Poetry

Poetry

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care to act,
it starts when you do it again after they said no,
it starts when you say we and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.

Marge Piercy

After the terrible events earlier
Sunday, 26 March 2017 20:35

After the terrible events earlier

Written by
in Poetry

After the terrible events earlier

by Kevin Higgins

Days like this, our very way of life
(and death) under attack we realise
we are in this together: your pet assassin, Fang,
and the mouse whose corpse
she dumped on the doorstep this morning;

the sunlit girl playing hopscotch
in the school playground, and the man
across the road watching her intently
and sweating small waterfalls into
his vastly experienced cheap grey overcoat;

the widow in the dress she’ll wear
in her own coffin and the funeral director
his head tilted to indicate
how sad he is to be taking the last of her money;

the aid agency official on an all-expenses
paid trip to Phnom Penh
and the escort struggling for her breath
under his shuddering bulk;

the senile old dear putting out her budgie, Harry,
for the night and the burglar who’s coming
to cave her skull in with a hatchet;

the supermarket majority shareholder
looking out his hotel window
at the moon over Lake Geneva
and the checkout assistant with holes in both her shoes
whose soul he quietly owns.

Though rest assured
tomorrow, or the day after,
normal will be back to its British best
every paw for its grabbing,
infected self.

Until the next outbreak
of “terrible”, “sick”, “depraved”,
when we’ll be temporarily
in this (whatever this is)
together again.

Storming the Winter Palace
Sunday, 26 March 2017 19:16

Black night, white snow: Alexander Blok's The Twelve

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in Poetry

John Ellison discusses Alexander Blok's great poem The Twelve, and its links to the Russian Revolution.

I came fresh, utterly fresh, to the most famous poem by Alexander Blok - The Twelve - written in January 1918, and the freshest of poetic responses to the November Bolshevik revolution. Before reading it, I knew Blok’s name, but nothing of his work. The Twelve is so striking as to be impossible to drive out of memory.

In Russian, it runs to a little over a thousand words and is not ‘revolutionary’ in message in the wildest sense of that word. It carries no imprint of a sudden or superficial craze for radical change, but reflects Blok’s open-eyed rapport with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and their commitment to a socialist future.

He was born in 1880 in St. Petersburg and died, aged only 40, in the same city in 1921, after a lengthy illness. The Twelve, and a shorter poem in a conventional form - The Scythians - which was written immediately afterwards, are regarded as the last of his significant creative work. He grew up mainly in the households of his mother and of her parents. He was a child of the upper class academic intelligentsia, which did not exclude the ownership of country estates, or involvement with the Orthodox Christian Church. He inherited, besides privileged conditions of living, his mother’s tendency to imbue events with mystical significance and developed early on a heightened sensitivity to the world about him. Though he is often described as of the Russian ‘symbolist’ school, he should not, to judge by The Twelve, be regarded as confined to a particular poetic movement.

My picture of Blok as a boy, a man and a poet is extracted in large part from James Forsyth’s Listening to the Wind (1977). This is an engaging study which wears its scholarship lightly and reveals much.

One English translation of The Twelve with its own definite character is that by prolific socialist author Jack Lindsay. Introduced by Lindsay, it was published in a slim 1982 Journeyman Press edition. A special feature was its accompaniment, reproduced from the original Russian publication, by the remarkable illustrative line drawings of Yuri Annenkov, which accompany this article. Another popular translation, by English poet Jon Stallworthy and collaborator Peter France, can be found in 20th Century Russian Poetry, edited by a later generation Soviet poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and published in 1993. These translators had previously, in 1970, published their version in The Twelve and other Poems. A third important translation is by Alex Miller. I located this in Soviet Russian Literature 1917-1977, compiled by Yuri Andreyev (1980), but Miller’s translation can also be found in a separate Selected Poems by Blok. One more distinguished English version (more recent – 2010) is that by American academic Maria Carlson.

JE

The Twelve sensationalises the revolutionary moment as much as celebrates it. A street patrol of twelve Red Guards marches in darkness, snow and wind in Petrograd. Their number is also the number, and not by coincidence (as is confirmed in the poem’s final lines), of the disciples of the founder of Christianity. These soldiers on street duty are no role models for rank and file revolutionaries. They are doing their duty according to their own standards, and their standards are not high. They look like jailbirds. During the patrol, one of them, helped by at least one accomplice amongst the others, carries out a murder. His former girl-friend, Katya, a prostitute, passing by at speed in a horse-drawn cab with her current lover Vanka, takes a bullet apparently aimed at Vanka. The patrol carries on marching.

At another moment during the patrol, rifle fire is directed at a building on the basis of suspicion only that enemies might be present there.

The Twelve, in my view, could be thought of as a scene in a play or film as much as a poem. It is in twelve parts or ‘cantos’, each distinguishable in style and flavour from the next. Its opening – borrowing Lindsay’s translation here - is incontestably atmospheric, dramatic, intense.

Black night,
White snow.
Wind O wind!
It knocks you down as you go.
Wind O wind –
Through God’s world blowing.

‘God’, and indeed ‘Christ’, and ‘holy Russia’, it should be said, are very much part of the poem, highlighting the obvious fact that the revolution just carried out has not detached the minds of Russian people (including Blok) from the world in which they had been previously living. At the end of the poem Christ – or a vision of Christ – leads the patrol. But this is Christ the founder of Christianity, not the Christ of ‘holy Russia’; it is Christ of the new world, not Christ of the old. Or is he better described as Christ of the old world, but resurrected as a torch-bearer of revolution? Is there here an implied unity of Christianity and communism? And is it so certain that the murderer, who is in a rage against both Katya and her lover, actually intended to kill him but not her? An intriguing feature of Blok’s work is its ability to make room for different interpretations, for mystery.

Another feature is his view of the natural world as a producer of an eternal music of its own. There is nothing cut-and-dried about Blok’s verse or about Blok himself.

Early on in The Twelve, only the title suggests that twelve people might be somewhere about. But the historical moment in which the action takes place is quickly captured through the sighting of a banner strung between buildings. This declares: ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly’. Viewed, as the patrol moves forward, are an old woman believing the political banner would be better used for children’s clothing and shoes, a bourgeois with nose in his collar (standing, symbolically, at a cross-roads, his cross-roads, Russia’s cross-roads), a mutinous intellectual and an unhappy priest. Then a second mention of the Constituent Assembly is immediately succeeded by interchanges between an ‘Assembly’ of female prostitutes debating and fixing customer prices.

Slowly the Bolshevik militia identity of The Twelve emerges from the darkness and the snowstorm. It is announced: ‘Twelve men are walking’. And they have rifles. And one of them is playing over in his head an angry argument with his rival, Vanka, for the transferred affections of Katya. Then soon after, an order is barked out: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ (Stallworthy), ‘Keep in step with the revolution’ (Miller), or ‘Hold to the revolutionary pace’ (Carlson). Before long ‘the twelve’ are identified as Red Guards.

JE Jury Annenkov illustration to aleksander blok s poem the twelve 1918 1

The poem – or verse-play – is alive with contrasts. At one moment the group is, metaphorically, firing a bullet at holy Russia. At another there is a call from the marchers to God to bless them as Red Guard revolutionaries. Suddenly the cab appears, carrying Vanka and Katya, canoodling, and from the rejected and jealous Red Guard – now given the name of Petrukha – come memories of Katya and of knifing another envied rival in the past. Soon after, when the same cab with the same passengers comes past again, Petrukha apparently fires at his army officer rival Vanka but kills Katya instead. The other eleven, whether directly complicit in, or untroubled by, the crime, keep marching with Petrukha. And the shout to the Twelve is renewed: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ This garish sequence of events comes across as strange, startling, surreal, yet powerfully credible.

During the exposition a hungry and flea-bitten dog is picked out, tail between legs, as a symbol for the old world. The image is repeated in a later verse, after the presence of the bourgeois at a cross-roads has again been registered. Alex Miller’s rich translation of this verse reads:

The bourgeois stands there. As if hungry,
Just stands there like a question mark;
The old world, like a starving mongrel,
Cowers at his feet, too cold to bark.

I should come clean about my limited knowledge of the Russian language, having only a smallish stock of vocabulary in my head, but a lot more in a large Russian-English dictionary to extend it. Furthermore, James B. Woodward’s 1968 edition of Blok’s Selected Poems - in Russian - contains detailed notes in English as to the meaning of some colloquial, dialect and archaic Russian expressions employed. My understanding of Russian grammar is undeveloped. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the language has encouraged me to comment, reliably or not, on the English translations I have studied.

Jack Lindsay’s translation of The Twelve seems to me attractive and ingenious, but, while I marvel at the production of so many neat rhymes, at moments there is for my taste too much jingle and bounce. Meaning can be sacrificed or something invented to obtain a rhyme. This subtracts from the darkly volatile spirit of the original. An example is Lindsay’s translation of six words towards the close of the second section, which in the original occupy three lines, each ending with the same vowel sound, summarizing the essence of ‘Holy Russia’:

Rough-and-tumble dump,
Wood huts in a clump,
And a big fat rump.

Here Lindsay doubles the number of words in the Russian original (which, in an end-note, is translated literally by Woodward as ‘sturdy Russia with its peasant huts and broad bottom’) and produces a sing-song effect. Stallworthy’s version, on the other hand, has more thrust and economy:

Mother
Russia
With her big, fat arse!

Miller, too, certainly cuts to the chase:

Solid old
Solid old
Fat-arsed Russia!

My personal preference is for Carlson’s version:

…ancient, sturdy,
wood-hutted,
Fat-assed Russia!

Blok’s original, here and elsewhere, comes over as on fire with creative energy. It relies more on echo and assonance – on a succession of sounds in a musical relationship with each other - than on smart rhymes. Forsyth describes The Twelve as ‘a patchwork cantata of…popular poetry and song’, sources which Blok had long been practised in mining and deploying.

Miller’s translation appears to me to follow Blok’s own style with imagination and varied vocabulary which includes English slang. That of Stallworthy and France stands equally free, independent and impressive. (Both, incidentally, anglicize the names of the actors, while Lindsay and Carlson do not.) Carlson’s version may be, overall, more literal than the others, but in my view has depth too.

Take another example of translation variations from the fifth section. When Katya is first seen with her lover, Miller translates a four-line verse as follows:

Katie, have you clean forgotten
Him that hadn’t time to bolt
From my knife? Or does your rotten
Memory need a little jolt?

Stallworthy’s translation is comparable, but the message is more savagely dispatched:

Do you remember that officer –
The knife put to an end to him…
Do you remember that, you whore,
Or does your memory dim?

Thus Stallworthy, keeping the utterance crisp, does not trouble to address Katya by name, as the original does, and translates robustly as ‘you whore’ a word for ‘cholera’, which according to Woodward signifies ‘you curse’.

Lindsay’s translation here is liberal too, but perhaps less incisive than the others:

That captain of yours, have you forgotten?
When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon.
I knifed him, yes, he’s dead and rotten.
Don’t tell me you forgot so soon.

Lindsay’s second line – ‘When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon’, has no foundation in the original. It was incorporated, presumably, to add scenery and to ensure a rhyme with ‘soon’. More seriously, his translation in some places in my view departs too much from the raw yet concentrated quality of the original by rendering some utterances too tidily simplistic. But tastes differ.

In the sixth section comes Katya’s brutal death, a death for which, a moment later, she is blamed by killer Petrukha. His ethical standards plunge low indeed before he softens:

Miller: Well, Katie, happy? Not a word…
Then lie there on the snow, you turd!...

Stallworthy: Katie, are you satisfied? Lost your tongue?
Lie in the snowdrift then, like dung!

Lindsay: Happy now, Katya? I’d like to know.
Sprawl there, carrion, in the snow.

Carlson: Glad now, Kat’ka? ‘What not a peep…
Then lie there, carrion, on the snow!...

All four versions seem strong to me, and even reach beyond Blok’s actual words, as the original contains no word denoting ‘turd’, ‘dung’ or ‘carrion’, reminding us that mood, as well as actual words, must be reflected when rendering a poem from one language into another.

A feature of the Russian language is its inherent greater succinctness than is English. Because it has no ‘a’ or ‘the’, it relies, in putting nouns into singular or plural form, on adjusting their end letters. In relation to the numbers of words used in translating The Twelve, Miller’s is the shortest, though is more than half again as long as the Russian original. Lindsay’s is a fraction longer than that, and Stallworthy’s is longer still.

Self-identification with the Bolshevik revolution by Blok had its preamble, a dozen years earlier. In late 1905, during the failed attempt at revolution that year, he carried a red flag at the head of a procession, and in the same year his poem The Well-Fed Ones carried a denunciatory message arrowed at the privileged. The appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910 encouraged him in expectations of renewed revolution, and by the summer of 1917, after the Provisional government installed itself in the wake of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, he was keenly in step with the idea of socialist revolution.

Blok was ‘a son of the nobility’. Did he, however much sympathising with the Revolution, and however much seeing the world through the eyes of the Red Guards, also look down on them from above as social riff-raff? I have my doubts. If we consider Blok’s own personality and history, we should note, echoing the murderously jealous Petrukha, that he was capable of expressing violent feelings in poetry, and obsessive infatuations in life, the latter to the extent, when he proposed marriage to his future wife in late1902, of threatening suicide as the one alternative to her acceptance. If rough Red Guards had wildness and passion, so did Blok.

JE Jury Annenkov storming the winter palace 1920

It would be absurd, I suggest, to stress-test the poem for socialist purity of outlook. Its special blend of romanticism and realism expresses a personal vision, which has retained its potency for a whole century, and is likely to continue to do so. And the fact that Blok’s profound attachment to the revolution suffered later knocks in his last years, amid civil war, external military interventions, shortages, privations and censorship, cannot detract from his poetic response to it in January 1918. The Twelve evidences the truth of words that had once come from his pen: ‘The greatest thing that lyrical poetry can achieve is to enrich the soul and complicate experience…’ On 8 January, when he began the poem, he wrote this in his diary: 'All day – The Twelve – An inward trembling.' On 29 January, when the poem was finished, its final stanza having delivered the peaceful image of Jesus Christ ahead of the marching men, he recorded: ‘I hear a terrible noise, growing within me and all around me.’

The poem first appeared in early March 1918 in a Bolshevik newspaper. Jack Lindsay wrote in his introduction to his own translation that it had ‘an immediate and vast effect. Phrases from it were endlessly repeated; hoardings and banners all over Russia bore extracts’. It became ‘the folklore of the revolutionary street’.

In November 1918 The Twelve was published in its own right in Petrograd, adorned with Yuri Annenkov’s drawings. Forsyth states simply that it ‘became accepted as the essential expression of the Revolution, not only in Russia, where readers were either excited or disgusted by it, but also abroad’. The Twelve, extraordinary as it is, and inseparably connected with the Revolution, will continue to capture and enthuse readers before releasing them, charged with a memory which is not so easily released.

Poetry, Unemployment and the Welfare Hate
Sunday, 26 March 2017 17:38

Poetry, Unemployment and the Welfare Hate

Written by
in Poetry

Alan Morrison introduces his latest poetry collection, and calls for submissions for his latest anthology of political poetry.

After seven years of what might be termed the ‘welfare hate’, with over 80,000 deaths (and suicides) among sick and disabled claimants between 2011-14, approximately 2,380 within six weeks of the DWP and Atos declaring them “fit for work”, it is only in recent months that the British pathology of what I term ‘Scroungerology’ has shown vague signs of a pausing for thought.

Undoubtedly some factors contributing to this latter cultural hiatus are the United Nations report condemning the Coalition and Tory Governments’ abuses of disability rights through disability-targeted benefit cuts, and veteran social-realist director Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or and BAFTA-winning film intervention, I, Daniel Blake (in some ways a polemical update on Jim Allen and Roland Joffé’s superlative The Spongers, broadcast 1978, which juxtaposes the story of a single mother and her children targeted by punitive disability benefit cuts against the backdrop of the taxpayer-funded Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and which is more than ripe for repeat).

These have come as timely reinforcements to several veteran campaigns –Disabled People Against the Cuts, the Spartacus Report, the Black Triangle Campaign, Calum’s List et al – that have fought valiantly over the past seven years to put the catastrophic impact of the disability cuts in the public domain, in spite of the DWP and a complicit mainstream media’s best efforts to ‘bury’ such issues.

Nevertheless, we have a long way to go politically and attitudinally as a society until we can wrestle back some semblance of a compassionate and tolerant welfare state which looks after the poor, unemployed, disabled and mentally afflicted, and without recourse to stigmatisation and persecution. The front line of ‘scroungermongering’ is the thick red line of the right-wing red tops, most heinously the Daily Express, and, of course, every English person’s favourite hate rag, the Daily Mail – the ubiquitous negative drivers of most public opinion.

To be on benefits today, no matter what one’s personal circumstances or disadvantages, is almost a taboo, and one exploited ruthlessly by the makers of such televisual effluence as Benefits Street, Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, and the reprehensibly titled Saints and Scroungers (one campaigner, Sue Marsh, has tried to re-appropriate that dreadful term on her admirably defiant Diary of a Benefit Scrounger blog).

In spite of a faint sense of relief felt across the unemployed and incapacitated communities at new Work and Pensions Secretary Damien Green’s announcement that there will be no more welfare cuts beyond those already legislated, there is still cause for trepidation when said legislated cuts of £30 per week to new Employment and Support Allowance claims kick in this April – certainly, then, ‘the cruellest month’ this year.

By something of a coincidence, my next poetry collection, precisely on the theme of the welfare and disability cuts and the stigmatisation of the unemployed, Tan Raptures, is published by Smokestack Books on 1 April.

Tan Raptures gathers together poems composed during the past six years of remorseless benefits cuts and welfare stigmatisation. Some of it is from an empirical perspective, my having been for much of this period in the ‘Work-Related Activity Group’ (or ‘WRAG’ as it’s disparagingly abbreviated) of Employment and Support Allowance, where those who are deemed unfit for work for the time being but not necessarily permanently are placed (I am a lifelong sufferer of pure obsessional disorder, an unpredictable and debilitating form of OCD). This has been punctuated by sporadic paid opportunities (termed ‘permitted work’ or ‘therapeutic earnings’ by the DWP) in poetry mentoring, tutoring and commissions.

Poetry and unemployment often go hand-in-hand, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, since writing poetry is a form of occupation (alongside editing it, publishing it, teaching it, mentoring it, workshopping it etc.), even if an often impecunious one as paid opportunities are few and far between. Indeed, the fact that poetry has very little ‘market value’, and employment or occupation in capitalist society is almost entirely defined in terms of earning money, almost all full-time poets are, paradoxically, ‘unemployed’; at least, in purely superficial material terms. Through the sadly seldom-consulted prism of humanistic occupational theory, poetry is certainly an ‘occupation’ in the authentic sense of the term.

Many poets have been unemployed at points in their careers albeit ‘poetically employed’ at the same time. Indeed, unemployment is often an ‘occupational hazard’ of being a poet, and many either still are, or certainly have been in the past, intermittent benefit claimants. Capitalism has no time for poets since it deems them unprofitable and economically unproductive (in any case, it has their occupational replacements: advertising copywriters).

This is in stark contrast to the stipends paid by the state in the old Soviet Union specifically to keep poets in their poetry (a similar scheme would be most welcome here today). The sometimes inescapable relationship between poetry and unemployment – bards on the dole – is almost never spoken let alone written about by poets. Poetry and unemployment are unspoken companions. But many poets will stifle a bitter laugh at the notion of a Department for Waifs and Poets (DWP).

In Tan Raptures I refer to the DWP as the ‘Department for War on the Poor’, since that is undoubtedly its primary purpose today. The collection includes polemical paeans to many victims of the Tory benefits cuts and sanctions, such as Glaswegian playwright Paul Reekie (suicide), ex-soldier David Clapson (death from diabetic complications/malnutrition), and the Coventry soup-kitchen-dependent couple, the Mullins (suicide).

The eponymous polemical poem is an Audenic dialectic in 14 cantos on the social catastrophe of the benefits caps, pernicious red-top “scrounger” propaganda, and Iain Duncan Smith’s despotic six year grip at the DWP. It is also a verse-intervention of Social Catholicism, as epitomised by Pope Francis, in oppositional response to the “appalling policies” (Jeremy Corbyn) of self-proclaimed ‘Roman Catholic’ Duncan Smith.

The title Tan Raptures plays on the biblical notion of ‘The Rapture’ – the ‘raising up’ of living and dead believers to meet their maker in the sky – satirising the ubiquitous ‘tan envelopes’ that strike fear into claimants on a daily basis as passports to a twisted Tory notion of ‘moral salvation’ through benefit sanction.

So common has this phenomenon become that the phrase ‘fear of the brown envelope’ now denotes a recognised phobic condition, and was even used as the first part of a title for an academic paper on exploring welfare reform with long-term sickness benefits recipients’ (Garthwaite, K., 2014).

It is my hope that Tan Raptures will play its part in keeping up the momentum of the belatedly emerging counter-cultural welfare narrative as championed by the likes of Ken Loach, and, of course, Labour’s first socialist leader in decades, Jeremy Corbyn, who put it firmly on record that he opposes any open discrimination against the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled in such reprehensible and hateful terms as “scrounger”, “skiver” and “shirker”.

Our culture of ‘Scroungerology’ has been something I have been writing polemic on for a number of years now at The Recusant and through the two anti-austerity anthologies under its e-imprint Caparison: Emergency Verse – Poets in Defence of the Welfare State (2010/11) and The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity (2012/13).

It also seems an apt time then to pitch Caparison’s belated third poetry anthology, The Brown Envelope Book, or The Brown E-Book for short, since it will be, at least initially, an electronic publication, as was, originally, Emergency Verse.

The main theme of this third anthology is, as the title suggests, benefits cuts and welfare stigmatisation, but it will also be addressing the housing crisis by petitioning for the reintroduction of private rent controls and also raising greater awareness of the prevalence of letting agent-and-landlord negative vetting of prospective tenants on the basis that they claim benefits or Local House Allowance (even if they’re in work!).

Poets of all stripes are invited to submit their poems on the themes of unemployment and welfare; the empathic but, more especially, the empirical, welcome.

Alan Morrison’s Tan Raptures is published by Smokestack Books. It is available now to order at: https://www.waterstones.com/book/tan-raptures/alan-morrison/9780995563506To submit work for consideration in The Brown E-Book, please email up to six poems along with a brief biog in the body of the email to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Please put ‘Brown E-Book’ in the subject header.

Sixth Rapture: Shut Curtains during the Day

Unlike riches, policies do have a trickledown effect,
And the dictates of Damascus Smith –hairshirt Thomas Malthus
Of Caxton House/or Gregor Mendel of the DWP–
Would germinate into a pearl-white species of cropped
Correspondences in Kafkaesque script bespeaking strange augurs,
Barbed inferences, grim omens, pointed portents –vatic tans
Vibrating with cryptic stings: ‘A query has arisen regarding
Your claim…’, or, ‘We are letting you know what might happen to you’,
But without actually doing so, only adumbrating through
Deliberate ambiguity and mystique of omission (the old
Hemingway tip-of-the-iceberg effect), lacings of uncertainty,
Leaving the door wedged open to auto-suggestion, taxing
Anxious imaginations prone to catastrophic projections –
The implicatures captured uniquely in tan paper raptures;
While elliptic and ecliptic occupational purposes, strange
Occulting ranks and titles, Customer Compliance Officers,
Brought thoughts of Thought Police or plain-clothed
Gestapo in tan macs with glacial stares behind impenetrable
Spectacles turning up on doorsteps clutching rolled umbrellas
And black leather briefcases stuffed full with thumbscrews,
Coat-hangers, piano wires, tape-recorders and lie-detectors –
While Government encouragement of neighbourly petit-
Espionage on unemployed suspects (more the ‘Big Brother
Society’) upped the tan ante for vigilante attitudes
And raised the temperature spiking the thunderous atmosphere
To puncture-point as Ministers instructed conscientious
Citizens to take note of those windows with “shut curtains
During the day” –or, in Baronet Osborne’s vocabulary:
“Closed shutters”– as they left for work each morning: dawn
Patrols of resentful workers directed to mark front doors
Of suspected Dole-Judes, like so many beady-eyed jackdaws –
It’s a peculiarly English kind of malice that criminalises
Innocents and victimises victims of circumstances thrust
On them by others’ “tough choices” and “difficult decisions”…
How appropriate that the Department for War on the Poor
Should send out such vindictive missives in envelopes
Of various browns, parcelling captured sunlight
To disinfect the disaffected, frightened, forgotten, pilloried,
Persecuted, tarred-and-feathered benefit spendthrifts
And profligates, scapegoats and targets for the ran-tan tanning
Of stigmatising tans –what strange types of benefits that grant
No benefits, neither to wallet nor wellbeing, but only
Deplete peace of mind and suppress appetites of “useless eaters”,
“Asocial” and “arbeitsscheu”–is that part of the point, to soften
The blow of swallowed-up cash-flow by shrinking stomachs
So there’s less need for food but more room for souls to grow
Like tapeworms of purely spiritual appetites distending
Themselves on the carroty acid reflux of phantom
Mastication, swishing round in rapturous backwashes from
Half-digested papers…? Some recipients experience
Epiphanies: eat the tan envelopes, as if they were unleavened
Victuals, bellies booming out with brown Holy Ghosts…

from 'Tan Raptures' (Tan Raptures, Smokestack Books 1 April 2017)

Hear my roar and hear my howl: poems and prose for International Women's Day 2017
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 06 March 2017 16:45

Hear my roar and hear my howl: poems and prose for International Women's Day 2017

in Poetry
Written by

If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.

-  Zora Neale Hurston

SM piece

When Freya Comes to Call

by Sheree Mack

Friday, she parks her chariot,
pulled by two black cats,
behind my Suzuki Splash,
and knocks at my door.
What will the neighbours think?

She stands there in all her glory;
long blond hair streaming over
a falcon-feathered cloak, wearing
nothing except an amber necklace.

Not even goosebumps.
She's sex on legs.
I daren't take her into the house.
Albert's in. He might not be able
to contain himself. So I keep it short.

What ya want?
Looking into her blue eyes, I recognise.
I'm pulled in. I hold my ground.
What ya want?

She smiles. All broad and teeth.
Not so much smug, more like
the cat that's had the cream,
cake and caviar.

I want you to be all of your parts, she says.

I notice number 22's blinds twitch.
What ya mean?
This Goddess might be able
to work her magic on men
but I'm not having it.

Then she touches me, gently.
Electricity surges through
her finger tips into me,
into my being.

A fire is lit inside my gut;
a mounting force.
I have to grab the doorframe
to steady myself.

I pull back. She's too much.
Too bold. Too in your face.
Be whole, she says. Open up to
your power. Breathe.

Her words echo within
my breathing, opening parts
I'd closed down and closed
off and kept in the dark.

Heat rises from my core.
Fiery light filters through my cracks.
All the time she holds my gaze.
And I hold hers. We're connected
and so very much alive.

I get an urge to moan and dance.
To howl and create.
With a nod she rides off.
Closing the door, I lean against it.

I take a deep breath.
I exhale through a slightly
open mouth. A smiling mouth,
like a cat in cream, cake and
caviar ecstasy.

 

SM MP piece Womens March VOA 03

Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.

- Maya Angelou

Womens International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, Chicago 1969
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 06 March 2017 15:53

I'm still singing: poems for International Women's Day 2017

in Poetry
Written by

For International Women's Day we bring you a small selection of poems to mark the occasion. We have Catherine Graham, a West End of Newcastle poet born and bred, who takes pains to honour those women within her family who kept the home fires burning. They may be overlooked in the grand scheme of things, but these women are no less important to the fabric of society than powerful leaders of state. They are the leaders of our families and homes - that should never be forgotten.

Niveen Kassem generously offered up one of her poems as she continues to explores injustices and inequalities around the globe in her writings. Here she explores the increasingly important issue of women finding their true voices in a world where they are repeatedly told that they are worthless – that their voice does not count. There is hope here – there has to be hope as more women are choosing to go within, to find their authentic voices in order to join together and speak out, powerfully and truthfully.

Finally we have an inspirational poem from Wajid Hussain which takes in a meeting with the great and remarkable Maya Angelou. A role model of my own, I read this poem and rejoiced in its magic and power to capture the moment as well as take us forward with transcendent joy and the determination to make this world a better place.

We can do this together, for sure.

 

SM CG poem 2

Daughters of Tyne

by Catherine Graham

I

Martha's neddin’ bread rests
like a full moon on the scullery workbench,

the smell of warm dough
wafting along the passage to the end room

where Nancy keeps her savings
in a yellow-white chest of drawers.

She has no idea that every Monday,
my mother borrows a pound note,

promising herself she'll replace it by Friday,
before Nancy clocks off at the liver salts factory.

Many a time it's a photo finish between Nancy
getting off the bus and mam replacing the note.

By October, mother permitting,
there'll be enough for the wedding.

II

Edie has never married, never met
the man of her dreams, a man who

plays for United and bleeds black
and white. He has a quiff like Elvis

and a voice like Pat Boone: smokes filter tip
cigarettes. He is as hard as December

and gentle as July; slightly bow-legged
with a glint in his eye like Russ Conway.

If ever he swears he puts tuppence in the cuss box.
Romance is played down for love is

carrying the coal up three flights of stairs.
There will be two children, a boy

who can kick a ball like his father
and a girl who can kick even higher.

III

The women I grew up with had
tell it like it is voices. They favoured vowels,

vowels that flex mouths
like opera singers limbering up for an aria.

They made soup from bones and knitted
anything from booties to balaclavas.

Bless them, for they breastfed their babies
and had bairns vaccinated via sugar cubes.

The women I knew made their feelings known
in a clash of pans. Always there

at the school gates, their headscarves
blowing like flags in the biting northeasterly wind.

They believed in the Bible and best butter
and knew by heart, their Co-op dividend number.

From Things I Will Put In My Mother’s Pocket (Indigo Dreams, 2013)

Heavy Clogs
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 06 March 2017 14:53

Heavy Clogs

in Poetry
Written by

Heavy Clogs

by Kevin Higgins

I’m the local schoolmistress
who worked hard to know
the zilch I knew about this.

I’m the Department Inspector
who remembered
the questions not to ask.

I’m the concerned citizen who never
heard their heavy clogs go,
by forced marches, up the Dublin Road.

I’m the editor of the Tuam Herald,
who talked instead about
the Pope’s visit.

I’m the Government Minister whose pink skull
baldly admired the particular yellow
of the roses by the newly whitewashed wall,
and thanked the nuns for their work.

I’m the County Councillor concerned
about the cost to the ratepayer
- per skeleton - of piling that many small ones
of whom no one had ever heard

into a disused hole in the ground
- one big concrete sarcophagus -
no one knew anything about.

An Irish government inquiry last week admitted that the remains of 796 infants and toddlers have lain for decades at the site of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway in unmarked graves. Many of the bodies are believed to have been buried in a disused septic tank. When local amateur historian Catherine Corless broke the story in 2014, Irish Times journalist Rosita Boland, PR guru Terry Prone, former intellectual Tom McGurk (and other assorted apologists for things as they are) all leapt forth to say that it was most unlikely that such a thing could possibly have happened. But it did. The home was operational between 1925 and 1961. It’s believed some of the bodies may now be under houses built locally since the home closed. 

The translation of Bon Secours is 'Good Help'.

KH tuam 1

 

 

 

 

Andy Croft and Amarjit Chandan
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 04 March 2017 20:49

Asserting our shared humanity

in Poetry
Written by

Andy Croft reports on his recent visit to Basra, for the Al-Marbed international poetry festival.

I have never seen so many people at a poetry festival before – or so many Kalashnikovs. A few weeks ago I was in the southern Iraqi city of Basra with my friend the Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan. We were guests of the Iraqi Writers Union for the thirteenth annual Al-Marbed international poetry festival.

‘Poetry is the Present and Future of Basra’ read the banner over the stage in the main hall of the Basra International Hotel where most of the readings were held. Dedicated to the late Iraqi poet and communist Mehdi Mohammad Ali, the festival attracted almost a hundred poets, from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Iraq, Assyria, Lebanon, Syria and the Iraqi diaspora scattered across the world.

During a crowded week of readings and debates, poetry and music, food and friendship, we visited the birthplace of Basra’s most famous poet Badr Shakir al Sayyab, as well as the Basra international football stadium. There was a showing of the film Samt al-Rai/The Silence of the Shepherd introduced by its director Raad Mushatat. One of the festival readings took place on a river cruise on the Shat al-Arab waterway.

The British poetry world likes to think it is popular, with its prizes and awards and celebrities. But this is nothing compared to the role of poetry in Arab culture, where TV shows like Million’s Poet and Prince of Poets regularly attract more viewers than football. Although six million Iraqis – 20% of the population – cannot read or write, the idea that poetry is a publicly-owned, shared and common language somehow persists across all classes. At some of the evening readings, there must have been a thousand people, men and women, young and old. One of the most striking performances was by a six year old boy reciting, entirely from memory, a ten minute long poem comparing Iraq to a beautiful woman.

Although Amarjit and I did not know the literal meaning of many of the poems, we were able to concentrate on the richness of their different cadences and rhythms. Thanks to our hard working translators we were also introduced to the work of some fascinating poets, including Iraqi poets Abdulkareem Kasid and Chawki Abdelamir, Hani al-Selwy from Yemen, Mojtaba Al Tatan from  Bahrain, Sabah Kasim, Najah Ibrahim, and Souzan Ibrahim  from Syria, and Al Wathiq Younis  from Sudan.

But of course the festival was taking place in a deadly context. Iraq is still at war. The billboards by the side of the roads advertise, not consumer goods, but the faces of young men killed fighting Daesh. Each night I was woken by the sound of gunfire to mark the repatriation of local boys killed fighting in Mosul. A notice outside the new shopping centre in Times Square solemnly reminds shoppers, ‘No smoking. No weapons’.

With a heavily armed security presence at most of the readings, it was hardly surprising that the festival was a serious-minded affair. There were no stand-up poets, comics or performance poets. Instead most of the poets recited long poems usually about the suffering and grief of the Iraqi people.

An old man read a poem about the death of his son, killed fighting in Fallujah. One poet compared Iraqi children to a forest of young trees cut down before they are full grown. Another observed that every Iraqi child grows up with an older brother called Death. There was a long poem about a local teacher injured by a Daesh car-bomb; although she managed to crawl out of the car, her clothes were on fire (which meant that her modesty before God was threatened) so she climbed back into the burning car to die. Another poet described the poor of the world as the fuel that keeps the fires of war burning. The prayers of the religious, he said, do not belong to God, only the tears of a mother grieving for her dead child.

It is more important than ever that we understand as much as we can about our neighbours on this small planet. Despite the commercial, ideological, cultural and political pressures to emphasise our uniqueness and our separateness, the differences between us are not very great. The Al-Marbed poetry festival is a brave and important reminder that poetry is one of the ways in which we can enjoy and explore those differences and at the same time assert our shared humanity.

This article was first published in the Morning Star.

AC greetings Basra 3

Purchase progressive political poetry!
Saturday, 04 March 2017 19:22

Purchase progressive political poetry!

Written by
in Poetry

Interested in progressive poetry? You might like to try one of our new titles, published jointly with Manifesto Press:

MP KH

The Minister for Poetry Has Decreed is political poetry of the highest order, telling truth to power and poking fun at it at the same time, artistically deploying a profoundly moral sense of justice and truth to expose lies, evasions, greed and sheer stupidity. Kevin Higgins, like Bertolt Brecht, has a gift for exposing the hypocrisies and deceits which are inevitably generated by a political culture which ignores, denies or seeks to legitimise the legalised robbery that passes for capitalist economic arrangements. And like Brecht he does it in a wickedly simple, accessible, entertaining style.

MP FV

Everyone can see the growing inequality, the precarious and low paid nature of employment, the housing crisis in our cities, the divisions and inequalities between social classes, the problems of obesity, drink and drugs, and the sheer everyday struggle to pay the bills for many working people. In this situation, Fred Voss is like a prophet. He is warning us of the consequences of the way we live, he is telling truth to power, and he is inspiring us with a positive vision of a possible – and desirable – socialist future. 

- Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite the Union.

MP DB

Slave Songs and Symphonies is an ambitious, beautifully crafted collection of poems, images and epigraphs. It's about human history, progressive art and music, campaigns for political freedom, social justice and peace. Above all it's about the class and cultural struggle of workers 'by hand and by brain’ to regain control and ownership of the fruits of their labour. David Betteridge’s poems are leftist, lyrical, and learned, infused with sadness and compassion for the sufferings of our class, the working class. They are also inspired by visionary hope, and a strong belief that our class-divided society and culture can be transformed by radical politics and good art – and by radical art and good politics. Bob Starrett’s drawings are much more than illustrations. They dance with the poems, commenting on them as well as illustrating them. They are like Goya’s drawings in their dark, ink-black truthfulness and their intimate knowledge of suffering and Blake’s 'mental fight'. Like the poems, they express and resolve the struggles they depict. Slave Songs and Symphonies tells the story of how slave songs become symphonies – and helps makes it happen. It is not just about class and cultural struggle – it is class and cultural struggle.

Each booklet is priced at £5.99 (plus £1.50 p&p). Or you can buy all three for £15. They are available from: manifestopress.org.uk

Bread and Roses Poetry Award
Friday, 24 February 2017 19:37

Bread and Roses Poetry Award

Written by
in Poetry

Culture Matters is pleased to announce a new poetry award, sponsored by Unite the Union. It is called the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, and is now open for submissions.

The purpose of the new award is to encourage poets to focus on themes which are meaningful to working class people and communities, and to enable those communities to engage more with poetry. There is a £500 cash prize for the winner, £250 second prize and £100 third prize. The judges will be Andy Croft from Smokestack Books, and Mary Sayer from Unite.

Entries should consist of three poems, each no more than 50 lines long. Poems must be the original work of the entrant, in English, and not have been previously published in print or online. Entry is free, and open to everyone regardless of trade union membership. Entries should broadly deal with any aspect of working class life, communities and culture and show commitment to the common people, the common good and the common music of poetry.

Poems should be sent via email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or by post to Culture Matters, c/o 8 Moore Court, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE15 8QE. The deadline for receipt of submissions is midnight on 31st May 2017. Entries will be anonymised before judging, and the winners will be invited to an awards ceremony at a Unite conference in Durham in July.

When emailing or posting submissions please provide your name, email or postal address, and phone number. All entries remain the copyright of the author but Culture Matters and Unite will have the right to publish and/or broadcast them online and in other media.

The Heels of Can-Can Dancers Kicking Towards the Stars
Wednesday, 22 February 2017 10:31

The Heels of Can-Can Dancers Kicking Towards the Stars

Written by
in Poetry

The Heels of Can-Can Dancers Kicking Towards the Stars

by Fred Voss

A poem is a reason to get up in the morning
the crowns
of 100 Sequoia redwood trees soaking in the sun
together a cup
of ice water in the middle of the Sahara desert a poem
bounces across a midnight alley like the eyes
of the black cat travels
around the globe like the song of the whale at the bottom
of the sea
no king
will ever rule as completely as the laws of gravity true
as poems a poem
is the kiss of a beautiful woman on the lips of a man who has just finished doing 20 years
in San Quentin the hooting
of the owl during a total eclipse
of the sun a poem
runs down an Olympic track like Jesse Owens’s black feet proving Hitler’s white master race
a lie breaks
open the Bastille because no human being can ever be kept down
forever takes
off his hat to no man as he strides like Walt Whitman
down his open road
a poem
is the heels of can-can dancers kicking
toward the stars Hamlet
saying words that will last longer
than all the empires a poem
is a strawberry ice cream cone licked
under fireworks
a man
on a bridge over a river pressing a trumpet to his lips playing notes so beautiful he will never
          jump
into the water below a poem
hits harder than any hammer a poem is a girder
in a skyscraper the spine of a saber-toothed tiger the horn
of a midnight train crossing a bridge over the Mississippi River
as Huck Finn paddles escaped slave Jim down its deep waters
toward freedom old
as a poem.

Matt Abbott
Sunday, 19 February 2017 19:09

Pick up a pen and speak out

Written by
in Poetry

It was a couple of weeks after my 18th birthday, and I was on the coach back from a political rally in London. It was either anti-cuts or anti-war, I’m not entirely sure, but safe to say it attracted those of us on the left of the political spectrum.

On the way home, I started chatting to a local activist who was heavily involved in organising politically focused events. It turned out that he was organising a Love Music Hate Racism gig in Wakefield in a couple of weeks’ time, with Jerry Dammers of The Specials doing a DJ set. I’d very recently written an anti-racism poem called ‘Nazis on the Doorstep’ and asked if I could perform it at the event. I saw his face drop, and he mumbled an excuse as to why it might not be feasible.

Regardless of his obvious reluctance, I turned up at the event, eager for the opportunity. Again, he was attempting to palm me off, but a couple of acts in, I slyly arranged to introduce the next band and took to the mic. There were around 500 people in – by far the largest audience I’d ever had at this stage – and I remember my hand shaking as it grasped the sweaty SM58.

I performed my poem, leaning heavily on the machine-gun style of a certain John Cooper Clarke, and much to the surprise of both myself and the event organiser, it went down an absolute storm. I still to this day remember the rapturous applause, and after six months of writing poems and then uploading them to MySpace, I knew that I was genuinely onto something.

At this stage I was approaching the end of my A-Levels, and Government & Politics was one of my subjects, so coupled with my textbooks and a Bill Hicks DVD, I felt well positioned to lead a global revolution. Of the six months that I’d been writing poems, I’d been sporadically performing for four, and every one of these performances was at a music gig. But after the Love Music Hate Racism event, a new chapter was born – and since then my political activism has been inextricably linked to my spoken word career.

Fast forward ten years, and I’ve just finished touring the country in support of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. This has involved sharing a stage with names including Paul Weller, Ken Loach, Sara Pascoe, Jeremy Hardy, Francesca Martinez, Mark Steel and more. In late October I supported Sleaford Mods, having appeared in their socio-political documentary ‘Invisible Britain’. In a couple of months, I’m gigging at a trade union annual conference with Corbyn himself and UB40. So, it’s safe to say that I certainly haven’t held back when it comes to fusing poetry and politics. In fact, to be blatantly honest, I can’t imagine what my career would be like if it wasn’t for the political activism.

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