Thursday, 14 September 2023 17:42

Igniting the Fire: Poetry and Keeping Hope Alive

Written by
in Poetry
The Burning Hope
The Burning Hope
by Razan Joshi

I began writing this quarterly column looking for reasons to stay ‘hopeful’, whatever that means. I used to know. Or else, I thought I did: something like Gramsci's riff on Romain Rolland: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ Which is not merely a clear-eyed understanding of how bad things are, but an acknowledgement that the conditions for revolutionary change do not yet exist. Such change, for Gramsci, could only be brought about through organised, disciplined action. Specifically, through the vanguard party seeking to establish a workers' state. Obviously, this is not within the scope of our daily lives, but we can still find inspiration in the fact that Gramsci's ‘hope’ – like our ‘solidarity’– is a verb and not a noun. It exists only in its active expression.

This is what I and others lose sight of at times: this sense of hope as something we do and not something we feel. We have given up the idea of hope as purposeful, collective action. We have been looking for the wrong things in the wrong place. We should be seeking, not reasons to be hopeful, but ways of being hopeful. This realisation is potentially significant: it allows us to see how the notion of hope has been co-opted by various neoliberal forces as a means of discouraging action in the face of oppression. If hope is neutered from its intended action-oriented nature, then it becomes individualistic and passive, an adult form of wishful thinking, an ongoing distraction from the work we are called to do. The more I sit with this thought, the more I see the rebranding of hope as supremely tactical, part of a pincer manoeuvre that attempts to deny poor and working-class people the experience of hope through the twin levers of destruction and appropriation.

Robbed of hope

In the first instance, we are robbed of our capacity to hope, to imagine a future with us in it. Hope is destroyed by an all-pervasive inequality of access, opportunity and provision; our oppressions are daily, multiple, and utterly exhausting, so much so that they seem absolute and inescapable. We are so consumed with the work of daily survival that our strength is too sapped for anything else. In the second instance, our hope is diverted into self-transcending narratives of ultimate ‘success’. Hope is repurposed as idle escape fantasy, or the cut-throat hustle to rise above our class. Such narratives are as popular as they are insidious: they paint achieving change – especially economic change, and especially as it concentrates within individual lives – as the sole motivator for working towards change. No value is placed on common struggle, no credence is given to the generational and on-going nature of hope. Rather, hope becomes a closed circuit: a privatised end, not an open, collective means.

Aaron Kent's poem ‘A Collective Noun is a Hostile State’ takes this tendency fiercely and directly to task. It does so in a number of ways, most potently by collapsing the seemingly intangible political forces that govern our lives with the injured sick and suffering bodies they act upon, suggesting that these forces may also be shattered ‘like glass, like kneecaps, like dreams’.

The poem is delivered in four terse tercets. Each stanza contains some kind of bodily emanation or contortion, and each contains the threat of violence or collapse. Yet I found the most compelling stanza to be the almost whimsical and least overtly violent second one. It is the only stanza in which the poem's speaker is a tangible presence; this lyric ‘I’ announces itself, it seems, to undercut precisely its own importance in contrast with the collective, both contingent and historical. The speaker's opening gambit is ‘I have nothing to offer besides’ and they go on to list their meagre contributions: ‘cover for/ shoplifters’, ‘excuses for [Guy] Fawkes’, and weirdly ‘pirouettes for smoking ballerinas’. Each offering emphasises the marginal, futile, or non-serious nature of the speaker's contribution; this stands in stark contrast to the monolithic nature of much contemporary lyric poetry that privileges its speaking subjects as originators of profound moral and artistic insight. There is no room in Kent's poem for the exceptionalism of the individual, they are part of history's chorus line, tendering their precarious pirouettes.

In the third stanza I am struck by the brilliantly alliterative ‘clusterfuck/ of fences’ and by the idea of ‘a haemoglobin swollen/ beyond the devolution of a body’, which once again merges body and the body-politic, pointing to a sickened surfeit of both consumption and suffering. This grotesquerie signals something equally morbid in our shared political organism. The final stanza suggests that if the poet's response to such sickness is prioritising (and poetically aggrandising) the self, by ‘meditating/ on a dandelion puff’ and discharging anxiety in peaceable catharsis, then such a response is, at best, inadequate. At worst, it produces a kind of ‘astigmatism of the soul’ where one sees a distorted reflection of a world made small, and where one is distorted in their turn.

A true attention to how things are – to the ‘hostile [political] state’ – would indeed require a ‘hostile state’ [of mind, of existence] not in renunciation of hope, but, as writer China Miéville  puts it, alive to the idea that:

There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it. We have to test it, subject it to the strain of appropriate near-despair. […] We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford. In the face of what is done, we cannot think utopia without hate. (The Limits of Utopia, Salvage, 2015).

In other words, hope – like anger – is an agitating energy. Its opposite is not hate, but indifference and apathy.

The poem ‘Your Life is Paused’ by Peadar O'Donoghue captures this sense of apathy and its entanglement in our social media technologies. The title and opening lines adapt the language of online streaming to highlight our enmeshment in the digital world, turning life itself into another form of arrested ‘content’. With short, deceptively simple lines, O' Donoghue is able to convey the stuck, frustrated feeling that assails us when our devices or platforms fail. The poem also creates an under-song of creeping suspicion: that our own lives are similarly suspended in digital limbo, hours lost to dull-eyed doom-scrolling.

What I think is the most significant feature of the poem is its bottomless barrel of becauses. Superficially, they resemble answers, while in reality they provide no adequate explanation or relief for the apathetic disconnect of being ‘on pause’. Instead, their very repetition generates its own well of meaninglessness into which speaker and reader alike disappear. The vaguely paternal homilies ‘Because, because, child’ and ‘Because night follows day’ sit uneasily beside references to neoliberal surveillance culture, evoking an infantilising differential in power, knowledge, and status that is as sinister as it is depressing: ‘Because we know all about you/ Because you know nothing/ about us.’

This poem got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about ‘apathy’, which is often characterised as a sense of boredom or lack, a kind of negative space. O'Donoghue's poem gives us a slightly different take. In ‘Your Life is Paused’ apathy arises from numbing inundation, from emotional burnout and attention fatigue. As with Kent's poem the lyric ‘I’ is absent, but not out of deference to the glorious, insurgent collective. Rather, ‘Your Life is Paused’ gives us the depersonalised despair of being without hope. There is a kind of generative negativity that can stimulate desire and motivate action towards change, but the horror of O'Donoghue's poem is that there is no space for such desires to seed, such intentions to form, and no community towards which the speaker can reach, only disconnected data points in an unmappable matrix of profit and carnage.

The need for solidarity

What's missing is solidarity, and the reflective space in which solidarity might be imagined into existence. What O'Donoghue's poem points to is the need for and the lack of such spaces in the lives of so many of us, but it also tenders the poem itself as one such space, however narrow and however hedged. This is also what I would like to offer: the poem as a way of being hopeful and the act of reading as a form of resistance, repair and survival.

Scott Alsworth's ‘The History of a Spear’ closes on an image of ‘an artefact, almost conquered and forgotten’, a museum piece, stripped of activating agency, inert behind perspex. What is particularly striking about this poem is that it does not merely describe the spear, but addresses it directly, endowing it with human qualities. The effect is to blur the line between the poem's addressee (the spear) and its reader, a collapse of identities signalled through the Alsworth's use of the ambiguous pronoun ‘you’. Because we feel implicated in the speaker's address, we understand that the poem is about more than the characteristics of a Bronze Age implement.

Specifically, I think the poem asks us to consider how dignity and an almost limitless potential can be eroded or rendered null over time. Across five tightly turned, unrhymed couplets, Alsworth shows us the spear shaping daily life ('Fish curling from your point') and pivotal in history (‘In Christ's side’). Crucially, we also see the long imaginative shadow the spear casts across cultures: from ‘Ron’ (the spear of King Arthur in the Welsh Arthurian legends), through ‘Gungnir’ (the spear of the Norse god, Odin), to the ‘Gáe Bulg’ (the magical spear of mortal pain belonging to the Ulster Cycle's most famous hero, Cúchulainn). In listing the spear's multiple mythical incarnations, Alsworth creates an aura of importance and richly storied symbolism around an ordinary object, used by ordinary hands. The power of these names is then swiftly undercut by the spear's current condition: trapped in ‘spells of perspex’, ‘ageing with time's flesh’. Alsworth's use of ‘spells’ feels telling. It points to a warning that the aims and ambitions of museum collecting are not necessarily benevolent or neutral. In the precincts of elite intellectual and cultural space, who gets to tell those stories? Who gets to decide what those objects mean? What does that do to our idea of ourselves and what might be possible for us? Against this process of diminishment, Alsworth erects the unbounded imagination, the scene and the space of literature. The spear is only ‘almost’ conquered and forgotten. While stories, poems, myths and legends can still be recalled and retold, we have a language in which to dream a better version of ourselves.

Is this enough? Maybe not. Not if this insistence is considered as a dry, disembodied assemblage of ‘text’. But poetry has another self that exists in the shivers and chills we experience when reading or hearing it; the hitch in the breath when we speak the words out loud. Such feelings are a kind of communitas, that is a fleeting sense of being present and part of something bigger than ourselves. We've all felt this. I've felt it hearing poetry on picket lines. I've felt it at sweaty Crass gigs. I've felt it, conversely, in church, or simply when wrapping my mouth around a favourite poem from the past. I got to experience a version of it again after being sent Pink Punk Poetry, a collaboration between Swedish writer and performer Lou Ice – aka Louise Halvardsson – and Avzounds, a small scale, not for profit music production company based in Teeside.

Spoken, Halvardsson's poems have a relentless, nervy quality that suit the buzzing soundscapes they are  paired with. Thematically, they centre on a desire for escape and autonomy from the strictures of political, social, and familial life and the limiting expectations they engender. This sense of suppressed fire is matched by Halvardsson's verbal delivery – sometimes a cool purr, sometimes a choked snarl – her voice stretching itself in multiple directions at once, creating its own idiosyncratic rhythm. On the page, the pieces have a direct, no-nonsense quality, the niceties of ‘technique’ subordinate to the urgency of their themes. This is not to say that Halvardsson has no knack for a striking image or an aptly turned phrase, but that's not where the poems live or how they're meant to be encountered. To do them justice, to meet them on their terms is to listen to them. Loudly, here.


Lou Ice

The hope I detect in Halvardsson's poems is the through-line in all of the pieces I've shared this quarter: it’s the doing, the active, urgent movement in the world, the determination to attest to and make a life despite all and in the teeth of all that besets us. The poems are not consoling, their purpose is not to help their readers endure the endurable. Rather, they point to the work that is still to do: building the collective that we anticipate and desire.

A Collective Noun is a Hostile State

The verisimilitude of law is that it too
shatters like glass, like kneecaps, like dreams
caught in the turbine of sleaze.
I have nothing to offer besides cover for
shoplifters, excuses for Fawkes,
pirouettes for smoking ballerinas.
London isn't a pipe dream, it's a clusterfuck
of fences, a haemoglobin swollen
beyond the devolution of a body.
You can't change the system meditating
on a dandelion puff, or thinking yourself worthwhile.
Bettering yourself is astigmatism for the soul.

By Aaron Kent


Your Life is Paused

Because it is being used
in several locations
Because, well let's face it,
where was it going?
Because we know all about you
Because you know nothing
about us
Because, because, child.
Because night follows day
(but never knows where)
Because there is so much
Because there is so little
Because war makes money
Because sides means war
Because Halliburton

By Peadar O'Donoghue


History of a Spear

here, a black
disintegrating leaf, copper

scrollwork — dark shard in the heart
of man, it’s hard to think of you now

in primatial hands. Fish curling from your point.
In Alexander’s dreams of Kleitos. In Christ’s side.

Ron, Gungnir, Gàe Bulg
in spells of perspex, all your antiquity and might

are ageing with time’s flesh
an artefact, almost conquered and forgotten.

By Scott Alsworth


Aaron Kent is an award-winning poet and publisher from Cornwall. Aaron is a working-class writer, and particularly wants to advocate for more working-class voices in literature. He had several poetry pamphlets published, his debut collection, Angels the Size of Houses, is available from Shearsman Books, and his 2nd collection, The Working Classic, is available with the87press.

Scott Alsworth is a video game developer, political activist, and reviewer for the Morning Star. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Geoffrey Dearmer prize. His work has appeared in Poetry Review, Brittle Star, The Literary Review, Challenge, and the Morning Star, amongst other places. He lives in Norfolk and manages a co-development studio.

Peadar ‘King Badger’ O'Donoghue writes things (that are a bit like poems) and takes photographs, tries to paint, to assemble things found on the beach, vainly tries to sleep. He co-edits all at PB Press with his wife Collette. His ambition is to be reborn as a badger. He has published two critically acclaimed collections, Jewel, with Salmon poetry, and, The Death of Poetry, with PB Press. He has published poems all over the place, most recently in The Irish Times.

AVzounds are based in Teesside, UK, and work with spoken word performers. Amongst other projects, they are currently working with asylum seekers to help tell their stories, which will be set to music.

Read 676 times Last modified on Tuesday, 19 September 2023 10:14
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.