Andy Croft

Andy Croft

Andy Croft has written and edited over 80 books, including poetry, biography, teenage non-fiction and novels for children. He writes a regular poetry column for the Morning Star, curates the T-junction international poetry festival on Teesside and runs Smokestack Books. He lives in North Yorkshire.

Accessible, Educational, Radical: The Communist Composer Alan Bush
Monday, 09 October 2017 09:56

Accessible, Educational, Radical: The Communist Composer Alan Bush

Published in Music

Andy Croft reviews a new book out about the communist composer Alan Bush.

The composer Alan Bush (1900-95) is usually described as a man of unresolved contradictions, an Establishment figure who was also a dissident, the outsider who enjoyed the comfortable life of the insider. Bush was Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal Academy of Music for over half a century but, on at least two occasions, he was blacklisted by the BBC. When his first piano concerto was performed on the BBC Third Programme in 1938, Adrian Boult led the orchestra and choir straight into the national anthem in order to “balance” the revolutionary implications of the chorale finale. And, although his first opera Wat Tyler won the 1951 Festival of Britain opera competition, it was only performed once in Bush’s lifetime in the UK. Like all his operas it was premiered in the GDR.

Joanna Bullivant’s newly published book, the first full-length study of Bush’s life and music, is long overdue and wholly to be welcomed.  Despite the inexcusable cover price and a sometimes over-academic introduction, anyone interested in Alan Bush’s music should get their local library to stock it.

The author works hard to rescue Bush from the usual modernist and anti-communist orthodoxies that compare his work unfavourably to composers Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippet, or which routinely claim that he sacrificed his talent for his political commitments. Trying to separate Bush’s music and his politics is impossible, she argues, as both were bound up with his sense of his musical and moral responsibilities in an era of crisis.

At the heart of the book is an account of the many projects in the 1930s and 1940s — most notably the 1939 Festival of Music for the People — in which, working with the London Labour Choral Union and the Workers’ Music Association, Bush tried to take classical music out of the concert hall. There is an excellent discussion of Bush’s Cantata The Winter Journey in relation to Tippet’s A Child of Our Time and Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and a suggestive comparison of the ritual elements in The Winter Journey and Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Bullivant explores the various competing influences on Bush’s thinking and practice, from Hanns Eisler to Arnold Schoenberg and Christopher Caudwell to Paul Hindemith. And, among Bullivant’s accounts of his four operas, is a fascinating study of the musical components of The Sugar Reapers, his opera about the Guyanese liberation struggle.

She is also good on Bush’s relations with those German composers such as Eisler, Georg Knepler and Ernst Meyer who came to London as political refugees after 1933. And, instead of the usual caricatures of Bush being a pawn of the GDR authorities, she argues that it was the other way round — Bush’s thinking and practice had a significant influence on the socialist state’s musical culture. And, for those critics who have dismissed Bush as a “Stalinist,” Bullivant reminds us that there were two sides to the cold war. According to Bush’s recently released MI5 files, during the so-called phoney war the secretary of the communist party’s William Morris Musical Society was an MI5 agent and when he was co-opted onto the party’s national cultural committee in 1950, his nomination papers were intercepted by MI5 and,in 1957, it prevented Bush travelling to British Guiana in order to research local musical traditions.

The book might have benefited from less theory and more biography, especially concerning Bush’s relationships with his principal librettists‚ among them Montagu Slater, with whom he wrote the Communist Manifesto Centenary pageant in 1948, Randall Swingler, who wrote the text for his first piano concerto and his wife Nancy, who wrote the words for three of his operas. Nevertheless, Bush emerges from this book as a major figure, one whose professional and political life was dedicated to creating a participative musical culture that was accessible, educational, enjoyable and radical.

Alan Bush, Modern Music and the Cold War by Joanna Bullivant (Cambridge University Press, £75). This article first appeared in the Morning Star.

Plagiarism and the Privatisation of Poetry
Tuesday, 12 September 2017 15:49

Plagiarism and the Privatisation of Poetry

Published in Poetry

The Guardian recently ran an article on plagiarism in poetry by Will Storr. Andy Croft, author of two very widely read and influential articles on Culture MattersThe Privatisation of Poetry and Poetry Belongs to Everyone, was interviewed at what was called 'an anarchist bookfair' (actually London's Radical Bookfair).

It is very tempting to reduce these issues to questions of individual blame and shame, as the Guardian article did. However, we believe at Culture Matters that the problem of plagiarism is an inevitable consequence of the capitalistic corruption of poetry. Just as commercially motivated pressures on sportspeople turn essentially social and co-operative activities into matters of individualistic competition and excellence, encouraging cheating and drug-taking, so poetry is deformed and twisted from an essentially social art into a competitive, individualistic activity where new-ness and complete 'originality' is over-rated. This is the root cause of actual and alleged plagiarism.

So we are re-publishing Andy Croft's original article, because it puts all the issues into context. Andy Croft's argument is that poetry is essentially a collective and communist art, with the potential to overcome alienation and increase our sociality and connectedness. It belongs to everyone, cannot be owned nor become property, and is essentially committed to the common good of humanity. 

See also Communism by way of the Poem by Alain Badiou, and The Poetry of Common Ownership by Alan Morrison. Further contributions to this important debate are welcome.

The Privatisation of Poetry

by Andy Croft

‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto' - 'I am human, and nothing which is human can be alien to me’ - Marx’s favourite maxim


At the end of the fourth film in the ‘Alien’ franchise, Alien Resurrection (1997), the film’s only two survivors are preparing to visit Earth. Although we have previously been told that it is a toxic ‘shithole’, one of them observes that from a distance the planet looks beautiful. ‘I didn't expect it to be,’ she says, ‘what happens now?’ The other gives a puzzled half-smile and shrugs, ‘I don't know. I'm a stranger here myself.’

The ‘stranger’ is Ellen Ripley, who has been fighting the xenomorph aliens ever since Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979). Her bewildered description of herself as a ‘stranger’ is one of cinema’s great understatements. For Ripley is a stranger, not only to a planet she has not seen for three hundred years, but to herself. Ripley was killed at the end of the third film, and has been resurrected as a clone with part-alien DNA. She does not yet understand the extent of her humanity or know just how much of an alien she is.

All the human characters are dead at the end of Alien Resurrection. The film’s only other survivor (played by Winona Ryder) is an android. Earlier in the film, when Ripley discovers that her companion is a robot, she observes, ‘I should have known. No human being is that humane.’ This is an idea that has been running through the series since Aliens (1986), when Ripley compares one of her companions to the aliens he is planning to sell to the Company’s weapons division – ‘I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage...’

Alien Resurrection was a bleak fin-de-siecle farewell to a century of violence, avarice, fear and cruelty, and a grim welcome to a new millennium in which we are estranged from each other and from ourselves by exaggerated fears of differences. Ripley is a familiar figure in the twenty-first century – an alien, a homeless exile whose children are dead, a stranger in a strange land.

ALIENATION AND POETRY

The phrase ‘I’m a stranger here myself’ is also a quotation from a song by Kurt Weill (another exile). Written with Ogden Nash for the 1943 Broadway hit One Touch of Venus, the song is a satirical comment on contemporary US life. In the musical, an ancient statue of the Greek goddess of sexual love (played by Mary Martin) comes alive in a New York museum. She is confused by the strangeness of the world in which she finds herself, especially by the apparent absence of love in the cold modern city:

‘Tell me is love still a popular suggestion
Or merely an obsolete art?
Forgive me for asking, this simple question
I'm unfamiliar with this part
I am a stranger here myself.

Please tell me, tell a stranger
My curiosity goaded
Is there really any danger
That love is now out-moded?

I'm interested especially
In knowing why you waste it
True romance is so freshly
With what have you replaced it?’

As a study in alienation, One Touch of Venus may not have been as hard-hitting as The Threepenny Opera or Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, but it was nevertheless clearly shaped by Weill’s experiences in Weimar Germany, where hysterical ideas about ‘aliens’ of course carried toxic political meanings. In the musical it is the non-human alien who understands more about human happiness than the human characters. It is not an exaggeration to say that Venus is both ‘the heart of a heartless world’, and an example of the commodification of desire in a society where ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away... all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’

Which brings us to Marx’s idea of entfremdung, the process by which, in class societies, we are alienated from Nature, from our work, from the products of our work, from each other and from ourselves. Each dramatic new stage of human social, economic and technological development has simultaneously pushed us farther apart from each other and from ourselves – property, slavery, money, territory, caste, class, religion, industrialisation, migration, urbanisation, mechanisation, militarisation, nationalism, empire, computerisation, globalisation...

Of course we all experience this ‘self-estrangement’ differently. As Marx argued in The Holy Family, although ‘the propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement,’

‘the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in the reality of an inhuman existence.’

In a bewildering world where we feel ourselves to be strangers in our own lives, the false consolations of nostalgia, nationalism, chauvinism, religious fundamentalism and racism are tempting to many, especially to those with the least power. Each of these is an illusion ‘which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself’ (during international football tournaments there is always a greater concentration of England flags in those parts of our cities with the smallest economic or political stake in British society). But fearing ‘strangers’ will not make the world less strange; attacking ‘aliens’ cannot mitigate our alienation from ourselves.

On the other hand there are those forces that still pull us together – kinship, friendship, desire, solidarity, collectivity, utopianism, socialism. Despite all the commercial, cultural, social, economic and political pressures to emphasise our uniqueness and our separateness, the differences between us are not very great. We all share the same small planet, we breathe the same air and we share the same fate. And one of the ways in which we demonstrate and feel our common natures is through art. It is not just that creativity can raise individual ‘self-esteem’ or ‘well-being’. All artistic creation, whether individual or collective, amateur or professional, private or public represents a kind of resistance to the complex, centrifugal forces that push us apart. Art is both a reminder of our co-operative origins and a promise of a collective future. Art can be many things – painting, dance, music, literature, sculpture, poetry – but it cannot be property. As soon as a work of art is owned by one individual it is not shared; if it is not shared, then it is not art.

THE POWER OF POETRY

Poetry in particular contains the potential to connect writers to readers, and readers to each other. It can help us feel a little more connected to each other than usual. When any poet stands up to read in public they have to address the readers outside the page, the listeners across the room and beyond. Poetry can remind us what is significant and help us to imagine what is important. It can help to naturalise ideas and arguments by placing them within popular literary traditions. Anticipation and memory implicates reader and listener in the making of a line or a phrase and therefore in the making of the argument. This establishes a potentially inclusive community of interest between the writer/speaker and the reader/ audience – through shared laughter, anger or understanding.

According to George Thompson in Marxism and Poetry:

‘we find in all languages two modes of speech – common speech, the normal, everyday means of communication between individuals, and poetical speech a medium more intense, appropriate to collective acts of ritual, fantastic, rhythmical, magical... the language of poetry is essentially more primitive than common speech, because it preserves in a higher degree the qualities of rhythm, melody, fantasy, inherent in speech as such... And its function is magical. It is designed to effect some change in the external world by mimesis – to impose illusion on reality.’

Over the last five hundred years, poetry has lost many of its historic functions. Character has fled to the novel, dialogue to the stage, persuasion to advertising and public relations, action to cinema, comedy to television. This always seems to me to be an unnecessarily heavy price to pay for the development of the original ‘voice’ of the poet. But the shared, public music of common language and common experience remains its greatest asset – the power to communicate, universalise and shape a common human identity. The power of all poetry is still located in society – in the audience and not in the poet. Writing – in the sense of the composition of memorable language to record events that need remembering – is essentially a shared, collective, public activity. Poetry is essentially a means of communication, not a form of self-expression. Difficulty is only a virtue if the poem justifies the effort to understand it. Why write at all, if no-one is listening? If they think no-one is listening, poets end up talking only to each other, or to themselves. The poet Adrian Mitchell (who once observed that ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’) put it like this:

‘In the days when everyone lived in tribes, poetry was always something which was sung and danced, sometimes by one person, sometimes by the whole tribe. Song always had a purpose – a courting song, a song to make the crops grow, a song top help or instruct the hunter of seals, a song to thank the sun. Later on, when poetry began to be printed, it took on airs. When the universities started studying verse instead of alchemy, poetry began to strut around like a duchess full of snuff. By the middle of the twentieth century very few British poets would dare to sing.’

It seems to me that this is still understood at a subterranean level within British society, a long way from the centres of cultural authority and the cult of the ‘new’. Poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kokumo, Moqapi Selassie, Benjamain Zephaniah and Jean Binta Breeze do not read their poems in public – they sing them. The most distinctive feature of an Urdu-Punjabi musha’ara (a marathon poetry-reading) is the level of audience participation. Poets do not always read their ‘own’ work. They often sing. And they are frequently interrupted by applause, by requests for a line to be read again, by the audience guessing the rhyme at the end of a couplet or by joining in the reading of well-known poems. This is a collective, shared poetry, the expression of a literary, linguistic and religious identity among a community whose first language is English, but whose first literary language is Urdu. And musha’ara attract hundreds of people of all ages.

POETRY AND COMMUNISM

There is something comparable about the role of poetry inside prison. Men who would not often go near a library in their ordinary lives, in prison can find solace and encouragement in reading and writing poetry. Prison magazines always carry pages of poetry. The Koestler Awards are an important part of the prison calendar. No-one is embarrassed to say that they like poetry in prison. There are certain poems – usually about love, heroin and regret – that prisoners take with them from one prison to another, copying them out and learning them by heart until the poems ‘belong’ to them.

In other words, the idea that language – and therefore poetry – belongs to everyone, is still felt most vividly among those who have been historically excluded from education and literacy by the forces of caste and class, empire and slavery.

The French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou has moreover argued that it is not a coincidence that most of the great poets of the twentieth-century were communists (Hikmet, Brecht, Neruda, Eluard, Ritsos, Vallejo, Faiz, MacDiarmid, Aragon, Mayakovsky, Alberti, Darwish, Sanguineti, etc). For Badiou, there exists ‘an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand “communism” closely in its primary sense’:

‘the concern for what is common to all. A tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common; the desire that what ought to be common and accessible to all should not be appropriated by the servants of Capital. The poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night – that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world... it is first and foremost to those who have nothing that everything must be given. It is to the mute, to the stutterer, to the stranger, that the poem must be offered, and not to the chatterbox, to the grammarian, or to the nationalist. It is to the proletarians – whom Marx defined as those who have nothing except their own body capable of work – that we must give the entire earth, as well as all the books, and all the music, and all the paintings, and all the sciences. What is more, it is to them, to the proletarians in all their forms, that the poem of communism must be offered.’

Of course, there are always forces pulling poets in the other direction. Like everything else, poetry is a contested space. The broadsheets, the BBC and most literary festivals are dominated by corporate publishers and a celebrity star-system. The whole apparatus of arts-coverage by press-release, celebrity book-festivals, short-lists, awards and prize-giving ceremonies seems almost designed to alienate as many people as possible from poetry – except as consumers. The result is the victory march of Dullness, characterised by humorlessness, political indifference, a disregard for tradition, a serious underestimation of poetry’s music and a snobbish hostility to amateurs. And all decorated in the usual language of PR disguised as literary criticism (‘sexy’, ‘dark’, ‘sassy’, ‘edgy’, ‘bold’, ‘daring’ etc).

POETRY CAN NEVER BE PROPERTY

Last year I published, at Smokestack Books, a collection of poems by the Newcastle writer Sheree Mack. Sheree’s mother is of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry; her father is from Trinidad. Laventille told the story of the 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, when for forty-five days an uprising of students, trade unions and the disaffected poor threatened to overthrow the government. It was a courageous and beautiful book, an original attempt to combine history and poetry as a ‘shrine of remembrances’ for the ordinary people behind the headlines.

A few weeks after the book was published Sheree found herself accused of borrowing phrases without attribution from other poets. Most were happy to see elements of their work resurrected and re-made like this, but a few were not. Although I variously offered to insert erratum slips in the book, to reprint the book with the necessary acknowledgements, and to print a new version of the book without the poems in question, Sheree’s accusers seemed more interested in mobilising a howling mob on social-media, armed with the usual pitchforks and burning torches. There followed several weeks of extraordinary personal abuse directed at author and publisher, a feature on Channel 4 News, demands that Sheree should be stripped of her qualifications and sacked from her teaching job, an editorial in Poetry News, and threats of legal action from two corporate publishers. Several festivals withdrew invitations for Sheree to read from the book. Eventually the book was withdrawn from sale and pulped.

I do not believe for a minute that Sheree intended to ‘steal’ anyone else’s work. Some of her borrowings were so obvious that they did not need acknowledging (any more than her poem called ‘What’s Going On?’ did not need to spell out its debt to Marvin Gaye). ‘Laventille Love Song’ for example, did not attempt to disguise its debt to Langston Hughes’ ‘Juke Box Love Song’. The point of the poem was to throw together two different moments in Black history, dialectically linked by the deliberate echoes of one poem in the other.

Sheree’s fault was one of omission and carelessness; the reaction of her accusers was deliberate, hysterical and disproportionate. Sheree made no attempt to conceal her borrowings, she did not profit from them, she has apologised for them repeatedly and she has been excessively punished. No-one has lost anything – except a sense of proportion and decency. Sheree’s faults may be forgiven; the venom of her pursuers is unforgiveable. And a beautiful, revolutionary book has been lost.

I am not interested in calculating how many words a poet may borrow from another writer without being accused of ‘theft’, or swapping examples of successful plagiarists – most notably, of course, Shakespeare, Stendhal and Brecht. (For the record, my last three books were comic verse-novels based on Hamlet, Nineteen Eighty-four and Don Juan.) But I am fascinated by the moral panic around ‘intellectual property’ in the contemporary poetry world, in the way that notions of private property have entered the world of poetry.

Property is a very recent (and contested) innovation in human history, usually used to determine access to scarce or limited resources such as land, buildings, the means of production, manufactured goods and money. It is a shifting concept; not so long ago, women, children and slaves were subject to property law; today we have ‘copyright’, ‘intellectual property’, ‘identity theft’ and ‘image rights’.

There are three kinds of property – common property (where resources are governed by rules which make them available for use by all or any members of the society), collective property (where the community as a whole determines how important resources are to be used), and private property (where contested resources are assigned to particular individuals).

It is difficult to see how the many various elements of any poem – words, phrases, grammatical structures, rhyme and metre, emotional syntax, allusions, echoes, patterns, imagery and metaphor etc – can be described as ‘property’ in any of the above senses (except perhaps ‘common property’). None of these elements are scarce or finite; their use by one person does not preclude their use by any number of others. In an age of mechanical reproduction, it is not possible to ‘steal’ a poem or part of a poem, only to copy it.

POETRY BELONGS TO EVERYONE

All poetry inhabits the common language of everyday living. A poem can be unique without being original; it can be ‘new’ at the same time that it is already known. As the French communist poet Francis Combes has argued:

‘Poetry belongs to everyone. Poetry does not belong to a small group of specialists. It arises from the everyday use of language. Like language, poetry only exists because we share it. Writing, singing, painting, cooking – these are ways of sharing pleasure. For me poetry is like an electrical transformer which converts our feelings and our ideas into energy. It is a way of keeping your feet on the ground without losing sight of the stars. It is at the same time both the world’s conscience and its best dreams; it’s an intimate language and a public necessity.’

Most important human activities are not subject to ideas of ownership. Talking, walking, whistling, running, making love, speaking a foreign language, cooking, playing football, baking bread, dancing, conversation, knitting, drawing – these are all acquired skills which we learn by imitating others, but they are not subject to ideas of ownership.

Historically, poetry was always understood to be much closer to these than to those things that the law regards as ‘property’ (land, money etc). No-one in, say fourteenth-century Italy would have understood the idea of ‘stealing’ a poem. Most cultures, even today, regard poetry as ‘common property’. You don’t hear many ‘original’ poems at an Urdu-Punjabi musha’ara. Everyone borrows/steals/copies/appropriates poetry in prison. Which is another way of saying that everyone owns it. And if everyone owns it, there is nothing to steal.

Until very recently in human history, poets were popularly understood to speak for and to the societies to which they belonged. The development of printing and publishing and the emergence of a reading-public have helped to elevate poets into a separate and professional caste. The Romantic idea of the sensitive individual alienated from ordinary society (by education, sensibility and mobility) has become in our time the cult of the international poet as exile, crossing cultural, intellectual and linguistic borders. This cult reached its logical conclusion a few years ago with the Martian poets, who wrote about life on earth as if they really were aliens.

The current moral panic over ‘plagiarism in poetry’ seems to derive from several overlapping elements – the post-Romantic privatisation of feeling and language, the fetishisation of ‘novelty’ in contemporary culture, half-hearted notions of intellectual property, the long-term consequences of Creative Writing moving from university adult education onto campus as an academic subject, the creation of a large pool of Creative Writing graduates competing for publication, jobs and prizes and the decline in the number of poetry publishers. If poetry is privatised, a personalised form of individual expression rather a means of public communication, then it needs to be policed by ideas of copyright, grammatical rules, unified spelling, critical standards and a canonical tradition.

The witch-hunting of Sheree Mack was an instructive episode in the internal workings of intellectual hegemony. The corporate lawyers and national media only joined the chase after a handful of poets (most of whom had not read Laventille) had already attacked one of their own, in the name of economic forces which are inimical to poetry.

Poetry arises out of the contradictions and consolations of a whole life and a whole society. It requires the proper humility necessary for any art. Poetry is not a Meritocracy of the educated, the privileged or the lucky. It is a Republic. Poetry is indivisible. If it doesn’t belong to everybody, it is something else – show business, big business, self-promotion, attention-seeking, property. As Alain Badiou argues:

‘Poets are communist for a primary reason, which is absolutely essential: their domain is language, most often their native tongue. Now language is what is given to all from birth as an absolutely common good. Poets are those who try to make a language say what it seems incapable of saying. Poets are those who seem to create in language new names to name that which, before the poem, has no name. And it is essential for poetry that these inventions, these creations, which are internal to language, have the same destiny as the mother tongue itself: for them to be given to all without exception. The poem is a gift of the poet to language. But this gift, like language itself, is destined to the common – that is, to this anonymous point where what matters is not one person in particular, but all, in the singular. Thus, the great poets of the twentieth century recognized the grandiose revolutionary project of communism something that was familiar to them – namely that, as the poem gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.’

Andy Croft and Amarjit Chandan
Saturday, 04 March 2017 20:49

Asserting our shared humanity

Published in Poetry

Andy Croft reports on his recent visit to Basra, for the Al-Marbed international poetry festival.

I have never seen so many people at a poetry festival before – or so many Kalashnikovs. A few weeks ago I was in the southern Iraqi city of Basra with my friend the Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan. We were guests of the Iraqi Writers Union for the thirteenth annual Al-Marbed international poetry festival.

‘Poetry is the Present and Future of Basra’ read the banner over the stage in the main hall of the Basra International Hotel where most of the readings were held. Dedicated to the late Iraqi poet and communist Mehdi Mohammad Ali, the festival attracted almost a hundred poets, from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Iraq, Assyria, Lebanon, Syria and the Iraqi diaspora scattered across the world.

During a crowded week of readings and debates, poetry and music, food and friendship, we visited the birthplace of Basra’s most famous poet Badr Shakir al Sayyab, as well as the Basra international football stadium. There was a showing of the film Samt al-Rai/The Silence of the Shepherd introduced by its director Raad Mushatat. One of the festival readings took place on a river cruise on the Shat al-Arab waterway.

The British poetry world likes to think it is popular, with its prizes and awards and celebrities. But this is nothing compared to the role of poetry in Arab culture, where TV shows like Million’s Poet and Prince of Poets regularly attract more viewers than football. Although six million Iraqis – 20% of the population – cannot read or write, the idea that poetry is a publicly-owned, shared and common language somehow persists across all classes. At some of the evening readings, there must have been a thousand people, men and women, young and old. One of the most striking performances was by a six year old boy reciting, entirely from memory, a ten minute long poem comparing Iraq to a beautiful woman.

Although Amarjit and I did not know the literal meaning of many of the poems, we were able to concentrate on the richness of their different cadences and rhythms. Thanks to our hard working translators we were also introduced to the work of some fascinating poets, including Iraqi poets Abdulkareem Kasid and Chawki Abdelamir, Hani al-Selwy from Yemen, Mojtaba Al Tatan from  Bahrain, Sabah Kasim, Najah Ibrahim, and Souzan Ibrahim  from Syria, and Al Wathiq Younis  from Sudan.

But of course the festival was taking place in a deadly context. Iraq is still at war. The billboards by the side of the roads advertise, not consumer goods, but the faces of young men killed fighting Daesh. Each night I was woken by the sound of gunfire to mark the repatriation of local boys killed fighting in Mosul. A notice outside the new shopping centre in Times Square solemnly reminds shoppers, ‘No smoking. No weapons’.

With a heavily armed security presence at most of the readings, it was hardly surprising that the festival was a serious-minded affair. There were no stand-up poets, comics or performance poets. Instead most of the poets recited long poems usually about the suffering and grief of the Iraqi people.

An old man read a poem about the death of his son, killed fighting in Fallujah. One poet compared Iraqi children to a forest of young trees cut down before they are full grown. Another observed that every Iraqi child grows up with an older brother called Death. There was a long poem about a local teacher injured by a Daesh car-bomb; although she managed to crawl out of the car, her clothes were on fire (which meant that her modesty before God was threatened) so she climbed back into the burning car to die. Another poet described the poor of the world as the fuel that keeps the fires of war burning. The prayers of the religious, he said, do not belong to God, only the tears of a mother grieving for her dead child.

It is more important than ever that we understand as much as we can about our neighbours on this small planet. Despite the commercial, ideological, cultural and political pressures to emphasise our uniqueness and our separateness, the differences between us are not very great. The Al-Marbed poetry festival is a brave and important reminder that poetry is one of the ways in which we can enjoy and explore those differences and at the same time assert our shared humanity.

This article was first published in the Morning Star.

AC greetings Basra 3

How long till Spring? Letter to Randall Swingler IV
Friday, 13 January 2017 17:34

How long till Spring? Letter to Randall Swingler IV

Published in Poetry

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.

Letter IV

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?

Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:35

Long live those who died like dogs

Published in Poetry

Andy Croft reminds us of the radicalism of the early Dadaist movement.

A hundred years after the Cabaret Voltaire first opened its doors in Zurich, it is hard to remember just how shocking, how provocative and how radical the early Dadaist movement once was. Their extraordinary innovations in performance and technique are now commonplace and barely noticed gestures in the worlds of advertising and corporate culture. One of the most important art movements of the twentieth-century is routinely gutted of its radicalism and reduced to the status of an ‘inheritance track’ for Malcolm McLaren, Vic Reeves and Lady Gaga.

In their centenary year it is especially important to remind ourselves how the Dadaists emerged out of intellectual opposition to the Great War, and how far and how quickly the movement spread across Europe in its aftermath. One of the Dada manifestos was written by the French writer Louis Aragon:

No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians, no more sculptors, no more religions, no more republicans, no more royalists, no more imperialists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more Bolsheviks, no more politicians, no more proletarians, no more democrats, no more armies, no more police, no more nations, no more of these idiocies, no more, no more, NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING...

Like many of the original Dadaists (including Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard and Andre Breton), Aragon was later a member of the French Communist Party and active in the French Resistance during the Second World War. But in the early 1920s, it seemed to Aragon and to other radical writers and artists that Nihilism was the only rational and revolutionary response to the industrialised slaughter of the Great War.

The Flemish writer Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) first met Dadaism in Berlin in 1919, where he witnessed the suppression of the Spartacist uprising. Although Van Ostaijen is too little known in the UK, he was one of the most original and influential Belgian writers of the twentieth century. An avant-garde poet, satirist and revolutionary critic, he opened up Flemish poetry to modern city life, introduced Expressionism into Belgium, and was the first writer to translate Kafka from German.

Van Ostaijen’s most important work was the epic poem Occupied City/Bezette Stad, now published for the first time in English, in a translation by David Colmer (Smokestack Books, £12):

Nihil in every direction / Nihil in every family / Nihil in every language and every dialect / NIHIL in every symbol / rotating nihil / nihil in saltire... rotating nihil / square nihil / triangular nihil / pyramidal NIHIL...

When Occupied City was first published in 1921 it was advertised as ‘a book devoid of Biblical beauty / a book for royalists and republicans / for doctors and illiterates / a book that lists every important song of the last ten years / in short: as indispensable as a cookbook / “What every girl should know.”’

It is impossible to do justice to this extraordinary work simply by quoting from it, since the book was designed and illustrated by the Flemish artist Oscar Jespers as a work of ‘rhythmical typography’, a huge, crazy, irreverent poem for a noisy chorus of many voices in as many different languages, a riot of type-faces all exploding in every direction across the pages. Above is an example, an image of Dead Sunday, one of the poems in the collection. And here is an ‘extract’ from the poem about the German occupation of Antwerp during the First World War, which van Ostaijen experienced at first-hand:

plane machine-guns / rattle / sifting the routed army / criss cross flight / Rout spouting pus on occupied city / millions of seconds of war fermenting / officers’ whips cracking weaker / words growing waxing RAGING / murmuring / liPs SeiZing WoRDs / while restless / tick-tock machine-guns BROKEN Cadence / in der Heimat in der Heimat / villages / staggering / sinking... fermenting growing fermenting / GUSHING words / muffling the last weak sound of shells / words CRaSHing to PieceS on RoCKs / spurt ditch blood / WO R D / state street city soldiers.

But Occupied City is more than a typographic novelty or a museum-piece. It is a sustained attack on monarchism, militarism and patriotism and a declaration of war on post-1918 Europe (Karl Liebknecht makes a brief appearance in the poem):

national anthems / national heroes / national colours / everything national / hip hip hoorah for the royal vulva / Vive la nation / ecstasy gentlemen / don’t forget ecstasy / cadavers rotting sewers / Tous les soirs grande manifestation patriotique / hopeless skelter the soldiers are dead / patriotic films / patriotic beer / patriotic lamb / LONG LIVE THE HEROES / everything is meaningless / now / crap / LONG LIVE THOSE WHO DIED LIKE DOGS.

 

This article was first published in the Morning Star.

Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:13

Poetry belongs to everyone

Published in Poetry

Andy Croft wrote The Privatisation of Poetry for Culture Matters a few months ago, and it has been amongst the most popular and influential articles on the site. He has attracted a good deal of criticism for his application of communist philosophy to poetry. Here, in an article republished from The Argotist Online, he defends and extends the thesis advanced in that article. See also Alain Badiou, Communism by Way of the Poem, and Alan Morrison, The Poetry of Common Ownership.

Q. Is there a difference between allusion and plagiarism?

The difference seems to be measured simply by the varying noise levels of approval or outrage. If readers and reviewers think that they recognise most of the sources that inform the work of a well-known writer, then they are applauded as ‘allusive’, ‘inter-textual’ and ‘ludic’. Anything else is ‘plagiarism’.

Personally I have never been remotely interested in ‘plagiarism’ scandals, which always seem to me to demean everyone involved, like excitable children accusing each other of copying. All poets writing in English use the same language, the same alphabet and the same grammatical structure. We are all inheritors of the same literary traditions. We all drink from the same well. No poet should be so lacking in humility as to think that they can ever write anything that is ‘original’. All any of us can ever hope to do is to restate in a contemporary idiom what has already been said, probably by much better poets than we can ever be. An original poem is as impossible as an original colour. Which is perhaps why, for all the current emphasis on poets finding their ‘voice’, so many contemporary poets sound the same...

The intellectual content of a poem may be a slightly different issue. But how many poets can you think of whose work is intellectually ‘original’? And how many original ideas do any of us ever have? Unless you are Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Marx or Einstein, I think it is probably wise not to demand that other people should be original in their thinking. Anyway, the achievement of even these men would have been impossible without the work of their predecessors; as Newton put it, ‘if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ In the circumstances, it seems to me that those poets who gaily accuse others of lacking ‘originality’ should look again at their own work with a bit more humility.

Perhaps we can return to the question of originality later. But let’s grant for the moment that originality in any form isn’t possible and agree that all we can do is restate what has already been said. Doesn’t the hope to which you point – to ‘restate’ existing ideas in new language, to see further than our predecessors – imply that a poet can fail to restate what’s already been said and simply repeat it? That he or she can fail to ‘see further’ and rather see the same thing as another poet and call it new? Milton in his Eikonclastes wrote, ‘For such kind of borrowing as this, if it be not better'd by the borrower, among good Authors is accounted Plagiarie.’ If you don’t want to call inept or inartistic borrowing ‘plagiarism,’ I can accept that. Perhaps we could agree to call it a bad poem or say it’s not poem at all or that it (or the best part of it) is someone else’s poem. In any case, don’t poets (or ‘poets’) who liberally borrow from other poets and fail to improve on the original fail at the thing you seem to think a poem at the very least should do?

Yes, of course. The fear of repeating oneself, never mind other people, must be a constant for all writers. But notions of ‘originality’ are relative. I have spent too many years working in primary schools and in prisons not to know that what may seem derivative, clichéd, tired or borrowed to some readers, can feel like an exciting and original achievement to others. The ability to ‘see further than our predecessors’ is largely dependent on education and cultural access. A cliché is only a cliché if you have read it before. In one sense, the making of any poem, no matter how clumsy or derivative, is to be celebrated. As the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra put it, ‘In poetry everything is permitted. // With only this condition of course, / You have to improve the blank page.’ How many of us can confidently say to ourselves that we always do that?

Q. Are there different kinds of plagiarism? If so, are some forms of plagiarism better, more creative, or more interesting than others? Are there forms that are less creative or interesting in your view?

The work that goes into writing any poem is impossible to quantify. First, there is a life-time of reading, thinking, listening, talking and understanding; second, the conscious effort to concentrate an idea, fix a memory or crystallise a feeling in words; third, the patient struggle with the organisation, shape and form of the words on the page and the sound of their music in your head; fourth, a series of critical judgements as to when the work is finished; fifth, an evaluation of the poem’s likely relationship with other readers. Buried somewhere inside all this are the various stages at which the poet consciously and unconsciously uses their various source materials, internal and external. Who can judge which part of the process, or which versions, are more ‘creative’ than others? Who cares? The only question that should concern us, is whether a poem is as good as it can be, given the circumstances of the writer, the writing and its reception.

Q. So are you saying that readers of poetry can’t draw from established critical standards (of whatever sort) or form new standards in order to evaluate the quality of poetry? It seems disingenuous to imply that every poem is as good as every other poem as long as it’s ‘as good as it can be.’ A good limerick is a good limerick, but I don’t think many people would agree that a good limerick, however good, is as good as a good sestina. Analogously, there are better and worse examples of poetic borrowing and more skilful – more artful – ways of drawing on our shared poetic past or from contemporary works. Many poets who borrow lines, ideas, or images and wish to do so skilfully include notes in their books that indicate their sources, especially if those sources are less well known. Does a poet have the obligation to ‘cite’ her sources in some way if she is borrowing material? Is there a certain amount of material or threshold that warrants acknowledgement, particularly if the source is contemporary?

There are so many obstacles between any poem and any reader; signposts on the page like title, epigraph, acknowledgement, glossary etc can only help. Unless of course, they are too obvious, distracting or cumbersome. Personally I am not interested in calculating how many words a poet may borrow from another writer without being accused of ‘theft’, or swapping examples of successful plagiarists – most notably, of course, Shakespeare, Stendhal and Brecht. And just for the record, my last three books were comic verse-novels based on Hamlet, Nineteen Eighty-four and Don Juan.

Clearly in the present climate everyone has to be careful to cover their backs to avoid being dragged into the next public row with the self-appointed commissars now sniffing around the poetry world for unattributed borrowings. A few months ago, at a book-launch in Nottingham, I read a new poem of mine called ‘The Sailors of Ulm’. Before doing so I explained that the poem is supposed to ‘echo’ Louis MacNeice’s ‘Thalassa’, and that the title refers to Lucio Magri’s history of the PCI, Il Sarto di Ulm, which itself was a reference to Brecht’s poem ‘The Tailor of Ulm’. By way of apology for such a laboured introduction, I joked that I was covering myself in case there was anyone in the audience from the poetry-police. The following day one of the principal witch-hunters in the Laventille affair (who was not there) e-mailed the organisers of the reading to ask if he could confirm that I had insulted the poetry police.

But how do you argue that a good sestina is ‘better’ than a limerick? The world is full of entertaining limericks and dull, clanking sestinas. I can think of many occasions when I would rather read a good limerick than a sestina. And if anyone doubts the value of a good limerick, I can do no better than recommend The Limerickiad, Smokestack Books’ three volume (soon to be four) raucous, clever history of Eng Lit in limericks by Martin Rowson.

Anyway, who is comparing? What is the point of the comparison? In what way is a sestina ‘better’ than a limerick? What is the measure? The amount of time needed to read them? The amount of ink required to write them? If a sestina is ’better’ than a limerick, how does it compare to a villanelle? Personally I have always found terza rima difficult to write, but ottava rima enjoyable to read; so how can I say which form is ‘better’? Is anyone prepared to argue that the iambic foot used in most sestinas is superior to the amphibrach of the limerick? Or are we making a judgement about the relative seriousness of the subject-matter usually carried by the two forms? But who says that light-verse is inferior to ‘heavy’ verse? This sounds like the old university senior common-room game of Golden Poets and Silver Poets, Major and Minor, Gentlemen and Players.

The pressure to evaluate and grade poems and poets seems to me to be both unattractive and pointless. What is ‘better’, a motorbike or a banana? It depends if you are in a hurry or if you are hungry.

Q. I think the Milton quote referred to earlier might clear Shakespeare, Stendahl, and Brecht from the label of plagiarist and I’m assuming whatever source materials you drew from for your verse novel, 1948, were in some way skilfully acknowledged. But to return to your answer to the previous question, there seem to be many people who care whether large or small portions of other peoples’ poems end up in another poet’s work, namely poets who find their work published under another person’s name. Let’s pose a hypothetical situation and consider 1948. I notice that both you and the illustrator of the book retained your copyright. Would you be comfortable with someone reprinting unattributed portions of the book under their name or repurposing the images in an uncreative context (i.e. not as part of a new work of art that transforms the source material but ‘as is’ or with slight modification) without attribution?

The copyright statement inside 1948 was put in by the publisher. If somebody seriously wanted to copy some or all of the 150 onyeginskaya sonnets in 1948 I would be flattered. First of all it would mean that someone had read the damn thing! Secondly it would presumably mean that they had enjoyed the book enough to want to do this. And if they were able to ‘improve’ on the original then good luck to them. It certainly won’t earn them any money!

My impression is that those who are most outraged by revelations or accusations of plagiarism in the poetry world are not usually the ‘victims’, but other would-be writers who feel that their own route to literary success is suddenly compromised. What is the point of spending all those years on Creative Writing programmes developing their unique ‘individual’ voice if it turns out that it is not to so exclusively theirs after all?

Q. A follow up to the previous question: How do you handle copyright at your own press? Most Creative Commons licenses require at the minimum attribution credit for material designated for reuse or repurposing. But they do have a ‘No Rights Reserved’ option (CC0) (https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/public-domain/cc0/). Would you consider publishing your work or the work of your authors under a ‘No Rights Reserved’ Creative Commons license? Would your authors be comfortable with seeing their poems published in a journal under another poet’s name?

I don’t know – I’m not a lawyer! I have run Smokestack Books for twelve years single-handedly and unpaid. In this time I have published 110 titles and sold almost 30k books. I do not have the time, the energy, or the interest to pursue this kind of stuff about copyright. All Smokestack titles carry the usual statement about the author retaining copyright to their work. As far as I am concerned it is a formality. If I am approached by an editor who wants to include a poem by a Smokestack author in an anthology I pass this request to the poet.

Q. Let’s shift topics for a minute. To what degree does the economic structure of the ‘poetry business’ -- a structure which may lead a poet to feel pressured to produce a certain amount or certain kind of work in order to secure grants or academic employment -- contribute to what your average person might call poetic plagiarism (an instance in which a poet takes another poet's work and with little or no modification and claims authorship)?

The narrow economics of the contemporary poetry scene in the UK undoubtedly encourages the idea of poetry as property. This seems to me to be a wholly pernicious idea, inimical to genuine creativity. It derives in part from the way that the broadsheets, the BBC, the corporate festivals and the prize-giving circus create and maintain a hierarchy of poets (and a hierarchical idea of poetry) based on the lists of corporate publishers. It is also a result of the way that so many poets much further down the food chain these days make a poor living as part-time Creative Writing teachers in universities.

It is worth remembering that Creative Writing in the UK emerged as an academic subject a long time before universities realised that they could make money out of it. When I worked for Leeds University in the early 1980s I was told that I couldn’t teach Creative Writing because it was not a ‘proper academic subject’. Eventually I was permitted to teach it, but only as part of a special programme of free courses designed for unemployed people in Middlesbrough (a long way from the university). Of course, Leeds University, like all UK universities, now runs undergraduate and post-graduate degree programmes in Creative Writing. But I don’t imagine that many unemployed people can afford them.

The origins of Creative Writing in the UK lie a long way from Higher Education – in Adult Education, Women’s Education, community arts and organisations like the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. The sudden and distorting presence of the universities in the poetry economy has brought with it the imported ideas of intellectual property, critical hierarchies, career-structures as well as the instincts of corporate lawyers.

If poetry is a commodity, it needs to be policed (grammatical rules, unified spelling, critical standards, canonical tradition etc). And before it can be sold, it has to be owned (copyright and intellectual property etc). There is a direct connection, I think, between the commodification of poetry and the privatisation of poetry as a personalised form of individual expression rather a means of public communication.

Q. Hold on now! Poets have proclaimed their originality and criticized others for taking credit for their or other poets’ work (in whole or in part) since antiquity. But, again, let’s stay with the current topic and restate this last question. Does the poet who chooses to be a part of the of the contemporary ‘poetry business,’ a business which is predicated on the traffic of poems that contain ‘the original ‘voice’ of the poet,’ as you put it, or of the deliberate (and acknowledged) subversion of such ‘voice’ poems, have the obligation to make clear what it is that they are purveying within that marketplace?

No. Poetry is not a marketplace and a poem is not a commodity to be bought and sold.

Perhaps I may be allowed to regurgitate something I have previously written (self-plagiarism?) on this issue. Property is a very recent (and contested) innovation in human history, usually used to determine access to scarce or limited resources such as land, buildings, the means of production, manufactured goods and money. It is a shifting concept; not so long ago, women, children and slaves were subject to property law. Today we have ‘copyright’, ‘intellectual property’, ‘identity theft’, ‘image rights’ – and the ludicrous spectacle of a chain of British opticians claiming legal ownership over the word ‘Should’ve’, while a Danish brewery apparently owns the copyright to the word ‘probably’.

There are three kinds of property – common property (where resources are governed by rules which make them available for use by all or any members of the society), collective property (where the community as a whole determines how important resources are to be used), and private property (where contested resources are assigned to particular individuals).
It is difficult to see how the many various elements of any poem – words, phrases, grammatical structures, rhyme and metre, emotional syntax, allusions, echoes, patterns, imagery and metaphor etc – can be described as ‘property’ in any of the above senses, except perhaps ‘common property’. None of these elements are scarce or finite; their use by one person does not preclude their use by any number of others. In an age of mechanical reproduction, it is not possible to ‘steal’ a poem or part of a poem, only to repeat it.

All poetry inhabits the common language of everyday living. A poem can be unique without being original; it can be ‘new’ at the same time that it is already known. As my friend the French poet Francis Combes has argued:

Poetry belongs to everyone. Poetry does not belong to a small group of specialists. It arises from the everyday use of language. Like language, poetry only exists because we share it. Writing, singing, painting, cooking – these are ways of sharing pleasure. For me poetry is like an electrical transformer which converts our feelings and our ideas into energy. It is a way of keeping your feet on the ground without losing sight of the stars. It is at the same time both the world’s conscience and its best dreams; it’s an intimate language and a public necessity.

Most important human activities are not subject to ideas of ownership. Talking, walking, whistling, running, making love, speaking a foreign language, cooking, playing football, baking bread, dancing, conversation, knitting, drawing – these are all acquired skills which we learn by imitating others, but they are not subject to ideas of ownership.

Historically, poetry was always understood to be much closer to these than to those things that the law regards as ‘property’ (land, money etc). No one in, say, fourteenth-century Italy would have understood the idea of ‘stealing’ a poem. Most cultures, even today, regard poetry as ‘common property’. Which is another way of saying that everyone owns it. And if everyone owns it, there is nothing to steal.

There are so many interesting things here I’d like to ask you about. But first, as a point of fact, poets in fourteenth century Italy would definitely have understood the idea of stealing a poem, although what they thought was important was the formal structure of the canzone. ‘Theirs was a literature that strove for originality of form almost above all else,’ Chambers notes in his Introduction to Old Provencal. As an example of this concern, he quotes elsewhere in his book the 12th century troubadour Peire d'Alvernhe’s line, ‘never was a song good or of any value which resembled the songs of another.’

But I think that it would be rather difficult to write a history of, say, Blues or Folk Music in these terms. And there are many poetic traditions – Urdu for example – which rely very heavily on shared phrases and commonly used figures of speech.

Anyone who enjoys generic fiction will tell you that part of the pleasure of this kind of reading is the recognition of its familiar patterns. Not many readers of westerns or hospital romances, for example, will thank an author for radically disrupting their expectations of the form.

One of the reasons I write almost entirely in traditional stanzas – metrically precise, rhymingly obsessive, formal straight-jackets – is the creation of a shared, anticipated music with the listener. It is like joining a traditional dance with complicated steps that everyone knows. This only works if each new song in some way ‘resembles’ the songs of others.

Q. But I’m glad you brought up this period of literary history because I think it prompts a really interesting question about the complicated relationship throughout history between authorship and originality and ownership and ‘the marketplace,’ however we define that. We find these complications in Greece in Pindar’s work and at Rome in Martial’s (who first brought the notion of ‘plagiary’ – kidnapping – into a literary context). We find it the Renaissance when the word ‘plagiary’ first enters English. And of course we find it today.

Whether we want to call it originality or not, authorship and being recognized as the author of a work seems to be central to poets’ self-understanding to this day, even among the communist poets you refer to in your essay and among those who largely agree with your points about language and poetry.

A case in point might be the American novelist Jonathan Lethem, who was interviewed after the publication of his excellent essay, ‘The Ecstasy of Influence,’ which makes many of the same points you’ve made about language, the commons, and the impossibility of writing anything fully original. In an interview following it (forgive the long quote), he clarified his views on originality, saying, ‘I think originality is a word of praise for things that have been expressed in a marvellous way and that make points of origin for any particular element beside the point. When you read Saul Bellow or listen to Bob Dylan sing, you can have someone point to various cribbings and it won’t matter, because something has been arrived at which subsumes and incorporates and transcends these matters. In that way, sourcing and originality are two sides of the same coin, they’re a nested partnership.’ He goes on to expand on what he means by ‘originality’ by relating it to the notion of ‘surprise’: ‘You want to feel surprised. If my description proposes some sort of dutiful, grinding, crossword puzzle work—‘let me take some Raymond Chandler here and graft it to some Philip K. Dick over here’—that’s horrendous. You, the author, want to experience something that feels surprising and uncanny and native. You want to take all your sourcing and turn it into an experience that—for you first and foremost, and then of course for the reader—feels strong or urgent in a way that mimics some kind of natural, automatic process.’

All of this leads me to a two-part question. First, as opposed to what we might call a ‘strong’ notion of originality, one that sees authors as capable of coming up with wholly original thoughts and expressions over which they can claim total ownership, Lethem seems to be putting forward what we might call a ‘weak’ notion of originality, one that emphasizes the author’s ability to surprise herself and us regardless of source material. I’m interested in what you might think of Lethem’s take on the word ‘originality,’ which in spirit seems to be not that far from Milton.

Second, from the perspective of Lethem’s ‘weak’ notion of originality, it seems like you’re conflating ‘strong’ notions of ‘originality’ and ‘ownership’ – possessiveness over property rights – with ‘authorship’ and ‘originality’ in the weaker sense – surprisingly marvelous writing and the pride that comes with such accomplishment. You criticize those who decry plagiarism as defenders of private property because you believe that a poem is not a commodity that can be bought or sold and that it’s on these strong grounds that they base their objections. But is it fair to say that it’s on those grounds that most people find the plagiarist pathetic? Mightn’t the objectors to plagiarism/inept borrowing/bad poems (however we want to describe unsurprising writing) be objecting to the plagiarist’s false (and rather sad) claims of authorship and his implicit denial of others’ surprising achievements (however modest) rather than any violation of notions of ownership?

I like the concept of ‘surprising’ writing, although it has to be said British literary culture seems interested only in ‘unsurprising’ writing at the moment. I don’t know Jonathan Lethem’s work, or this essay, but it sounds like a very useful account of my sense of the way I write. During the two days we have been conducting this conversation by e-mail, I have also been writing an obituary, proof-reading a children’s novel, copy-editing an anthology of poetry and trying to finish a poem about the refugee crisis in Europe. I have also written about sixty e-mails and half a dozen letters. But I don’t think that it is true to say that I have been exercising a ‘weak’ originality for most of the time and saving my ‘strong’ originality only for the poem (especially as it borrows, self-consciously, some phrases from Byron’s Childe Harold). Or does such deliberate – and irreverent – borrowing represent a kind of ‘strong’ originality in itself? Which kind of ‘originality’ are you and I using in this conversation?

And why should the poetry world suddenly be the focus of these questions about ownership. Why now? Why poetry? Why not the worlds of, say, ventriloquism, athletics, topiary or pottery? Who benefits from the importation of this legal vocabulary into poetry?

The current moral panic over ‘plagiarism in poetry’ seems to me to derive from several overlapping elements – the post-Romantic privatisation of feeling and language, the fetishisation of ‘novelty’ in contemporary culture, half-hearted notions of intellectual property, the long-term consequences of Creative Writing moving from university adult education onto campus as an academic subject, the professionalization of poetry, and the creation of a large pool of Creative Writing graduates competing for publication, jobs and prizes at the same time as a catastrophic decline in the number of poetry publishers.

The result is an unpleasantly competitive poetic culture, once described by the poet Sean O’Brien as a bunch of ‘ferrets fighting for mastery of a septic tank.’ If there were any money involved it would be tragic. But considering the tiny amounts of money that anyone ever earns from poetry in the UK, there is something grimly comical about poets accusing each other of stealing something which belongs to everyone.
Monday, 09 May 2016 16:20

Short story: Snig

Published in Fiction

Snig was always losing things. One day he lost his hat. The next day he lost his umbrella. When he put things down, he forgot where he had put them. When he picked things up, he forgot to put them down. He was very forgetful. Sometimes Snig thought he had lost his memory. But where had he put it? He couldn’t remember. Poor little Snig.

It wasn’t much fun being Snig. He wanted to have fun, but the other silly creatures kept all the fun to themselves. Some people have all the fun. And they wouldn’t share it with Snig. When Snig complained, they said he was spoiling everyone else’s fun. They said he had lost his sense of humour.

Perhaps they were right. Snig used to have a sense of humour. But he didn’t know where he had put it. He looked under the bed. He looked in the cupboard. He looked in his pockets. But he just couldn’t find it anywhere. It wasn’t funny. Poor little Snig.

He tried to be patient. But his patience was wearing thin, especially when the other silly creatures called him names. Snig didn’t know what to say.
‘Lost your tongue! Lost your tongue!’ they shouted. ‘Loser! Loser!’
Snig’s patience finally snapped. Ow! That hurt!

Snig ran away into the forest and bumped into a tree. Ow! That hurt too.
He tripped over a root. Ow! So did that.
He sat down on some nettles. Ow! And that.
Poor little Snig had hurt his feelings.

And now he had lost his patience. Snig looked everywhere in the forest for it. He looked high and low, but he couldn’t find it. He looked down and out. But he still couldn’t find it. Snig looked up at the silvery stars and the cold and lonely moon and closed his eyes. He felt sad that he had lost his patience. It was even worse than losing his sense of humour. But where had he put it? Snig walked deeper into the forest to find his patience.

‘Are you looking for trouble?’ asked the grizzly bears.
‘Certainly not,’ said Snig. He didn’t want any trouble.

‘Are you looking for an argument?’ asked the prickly bushes.
‘Certainly not,’ said Snig. He didn’t want an argument.

‘Are you looking for a fight?’ asked the wild flowers.
‘Certainly not,’ said Snig. He didn’t want a fight.

By now it was cold and dark. Poor little Snig was all alone in the middle of the forest. He didn’t know which way to go. It wasn’t fair. Why was he always losing things? First he lost his hat and his umbrella. Then he lost his sense of humour. He had lost his tongue. He had lost his patience. And now he had lost his way. The other silly creatures were right after all. Snig was just a loser.

Snig continued walking into the forest. After a while he met a creature who looked very hot and bothered. ‘Have you seen my patience?’ asked Snig.
‘I’d like to help you,’ said the hot and sweaty creature, ‘but I’ve lost my cool, and I need to find it.’ He started sweating again and ran off.

Snig continued walking into the forest. After a while he met a creature who kept falling over. ‘Have you seen my patience?’ asked Snig.
‘I’d like to help you,’ said the clumsy creature, ‘but I’ve lost my nerve, and I need to find it.’ He fell over again and ran off.

Snig continued walking into the forest. After a while he met a very thin creature. ‘Have you seen my patience?’ asked Snig.
‘I’d like to help you,’ said the very thin creature, ‘but I’ve lost my appetite, and I need to find it.’ He rubbed his thin ribs and ran off.

Snig sat down under a tree and tried to sleep. It was cold. Brrr! Just then it started raining. Snig wished he had brought his hat and his umbrella. But then he remembered he had lost them. Poor little Snig.

When Snig thought about his hat, he felt a hot tear roll down his face. When he thought about his umbrella, another tear rolled down his face. He thought about his sense of humour and his patience. And he cried and he cried and he cried.

Snig was still crying when he arrived home. The other silly creatures were running around, having all the fun, as usual. When they saw Snig they stopped and pointed at him.
‘Loser! Loser!’ they shouted. Snig tried to ignore them.
‘Loser! Loser!’ they shouted, more loudly. Snig pretended he couldn’t hear them
‘Loser! Loser!’ they shouted louder and louder.
This was too much for Snig. He looked up at the silvery stars and the cold and lonely moon, closed his eyes and began to frown.

‘He’s lost his manners,’ said one of the other silly creatures.
The frown turned into a moan.
‘He’s lost his marbles,’ said another.
The moan turned into a groan.
‘He’s lost the plot,’ said another.
Then the frown turned into a growl. And the growl turned into a great big ROAR!

‘I’ve NOT lost my manners!’ roared Snig. ‘I’ve NOT lost my marbles. And I’ve NOT lost the plot! But I have lost something else. Look – I’ve lost my temper!’ And he roared and he roared and he roared so loudly that all the other silly creatures lost their balance and fell over on their bottoms with a bump. Ow! That hurt!

Snig smiled. The smile turned into a grin. The grin turned into a giggle. And the giggle turned into a great big barrel of laughs. HO! HO! HO!

‘Look!’ laughed Snig, ‘I’ve found my sense of humour!’ And he laughed and laughed at the other silly creatures. He laughed so much that he lost his balance and fell over on his bottom. Ow! That hurt!

The other silly creatures began to smile. The smile turned into a grin. The grin turned into a giggle. And the giggle turned into another great big barrel of laughs. HA! HA! HA! Snig wasn’t a loser after all. He was just like them.

Snig was still laughing when he felt something inside his coat. He put his hand in his pocket. ‘Look!’ he laughed, ‘I’ve found my hat and umbrella! They were here all the time!’

And so Snig stood to his feet, put on his hat, picked up his umbrella and started to hop. And the hop turned into a skip. And the skip turned into a jump. And the jump turned into a dance.

When the other silly creatures saw this they stood to their feet and followed Snig. And soon they were all lost in the dance as they hopped and skipped and jumped together beneath the silvery stars and the cold and lonely moon.