ‘proles’ or ‘plebs’ who are, of course, called up to be sacrificed for said societies in times of conflict. This is the only poem –perhaps because it is the closing one– which is centre-justified:

We are the nothings you walk past.
Your lowest and least,
we live in the margins of your power.
Expendable, we fight your many wars.
Your triumphs we pay for, but have none.

This is a fiercely defiant anthem for the unsung working - or ‘maintenance’- class of capitalist society, its operators, producers, carriers, pallbearers:

Unheeded and unnamed,
we make your schemes come true.
Every sweated brick and girder, every milligram and tonne
of every building you command is ours.
Every furrow ploughed and filled with seed is ours.
Your wealth-producing factories, your cities – ours!

Day in, day out, we do your work and will.
We pipe the water that you need
from reservoir to tap; we stitch the clothes
that cover up your nakedness,
we bake the bread (and cake) you eat.

Then we come to the crescendo of the closing poem and of this deeply affecting and accomplished collection as a whole with the invocation of its collective title:

We are your numerous and essential kin.
Suffering most, we learn most.
Our slave-songs make symphonies;
our longings, creeds.

And finally, to earth with a thud in a phrase which reverberates like a spade hitting stone:

We dig your graves.

David Betteridge’s Slave Songs and Symphonies deserves and demands re-reading and the directness and accessibility of its poetic language and political message combined with the musical song-like tone of the poems themselves makes it more mnemonic in quality than most poetry collections. Glossily produced, and brilliantly illustrated by Bob Starrett, it is almost a secular hymn-book for the proletariat and in that sense is authentically Blakean and an exemplary introduction to the poetic mission of Culture Matters.

 This heartwarming and highly accomplished chapbook is heartily recommended to all classes, strata, and, particularly, culture-thirsty autodidacts.

 

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso
Wednesday, 16 August 2017 15:16

Communism by way of the poem

Published in Poetry

Alain Badiou writes about the links between poetry and communism, with particular reference to the poetry of the Spanish Civil War.


In the last century, some truly great poets, in almost all languages on earth, have been communists. In an explicit or formal way, for example, the following poets were committed to communism: in Turkey, Nâzim Hikmet; in Chile, Pablo Neruda; in Spain, Rafael Alberti; in Italy, Eduardo Sanguinetti; in Greece, Yannis Ritsos; in China, Ai Qing; in Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish; in Peru, César Vallejo; and in Germany, the shining example is above all Bertolt Brecht. But we could cite a very large number of other names in other languages, throughout the world.

Can we understand this link between poetic commitment and communist commitment as a simple illusion? An error, or an errancy? An ignorance of the ferocity of states ruled by communist parties? I do not believe so. I wish to argue, on the contrary, that there exists an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand ‘communism’ closely in its primary sense: the concern for what is common to all. A tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common; the desire that what ought to be common and accessible to all should not be appropriated by the servants of Capital. The poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night – that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world.

Poets are communist for a primary reason, which is absolutely essential: their domain is language, most often their native tongue. Now, language is what is given to all from birth as an absolutely common good. Poets are those who try to make a language say what it seems incapable of saying. Poets are those who seek to create in language new names to name that which, before the poem, has no name. And it is essential for poetry that these inventions, these creations, which are internal to language, have the same destiny as the mother tongue itself: for them to be given to all without exception. The poem is a gift of the poet to language. But this gift, like language itself, is destined to the common – that is, to this anonymous point where what matters is not one person in particular but all, in the singular.

Thus, the great poets of the twentieth century recognized in the grandiose revolutionary project of communism something that was familiar to them – namely that, as the poem gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.

This is why the poets have seen in communism above all a new figure of the destiny of the people. And ‘people’, here, means first and foremost the poor people, the workers, the abandoned women, the landless peasants. Why? Because it is first and foremost to those who have nothing that everything must be given. It is to the mute, to the stutterer, to the stranger, that the poem must be offered, and not to the chatterbox, to the grammarian, or to the nationalist. It is to the proletarian – whom Marx defined as those who have nothing except their own body capable of work – that we must give the entire earth, as well as all the books, and all the music, and all the paintings, and all the sciences. What is more, it is to them, to the proletarians in all their forms, that the poem of communism must be offered.

What is striking is that this should lead all those poets to rediscover a very old poetic form: the epic. The communists’ poem is first the epic of the heroism of the proletarians. The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet thus distinguishes lyric poems, dedicated to love, from epic poems, dedicated to the action of the popular masses. But even a poet as wise and as hermetic as César Vallejo does not hesitate to write a poem with the title, ‘Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic’. Such a title evidently belongs to the order of the commemoration of war, to epic commitment.

These communist poets rediscover what in France Victor Hugo had already discovered: the duty of the poet is to look in language for the new resources of an epic that would no longer be that of the aristocracy of knights but the epic of the people in the process of creating another world. The fundamental link organized into song by the poet is the one that the new politics is capable of founding between, on the one hand, the misery and extreme hardship of life, the horror of oppression, everything that calls for our pity, and, on the other hand, the levying, the combat, the collective thought, the new world – and, thus, everything that calls for our admiration.

It is of this dialectic of compassion and admiration, of this violently poetic opposition between debasement and levying, of this reversal of resignation into heroism, that the communist poets seek the living metaphor, the nonrealist representation, the symbolic power. They search for the words to express the moment in which the eternal patience of the oppressed of all times changes into a collective force which is indivisibly that of raised bodies and shared thoughts.

The Spanish Civil War and Poetry

That is why one moment – a singular historic moment – has been sung by all the communist poets who wrote between the 1920s and 1940s: the moment of the civil war in Spain, which as you know ran from 1936 to 1939.

Let us observe that the Spanish civil war is certainly the historic event that has most intensely mobilized all the artists and intellectuals of the world. On one hand, the personal commitment of writers from all ideological tendencies on the side of the republicans, including therefore the communists, is remarkable: whether we are dealing with organized communists, social democrats, mere liberals, or even fervent Catholics, such as the French writer Georges Bernanos, the list is extraordinary if we gather all those who publicly spoke out, who went to Spain in the midst of the war, or even entered into combat on the side of the republican forces. On the other hand, the number of masterpieces produced on this occasion is no less astonishing. I have already noted as much for poetry. But let us also think of the splendid painting by Pablo Picasso that is titled Guernica; let us think of two of the greatest novels in their genre: Man’s Hope by André Malraux and For Whom the Bell Tolls by the American Ernest Hemingway. The frightening and bloody civil war in Spain has illuminated the art of the world for several years.

I see at least four reasons for this massive and international commitment of intellectuals on the occasion of the war in Spain.

First, in the 1930s the world found itself in a vast ideological and political crisis. Public opinion sensed more and more that this crisis could not have a peaceful ending, no legal or consensual solution. The horizon was a fearsome one of internal and external warfare. Among intellectuals, the tendency was to choose between two absolutely contrary orientations: the fascist and the communist orientations. During the war in Spain, this conflict took the form of civil war pure and simple. Spain had become the violent emblem of the central ideological conflict of the time. This is what we might call the symbolic and therefore universal value of this war.

Second, during the Spanish war, the occasion arose for artists and intellectuals all over the world not only to show their support for the popular camp, but also to participate directly in combat. Thus what had been an opinion changed into action; what had been a form of solidarity became a form of fraternity.

Third, the war in Spain took on a fierceness that hit people over the head. Misery and destruction were present everywhere. The systematic massacre of prisoners, the indiscriminate bombing of villages, the relentlessness of both camps: all this gave people an idea of what could be and what in fact was to be the worldwide conflict to which the war in Spain was the prologue.

Fourth, the Spanish war was the strongest moment, perhaps unique in the history of the world, of the realization of the great Marxist project: that of a truly internationalist revolutionary politics. We should remember what the intervention of the International Brigades meant: they showed that the vast international mobilization of minds was also, and before anything, an international mobilization of peoples. I am thinking of the example of France: thousands of workers, often communists, had come as volunteers to do battle in Spain. But there were also Americans, Germans, Italians, Russians, people from all countries. This exemplary international dedication, this vital internationalist subjectivity, is perhaps the most striking accomplishment of what Marx had thought, which can be summarized in two phrases: negatively, the proletarians have no fatherland, their political homeland is the whole world of living men and women; positively, international organization is what allows for the confrontation and in the end the real victory over the enemy of all, the capitalist camp, including in its extreme form, which is fascism.

Thus, the communist poets had found major subjective reasons in the Spanish war for renewing epic poetry in the direction of a popular epic – one that was both that of the suffering of peoples and that of their internationalist heroism, organized and combative.

Already the titles of the poems or collections of poems are significant. They indicate almost always a kind of sensible reaction of the poet, a kind of shared suffering with the horrible fate and hardship reserved for the Spanish people. Thus, Pablo Neruda’s collection bears the title Spain in Our Hearts. This goes to show that the first commitment of the poet is an affective, subjective, immediate solidarity with the Spanish people at war. Similarly, the very beautiful title of César Vallejo’s collection is Spain, Take This Cup from Me. This title indicates that, for the poet, the sense of shared suffering becomes its own poetic ordeal, which is almost impossible to bear.

However, both poets will develop this first personal and affective impulse almost in the opposite direction – that of a creative use of suffering itself, that of an unknown liberty. This unknown liberty is precisely that of the reversal of misery into heroism, the reversal of a particular anxiety-ridden situation into a universal promise of emancipation. Here is how César Vallejo puts it, with his mysterious metaphors, in Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic:

Proletarian who dies of the universe, in what frantic harmony
your grandeur will end, your extreme poverty, your impelling whirlpool,
your methodical violence, your theoretical & practical chaos, your Dantesque
wish, so very Spanish, to love, even treacherously, your enemy!

Liberator wrapped in shackles,
without whose labour extension would still be without handles ,
the nails would wander headless,
the day, ancient, slow, reddish,
our beloved helmets, unburied!
peasant fallen with your green foliage for man,
with the social inflection of your little finger,
with your ox that stays, with your physics,
also with your word tied to a stick
& your rented sky
& with the clay inserted in your tiredness
& with that in your fingernail, walking!
Agricultural
builders, civilian & military,
of the active, ant-swarming eternity: it was written
that you will create the light, half-closing
your eyes in death;
that, at the cruel fall of your mouths,
abundance will come on seven platters, everything
in the world will be of sudden gold
& the gold,
fabulous beggars for your own secretion of blood,
& the gold itself will then be made of gold!

You see how death itself – the death in combat of the volunteers of the Spanish people – becomes a construction; better yet, a kind of nonreligious eternity, an earthly eternity. The communist poet can say this: ‘Agricultural builders, civilian & military, of the active, ant-swarming eternity’. This eternity is that of the real truth, the real life, wrested away from the cruel powers that be. It changes everything into the gold of true life. Even the accursed gold of the rich and the oppressors will simply become once more what it is: ‘the gold itself will then be made of gold’.

We might say that, in the ordeal of the Spanish war, communist poetry sings of the world that has returned to what it really is – the world-truth, which can be born forever, when hardship and death change into paradoxical heroism. This is what César Vallejo will say later on by invoking the ‘victim in a column of victors’, and when he exclaims that ‘in Spain, in Madrid, the command is to kill, volunteers who fight for life!’

Pablo Neruda, as I have mentioned, likewise starts out from pain, misery and compassion. Thus, in the great epic poem titled ‘Arrival in Madrid of the International Brigade’, he begins by saying that ‘Spanish death, more acrid and sharper than other deaths, filled fields up to then honoured by wheat.’ But the poet is most sensitive to the internationalism of the arrival in Spain from all over the world of those whom he directly calls ‘comrades’. Let us listen to the poem of this arrival:

Comrades,
then
I saw you,
and my eyes are even now filled with pride
because through the misty morning I saw you reach
the pure brow of Castile
silent and firm
like bells before dawn,
filled with solemnity and blue-eyed, come from far,
far away,
come from your corners, from your lost fatherlands,
from your dreams,
covered with burning gentleness and guns
to defend the Spanish city in which besieged liberty
could fall and die bitten by the beasts.

Brothers,
from now on
let your pureness and your strength, your solemn story
be known by children and by men, by women and by old men,
let it reach all men without hope, let it go down to the mines
corroded by sulphuric air
let it mount the inhuman stairways of the slave,
let all the stars, let all the flowers of Castile
and of the world
write your name and your bitter struggle
and your victory strong and earthen as a red oak.
Because you have revived with your sacrifice
lost faith, absent heart, trust in the earth,
and through your abundance, through your nobility, through
your dead,
as if through a valley of harsh bloody rocks,
flows an immense river with doves of steel and of hope.

What we see this time is first the evidence of fraternity. The word ‘comrades’ is followed later on by the word ‘brothers’. This fraternity puts forward not so much the changing of the real world as the changing of subjectivity. Certainly, at first, all these international communist militants have come ‘from far’, ‘from your corners’, ‘from your lost fatherlands’. But above all they have come from their ‘dreams covered with burning gentleness and guns’. You will note the typical proximity of gentleness and violence. This will be repeated with the image of a ‘dove of steel’: combat is the building not of naked violence, not of power, but of a subjectivity capable of confronting the long run because it has confidence in itself.

The workers and intellectuals of the international brigades, mixed together, have given new birth to ‘lost faith, absent heart, trust in the earth’. Because we are at war, the dove of peace must be a dove of steel, but it is also and above all, says the poem, a dove of hope. In the end, the epic of war that Neruda celebrates, what he calls ‘your victory strong and earthen as a red oak’, is above all the creation of a new confidence or trust. The point is to escape from nihilistic resignation. And this constructive value of communist confidence, I believe, is also needed today.

The French poet Paul Eluard picks up on two of the motifs that we have seen so far, and mixes them together. On one hand, as César Vallejo says, the international volunteers of the Spanish war represent a new humanity, simply because they are true human beings, and not the false humanity of the capitalist world, competitive and obsessed with money and commodities. On the other hand, as Pablo Neruda says, these volunteers transform the surrounding nihilism into a new confidence. A stanza of the poem ‘The Victory of Guernica’ says this with precision:

True men for whom despair
Feeds the devouring fire of hope
Let us open together the last bud of the future.

However, in the Spanish war Eluard is sensitive to another factor with universal value. For him, as for Rousseau, humanity is fundamentally good natured, with a good nature that is being destroyed by oppression through competition, forced labour, money. This fundamental goodness of the world resides in the people, in their obstinate life, in the courage to live that is theirs. The poem begins as follows:

Fair world of hovel
Of the mine and fields.

Eluard thinks that women and children especially incarnate this universal good nature, this subjective treasure that finally is what men are trying to defend in the war in Spain:

VIII
Women and children have the same riches
Of green leaves of spring and pure milk
And endurance
In their pure eyes.

IX
Women and children have the same riches
In their eyes
Men defend them as they can.
X
Women and children have the same red roses
In their eyes
They show each their blood.
XI
The fear and the courage to live and to die
Death so difficult and so easy.

The Spanish war, for Eluard, reveals what simple riches are at the disposal of human life. This is why extreme oppression and war are also the revelation of the fact that men must guard the riches of life. And to do so you must keep the trust, even when the enemy is crushing you, imposing on you the easiness of death. We clearly sense that this trust is communism itself. This is why the poem is titled ‘The Victory of Guernica’. The destruction of this town by German bombers, the 2,000 dead of this first savage experience that announces the world war: all this will also be a victory, if people continue to be confident that the riches of simple life are indestructible. This is why the poem concludes as follows:

Outcasts the death the ground the hideous sight
Of our enemies have the dull
Colour of our night
Despite them we shall overcome.

Poetic communism

This is what we can call poetic communism: to sing the certainty that humanity is right to create a world in which the treasure of simple life will be preserved peacefully, and that, because it has reason on its side, humanity will impose this reason, and its reason will overcome its enemies. This link between popular life, political reason and confidence in victory: that is what Eluard seeks to confer, in language, upon the suffering and heroism of the Spanish war.

Nâzim Hikmet, in the truly beautiful poem titled ‘It Is Snowing in the Night’, will in turn traverse all these themes of communist poetics, starting out from a subjective identification. He imagines a sentry from the popular camp at the gates of Madrid. This sentinel, this lonely man – just as the poet is always alone in the work of language – carries inside him, fragile and threatened, everything the poet desires, everything that according to him gives meaning to existence. Thus, a lonely man at the gates of Madrid is in charge of the dreams of all of humanity:

It is snowing in the night,
You are at the door of Madrid.
In front of you an army
Killing the most beautiful things we own,
Hope, yearning, freedom and children,
The City …

You see how all the Spanish themes of communist poetics return: the volunteer of the Spanish war is the guardian of universal revolutionary hope. He finds himself at night, in the snow, trying to prohibit the killing of hope.

Nâzim Hikmet’s singular achievement no doubt consists in finding the profound universality of nostalgic yearning in this war. Communist poetics cannot be reduced to a vigorous and solid certainty of victory. It is also what we might call the nostalgia of the future. The hymn to the sentry of Madrid is related to this truly peculiar sentiment: the nostalgia for a grandeur and a beauty that nevertheless have not yet been created. Communism here works in the future anterior: we experience a kind of poetic regret for what we imagine the world will have been when communism has come. Therein lies the force of the conclusion of Hikmet’s poem:

I know,
everything great and beautiful there is,
everything great and beautiful man has still to create
that is, everything my nostalgic soul hopes for
smiles in the eyes
of the sentry at the door of Madrid.
And tomorrow, like yesterday, like tonight
I can do nothing else but love him.

You can hear that strange mixture of the present, of the past and future that the poem crystallizes in the imagined character of the solitary sentry, confronted with the fascist army, in the night and snow of Madrid. There is already nostalgia for what true humanity, the combatant people of Madrid, is capable of creating in terms of beauty and grandeur. If the people are capable of creating this, then humanity will certainly create it. And, then, we can have the nostalgia for that which the world would be if this possible creation had already taken place. Thus, communist poetry is not only epic poetry of combat, historic poetry of the future, affirmative poetry of confidence. It is also lyric poetry of what communism, as the figure of humanity reconciled with its own grandeur, will have been after victory, which for the poet is already regret and melancholy as well as ‘nostalgic hope’ of his soul, past as well as future, nostalgia as well as hope.

With regard to the Spanish civil war properly speaking, Bertolt Brecht also committed himself by writing a didactic play, Señora Carrar’s Rifles, which is devoted to the interior debate over the need to participate in the right battle, whatever the excellent reasons may be to stay at a safe remove.

But perhaps the most important aspect is the following: as the independent communist that he has always been, Brecht is the contemporary of very serious and bloody defeats of the communist cause. He has been directly present and active in the moment of the defeat of German communism in the face of the Nazis. And of course he has also been the contemporary of the terrible defeat of Spanish communism in the face of Franco’s military fascism. But one of the tasks that Brecht has always assigned to himself as a poet is to give poetic support to confidence, to political confidence, even in the worst of all conditions, when the defeat is at its most terrifying. Here we rediscover the motif of confidence, as that which the poem must stir up based on the reversal of compassion into admiration, and of resignation into heroism.

To this subjective task Brecht devoted some of his most beautiful poems, in which the almost abstract focus of the topic aims to produce an enthusiasm of sorts. I am thinking of the end of the poem ‘InPraise of Dialectics’, in which we again find the temporal metamorphoses that I have already talked about – the future that becomes the past, the present that is reduced to the power of the future – all of which makes a poem out of the way in which political subjectivity supports a highly complex connection to historical becoming. Brecht, for his part, in Lob der Dialektik, poeticizes the refusal of powerlessness in the name of the future’s presence in the present itself:

Who dares say: never?
On who does it depend if oppression remains? On us.
On who does it depend if its thrall is broken? Also on us.
Whoever has been beaten down must rise up!
Whoever is lost must fight back!
Whoever has recognized his condition – how can anyone stop him?
Because the vanquished of today are tomorrow’s victors
And never will become: already today!

Must we, too, not desire that ‘never’ become ‘already today’? They pretend to chain us to the financial necessities of Capital. They pretend that we ought to obey today so that tomorrow may exist. They pretend that the communist Idea is dead forever, after the disaster of Stalinism. But must we not in turn ‘recognize [our] condition’? Why do we accept a world in which one percent of the global population possesses 47 per cent of the world’s wealth, and in which 10 per cent possesses 86 per cent of the world’s wealth? Must we accept that the world is organized by such terrible inequalities? Must we think that nothing will ever change this? Must we think that the world will forever be organized by private property and the ferocity of monetary competition?

Poetry always says what is essential. Communist poetry from the 1930s and 1940s recalls for us that the essential aspect of communism, or of the communist Idea, is not and never has been the ferocity of a state, the bureaucracy of a party, or the stupidity of blind obedience. These poems tell us that the communist Idea is the compassion for the simple life of the people afflicted by inequality and injustice – that it is the broad vision of a raising up, both in thought and in practice, which is opposed to resignation and changes it into a patient heroism. It tells us that this patient heroism is aimed at the collective construction of a new world, with the means of a new thinking about what politics might be. And it recalls for us, with the riches of its images and metaphors, with the rhythm and musicality of its words, that communism in its essence is the political projection of the riches of the life of all.

Brecht saw all this very clearly, too. He is opposed to the tragic and monumental vision of communism. Yes, there is an epic poetry of communism, but it is the patient epic, which is heroic for its very patience, of all those who gather and organize themselves to heal the world of its deadly diseases that are injustice and inequality; and to do so requires going to the root of things: limit private property, end the violent separation of the power of the state, overcome the division of labour. This, Brecht tells us, is not an apocalyptic vision. On the contrary, it is what is normal and sensible, reflecting the average desire of all. This is why the communist poem recalls for us that sickness and violence are on the side of the capitalist and imperialist world as we know it, and not on the side of the calm, normal and average grandeur of the communist Idea. This is what Brecht is going to tell us in a poem that carries the absolutely surprising title, ‘Communism is the Middle Term’:

To call for the overthrow of the existing order
May seem a terrible thing
But what exists is no order.
To seek refuge in violence
May seem evil.
But what is constantly at work is violence
And there is nothing special about it.
Communism is not the extreme outlier
That only in a small part can be realized,
and until it is not completely realized,
The situation is unbearable
Even for someone who is insensitive.
Communism is really the most minimal demand
What is nearest, reasonable, the middle term.
Whoever is opposed to it is not someone who thinks otherwise
It is someone who does not think or who thinks only about himself
It is an enemy of the human species who,
Terrible
Evil
Insensitive
And, in particular,
Wanting the most extreme, realized even in the tiniest part,
Plunges all humankind into destruction.

Thus, communist poetry presents us with a peculiar epic: the epic of the minimal demand, the epic of what is never extreme nor monstrous. Communist poetry, with its resource of gentleness combined with that of enthusiasm, tells us: rise up with the will to think and act so that the world may be offered to all as the world that belongs to all, just as the poem in language offers to all the common world that is always contained therein, even if in secret. There have been and continue to be all kinds of discussions about the communist hypothesis: in philosophy, sociology, economics, history, political science. But I have wanted to tell you that there exists a proof of communism by way of the poem.

Translated by Bruno Bosteels. This essay is from The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose, by Alain Badiou, edited and translated by Bruno Bosteels with an introduction by Emily Apter and Bruno Bosteels (London-New York: Verso, 2014). Thanks to Alain Badiou and Verso Books for permission to republish this essay.