Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison is a Brighton-based poet and editor of The Recusant, and Militant Thistles.

Poetry, Unemployment and the Welfare Hate
Sunday, 26 March 2017 17:38

Poetry, Unemployment and the Welfare Hate

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison introduces his latest poetry collection, and calls for submissions for his latest anthology of political poetry.

After seven years of what might be termed the ‘welfare hate’, with over 80,000 deaths (and suicides) among sick and disabled claimants between 2011-14, approximately 2,380 within six weeks of the DWP and Atos declaring them “fit for work”, it is only in recent months that the British pathology of what I term ‘Scroungerology’ has shown vague signs of a pausing for thought.

Undoubtedly some factors contributing to this latter cultural hiatus are the United Nations report condemning the Coalition and Tory Governments’ abuses of disability rights through disability-targeted benefit cuts, and veteran social-realist director Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or and BAFTA-winning film intervention, I, Daniel Blake (in some ways a polemical update on Jim Allen and Roland Joffé’s superlative The Spongers, broadcast 1978, which juxtaposes the story of a single mother and her children targeted by punitive disability benefit cuts against the backdrop of the taxpayer-funded Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and which is more than ripe for repeat).

These have come as timely reinforcements to several veteran campaigns –Disabled People Against the Cuts, the Spartacus Report, the Black Triangle Campaign, Calum’s List et al – that have fought valiantly over the past seven years to put the catastrophic impact of the disability cuts in the public domain, in spite of the DWP and a complicit mainstream media’s best efforts to ‘bury’ such issues.

Nevertheless, we have a long way to go politically and attitudinally as a society until we can wrestle back some semblance of a compassionate and tolerant welfare state which looks after the poor, unemployed, disabled and mentally afflicted, and without recourse to stigmatisation and persecution. The front line of ‘scroungermongering’ is the thick red line of the right-wing red tops, most heinously the Daily Express, and, of course, every English person’s favourite hate rag, the Daily Mail – the ubiquitous negative drivers of most public opinion.

To be on benefits today, no matter what one’s personal circumstances or disadvantages, is almost a taboo, and one exploited ruthlessly by the makers of such televisual effluence as Benefits Street, Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, and the reprehensibly titled Saints and Scroungers (one campaigner, Sue Marsh, has tried to re-appropriate that dreadful term on her admirably defiant Diary of a Benefit Scrounger blog).

In spite of a faint sense of relief felt across the unemployed and incapacitated communities at new Work and Pensions Secretary Damien Green’s announcement that there will be no more welfare cuts beyond those already legislated, there is still cause for trepidation when said legislated cuts of £30 per week to new Employment and Support Allowance claims kick in this April – certainly, then, ‘the cruellest month’ this year.

By something of a coincidence, my next poetry collection, precisely on the theme of the welfare and disability cuts and the stigmatisation of the unemployed, Tan Raptures, is published by Smokestack Books on 1 April.

Tan Raptures gathers together poems composed during the past six years of remorseless benefits cuts and welfare stigmatisation. Some of it is from an empirical perspective, my having been for much of this period in the ‘Work-Related Activity Group’ (or ‘WRAG’ as it’s disparagingly abbreviated) of Employment and Support Allowance, where those who are deemed unfit for work for the time being but not necessarily permanently are placed (I am a lifelong sufferer of pure obsessional disorder, an unpredictable and debilitating form of OCD). This has been punctuated by sporadic paid opportunities (termed ‘permitted work’ or ‘therapeutic earnings’ by the DWP) in poetry mentoring, tutoring and commissions.

Poetry and unemployment often go hand-in-hand, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, since writing poetry is a form of occupation (alongside editing it, publishing it, teaching it, mentoring it, workshopping it etc.), even if an often impecunious one as paid opportunities are few and far between. Indeed, the fact that poetry has very little ‘market value’, and employment or occupation in capitalist society is almost entirely defined in terms of earning money, almost all full-time poets are, paradoxically, ‘unemployed’; at least, in purely superficial material terms. Through the sadly seldom-consulted prism of humanistic occupational theory, poetry is certainly an ‘occupation’ in the authentic sense of the term.

Many poets have been unemployed at points in their careers albeit ‘poetically employed’ at the same time. Indeed, unemployment is often an ‘occupational hazard’ of being a poet, and many either still are, or certainly have been in the past, intermittent benefit claimants. Capitalism has no time for poets since it deems them unprofitable and economically unproductive (in any case, it has their occupational replacements: advertising copywriters).

This is in stark contrast to the stipends paid by the state in the old Soviet Union specifically to keep poets in their poetry (a similar scheme would be most welcome here today). The sometimes inescapable relationship between poetry and unemployment – bards on the dole – is almost never spoken let alone written about by poets. Poetry and unemployment are unspoken companions. But many poets will stifle a bitter laugh at the notion of a Department for Waifs and Poets (DWP).

In Tan Raptures I refer to the DWP as the ‘Department for War on the Poor’, since that is undoubtedly its primary purpose today. The collection includes polemical paeans to many victims of the Tory benefits cuts and sanctions, such as Glaswegian playwright Paul Reekie (suicide), ex-soldier David Clapson (death from diabetic complications/malnutrition), and the Coventry soup-kitchen-dependent couple, the Mullins (suicide).

The eponymous polemical poem is an Audenic dialectic in 14 cantos on the social catastrophe of the benefits caps, pernicious red-top “scrounger” propaganda, and Iain Duncan Smith’s despotic six year grip at the DWP. It is also a verse-intervention of Social Catholicism, as epitomised by Pope Francis, in oppositional response to the “appalling policies” (Jeremy Corbyn) of self-proclaimed ‘Roman Catholic’ Duncan Smith.

The title Tan Raptures plays on the biblical notion of ‘The Rapture’ – the ‘raising up’ of living and dead believers to meet their maker in the sky – satirising the ubiquitous ‘tan envelopes’ that strike fear into claimants on a daily basis as passports to a twisted Tory notion of ‘moral salvation’ through benefit sanction.

So common has this phenomenon become that the phrase ‘fear of the brown envelope’ now denotes a recognised phobic condition, and was even used as the first part of a title for an academic paper on exploring welfare reform with long-term sickness benefits recipients’ (Garthwaite, K., 2014).

It is my hope that Tan Raptures will play its part in keeping up the momentum of the belatedly emerging counter-cultural welfare narrative as championed by the likes of Ken Loach, and, of course, Labour’s first socialist leader in decades, Jeremy Corbyn, who put it firmly on record that he opposes any open discrimination against the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled in such reprehensible and hateful terms as “scrounger”, “skiver” and “shirker”.

Our culture of ‘Scroungerology’ has been something I have been writing polemic on for a number of years now at The Recusant and through the two anti-austerity anthologies under its e-imprint Caparison: Emergency Verse – Poets in Defence of the Welfare State (2010/11) and The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity (2012/13).

It also seems an apt time then to pitch Caparison’s belated third poetry anthology, The Brown Envelope Book, or The Brown E-Book for short, since it will be, at least initially, an electronic publication, as was, originally, Emergency Verse.

The main theme of this third anthology is, as the title suggests, benefits cuts and welfare stigmatisation, but it will also be addressing the housing crisis by petitioning for the reintroduction of private rent controls and also raising greater awareness of the prevalence of letting agent-and-landlord negative vetting of prospective tenants on the basis that they claim benefits or Local House Allowance (even if they’re in work!).

Poets of all stripes are invited to submit their poems on the themes of unemployment and welfare; the empathic but, more especially, the empirical, welcome.

Alan Morrison’s Tan Raptures is published by Smokestack Books. It is available now to order at: https://www.waterstones.com/book/tan-raptures/alan-morrison/9780995563506To submit work for consideration in The Brown E-Book, please email up to six poems along with a brief biog in the body of the email to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Please put ‘Brown E-Book’ in the subject header.

Sixth Rapture: Shut Curtains during the Day

Unlike riches, policies do have a trickledown effect,
And the dictates of Damascus Smith –hairshirt Thomas Malthus
Of Caxton House/or Gregor Mendel of the DWP–
Would germinate into a pearl-white species of cropped
Correspondences in Kafkaesque script bespeaking strange augurs,
Barbed inferences, grim omens, pointed portents –vatic tans
Vibrating with cryptic stings: ‘A query has arisen regarding
Your claim…’, or, ‘We are letting you know what might happen to you’,
But without actually doing so, only adumbrating through
Deliberate ambiguity and mystique of omission (the old
Hemingway tip-of-the-iceberg effect), lacings of uncertainty,
Leaving the door wedged open to auto-suggestion, taxing
Anxious imaginations prone to catastrophic projections –
The implicatures captured uniquely in tan paper raptures;
While elliptic and ecliptic occupational purposes, strange
Occulting ranks and titles, Customer Compliance Officers,
Brought thoughts of Thought Police or plain-clothed
Gestapo in tan macs with glacial stares behind impenetrable
Spectacles turning up on doorsteps clutching rolled umbrellas
And black leather briefcases stuffed full with thumbscrews,
Coat-hangers, piano wires, tape-recorders and lie-detectors –
While Government encouragement of neighbourly petit-
Espionage on unemployed suspects (more the ‘Big Brother
Society’) upped the tan ante for vigilante attitudes
And raised the temperature spiking the thunderous atmosphere
To puncture-point as Ministers instructed conscientious
Citizens to take note of those windows with “shut curtains
During the day” –or, in Baronet Osborne’s vocabulary:
“Closed shutters”– as they left for work each morning: dawn
Patrols of resentful workers directed to mark front doors
Of suspected Dole-Judes, like so many beady-eyed jackdaws –
It’s a peculiarly English kind of malice that criminalises
Innocents and victimises victims of circumstances thrust
On them by others’ “tough choices” and “difficult decisions”…
How appropriate that the Department for War on the Poor
Should send out such vindictive missives in envelopes
Of various browns, parcelling captured sunlight
To disinfect the disaffected, frightened, forgotten, pilloried,
Persecuted, tarred-and-feathered benefit spendthrifts
And profligates, scapegoats and targets for the ran-tan tanning
Of stigmatising tans –what strange types of benefits that grant
No benefits, neither to wallet nor wellbeing, but only
Deplete peace of mind and suppress appetites of “useless eaters”,
“Asocial” and “arbeitsscheu”–is that part of the point, to soften
The blow of swallowed-up cash-flow by shrinking stomachs
So there’s less need for food but more room for souls to grow
Like tapeworms of purely spiritual appetites distending
Themselves on the carroty acid reflux of phantom
Mastication, swishing round in rapturous backwashes from
Half-digested papers…? Some recipients experience
Epiphanies: eat the tan envelopes, as if they were unleavened
Victuals, bellies booming out with brown Holy Ghosts…

from 'Tan Raptures' (Tan Raptures, Smokestack Books 1 April 2017)

Slave Songs and Symphonies
Sunday, 26 March 2017 17:10

Slave Songs and Symphonies

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison reviews one of the new Culture Matters poetry pamphlets.

This new series of poetry pamphlets under the Culture Matters imprint of Manifesto Press are glossily produced and complemented by specially commissioned illustrations throughout, all of which is to emphasize CM’s mission to spread progressive and accessible literature to a wide class-crossing readership (funding from the Unite union puts a stamp to that). This is a bold and brave cultural mission, especially in such reactionary times, not unlike that of Pelican back in the 1930s.

The superbly eclectic and engaging CM website (one can almost imagine the ghost of Christopher Caudwell personally endorsing it) has already proven an enormous success attracting a significant readership but above all a broad and hugely varied contributor base. 

Slave Songs and Symphonies by Glaswegian poet David Betteridge is a consummate and immediately engaging introduction to this new series of poetry pamphlets, a passionate, intelligent but still highly accessible collection of poems that serves as an accomplished primer of contemporary political poetry. Akin to the very Blakean ethos of Culture Matters, the emphasis here is very much on poems as ‘songs’ and Betteridge’s verse has some key aspects in common with the Blake of Songs of Innocence and Experience, and not simply in its associative title. Like Blake, Betteridge composes cadent polemical poems that are ostensibly accessible while offering figurative depth for those readers looking beneath the surface narratives, allusions and dialectics.

The first poem in the chapbook, ‘So Long’, opens with a quote from Italian Marxist writer and political thinker, Antonio Gramsci, a statement of allegiance starting: ‘I am a partisan, I am alive’. This dialectical narrative poem charts the development of historical human consciousness and to its close launches into a kind of Hegelian thesis asserting – in italics – a profound Marxian conception of ‘the Fall’ as humanity’s lapse into feudalism and capitalism:

namely the class divide that brought such woe
into the world, out of a Bronze Age melting pot.

Elites took power to own and rule,
against the interests of the rest,
whose role it was to labour, die, and rot.
the class divide: it is our Original
(and continuing) Sin, to be redeemed, if ever,
only in a Commonweal.

‘In Brecht’s Bar’ starts with a brilliant quote from the eponymous groundbreaking German dramaturge: ‘Who built the seven gates of Thebes?/ The books are filled with the names of kings./ Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?’ This is a short dialogue poem, a verse vignette set in a pub in which one punter speaks to another about the absence of written working-class history:

‘I overheard you talking.
Seems History’s your thing: mine, too,
though all the dates and names
that interest me
are never put in any books at all.’

‘Fighting Back’ is in similar vein, a charming vignette of an elderly veteran protestor who salutes goodbye to a fellow traveller with a ‘thumbs-up, then clenched fist’ –Betteridge is an often very witty poet. ‘Giving Back Riches’ is juxtaposed with a striking photographic collage picture by collaborative artist Bob Starrett featuring the impressive black actor, singer, Communist, political activist and icon of the Harlem Renaissance, Paul Robeson. Betteridge pays emotive tribute to Robeson:

Carrying a deep wound, his and the world’s,
dreaming a generous dream,
following the rainbow and the dove,
he was a giant, serving the people.

He personifies him as many mighty rivers, and other geographical features:

He was Clyde and Volga,
Mississippi, Ganges, Amazon and Nile.
He was Vesuvius.

Robeson was truly a force of nature in many respects, artistically and politically, and an especially courageous man considering the more racially prejudiced times he lived and worked in. As an outspoken Communist, he was also included on the McCarthy blacklist. Betteridge’s eulogy rings directly: 'His echo lingers, loud/ for those with souls to hear'.

The longest poem in the pamphlet is ‘Showing a Way’ and depicts the Upper Clyde Shipyard Work-in of 1971-2, previously commemorated in the excellent Betteridge-edited A Rose Loupt Oot (Smokestack Books, 2012), and reviewed on The Recusant. The poem begins fittingly with an aphorism from Work-in leader Jimmy Reid: ‘We are witnessing an eruption not of lava but of labour’. The Vesuvius of the previous poem and the lava quoted at the top of the following one gives a volcanic quality to the imageries of this selection.

‘Showing a Way’ begins with a passionate assertion that is all the more striking because of its simplicity of expression:

Once upon a time – here,
in the real world, for this is not a fairy tale –
a bold idea changed If to That.
Imagine, acted on by many,
took on the force of hard material fact.

There’s a consciously naïve quality which arguably makes its point more succinctly and potently than anything more poetically oblique could:

This happened many years ago:
the place, the shipyards of the Upper Clyde.
The wonder is, given the world’s wounds since,
the bold idea has not yet died.

This ‘bold idea’ we might conclude is Socialism or Communism. Betteridge’s most sublime poetic moments stand out strikingly amidst his more accessible and direct phrasing and diction – again we have something of a threading leitmotif in the image of ‘rivers’:

All rivers have their storied past,
in part the same, in part unique.
more than a few have known the pride
of ships well made and safely launched;
and also known, when fortunes ebb,
a shadow-side; but here, at UCS,
a Labour victory was ours,
and Capital, out-classed, endured reversal,
and a loosening of its powers.

From the leitmotif of ‘rivers’ to the volcanic leitmotif, reiterating Jimmy Reid’s quote from the top of the poem:

Big on any scale, a volcano, not of lava
but of Labour, burst into flame.
The action that eight thousand workers took
filled the bright skies of politics.

Betteridge venerates the UCS Work-in as a significant victory in the history of class struggle, something groundbreaking even for the more politically restive and radicalised Seventies:

Briefly, social order’s deep assumptions shook.
That is the core of Clyde’s especial claim.

The forces of Capital marked out the shipyard as a ‘Lame duck’ of declining industry. ‘Never mind the lives invested there,/ the teeming skill, the order book!’ Betteridge rightly protests. Then, more defiantly: ‘Dead duck was what it wished to see,/ little knowing that our bird would fly’. There’s then a note of triumph in the following pithily expressed, part-rhyming stanza:

Unite and fight!
In tandem, and in full,
heeding the maxim’s dual elements,
not from the dole outwith the shipyards’ gates,
but working from within:
there lay the workers’ stratagem,
that helped us win.

[The term ‘outwith’ is Scottish and means ‘outside; beyond’]. For this was the unique strategy of this particular strike, a strike which, ingeniously, involved not a downing of tools and a walking off the premises but oppositely a continuation of production as part of a Work-in, or labour lock-in if you like. Like the striking miners of the mid-Eighties, the UCS working strikers were sustained by donations of money, provisions and, just as importantly, messages of moral support, to help keep their bodies and minds together:

This shipyards’ mail bag,
like a farmer’s sack of seed,
spilled out its daily bulge of contents:
news received of rallies, demonstrations, strikes;
well-wishers’ words, and sometimes flowers;
and cash, from corner shops,
from churches, children, unions,
and the whole wide listening world,
sums both large and widows’ generous mites,
sent in comradeship, to keep
the struggle’s fire alight.

But next Betteridge turns his attention to the state of play today:

The yards were saved: the bold idea,
in act, had proved its worth.
But now, several decades on, what’s left?
In place of gain, a creeping dearth.

It is indeed a bleak prospect:

Not only ships have sunk, or gone for scrap,
but yards as well, and jobs, and skills,
and with them, hope.

Capitalism has long laid waste to much of British society, not just industry but communities, solidarity, the hope of socialism. The Thatcherite Tories put paid to such aspirations of fellowship, community and equality, having learnt many strategic lessons from such rare proletarian triumphs as the UCS Work-in (e.g. such as when the Thatcher Government stocked up on coal prior to bringing in its toxic policy to shut down most of the country’s coal mines, having anticipated the immediate effects of miners striking). Thus Betteridge laments:

For Capital, the battle that it lost
was clarion-call and school;
it learned far more than we.
It learned to hone its tools of shock,
displace, lay off, and rule.

Betteridge continues pessimistically using brutalised language to express the brutalisation of the industrial proletariat:

Ganging up and doing down,
it made too many of us settle, first for slices
of the loaf we made, then beggars’ crusts,
then bugger all; ruthlessly,
it grabbed again its habitual crown.

Betteridge perfectly expresses the despair of the Left at the atomisation of the working classes, the chronic decline in social solidarity, and their political alienation from globalisation, all of which has made ripe pickings for the duplicitous populism of Ukip and the embroilment of Brexit:

For us, a tragedy ensued,
its playing-out still under way;
comrades at loggerheads and each others’ throats;
lost sense of purpose and common cause,
parties pulled apart, offering least, not best, resistance
in a losing war.

Betteridge then reflects on the UCS Work-in: ‘how might we have built on it/ and built afresh; how might we, even now,/ still launch upon our carrying stream of deepest need’. So to a defiant historical materialist rallying-cry, a concrete crescendo of class determination in the face of only apparently triumphant capitalism – bolstered by ecological and geological imagery, tectonics, volcanic etc.:

This world shifts restlessly;
a rising flood of tremors agitates beneath;
fresh rifts in what we thought was solid mass
appear.

Deep energy demands release.
Eruptions can’t be far: the forest’s clear.

Present struggle cries to know
the complex story of its past.
Take it, save it from erasure,
or revision’s grasp!

What happened here in ’71 and ‘2
can be no Terra Nullius of the mind, open
for errors to invade: it’s where,
ablaze and wise, we entered history,
and showed a way whereby a future
might be made.

Perhaps my favourite poem in this chapbook is ‘A Fish Rising’, which employs a beautiful metaphor of the carp for the seemingly slow even glacial emergence of socialism from the muddy depths of the capitalist pond, of socialism’s dormancy, that even at times when it seems to be absent, it is still with us albeit invisibly beneath the surface of vicissitudes, and that it can take a long time for it to slowly float up and break through that historical surface. But socialism is always there as long as there is oppression; it is the ineffaceable shadow of just outrage cast by the planted colossus of capitalism – its anathema and ultimate nemesis.

Betteridge begins with a profound quote from revolutionary figure Rosa Luxemburg: ‘The revolution will raise itself up again…/ it will proclaim: I was, I am, I shall be…’. ‘A Fish Rising’ is perhaps an example of what William Empson defined as ‘covert pastoral’ in his book Some Versions of Pastoral (1935): that is to say poetry which appears on the surface as pastoral or bucolic in terms of imagery but which is actually polemical, even politically subversive, in its underlying messages. Betteridge presents us with natural imagery and metaphor to evoke the sometimes dormant but ever-restless spirit of socialism:

From the bottom of an ancient pool,
said to be bottomless,
up to the film of its meeting with the still air,
hungry, in search of fly or grub,
a fat carp rises.

The use of natural imagery here is reminiscent of Seamus Heaney and, at times, the darker twists of Ted Hughes – the following is a beautifully wrought trope:

With a barbed kiss,
it breaks the surface and the silence
of this summer’s day, and eats;
then, glidingly, it noses
back to the cool of its brown deep,
a world away.

The striking phrase ‘brown deep’ is distinctly Hughesian; the enjambment after ‘deep’, partitioning off the trope ‘A world away’, is particularly powerful in expressing the sharp separation between idealism and reality. Betteridge then casts an eye back through history as he contemplates this deep ancient pond:

Romans in their heyday were the first
to stock this pool; thereafter, monks
hymning their dead
and risen god, tended the fish,
until in turn
their fortunes, like the Romans’,
fell.

There then ensues a beautifully phrased, profound trope which is at once rueful as it is hopeful:

Now, at another epoch’s ruined end,
the world in flames,
I pace the foot-worn path around the pool;
heavy with thought,
I count the failed resurgences
that history has seen, brief flowerings
of the people’s will.
they grew wild, their early promise
of a new-style beauty, unremembered now,
or else despised.

The phrase ‘brief flowerings/ of the people’s will’ is particularly emotive of the struggle of socialism and its' only periodic surfacing. Betteridge again defiantly appropriates lost battles in the cause of socialism as instructive vicissitudes: ‘succeeding Calvaries along the way may serve/ as school and seed of future victory’. The poem’s momentum becomes almost visionary:

Eurydice sang, a women’s choir.
I had heard them at a May Day years before.
Now, at the fish-pool’s side, in my mind’s replay,
they sang again, ballads in praise
of two dead giants of our foundering cause.

Then there’s a flourish of Glaswegian idiolect:

Forward tae Glesga Green we’ll march in guid order…
aye there, man, that’s johnnie noo –
that’s him there, the bonnie fechter.
Lenin’s his fiere, an’ Leibknecht his mate…

Betteridge then depicts two past figureheads of the historic Left, Scots Bolshevik and founder of the Scottish Workers Republican Party, who died at just 44 after his health had been destroyed through forced feeding while imprisoned, John Maclean, here a spectre ‘pale-faced, hoarse-voiced’, and the aforementioned Rosa Luxemburg, a socialist martyr, who died at the hands of German soldiers in the aftermath of the failed Spartacist uprising of 1919 – she’s invoked by Betteridge thus:

The other: passionate, an optimist,
convinced that everyone can contribute a mite,
or more, to all our hope’s refashioning,
until a soldier’s rifle butt abruptly put a stop
to all her eloquence, cracking her proud head
like a coconut.

Maclean and Luxemburg:
their lives’ example burns,
sticking in our consciences,
reproachfully,
like sulphur flames.

Betteridge brings this brilliant poem to its defiant end in an almost incantatory tone which stirs the spirit:

I see a movement in the pool,
a glimpse of mottle, a sun-reflecting curve,
a twist of tail and fin.

One speck of dirt, or gold,
can tip the heaviest-laden balance
from the straight.

(Taking hope, I count some auguries
of hope.)

One fact, discrepant with the dogma
of the orthodox, can breach its errors’ edifice,
admitting light.

One wound, one cry, one song,
one name can travel faster than a Caesar’s hate.

We are – or might become –
a force more powerful than earthquakes,
cyclones, lava-flows, or a river’s wearing-down
of mountains to peneplain.

Slowly rising, the carp begins once more
to stir, to swim.

It’s interesting to see again the leitmotifs of ‘lava’ and ‘rivers’. The restraint of the final trope abruptly arrests the onward rush of the verses leading up to it but tantalises by ending on infinitives, which indicate continuation, action: in this case, socialism is in the process of resurfacing again as a causal force.

‘Pulling the Plug’ is a poem-polemic expressing opposition to the reprehensible and remorseless welfare reforms of the past six years although this is not explicit in the poem itself (the Notes at the back of the pamphlet elucidate this). Betteridge captures well the sense of outrage and moral disgust at the apparent insouciance of ministers who have seemingly with impunity salami-sliced hundreds of thousands of the unemployed, sick and disabled out of existence. Betteridge’s invective pulls no punches in its directness:

The killer nods, pretends to listen,
curves his mouth in a lean grin.
I see a shark, in his element,
sure of his next and every win.
The killer manages a judicious tear.
(‘I empathise; I go to church; I care…’)
I see an obvious reptile here.
The killer laughs.
I see an ape, exulting in his dominance.

Betteridge’s explains in the Note to this poem that this is a ‘composite’ of various ministers, but it’s almost impossible to read this particular stanza without picturing the chief culprit of the benefit cuts and so-called ‘welfare reforms’, the egregious and pathologically arrogant Iain Duncan Smith who is certainly reptilian in manner and is a self-proclaimed Roman Catholic and church-goer.

No doubt IDS is a particular figure of hate in Betteridge’s native Glasgow, since, it was in the deprived Easterhouse – which is, I believe, part of the larger impoverished area of the Gorbals – that the future Work and Pensions Secretary apparently had his ‘Damascene moment’ on first witnessing abject poverty there. IDS apparently shed a tear on that occasion, and also later shed ‘a judicious tear’ when being interviewed by Ian Hislop in a documentary about the history of British welfare provision when talking about a young destitute single mother he’d met.

IDS’s answer to such cases: strip state support from the third child up! Duncan Smith certainly is a reptile in the sense he cries crocodile tears. The poem’s title is a double play: it’s the incensed Glaswegian TV viewer pulling the plug of the TV set after having enough of watching Tory ministers justify the unjustifiable, while also summoning to mind the what the Government has administratively been doing to countless incapacitated and seriously ill claimants over six years.

‘The Tug of It’ remembers the countless past half-forgotten proletarian lives that once gave shape and spirit to various streets, houses, objects and tools of trade. After an aphorism on the sempiternal nature of history by the recently departed John Berger, this partly ekphrastic poem begins with a meditation on static written history, on less-remembered and under-recorded working-class lives and histories, and conjures the ghosts of these proletarian pasts:

Sitting among books, listening inwardly,
we sense each writer importune:
Free me from the limbo of the printed past.
Let me join you; let me hear, through you,
my silenced tongue at last.

There is then what might be termed a class-Dendrochronology:

Looking at the tools we have,
thinking as we work with them,
we meet the many hands before us
that have altered, useably, their make
and fit: a chain of rafts runs back,
and back, and we can feel the tug of it.

On a prosodic note, the use of internal rhyme here is a deft touch, and one is almost reminded at times in Betteridge’s more metrical passages of Martin Bell, Tony Harrison and Andy Croft. Betteridge pays tribute to numberless shadowy working-class lives as he is happily haunted by class-ancestors:

Standing in a field of stooks,
or wandering the streets of any town,
we see at every turn
the trace and monument of many folk.

That latter phrase is particularly striking [‘stooks’ is a term for a clutch of sheaves set upright in a field to dry]. The stanza continues evocatively:

That path across the well-worked rigs –
those whose feet first trod it,
those who came each year to plough
and sow and harvest, and maintain the ditch,
while empires grew, then died…
that house or factory or school or shop –
those who gave to it their given time,
in living there and work…

Betteridge concludes the poem on a note of eternal remembrance: ‘They are all accessible through memory/ to us, and in memory persist’.

‘Essential Gifts’ is a glorious song for socialism primed on a simple but profound aphorism from Scottish mill worker and socialist activist, Mary Brooksbank, which invokes the socialist aspiration of a material heaven on earth: ‘This surely was what you were created for,/ to make this here a hereafter’. The poem is a part-lament for a historically maltreated Scotland:

Generations left this land.
Emptied glens, and mills and mines
grassed-over now, and hard-built hopes
knocked flat by the frequent wrecking ball
bear witness to a long ebb
of clearance, exile, and decline.

Driven by hunger and the loaded gun,
seeing no future here worth dying for,
wave upon living waves, our forebears travelled
far, no continent unmarked by the ill
or good of their setting there;
but this plot of earth to which we cling,
can feast us all, and others too, who join us now,
if only tended with a lover’s care.

It’s an almost hymn-like paean to proletarian Scotland but one which, in Betteridge’s signature tone, rises to a defiantly optimistic close:

There are riches heaped around,
ready for our harvesting, essential gifts
of sea and air and common ground.
We, by hand and brain, can labour them,
creating goods, enough to share.

Our class has made a start.
Things change; we make them change,
as we, like fortune, like the seasons,
like the seas’ tides, turn; and, having turned,
we see in full the great worth
of our now and future land.

The collection closes on ‘Only in a Commonweal’. The poem is preceded by another aphorism of Rosa Luxemburg’s: ‘Where the chains of Capitalism are forged,/ there they must be broken…’. This poem is again a kind of proletarian hymn that reminds how it is the common citizens of capitalist societies that keep it functioning and producing and manufacturing, the same ‘proles’ or ‘plebs’ who are, of course, called up to be sacrificed for said societies in times of conflict. This is the only poem –perhaps because it is the closing one– which is centre-justified:

We are the nothings you walk past.
Your lowest and least,
we live in the margins of your power.
Expendable, we fight your many wars.
Your triumphs we pay for, but have none.

This is a fiercely defiant anthem for the unsung working - or ‘maintenance’- class of capitalist society, its operators, producers, carriers, pallbearers:

Unheeded and unnamed,
we make your schemes come true.
Every sweated brick and girder, every milligram and tonne
of every building you command is ours.
Every furrow ploughed and filled with seed is ours.
Your wealth-producing factories, your cities – ours!

Day in, day out, we do your work and will.
We pipe the water that you need
from reservoir to tap; we stitch the clothes
that cover up your nakedness,
we bake the bread (and cake) you eat.

Then we come to the crescendo of the closing poem and of this deeply affecting and accomplished collection as a whole with the invocation of its collective title:

We are your numerous and essential kin.
Suffering most, we learn most.
Our slave-songs make symphonies;
our longings, creeds.

And finally, to earth with a thud in a phrase which reverberates like a spade hitting stone:

We dig your graves.

David Betteridge’s Slave Songs and Symphonies deserves and demands re-reading and the directness and accessibility of its poetic language and political message combined with the musical song-like tone of the poems themselves makes it more mnemonic in quality than most poetry collections. Glossily produced, and brilliantly illustrated by Bob Starrett, it is almost a secular hymn-book for the proletariat and in that sense is authentically Blakean and an exemplary introduction to the poetic mission of Culture Matters.

 This heartwarming and highly accomplished chapbook is heartily recommended to all classes, strata, and, particularly, culture-thirsty autodidacts.

 

The poetry of common ownership
Monday, 04 April 2016 15:53

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.
Wednesday, 23 December 2015 21:11

´╗┐Prickling the politics of permanent austerity with political-polemical poetry

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison surveys the recent 'mushrooming depth-charge' of political poetry in various anthologies, welcomes the rise of radical publishers, and introduces his new website, Militant Thistles.

Since The Recusant/Caparison’s anti-austerity poetry anthologies, Emergency Verse – Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State (2010/11) and The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity (2011/2012), there has been a sustained and mushrooming depth-charge of political-polemical poetry in the UK.

Fitting, since we are in a decade effectively twinned with the Depression-hit 1930s, a decade during which there was an explosion of political poetry (Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, MacNeice, Wintringham, Cornford, Lindsay, Caudwell etc.), and prose polemic through Victor Gollancz’ Left Book Club (recently resuscitated by Pluto Press, hot on the heels of the revival of that other Thirties-born polemical imprint, Pelican).

Surprising, since, in spite of today’s social and political upheavals we are, nevertheless, at the tail-end of an at least two-decade-long apolitical postmodernist hegemony in mainstream poetry.

POLEMICAL ERUPTION IN POETRY

But, just as the momentous triumph of left-wing outsider Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race took even the most optimistic by surprise, so too has the sudden polemical eruption across the poetic spectrum in response to Tory ascendency. Both would have been thought highly fanciful prospects only months before, but, today, they are actually happening.

Emergency Verse’s direct response to Chancellor Osborne’s epoch-crushing ‘Emergency Budget’, back in June 2010, anticipated the steady rupture of more openly political poetry, contrapuntal to Jody Porter’s re-energising of the Well Versed columns in the Morning Star.

Throughout the past five years there have been a number of ‘big imprint’ collections at least ostensibly addressing socio-political topics; scores of more authentically political collections through presses such as Smokestack, International Times, Waterloo, Red Squirrel; many political poetry anthologies and campaigns, such as Poems for Freedom, Fit for Work: Poets Against Atos, The Stare’s Nest, Proletarian Poetry; and, more recently, the pre-election Campaign in Poetry, the post-election poetry blogsite, New Boots and Pantisocracies, and promptly ‘on-the-pulse’ Poets for Corbyn and 21 Poems for Jeremy Corbyn.

New Boots and Pantisocracies is worth particular mention for accomplishing the considerable feat of attracting contributions from scores of ‘high profile’ poets not normally known for composing polemical poems. It seems these poets were prompted to contribute to this vast project due to entering what the site terms the ‘new dispensation’ i.e. solo Tory rule.

That we have been under Tory rule for the past five years (due to the impotence of the Lib Dems’ much-trumpeted “restraining influence” of so-called “Coalition”), with much of the most devastating cuts and social culls already enacted (not least the 91,000+ Atos-hounded sick and disabled claimants who ‘died’ between 2011 and 2014!), is a moot point. But W.N. Herbert and Andy Jackson’s valiant initiative distinguishes itself for having managed to galvanise a sizeable portion of the hitherto politically inert poetry mainstream to finally assert itself against Tory austerity and associated narratives. It has also served to provide much-needed reinforcements to the veteran anti-austerity poetry alternative.

MILITANT THISTLES

Militant Thistles (strap-line: ‘prickling the politics of permanent austerity’) is The Recusant/Caparison’s latest venture, which is essentially an online continuation of the outpouring of polemical poetry that our two previous e- and print anthologies brought to a significant readership.

The Caparison anthologies were published at a period when speaking out politically in poetry was still perceived as outré –even reputationally perilous– in the mainstream, in spite of tokenistic attempts by such flagship journals as Poetry Review to catch up with the rupture of political poetry happening pretty much entirely outside its culturally-lagging pages (cue the solipsistic ‘Where is the New Political Poetry?’ issue under Fiona Sampson’s twilight editorship).

That it now appears to be de rigueur to write political poetry in opposition to Tory-imposed austerity, and the hitherto taboo of “welfare reform”, is to be greatly celebrated.

Militant Thistles’ title is taken from Cyril Connolly, who himself lifted the phrase from George Crabbe’s ‘covert pastoral’ (see William Empson) poem ‘The Heath’. Connolly employed the phrase, in his Enemies of Promise (1938), as a metaphor for ‘political writers’, and, in part, meant it thornily: he saw political writing as one of many potential pitfalls for authors and poets.

Our use of the phrase is a prickly riposte to Connolly’s cautionary take which, together with the truncated Auden trope ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (which goes on, however: ‘…it survives/ In the valley of its making…/A way of happening, a mouth’), inadvertently let the postmodernist mainstream ‘off the political hook’.

Our use of the phrase is a little more optimistic with regards to today’s political poetry imperative. We aim to remain thistles in the consciences (if they have any!) of our current Tory rulers for the duration of what will undoubtedly prove a socially corrosive reign of the blue torch (or torched oak).

Militant Thistles welcomes political poems or polemics. Please send submissions in the body of the email together with a brief biography to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Please put ‘Militant Thistles’ in the header.

Monday, 14 December 2015 23:23

from Coventry Blue

Published in Poetry

from 1.

They say that true blue means to stay fast and true
However antediluvian the view –
It’s those who don’t waver: Covenanters,
Conservatives, and all other Naysayers;

The phrase was rinsed from another phrase,
As many are, wrung through human gaze,
Then pressed in the mangle of the rolling tongue:
“As true as Coventry Blue” – and John Ray’s

Compleat English Proverbs traced its root
To a cloth whose fibres were so resolute
That it lost none of its colour when washed,
As stubborn as obstructed blood going bruit…

from 3.

The rich sup ripe apples while the pipped peasants
Are chucked sour cores of antidepressants
To sharpen up penury-depleted spirits –
Or prodded with shocks of Protestant Ethics…

from 5.

We’re hurtling back to the Thirties today
In our Eton Blue Twenty-First Century –
Our leaders once more cut from public school cloths,
Abetted by Liberal buff-coloured moths;

Those shop steward days of woodbines and roses,
Of scholarship Harolds, Teds, Jameses –oases
Of opportunity for more life-shaped opinions
Cropped amid landscapes of palmed nepotisms;

Empirical pools slowly emptied to glimmerings
Of once-greening gains, while privileged springs
Gush back with blue vengeance –in hindsight, a mirage,
That gentler interregnum of grammar and marge

And lowering rungs, when Meritocracy’s rise
Was more than just a glint in Michael Young’s eyes,
But already rooting, up until it was nipped
In its proleptic bud when the Milk Snatcher quipped

She’d “banish the dark, divisive clouds of Marxist
Socialism” –as she did, promptly replacing it
With the dark, divisive clouds of private avarice,
Of property-worship and acquisitiveness,

Pub-emptying pulls for blue collars, carrots
And sticks: Right-to-Buys and Buy-to-Lets;
(Young Junior mapped –while his father was napping–
Playgrounds that trapped the sound of no hands clapping)…

from 8.

Now was ushered in an age of sky-blue grace
When, for three decades, that purple trace
Rinsed fainter and fainter, and pale blue
Pelicans occupied polemical space,

Richly instructive but cheaply priced
At sixpence a pinch, pocket-sized
Portable paperbacks: reimbursement
In trickledown tri-band bouleversement;

Blue-and-white titles to the put-upon
Proletariat, now lifted up on
Pinions of social philosophy
Purchased and trousered philanthropy –

Ripe pickings for black-nailed autodidacts,
The real life Jude Fawleys, Frank Owens, bracts
Of the artisan class whose sepals support
The mortarboard petals of the middling sort,

But whose own thirst for didactic succour,
So long neglected as wrinkle and pucker
In cloth cut for donkey work, multiplied
To corduroyed ridges that couldn’t be dyed

In the usual adulterated yellow-rinse
Of sports colours, gossip, prurience
Scooped up by Grub Street’s bowdlerising hacks
With racing tips feathering their bowler-hats;

This corduroy was no newfangled fabric,
It was an ancient cloth of an authentic
Shade gained with age, and its’ furrowed textures
Demanded nourishment, a cut of ploughshares –

So it fell to red hearts of the better-heeled
To redistribute to them belated bond yields:
Books in sky-blue for workers downed tools
To browse as they put up their feet slipped in mules;

Each in its striped livery, colour-coded
By subject: dark blue for biographies, red
For drama, sky-blue for social sciences,
Cerise for travel, purple for belles-lettres,

And those sea-green intrigues (less encouraged),
Crime fiction a cut above colportage
Potboilers –common folk’s cultural cures,
Wholesome brown stouts of yeasty literatures…

from 9.

Coventry Blue – so resolute, so true
‘To itself and always the same’, through and through,
Impermeable, inscrutable blue,
Ineluctable Baron of British rubes;

Our island race prizes above anything
The right to self-determination,
The right to be told to “do the right thing”,
The right to take flight on just the right wing;

The right to be ruled by those who know best
What is and is not “in the national interest”;
The right to have opinions spoon fed to us
By red-top parrots with blue-torch crests;

The right to worship at the planted feet
Of the elephant god of property –
Ganesha of buy-to-letting agencies;
The right to fleece tenants through legalese;

The right to buy up unlimited empties;
The right to deny others’ rights to tenancies:
‘No smokers. No children. No Chavs. No pets.
No unemployed mothers. No benefits’;

The right to earn livings to cover the rent
For castles which we’ve no entitlement
To enter; the right to elective enslavement,
Grey subservience we revel in: employment;

Britons may ‘never, never, never… be slaves’
But will ever be servants; reives of grey waves;
Our green island salvage is a gem of mildew
In a sea not of silver but Coventry Blue….. 

The full text of the poem ‘Coventry Blue’ will be included in Alan Morrison’s poetry collection, 'Tan Raptures', which will be published by Smokestack Books in February 2017.