Alan Morrison surveys the recent 'mushrooming depth-charge' of political poetry in various anthologies, welcomes the rise of radical publishers, and introduces his new website, Militant Thistles.
Since The Recusant/Caparison’s anti-austerity poetry anthologies, Emergency Verse – Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State (2010/11) and The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity (2011/2012), there has been a sustained and mushrooming depth-charge of political-polemical poetry in the UK.
Fitting, since we are in a decade effectively twinned with the Depression-hit 1930s, a decade during which there was an explosion of political poetry (Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, MacNeice, Wintringham, Cornford, Lindsay, Caudwell etc.), and prose polemic through Victor Gollancz’ Left Book Club (recently resuscitated by Pluto Press, hot on the heels of the revival of that other Thirties-born polemical imprint, Pelican).
Surprising, since, in spite of today’s social and political upheavals we are, nevertheless, at the tail-end of an at least two-decade-long apolitical postmodernist hegemony in mainstream poetry.
POLEMICAL ERUPTION IN POETRY
But, just as the momentous triumph of left-wing outsider Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race took even the most optimistic by surprise, so too has the sudden polemical eruption across the poetic spectrum in response to Tory ascendency. Both would have been thought highly fanciful prospects only months before, but, today, they are actually happening.
Emergency Verse’s direct response to Chancellor Osborne’s epoch-crushing ‘Emergency Budget’, back in June 2010, anticipated the steady rupture of more openly political poetry, contrapuntal to Jody Porter’s re-energising of the Well Versed columns in the Morning Star.
Throughout the past five years there have been a number of ‘big imprint’ collections at least ostensibly addressing socio-political topics; scores of more authentically political collections through presses such as Smokestack, International Times, Waterloo, Red Squirrel; many political poetry anthologies and campaigns, such as Poems for Freedom, Fit for Work: Poets Against Atos, The Stare’s Nest, Proletarian Poetry; and, more recently, the pre-election Campaign in Poetry, the post-election poetry blogsite, New Boots and Pantisocracies, and promptly ‘on-the-pulse’ Poets for Corbyn and 21 Poems for Jeremy Corbyn.
New Boots and Pantisocracies is worth particular mention for accomplishing the considerable feat of attracting contributions from scores of ‘high profile’ poets not normally known for composing polemical poems. It seems these poets were prompted to contribute to this vast project due to entering what the site terms the ‘new dispensation’ i.e. solo Tory rule.
That we have been under Tory rule for the past five years (due to the impotence of the Lib Dems’ much-trumpeted “restraining influence” of so-called “Coalition”), with much of the most devastating cuts and social culls already enacted (not least the 91,000+ Atos-hounded sick and disabled claimants who ‘died’ between 2011 and 2014!), is a moot point. But W.N. Herbert and Andy Jackson’s valiant initiative distinguishes itself for having managed to galvanise a sizeable portion of the hitherto politically inert poetry mainstream to finally assert itself against Tory austerity and associated narratives. It has also served to provide much-needed reinforcements to the veteran anti-austerity poetry alternative.
Militant Thistles (strap-line: ‘prickling the politics of permanent austerity’) is The Recusant/Caparison’s latest venture, which is essentially an online continuation of the outpouring of polemical poetry that our two previous e- and print anthologies brought to a significant readership.
The Caparison anthologies were published at a period when speaking out politically in poetry was still perceived as outré –even reputationally perilous– in the mainstream, in spite of tokenistic attempts by such flagship journals as Poetry Review to catch up with the rupture of political poetry happening pretty much entirely outside its culturally-lagging pages (cue the solipsistic ‘Where is the New Political Poetry?’ issue under Fiona Sampson’s twilight editorship).
That it now appears to be de rigueur to write political poetry in opposition to Tory-imposed austerity, and the hitherto taboo of “welfare reform”, is to be greatly celebrated.
Militant Thistles’ title is taken from Cyril Connolly, who himself lifted the phrase from George Crabbe’s ‘covert pastoral’ (see William Empson) poem ‘The Heath’. Connolly employed the phrase, in his Enemies of Promise (1938), as a metaphor for ‘political writers’, and, in part, meant it thornily: he saw political writing as one of many potential pitfalls for authors and poets.
Our use of the phrase is a prickly riposte to Connolly’s cautionary take which, together with the truncated Auden trope ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (which goes on, however: ‘…it survives/ In the valley of its making…/A way of happening, a mouth’), inadvertently let the postmodernist mainstream ‘off the political hook’.
Our use of the phrase is a little more optimistic with regards to today’s political poetry imperative. We aim to remain thistles in the consciences (if they have any!) of our current Tory rulers for the duration of what will undoubtedly prove a socially corrosive reign of the blue torch (or torched oak).