The poetry of common ownership
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:01

The poetry of common ownership

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison,  the editor of The Recusant and Militant Thistle websites, is preparing a series of articles for Culture Matters on the history of English political poetry. This opening 'proem' is an introduction to the series, building on both Andy Croft's article on The Privatisation of Poetry and Mike Sanders' article on Making Better Rhymes: Chartist Poetry and Working Class Struggle.

Andy Croft’s essay against the implicitly capitalist notion of poetry as ‘property’ (what we might call ‘propetry’), and Mike Sanders' article on working class Chartist poetry, open up a much-needed debate on the contention that poetry and all literature is essentially a communal phenomenon, since its prime purpose is surely to communicate as widely as possible and share ideas and experiences. 

These are notions unfashionable in a capitalistic postmodernist poetry ‘mainstream’, which is often characterised by one-upmanship and individualistic careerism, though also, ironically, a striking uniformity of style. This mainstream poetry is sponsored by what are effectively ‘poetry corporations’ or ‘poetry monopolies’: the hedge-funded Poetry Book Society, the all-encompassing Poetry Society, the ‘top’ metropolitan imprints, and, most pervasively of all, the poetry prize and competition circuit.

But Croft’s communistic premise is one with which great literary thinkers such as Christopher Caudwell and W.H. Auden would have been in complete agreement, back in the Thirties, which was the most pronouncedly ‘political’ period of British poetics.

That there is a germ of commonality in literature is indisputable, and the heartening notion of what might be termed a ‘poetry of common ownership’ is not so quixotic as it might sound when one explores the too-often obscured and ignored ‘shadow lineage’ of proletarian poetics throughout British literary history. For example, the explosion of polemical poetry of the Industrial Revolution, most notably among the Chartist movement (1838–1858) whose political cause was almost inseparable from the prolific school of polemical poetics it inspired, as Michael Sanders is illustrating in his series of articles.

Poets are magpies

Words belong to all of us, and, ultimately, what is poetry, or any other form of literature, but the creative rearranging of words into particular combinations? While the nuances of these verbal rearrangements and phrasal orderings may be claimed as the expressive property of the word-arrangers, the words themselves cannot be, since they are formed from the common tongue, or lexicon, the lingua franca. And who has ever claimed proprietorship over words? Not even seminal lexicographer Samuel Johnson claimed that.

Poets are magpies: attracted to phrases like shiny objects from which they most often fashion other phrases, or variations of phrase, and, sometimes unconsciously, ‘lift’ or ‘borrow’ phrases. To ‘borrow’ in this way is not to claim something belongs to one as much as it belongs to everyone, and can be reused or imbued with new meanings in different contexts. Within reasonable degrees, this is also complimentary to the original ‘phrase maker’. Moreover, what are poets, artists, but creative baton-carriers who are inspired by former works of predecessors and then in turn reshape these influences to the expression of their own personality? And is ‘phrasal borrowing’ less taboo in titles to poems, which can in turn also shape their concepts or themes?

T.S. Eliot, one of the most distinctive and individualistic voices in poetry of any period, had this to say on the subject:

'Traces of Kipling appear in my own mature verse where no diligent scholarly sleuth has yet observed them, but which I am myself prepared to disclose. I once wrote a poem called ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: I am convinced that it would never have been called ‘Love Song’ but for a title of Kipling's that stuck obstinately in my head: The Love Song of Har Dyal'.

Should Eliot be accused of plagiarism, of leeching off Kipling’s imagination to come up with his poem’s title? Few poets were so aware of the poetic canon and tradition, and of their temporal place in the poetic continuum, as T.S. Eliot. Indeed, his aforementioned poem, a ‘seminal’ one for Anglo-American Modernism, is laced thickly with allusions that frequently melt into full-on phrasal borrowings from previous poets and writers, from such ‘common-held’ or ‘folkloric’ sources as the plays of Shakespeare and the aphorisms of the New Testament.

For all of Eliot’s own considerable genius, he was one of the most thoroughly-sourced poets of them all. He was as much a polymath scholar in poetry as James Joyce was in poetic prose, and both of their writings, significantly, were steeped in Greco-Roman mythological allusions.

Indeed, so rich in allusions to previous works of literature, not to say actual quotations couched in the poet’s own tropes, was Eliot’s most celebrated poem, The Waste Land, that he specifically furnished it with detailed annotations ‘with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism’. As Hugh Kenner puts it in his brilliantly insightful and beautifully written, The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, ‘Cities are built out of the ruins of previous cities, as The Waste Land is built out of the remains of older poems’.

Hence, without its sources, The Waste Land, that ‘heap of broken images’, could not have been written, at least, not in the distinctly splintered, aphoristic and fragmentary way that it was, which was an enormous part of the mystique which came to surround it and fascinate poets and scholars for generations afterwards. Is Eliot the sum of his sources? Eliot was part of a poetic pattern, and he knew his place in that pattern, and might well not have become a poet at all were it not for his keen awareness of it.

The Waste Land was Eliot’s definitive expression of this sense of literary inheritance and curatorship, and is in many ways a work of poetic archaeology dealing as it does in poetic relics and ruins, just as Ulysses, published the same year (1922), was for James Joyce. It was also Eliot, of course, who coined the contentious aphorism: ‘Good poets borrow, great poets steal’. We’ll leave the discussion of Eliot and Joyce there, minded as I am as to the irony of discussing two of the most accomplished exponents of what Cyril Connolly called the ‘Mandarin’ tradition in literature, in a proem to a series of articles on a much earthier proletarian poetic tradition.

Ploughing the common land

The literary scholar Hugh Kenner, then, gifts us a fitting metaphor for the nature of poetry, indeed, of all literature and creative human work: ‘cities built out of ruins of previous cities’.

No poetry can ever be truly original, and that’s as much to do with the fundamental homology of language as it is the inheritance of the literature sprouted from it. In this sense, then, and to use a more natural metaphor, every new poem is a transplanting in place of a past crop: the soil that nourishes all crops belongs to no one, hence to everyone; it is not up for grabs, only for refurbishment. Language is common land – the common tongue – and poetry is its most beautiful flower.

All poets are part of a pattern, inspired by their predecessors, thence continuing the creative process and thereby contributing to the ongoing reinvigoration and reorganisation of the common tongue; like ploughing the common land. It is also disputable as to whether any poets, any creative persons, are actually the architects of their own talents or simply the vessels through which transcendent creative powers are operating.

After all, inspiration is a prime component to creativity. The etymology of ‘inspired’ comes from the word ‘inspirited’ i.e. to inspirit, to put spirit into something. And the commonly used term ‘gift’ to describe a talent is too often overlooked in its implications: what else is a ‘gift’ but something given to someone? Creativity might be partly inherited, partly self-nurtured, but can never be entirely self-nurtured: one cannot create oneself, hence cannot create one’s own creativity.

Of course, it’s only polite for the ‘borrower’ to acknowledge such borrowings, but to neglect to do so is more impolite than impious. Don’t all poets begin by borrowing, even sometimes by some subtle form of plagiarising? Some of the most highly respected poets of the past began writing that way. And should a particular poetic metre be the property only of its inventor? If so, Keats’ Spenserian stanzas are metrical theft!

Nothing can get us away from the fundamental fact that language belongs to all of us. Its cogs might be oiled by wordmongers in order to rescue them from neglect, even to retune and neologise, but ultimately no one can claim copyright of the common tongue. The egoistic urge to do so is what Christopher Caudwell would have termed a ‘petit-bourgeois’ one, wrapped up with impulses to oneupmanship and self-promotion, of which all poets can be guilty at times.

But if those are the prime urges of any poets, then it’s perhaps better they don’t write poetry at all, but instead set themselves up as private landlords and deal in bricks and mortar rather than iambs and metaphors, if they are more concerned with impressing themselves and asserting property rights over peers and readers than attempting to upkeep the poetic soil and continue nourishing common consciousness.

Humility is the compost of poetry

There must be humility in the poet – without it, the poetry simply moulders into ornamental solipsism. To extend the agricultural metaphor, humility is the compost of poetry. The notion of literature as private property, or ‘intellectual property’, is not only a relatively recent thing historically-speaking, but also a distinctly bourgeois concept. Tellingly, much of the ‘common’ poetry of the 17th through to the early 19th centuries was often published anonymously or under pseudonyms, which in itself emphasised a sense of shared ownership in the poems. They were often spread by word of mouth as much as by pamphlet or broadside, tipping them into the common psyche in the same way that common prayers and anthems are, and thence entering into a kind of proletarian folkloric cannon. This act of committal to folk memory has, however, been historically obscured by the self-appointed keepers of British literary ‘polite society’; the plenipotentiary of poetic posterity.

This anonymity of authorship not only emphasised a sense of common ownership of poetry and literature, it also hinted at a contempt for notions of property, especially that of creative expression, and, just as impressively, an indifference towards posterity. Indeed, as the fittingly anonymous Introduction to The Common Muse – Popular British ballad poetry from the 15th to the 20th century puts it (my bold italics):

'The ballad-monger was mobile and difficult to regulate; the ballad poet (often the same person) was usually anonymous. Hence, he was not overawed by Authority – legal, clerical or critical – or by Posterity. Though the limitations of his outlook bound him to his own time and place, he was in all other ways free…'

In every sense then, this proletarian poetry by and on behalf of the un-propertied was symbiotically anti-property. And no doubt one of the reasons for the anonymity of polemical poems and broadside ballads of the past was in order to keep the authors safe from any repercussions due to possible inflammatory or seditious messages in their verses. In this sense such widely distributed polemical poems served as anonymous versified Round Robins.

Building Jerusalem

But the signature of a name to a poem hasn’t always carried with it all the rights-asserting implications and trappings of proprietorship. Why is it that so many English poets and readers feel somehow that Blake belongs to them? It’s because of Blake’s implicit humanity, humility, compassion and universalism of sentiment implicates all of us who are exposed to his work. We become a part of it, and so Blake’s works become a part of us, part of our ‘Englishness’ if you like, but a very radical, half-buried timbre of Englishness.

It’s not just the sentiments but also the anthemic, hymnal quality of ‘Jerusalem’ which binds its readers and singers together in poetic fellowship, in much the same way as a common hymn by sundry ‘Anon’ hymnodists. Hence Blake, his work and his evocative Anglo-Saxon name (meaning, depending on the root, ‘pale/fair’ or, alternately, ‘dark’), which becomes a kind of adjective descriptive of his special type of poetics, of his aphorismic ‘Songs’, enter into the folkloric fabric, become part of our cultural character. Blake belongs to the English, just as Burns belongs to the Scots, Yeats to the Irish, and Dylan Thomas to the Welsh, though all of those poets also have an international reach and building Jerusalem these days is a poetic and political project for all of humanity, not just 'in England's green and pleasant land'.

That politics is not only compatible with poetry but actually an integral part of it is a mode of thought institutionally shunned today by much of the poetry establishment. Yet it was once a commonly held view. Throughout the centuries poetry has demonstrated abundantly in many ways that poetry and politics are interrelated, even if that interrelatedness is often a thorny one. In the past, poetry, or poetic language, was often employed by orators and politicians to reinforce their arguments and ideas, and to such a degree that much historical oratory is often a form of public or declamatory poetry, sometimes rich in aphorism and apothegm.

One only has to think of such eloquent and poetic statesmen as Solon (lawgiver and poet of Ancient Athens), Demosthenes, Pericles, Cicero, Seneca, Thomas More, Oliver Cromwell, Walpole, Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Disraeli, Lloyd George, Keir Hardie, Churchill, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King et al. Or political pamphleteers and ideologues such as John Lilburne, Gerrard Winstanley, Robert Owen, William Morris, Bertrand Russell, Max Weber, even Karl Marx. Das Kapital, let us remember, was lauded by Edmund Wilson, in To The Finland Station, as every bit as poetical as it was polemical.

Oratory, an art form in its own right, has always shared much in common with poetry, and in many respects is the poetry of administration. The roots of much oratory are in Rhetoric, itself rooted in philosophy, and the language of much philosophy is deeply poetic and aphorismic – think Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as is religious writing. These interrelations are explored in depth in a compendious essay by Nigel Smith, ‘The English Revolution and the End of Rhetoric: John Toland’s Clito (1700) and the Republican Daemon’, in Poetry and Politics.

The common music of poetry

Frequently, use of the term ‘politics’ or ‘political’ in terms of poetry is inextricably linked with socialist or communist thought. Much of the focus of the series of articles will be on neglected or forgotten poets of the British proletariat and artisan classes, as well as those whom Marx called the lumpenproletariat (e.g. street sellers, the unemployed, travellers, tramps etc.). Thus the ‘politics’ of such poetics, almost entirely informed by empirical privation and dissatisfaction with established social hierarchies, is invariably radical, anarchic, militant, revolutionary. The articles will attempt to trace much of this neglected genealogy of English proletarian poetry, as well as that of political poetry in general, across the social classes, and across approximately four centuries, since the inception of the mass printing press.

It is sadly true that much ‘political’ or ‘radical’ poetry, especially that written by those on the margins of society, by those from less privileged backgrounds, the unemployed or precariously employed, and those who are marginalised due to mental health issues, is poorly represented by the poetry publishing world, in spite of spin to the contrary, and overtures to synthetic inclusiveness and box-ticking on the part of ostensibly ‘liberal’ literary ‘elites’.

Andy Croft’s own imprint, Smokestack Books, remains perhaps the foremost champion of left-wing political poetry in the UK. Its mission statement expresses this explicitly and in keeping with the ethical communism of its founding editor:

'Smokestack aims to keep open a space for what is left of the English radical poetic tradition in the twenty-first century. Smokestack champions poets who are unfashionable, radical, left-field and working a long way from the metropolitan centres of cultural authority. Smokestack is committed to the common music of poetry; is interested in the World as well as the Word; believes that poetry is a part of and not apart from society; argues that if poetry does not belong to everyone it is not poetry.'

In the poetry journal scene, a thin red line of journals keep up this tradition on the fringes: The Penniless Press and Red Poets, as well as Mike Quille’s ‘Soul Food’ columns in the Communist Review, and Jody Porter's ‘Well Versed’ columns in the Morning Star. There are also some other poetry imprints with similar politics to Smokestack, such as Flambard, Red Squirrel, Shoestring and Waterloo Press. Significantly none of those imprints could be classed as ‘mainstream’ or among the ‘top’ metropolitan imprints. Lastly, webzines such as The International Times, Occupy Poetry, Proletarian Poetry and this writer’s own The Recusant and Militant Thistles help to keep the ‘radical poetic tradition’ represented online.

The phrase ‘common music’ is emphatic of universality and inclusiveness, although unlike music, poetry is inhibited in its reach by the frontiers of different languages, the ‘passports’ of translations often furnishing at best adumbrations of the source texts.

And that final clause of Smokestack's mission statement, ‘if poetry does not belong to everyone it is not poetry’, cleverly inverts the notion of ‘poetry as private property’ by arguing that any poetry that is the private property of the poet is therefore not the property of anyone else and thus is socially and culturally redundant. It confiscates itself from the common consciousness. In contrast, it is precisely the ‘English radical poetic tradition’ mentioned by the mission statement which my forthcoming series will seek to map out, in the hope that those who read it will be encouraged to seek out the neglected works of so many lesser known poets of our cultural past.