Friday, 04 November 2016 15:36

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90

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'Work For It!' John Berger at 90

John Berger was born on 5th November 1926. To celebrate his 90th birthday, we republish some of his poems, an interview, and some of his quotations.

One of the people who was due to attend the Teeside International Poetry Festival in 2015 was John Berger, the Marxist art critic, essayist, novelist, artist and poet. He could not come in the end, due to severe arthritis, but he appeared via Skype at one of the sessions, and recited some poems from his recent collection, published by Smokestack Books.

Collected Poems reflects Berger's longstanding concerns with art and politics, love and war, history and memory, and the life of the peasantry around him (he used to live in the Haute Savoie, in the French Alps). They demonstrate an enduring commitment to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.

You can tell from the poems that the writer is a fine draughtsman and artist. Each one of them is like a perfectly framed image, a painted still life, sensual, honest and plain. They are sketches of hard lives, caught between the provisional nature of language and the permanence of things. Here are five of the poems.

16.45h The Firing Squad

The dog carried the day in her mouth
over the fields of the small hours
towards a hiding place
which before had been safe.

Nobody was woken before dawn.

At noon
the dog sprawling in the shade
placed the pup between her four paws
and waited in vain
for it to suck.

A line of prisoners
hands knotted
fall forward
into the grave they have dug.

Belly to the earth
the dog carries the day
which has never stirred
back to its dark.

Under the stars the bereaved
imagine they hear
a dog howling too
on the edge of the world.

This piteous day was born
stone-deaf and blind.

Napalm

Mother let me cry
not letterpress
nor telex
nor stainless speech
bulletins
announce disaster
with impunity -
but the pages of the wound.

Mother let me speak
not adjectives
to colour
their maps of wretchedness
nor nouns to classify
the families of pain -
but the verb of suffering.

My mother tongue taps
the sentence
on the prison wall
Mother let me write
the voices
howling in the falls.


History

The pulse of the dead
as interminably
constant as the silence
which pockets the thrush.

The eyes of the dead
inscribed on our palms
as we walk on this earth
which pockets the thrush.


Seven Levels of Despair

To search each morning
to find the scraps
with which to survive another day.

The knowledge on waking
that in this legal wilderness
no rights exist.

The experience over the years
of nothing getting better
only worse.
The humiliation of being able
to change almost nothing,
and of seizing upon the almost
which then leads to another impasse.

The listening to a thousand promises
which pass inexorably
beside you and yours.

The example of those who resist
being bombarded to dust.

The weight of your own killed
a weight which closes
innocence for ever
because they are so many.


Ladle

Pewter pock-marked
moon of the ladle
rising above the mountain
going down into the saucepan
serving generations
steaming
dredging what has grown from seed
in the garden
thickened with potato
outliving us all
on the wooden sky
of the kitchen wall

Serving mother
of the steaming pewter breast
veined by the salts
fed to her children
hungry as boars
with the evening earth
engrained around their nails
and bread the brother
serving mother

Ladle
pour the sky steaming
with the carrot sun
the stars of salt
and the grease of the pig earth
pour the sky steaming
ladle
pour soup for our days
pour sleep for our night
pour years for my children


Art and Politics

As well as being a major poet, John Berger is a cultural critic who has challenged and changed the way we see the world, in countless essays and in books such as Ways of Seeing, Permanent Red, Pig Earth, and the novel G.

During the Skype session at the Festival, he answered some questions about art and politics. I followed this up with a telephone interview with him, and exchanged some texts, and below I set out the questions he was asked, and the answers that he gave.

Q. What constitutes good art?

A. Good art is like a lorry: it transports.

Q. Are poets, as Shelley famously suggested, the unacknowledged legislators of the world?

A. Poets are not legislators themselves, but they can be great agents of change. They evoke the need for a new politics by being able to envision the world, to summon up the past and future, to make them present, thus making it clearer how things could be different.

Q. Auden said that poetry changed nothing, and Brecht said that art is a hammer with which to change reality. Can poetry make useful political interventions, and change reality?

A. Well you have to remember that reality is not just some outside, fixed given, it includes our experience of what’s out there. With that in mind, it seems to me that poetry can indeed change people, because we all know how a good poem alters, no matter how slightly, our perceptions of the world around us. Those perceptions lead to us making hundreds of different choices, including political choices. So its effect is continuous, and multiple.  It can also encourage disobedience, and demonstrate that language is not necessarily the meaningless crap by which we are surrounded!

Q. You have produced many kinds of writing, including art criticism, novels, essays, and poems. Which discipline do you prefer the most?

A. Nearly all my work has involved collaborations with other people. For example, Ways of Seeing, for which most people know me best, was a collaboration with several others, and this tends to get forgotten.  So I would say that I don’t have a preferred genre as such, but I do have a preferred mode of creativity, and that is collaboration. For me, collaboration is a kind of solidarity, in fact it creates solidarity, and that is for me a very important principle of working.

Q. You spoke of the ability of poetry to envision the world. How should teachers and academics approach poetry, what should they do with it, and how should it be taught?

A. Students and people generally should be encouraged to surround themselves with poetry, with the sounds and forms and silences that are in poems.

Q. What impact do you think the internet has had on the arts and society generally?

A. The internet is a fast, effective way of sharing a lot of information. It thus helps expose and clarify the present structures of power in the world. It makes it clearer how globalised capitalism works, how the world is run by decisions taken by giant transnational corporations, by tiny elites of capitalists.
I think many young people see this clearly, partly because of the ease with which they handle new technology, but also because they are one of the main victims of unemployment, low pay and insecure employment.

Politicians have lost power, or perhaps it has become clearer how little power they ever really had. But they won’t admit it, and this leads to great folly and doublespeak in the use of language, which alienates people, it makes us feel lost and desperate. But we can resist it when we realize where power comes from, and as I say, the internet and new technology generally can help clarify where real power lies.

Q. What would be your parting message be to us?

A. We live in a dark age. Art has existed for at least 30,000 years. Another age of hope will come.

Work for it!

Some Quotes from John Berger


'the issue is between a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience and the esoteric approach of a few specialised experts, who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline. In decline, not before the proletariat, but before the new power of the corporation and the state.'

‘I now believe there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or art and state property, unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can be developed any further.'

'My aim has been to try and destroy this bourgeois society'

'The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.'

Read 696 times Last modified on Tuesday, 15 November 2016 20:34

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