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.
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
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.
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.
Now here comes the internal conflict. What difference is it ever going to make? What gives me the right to vent my political views? As a white heterosexual male who always had food on the table and a roof over my head, why does my voice need to be heard? I’m paranoid that there’s an implied sense of self-importance with me getting on stage and putting the world to rights. And I guess to some extent there is.
But in the current climate more than ever, spoken word along with comedy is playing a vital role. As immediate and accessible art forms, they commentate, confront and satirise the political landscape. And politics in general is becoming harder for people to ignore. Much as I despised last year’s referendum campaign, it significantly increased the level of political engagement across all spectrums. Then of course we had Trump across the pond – politics is now a daily topic of conversation.
Poetry can help to articulate people’s views. It can help to bring attention to certain narratives or events. It can also help to soothe people’s anger – straddling both engagement with politics and escapism through art. You can write a poem on a Monday and perform it on stage on the Friday. People come to shows wanting to hear you talk about the latest events and scandals, and with poetry and comedy, you can do that. I recently went to Bridget Christie’s Brexit show and it was as cathartic as it was hilarious. Away from the social media fury and the heavily skewed media reports, it helps us to try and make sense of the world around us – as viewed through the eyes of a comedian or a poet, which I guess decorates it in some way or another.
And on last year’s #JC4PM tour, I could visibly see the difference that it made at every event. People accuse you of preaching to the converted, but the atmosphere in a theatre of 2000 people was electric – and the knowledge that we were all on the same page was essential for morale. We weren’t preaching, we were mobilising; in the face of the constant media onslaught that Corbyn’s met since day one, it’s easy to lose faith. But nights like those really made a difference. Sometimes, you do genuinely need reminding why you choose to fly the red flag.
One thing that’s important to finish off on. Whenever I’m addressing socio-political issues, I think it’s essential to do so in my own voice and my own perspective. Otherwise I’d consider it to be contrived and patronising, and taking ownership of other people’s situations for my own benefit.
I only wrote about the Calais Jungle once I’d visited, and specifically spoke of my own experience there. I wrote about a group of 16-year-old female NEETs in Newcastle, after spending an evening in their company – and again, wrote it through my gaze. All I can do is use my own experience and my own understanding to draw attention to something.
Poetry can achieve powerful things with remarkable simplicity. And in 2017, if I didn’t use my poetry to address the political ills of the world, then I genuinely think I’d be a traitor to myself and the art form. So, strap in. Pick up a pen. And speak out against everything that’s happening around us. Apathy is a form of acceptance, as they say…
Beamed into one’s living room via satellite, or framed in syndicated photographs on the quality papers’ foreign pages, even their black or missing front teeth have a strange beauty.
The shanty town dwellers of La Paz, in their hand-woven red and green ponchos, carry themselves in a fashion which puts to shame the post office queue scraggy mother of two, with change in her slovenly wallet for lottery tickets, but not shampoo.
Nothing against the locals. But the skeletal Colosseum cats have a grace which the one I ran over on my way to this morning’s Amnesty International meeting absolutely lacked, even before my brand new Goodyear Assurance tires ironed flat its entirely unremarkable pelvis.
The ongoing pain of the Yazidi women and the entire Choctaw nation (every generation) is best struggled with over a Fairtrade salad in one of the more radical tea shops on Sandymount Strand.
In comparison, one admits, our local Others – with their dole day drunkenness, and lack of imagination which has seen them prosaically wander the roads these past thousand years – just don’t cut the whole grain mustard.
When they start mouthing Civil Rights and municipal water cannon, or police batons get over enthusiastic on their irresponsibly positioned skulls, people like me will feel forced to pass by on the other side, checking our messages for pictures of unfamiliars being deliciously maltreated anywhere else.
Note: Poet Carolyn Forché wrote a poem titled ‘Against Forgetting’. She also co-edited the excellent anthology Poetry of Witness but forgot to include any poems by Native American poets because there were, apparently, no poetic witnesses to the genocide of the Native American people to be found in the United States of America, the country in which Carolyn Forché lives.
To The Former Times Golden ages never last…So enjoy it while it lasts. Because it won’t. - Charles Krauthammer.
Let it be always 1997; magic Diana from her tomb and down the red carpet in something devastating –having deftly reassembled her skull –to deliver a Champagne stained rendition of Candle In The Wind, accompanied on grand piano by an equally undead Gianni Versace.
Centrosensibilism was the dance crazing the nightclubs. By decade’s end we were all doing it, especially me. Years when ‘progressive’ meant stamping on potential beggars who’d long inflicted their antisocial mind-sets on residents of marginal constituencies, such as Milton Keynes.
Give us back those sacred hours when one’s colorectal area could be safely sold off to a public-private partnership, who’d also bought up most of the railways in Eastern England; and everything kept moving in the usual way, or appeared to, with just a little less bureaucracy than in the days of British Rail.
The last coalminer had been liberated to answer phones that would eventually be relocated to India. The future had revealed itself, and it was this. Peace breaking out everywhere, except there, there, and there. Oh former times!
We so enjoyed the taste of you we’d make political love to anyone, who by adjusting the set slightly, would make this boo boo better.
upon a turquoise threshold I hold on to you tighter sensing shifts
I stroke these moments of damaged velvet with desperate need
hearing you breathe no longer I and you no longer black and white
I wish I could see with your eyes walk with your privileges
I swallow my words like glass become tangled in sheets of doubts
at the closed door wondering the direction the sun's rays will fall
I want a feeling of light I want to be turned on that pedestal
I belong. I have forgotten myself. I have forsaken myself; my voice, my love, my soul.
I have looked upon myself and found me wanting. I allowed those fears and doubts inside to marry up with those controlling critical voices outside. Together they solidified into a giant insurmountable wall around me; my voice, my truth, my soul.
And each day I added a brick into the wall. With each job and gig and publication I received based on some manufactured voice, l made the charade harder to let go. This voice, I became an expert in, as this voice fitted in, this voice was good enough for them.
This false voice was based on fear. Watered down and weak and accepted, keep-them-laughing-in-their-seats kind of voice. But I'm here today, right now, telling you; all those fearful, doubting, critical, 'I'm not enough kind of voices', both internal amd external, to fuck right off.
I mean it. Fuck off. All you've done is silenced me, muzzled me, white-washed me. Turned me into a house nigger. Yes I'll be real good. I'll not speak or step out of line. Or be different.
I'll be good real good. I'll not do or say anything to make you feel uncomfortable. Do anything you want to me. Beat me. Humiliate me. Shame me. I'll just keep on smiling, good. Look at my teeth.
I've played my part so well that you don't have to police me any more. I've internalised all this hate that I police myself.
You can't curse nobody. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all.
- The Color Purple, Alice Walker.
Fuck 'em. You are not me. I am not my fears. I am not small and silent. I am not compliant. I am complicit no more. I am a black woman from a rich ancestral lineage. I come from a people who fought and suffered and died so I could live. Deal with it.
I don't need your raggedy-arse fears and criticism and dirty looks. You said those things to keep me in my place. To keep me from fulling my full potential. My true potential.
It's over. You and all your cronies. The power you had over me is gone. I have seen the light. And I'd rather live my life my way. True to me.
I'm unique. There ain't ever gonna be anyone like me on this here earth again. So it's my birthright to live my life right by me. The real, authentic me. The whole me you've been trying desperately to keep in a box. The wild me you've tried to shame and silence.
You ain't gonna do that any more. I am my own queen, I have sovereignty. I have the power. Walk away now. Go on, fuck off.
You're not welcome around here anymore. You don't belong.
Its handshake is that of a slightly disreputable funeral director. Its eyes those of an opinionated alligator that sometimes reviews opera in the London Times. Its mind is a free trade slaughterhouse, busy making mincemeat, as cleanly as possible, of other people’s children, bony old parents and the occasional small business person who was just wrong place, wrong century.
But its regular appearances on TV impress the sort of people who have sexual relations with their cars. Or their neighbours cars. The female it dreams of is Rupert Murdoch’s more withered sister who lets it stand on its tippy-toes in a tutu inherited from a former grandmother who was briefly a dowager Duchess until the unfortunate headlines made her true position undeniable.
And it is written in Scripture that at a time such as this a thing such as this would ascend to Earth and give us – leaving god aside for the minute – proof of Satan’s existence.
The bare and barren tree can be made green again... - Antonio Gramsci
¶ A boy cried. His bedside cup, brimful with milk before he slept, was empty now, at morning-time. Not one drop he'd drunk. How, then, no milk?
The culprit mouse, her creamy lips a give-away, felt sorry for the boy. And still he cried.
She thought: I'll get the cattle to make good his loss.
But no: Today our milk's dried up.
Field, asked the mouse, have you some juicy grass to give?
Sorry, the field explained, I'm parched. Will you fetch water from the well?
Brokenly, the well demurred. My rim's caved in; I need repaired.
¶ Mason, will you take the job?
Apologetically, I'm short of stone, the mason said.
¶ Next, to a bleak hill. I've granite here enough to build a town, but not a single sett will go to humankind. Aggrieved, the hill refused the mouse's plea.
Imagine - mouse to hill - imagine that you feel the balm of maple trees where you are bare. If you give the mason stone, the boy whose milk I took will come to you a man - you have my word - and he will work for you this remedy I plan.
¶ The hill relented;
the mason fixed the well;
water by the bucketful was raised;
the pasture greened;
the cattle's udders swelled, and cups and bellies soon were filled.
Strong as a bull, the boy grew, a farmer-forester.
The mouse, her children, and theirs as well, in turn, each year reminded him: a promise had been made.
¶ Hectare on hectare now,
gladdening the hill,
a coverlet of green extends
its shade, a living tribute
to the mouse’s will.
A note on its sources, which are a Sardinian folk-tale, Antonio Gramsci, Hamish Henderson, Gordon Brown, and John Berger.
“A Coverlet of Green” is derived from a folk-tale from Sardinia. This folk-tale was written down in the mid-1930s by the Marxist philosopher and political activist, Antonio Gramsci, in a letter to his son. The letter was smuggled out of one of Mussolini’s gaols, where Gramsci had been imprisoned, “to stop his brain from functioning”. (In fact, his brain functioned all the more powerfully.)
Later, during the Second World War, Hamish Henderson, the Scottish poet, singer, folklorist, teacher, and lots of other things, came across Gramsci’s writings, including his prison letters. Henderson was at that time an intelligence officer in the British Army, and one of his duties was to make contact with Italian partisans opposed to Mussolini. One such group called itself the Antonio Gramsci Brigade. It was they who acted as the link between the philosopher’s ideas and the soldier. Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s letters were published two decades later by a students’ printing press at Edinburgh University, edited by a radical (even revolutionary) student leader who went on to pursue a noteworthy career in politics, although rather less radical, one Gordon Brown.
Later still, John Berger discovered Hamish Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s re-telling of the Sardinain folk-tale. He so liked it that he re-told it himself in an essay about Gramsci called “How to Live with Stones”, published in an essay-collection The Shape of a Pocket. He also re-told the tale in a radio interview on BBC Radio 3. It was this broadcast version that sparked my own attempt at a re-telling, in “A Coverlet of Green”.
John Berger’s death on 2nd January, just two months after his 90th birthday, leaves a great gap in literature and cultural politics. My poem, with Bob Starrett’s lovely green evocation of new growth - maple leaves lit by sunshine - was intended for publication as a birthday greeting, but it missed that deadline. Now it can serve as an In Memoriam.
Settle down, bottom set, poor concentration, what do you expect? Failed tests, predictable results, staying behind red lines Life viewed through windows in the sticks ,drizzling with tears of spilling piss Clinging like dribble to chins of grizzling kids, you didn’t do what the other girls did Tossed like crossings out on screwed up scraps The Battersbys and the Bickerstaffes
The flimsy, thin, sterling silver skin stinging slaps The back of the class chatting up robbing from the stock cupboard smothered laughs Julie, longing lashes, soft, leather wrapped in Frank Debbie, bitty little. Biting lippy, outside the chippy Gob full of fizz bomber jacketed hands jammed in high Up in arms, sticking out like chicken wings, flapping Clucking fuck this and fuck that Flicking V’s, not free to fly Leanne, lanky, shrieking streak of ‘Miss!’ Witty, eyeing, disguised lined rims hidden behind Sharp as a knife flicked fringe Shading every shame filled cringe
All subjects of so much rigid invigilation Tiddy-tipped, spit slippy, wetly dreamt of detentions Gripped like slurped chipped china mugs gulped and spilled Held in belched petrol smells, cider swilled with fry –ups Eyeing up, weighing out, measured in points for their pleasure Stiff inches of shifting skin counting you on scribbling fingers Summing you up, in and out scratching walls Hurtful mis spelt spurting words Running out and leaving Stale-tasting tell-tale stained pockets of cock-eyed explanations
After all those years of teaching you lessons Never reading your need to know NO …..NO…..NO Minus one of them speccy gets noticed you go Woe betide you’d ever forget it uniformly checked Stubby short to skinny strip Hanging from the tide marked neck Now noosed round a reflection in a dressing table mirror A face painted with disgrace With no-one waiting till you washed it off To bare your face then confiscate that birthday gift from your mum
Full term came and went for some An unmarked summer break becoming an endless spiral-bound roundabout A mid-afternoon, windblown, swinging groan With no bell ringing time to go home Down the dole to drum on doors hard Then a card and a ticking clock On the Verdigris, smocked copper bonnet factory top Making dull days, patinaed with wages Catalogued to pay for life in reasonable instalments 24 or 36 weeks Outfits in drips to disguise your defeat down the pub
Atmosphere thickly stinking mist of chart hits Spewing what was supped in the gutter Thrust against throbbing, glugging, tugging Filling up belly-aching gaps, swallowing laughs, tapping off happiness Getting ribbed, getting bent coins banged in avoiding trouble Chasing, knocking back, seeing double
Others would try to get in the club The price was too high for you to pay And you were too old to run away again All your mates had to stay in evenings Facing days framed by pram handles And pacing familiar avenues Dangling struggling little girls Heavy with giggles from the hip Where you all used to stand about strangling laughs Yanking tangles, swapping bangles Mixed up ten pence teeth sticking sweet dreams Twisted in bags ripped from string Escaping tear away paper thin lips Skinned suckling pale pink dissolving flying saucers Sore ochre cracked areolas with sleeping smiles inside That mithered mothers now bribe their daughters with Outside Clare’s shop beyond the school gates when you were meant to stop
You paid your debts to Great Universal Ticking the box to say you would no longer like to be a representative And walked out in a patent leather patiently anticipated excellent value for you shoe Through the front door this time With your mum’s packed away sadness and matching set of unused suitcases for all occasions Full of qualifications to be somewhere else And you slipped into the empty space on the empty bus Like a pear drop from Betty’s shop popped in a shared quarter passed between mother and daughter sat on the sofa staring at the blaring telly Yelling jokes at soaps her stroking your hair and hoping
Andy Croft offers the latest - and last - instalment in his long-term project of memorialising the neglected life and poetry of Randall Swingler.
Although these days the poet Randall Swingler (1909-1967) is a largely forgotten figure, he was one of the most prolific and public British writers of his generation. Few English writers worked so hard to mobilise public opinion in the name of Peace, or fought so bravely to prosecute the War when it could no longer be avoided. He was responsible for some of the most imaginative interventions of the Popular Front years, and he wrote some of the greatest poetry of the Second World War. A playwright, novelist, critic, editor and poet, his verse was set to music by many of the most distinguished composers of his generation.
In the 1930s he contributed several plays for Unity Theatre, including the Mass Declamation Spain, the Munich-play Crisis and the revues Sandbag Follies and Get Cracking. He wrote a new version of Peer Gynt for Rupert Doone’s Group Theatre (where he was assistant editor of the Group Theatre Magazine). He founded a radical paperback publishing company, Fore Publications, selling half a million books in twelve months, and edited the best-selling Left Review, where he published and helped edit Nancy Cunard’s famous Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War.
MI5 opened a twenty-year long file on him because they disapproved of a song which he and Alan Bush wrote for a concert to mark the arrival of the Hunger March into London in 1934. The two men wrote Peace and Prosperity for the London Choral Union, a radically re-written production of Handel’s Belshazzar for the London Co-operative Movement and edited The Left Song Book for the Left Book Club. When Bush’s first Piano Concerto was premiered on the BBC in 1938, Adrian Boult was so uncomfortable with the politics of Swingler’s text in the choral finale that he led the orchestra and choir straight into the national anthem in an attempt to ‘balance’ the effect of the text on its listeners.
Original film of the return of the International Brigade British Battalion, 7 December 1938
Swingler and Auden wrote the libretto of Britten’s Ballad of Heroes, written to mark the return of the International Brigades to London, and were the only English poets included (with Alberti, Aragon, Guillen, Hughes, Lorca, Neruda and Tzara) in Les Poetes du Monde Defend le Peuple Espagnol. In 1938 he took over the editorship of the magazine Poetry and the People, re-launching it as the best-selling Our Time. In 1939 Swingler filled the Albert Hall with a historical verse-pageant starring Paul Robeson. He was also the literary editor of the Daily Worker; later becoming a staff reporter, reporting on the Blitz until the paper was banned in 1941.
During the Second World War Swingler served with the 56th Divisional Signals with the Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy. He took part in heavy fighting on the Volturno and Garigliano rivers, at Monte Camino (where he was buried alive for several hours), and on the Salerno and Anzio beach-heads. For his part in the battle of Lake Comacchio, Swingler was awarded the Military Medal for bravery. His collections The Years of Anger (1946) and The God in the Cave (1950) contain arguably some of the greatest poems of the Italian campaign.
After the War, Swingler was blacklisted by the BBC. Orwell attacked him in Polemic and included him in the list of names he offered the security services in 1949. Stephen Spender attacked him in The God that Failed.
In other words, Swingler’s work was clearly central to his times, and his life and writings should be central to any history of the period that is not disfigured by either carelessness or dishonesty. Twenty-five years ago, believing Swingler’s life and work to be undeservedly neglected, I began writing a biography, eventually published by Manchester University Press as Comrade Heart: A Life of Randall Swingler (2003).
Provoked by my difficulties in finding a publisher to even look at the manuscript, and then by the critical silence into which the book fell after it was published, I found myself writing longish verse-letters of apology to Swingler. The first of these was published by John Lucas at Shoestring Press in 1999 as Letter to Randall Swingler and reprinted in Just as Blue (Flambard, 2001). Letter II was first published in Comrade Laughter (Flambard, 2004).
Somehow the habit of occasional correspondence stuck. When, a few years ago, MI5 released some of their (heavily redacted) files on Swingler I realised that I was not, after all, the only person interested in his life and writings. I felt I ought to let him know what these people had been saying about him; Letter III was published in Sticky (Flambard, 2009). A fourth letter, which has not previously been published, was written towards the end of 2016, after the EU Referendum and the US presidential elections. All four letters are being published later this year by Shoestring as Letters to Randall Swingler.
Over the years Swingler has proved to be a congenial (if somewhat silent) correspondent, one who has generously allowed me space and time to reflect on some of the developments in poetry and politics since his death. The events of the last two decades have certainly given us both a lot to think about.
in memory of Edward
We woke today to find the world had changed: An unexpected snowfall in the night Has clarified the skyline, rearranged The sharpened shadows in a harsh new light, And what we thought familiar bright and strange, Disguised in simple terms of black and white. The phones are down, and all the roads are blocked. We dig in for the night. The doors are locked.
How suddenly and quickly change appears. And what a poor exchange for what it takes; The sand falls slowly through the glass for years, And then we fall asleep, the weather breaks, The sky falls in, and Winter’s cold frontiers Confront us now. The sleeping earth awakes Beneath the sky’s restrained and muffled violence. The dumbstruck world is suffering in silence.
Not every duckling comes back as a swan; A test result, a scan, a sudden frost; One minute friends are here, and then they’re gone, And now it feels as if we too have crossed The woeful waters of the Acheron, And change is just another word for lost. We wonder how we could have missed the clues, The zombies howling on this morning’s news.
No-one can say we couldn’t see this coming, Or that we’re not familiar with defeat; By now we ought to recognise the numbing Pretence that every rout’s a planned retreat; Somehow we did not understand the drumming Of hatreds boiling over on the street Against all those who do not talk the same; And did not know to call it by its name.
We crawl out of the womb toward the grave And warm ourselves at night by hungry fires Inside the strange and amniotic cave Of sleep and paint our primitive desires Upon its walls; by morning we are brave Enough to understand what day requires. But then, beyond the cave-mouth, what we know Is silenced by a sudden fall of snow.
In case you’re not sure where this letter’s going, Or if you think I’ve woken you once more Because I want to tell you that it’s snowing, I guess it’s time to drop this metaphor (Which has already s-s-started slowing My t-t-typing fingers) and restore The circulation to my freezing brain While there’s still time. I think I’d best explain.
The problem is, I don’t know how to put it, There are some things much better left unsaid, And every writer should know when to shut it, Especially when they’re talking to the dead, But more than this, whichever way you cut it, Of all the stanza forms I’ve ever read This damned ottava rima’s not much cop For channelling low-level agitprop.
To nail this form a Byron’s skills are needed (His nibs could churn this stuff out by the yard), In every form he handled he succeeded (And how his panting readers oohed and aahed); If I but had the stamina that he did Perhaps this stanza wouldn’t seem so hard; But then his lordship never had to worry About the bills (nor, thanks to him, did Murray).
Pentameter’s at least a foot too long To reproduce the beat of modern speech, Two sets of rhyming triplets are too strong (It always sounds as if you’re trying to preach) And quite unsuited to the English tongue Where half the rhymes you need are out of reach; And if this final couplet lacks a joke Your chances of a prize go up – oh fuck it.
These days I much prefer a fourteen-liner – Onyeginskaya strafa to be precise. It may be bonkers, but its faults are minor Compared to this Procrustean device: More leg-room, fewer murders, less angina, And words you only have to rhyme with twice. Instead I’m forced to march beneath the banner Of what you might call Byron’s donnish manner.
A handy form, perhaps if you are flyting, Though not, it’s fair to say, quite á la mode; No-one would ever call a form exciting Which trudges in the steps where Byron strode, Or take delight in any kind of writing That even Auden drop-kicked down the road, And chose instead a form much used by Chaucer, Less difficult to write, if somewhat coarser.
You must forgive me taking this excursion Regarding stanza-forms; it’s apropos Of what I’m trying to say about the version Of demagogic violence now on show: When reason’s threatened daily with coercion It’s not enough to say with Cicero Tempora mala sunt, and shake one’s head, The issue’s how to say what must be said.
This question would be easier, no doubt, If years ago we had not sold the pass, Pretending to have nowt to write about So long as there’s some well-heeled Maecenas With barrowfuls of prizes to hand out. But now the sand is slipping through the glass, And poetry is more than just a selfie And art’s not just a tax-dodge for the wealfy.
I don’t know if you’re following the story, Or if you get much news in Death’s abyss; For all I know, today’s red-top furore Before you get to hear of it in Dis Is wrapping chips on Proxima Centauri. So though I’d rather give this stuff a miss To understand this note you’re going to need A bit of help to bring you up to speed.
So much has happened since my previous letter I’m not sure how or where I should begin; What started as a comic operetta About the ins and outs of Out and In Has turned into a poisonous vendetta Which only the most venomous can win. I cannot be the only one who’s weary Of trying to conjugate the verb brexire.
Brexeo, brexis, brexit may sound cheerful, But seems to be derived from britimere Which means to be both British-born and fearful, Or else brodire – hating those who vary From low-browed Brits, who thus deserve an earful Of tabloid-Latin cockney-scarecrow scary – Or else the evil liberal élite. (Bramo, bramas, bramat is obsolete.)
It really isn’t hard to get the hang Of what you might call basic Ukipese: A kind of ugly patois bar-stool slang That’s eloquent with hate for refugees, Resentful and self-pitying harangue Part Mr Toad and one part Thersites, Afraid and full of hate! Who gives a toss? And who dare say, brerubescamus nos?
This bitter lingua franca is now spoken By foaming, feral packs of the Undead Surprised in violent dreams from which they’re woken By slavering dog-whistles in their heads, To smash the world and then complain it’s broken; The old palingenetic virus spreads, A plague of raw stupidity and malice From Washington to the Élyseé Palace.
The monsters that your generation fought And left for dead have recently escaped From unseen Hades’ dim and dismal court; Now suitably repackaged and reshaped, They’re cultivating popular support And so far seem to think they’ve got it taped Appealing to the meanest and the basest – Though nobody’s allowed to call them racist.
Perhaps there’s other ways we should describe This atavistic fear of those in need, The hatred of all those outside the tribe That looks uncommonly like common greed: But since good manners means we can’t ascribe To them such terms, perhaps we might proceed By calling them (I hardly think they’ll mind!) Ungenerous, ungracious and unkind.
Arise ye starvelings, eat your fill of hate, The age of cant and superstition’s here, The empty promises that fill your plate With others’ crumbs will quickly disappear; Unreason in revolt must always wait In servile chains of hatred, greed and fear Until the day the human race has sussed We need not spurn the prize to win the dust.
In case you think I overstate the threat, I’m writing this from Richard Desmond’s Britain, In which The People’s Will’s a household pet (A cross between a Pit Bull and a kitten) That wants to do its worst, videlicet, Let off the leash when someone must be bitten; A dog who doesn’t know his master’s tricked him, A bully who believes that he’s the victim.
From Golden Dawn and Jobbik to Svoboda, Alternative für Deutschland, all the way To Dacre’s acres there’s a noisome odour Of something dead, the perfume of decay And atrophy, a repetitious coda Of ancient music that won’t go away, But lingers like the primitive refrain Of fear and hatred pumping round the brain.
These days the Walking Dead are all the rage, (And rage, of course, is crucial to their style), From Wilders to Farage they’ve fouled the age With ignorance and bigotry and bile, And yet there’s something of the panto-stage About the neo-fascist reptile smile: Pure Captain Hook, but with a generous sprinkle Of Davros, Vader, Mekon, Ming and Hynkel.
Stage villains such as these, of course, provide Material for the best of our lampoonists, And broad-sheet leader-writers may deride These cynical and clever opportunists, But nothing seems to stroke their oafish pride So much as when they’re skewered by cartoonists; Their critics are the mirror on the wall That tells them they’re the smartest of them all.
The Donald may be madder than a hatter (This man would make Caligula look sane) But mocking Donald only seems to flatter The fragile self-love of the Donald’s brain. In other words, it ain’t no laughing matter (It’s hard to ridicule the King of Spain) And nobody dare say if, how, or when The pen will prove as mighty as Le Pen.
This toxic mix of violence and vanity That marches to the beat of threats and lies Delirious with fear of all humanity, The rhetoric of hate that glorifies The stirrings of a popular insanity Is one, alas, I think you’ll recognise, Who understood what you were fighting for At Anzio in 1944.
This is the reason why I am pretending To write to you again. It makes no sense, I know; you’re dead, and not, I think, intending To join this correspondence; my defence Is simply that, now Fascism is trending It’s time that we abandoned the pretence That what you thought the struggle of the age is The property of History’s unread pages.
Although I know I’m talking to myself (So no change there then) this device allows At least a semblance of my mental health To be preserved, while you and I can browse The annals of our broken commonwealth And try to understand how History ploughs Boustrophedon, from left to right, once more, And what’s left of your anti-Fascist war.
When you came limping home from Anzio And felt that you had come back from the dead, Though there were still so many miles to go Through months of mud and blood, the road ahead Was clear, from there to Lake Comacchio, And as the tyrant monster, wounded, fled It knew in every mile of its retreat, The certainty of Fascism’s defeat.
I’m older now than you were when you died – Which is a somewhat bleak and chilling notion. I was still in my thirties when I tried To excavate your tomb. With what devotion I dug among your ruins! With the pride Of Cortez glimpsing his Pacific Ocean I pulled you out from underneath the rubble. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.
It’s fifty years next Summer since you copped it, That’s fifty years of spiralling dismay; What’s left of what was left has been co-opted To manage change (and increase bankers’ pay) So now the cause of change has been adopted By those who wear the mask of Castlereagh. In short, the world your victory helped construct – As people say these days – is proper fucked.
Although our culture’s still obsessed with wars, Your war’s routinely gutted of its fury, An episode that merely underscores The insular and sentimental story About this blessed island and the cause Of Britishness (a synonym for Tory) Against the rest – viz anyone wot does Not seem to be prepared to talk like us.
I’m sending this from Y2K16, A UK of know-nothing and poor taste, An infantile and brain-dead zombie scene, Of greed and famine, glut and pointless waste, In which the flags of ’45 have been Forgot for so long that they’ve been replaced By shiny baubles, trinkets, tinsel, trash, The world’s one hope reduced to dust and ash.
On which depressing note I’ll say good day; I’m tired of this ridiculous endeavour, I’ve other things to do, and anyway You’ve put up with this long enough. Whatever. Some day the freezing snows must melt away, And Winter’s darkness cannot last forever. But how long till the morning that will bring The lenitive, warm promises of Spring?