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Poetry

Poetry

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care to act,
it starts when you do it again after they said no,
it starts when you say we and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.

Marge Piercy

Saturday, 23 January 2016 09:43

The Real Robert Burns

Written by
in Poetry

My word you can’t know Burns unless you can hate the Lockharts and all the estimable bourgeoisand upper classes as he really did – the narrow gutted pigeons. Don’t for God’s sake be mealy-mouthed like them. I’d like to write a Burns life. Oh, why doesn’t Burns come to life again andreally salt them.

D. H. Lawrence, letter to Donald Carswell.

Norrie Paton presents two articles on Burns, to accompany An Alternative Burns Supper. The famous novelist D H Lawrence, on learning that Catherine Carswell was working on a biography of Robert Burns, wrote to her husband, Donald, expressing his opinion on the project: “Cath’s idea of a Burns book I like very much; I always wanted to do one myself, but am not Scotchy enough. I read just now Lockhart’s life of Burns. Made me spit! Those damned Lockharts grew lilies of the valley up their arses to hear them talk. If Cath is condescending to Burns, I disown her.”

Catherine Carswell’s response was positive enough, and in her bio-novel on Burns, published in 1930, she duly acknowledged: “Without D. H. Lawrence, my friend, and Donald Carswell, my husband, this book could not have been. I therefore inscribe it to them both.” She even excused Burns one of his darkest hours, when he was literally thrown out of Robert Riddell’s house for what was deemed, drunken, inexcusable behaviour, during a New Year celebration. Some of the men had decided to act out the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’, and Burns, allegedly well gone in drink, was to lead the ‘amorous raid’. He did so by grabbing hold of Maria Riddell, the host’s sister-in-law, only to realise too late that he was on his own; the whole escapade was a lousy trick - to expose him as, “a too haughty poet whose hands were not clean of the coom of Jacobin democracy.”

The plot had nothing to do with Robert Riddell himself, but, as Carswell suggested, it was the idea of a group of army officers who were also guests in the company. Class, after all, is class, a drunken exciseman had affronted the Riddells, and he was compelled to leave the house in complete disgrace, no longer accepted as a friend of the family. He admitted in verse that the thought of having to pass Maria Riddell in the streets of Dumfries filled his mind:

The shrinking Bard adown an alley sculks,
And dreads a meeting worse than Woolwich hulks-
Tho’ there his heresies in Church and State
Might well award him Muir and Palmer’s fate:

The reference to his heresies in Church and State was no exaggeration. Thomas Johnston, in his epic work, The History of the Working Classes in Scotland (published in 1946), made the point that, “a somewhat injudicious letter”, sent by Burns to the editor of a radical newspaper in 1792, “almost resulted in Botany Bay for Scotland’s greatest singer, and, in truth, good men did go there for less.” Burns had been extremely fortunate that his friend, Robert Graham, an Excise Commissioner, had accepted his explanation that he no longer supported the French Revolution, and he was spared the threatened inquiry the Excise had ordered regarding his disaffection toward the Pitt government. Graham probably suspected that, the poet’s plea of loyalty, was merely a desperate lip service to an Establishment that he had no particular liking for; however, he chose to standby him, and Burns, much to his relief, was duly excused. He then informed his correspondent Mrs Dunlop that his lips were henceforth sealed regarding his political opinions, but to her he would breathe his true sentiments. The part of the letter in which he did so was torn away, and we can but guess what he had written!

Burns’s politics seemed to fall into two diametrically opposed viewpoints – Jacobitism and Jacobinism. The former stemmed from his deep love of Scotland, his passionate patriotism and nationalism. He was convinced that his forebears had committed themselves to the cause of the Stuarts, and the very thought of the family who had replaced them on the British throne was anathema to him:- “An obscure beef-witted race of foreigners whom a conjuncture of circumstances kickt up into power and consequence” was his verdict on the Hanoverians. The Jacobites, by attempting to win back Scottish independence, gained his sympathy, though his overall support for the Stewarts was decidedly questionable.

The injur’d STEWART-line are gone,
A Race outlandish fill their throne;
An idiot race, to honor lost;
Who know them best despise them most.-

According to a close friend of Burns, James McKitterick Adair, when revolution broke out in France in 1789, Burns and his crony, William Nicol, who had previously expressed themselves as ardent Jacobites, immediately pledged their support for the French democrats – the Jacobin party. Although Burns, as a democrat, had been greatly influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man – it had inspired his great song, ‘For a’ that and a’ that’ – he did not follow Paine’s support for the Girondists in the French Assembly. In a reckless moment, he attempted to send four carronades to the French Assembly. It is unlikely they reached their intended destination; however, this act and reports of him proposing seditious toasts in Dumfries, brought him under close scrutiny concerning his political activities.

In 1793 a young doctor arrived in Dumfries who was soon to be regarded by Burns as his “most intimate friend”. He was the scion of dedicated Jacobites: his grandfather had answered the call in 1715, his father in 1745. William Maxwell, however, had returned from France where he had played an active role in the revolution as a fully committed Jacobin, and member of the National Guard, who had escorted King Louis to the scaffold. Burns and Maxwell were indeed kindred spirits, staunch republicans who were now effectively silenced. Maxwell was well aware that he was under constant surveillance, and it had been made clear to Burns that the Excise Board would no longer tolerate any displays of disaffection.

With his health now failing, and being totally dependent on his government salary to provide for his family, Burns became a mere shadow of the free spirit that had once sent shock waves through the Kirk with a series of devastating anti-clerical satires exposing absurd dogma to ridicule and scorn. He had also threatened the political establishment with his radical verse and song. In the early morning of 21 July, 1796, Burns died. On the day of his funeral Jean Armour gave birth to his son, who was duly named Maxwell, after the doctor and friend who attended him in his final illness.

 

It is unlikely that Burns wrote ‘The Tree of Liberty’, and he certainly wasn’t the author of ‘Why should we idly waste our prime?’, two pieces frequently attributed to him; however, within his known works there is sufficient material to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Robert Burns was a true democrat, an astute political observer, freethinker, and nationalist. At his funeral in Dumfries, on 25 July, 1796, the Cinque Ports Cavalry took part; they were commanded by Robert Banks Jenkinson, whom Catherine Carswell described as “this celebrated nonentity”. He had previously made it known “that he would never shake Mr Burns by the hand”. Later, Jenkinson (as Lord Liverpool), was destined to serve a long, but thoroughly undistinguished period, as Prime Minister. Whilst he is barely remembered today for anything, Mr Burns, whom he had declined to meet, is highly regarded across the international scene as an outstanding poet of common humanity.

 

Flow Gently Sweet Afton

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes, Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise; My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream, Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

On the 5th February, 1788, Robert Burns wrote to his constant correspondent, Mrs Dunlop, enclosing a song that he had, apparently, just composed, and he described it thus:

There is a small river, Afton, that falls into the Nith, near New Cumnock, which has some charming, wild, romantic scenery on its banks.- I have a particular pleasure in those little pieces of poetry such as our Scots songs, &c. where the names and landskip-features of rivers, lakes, or woodlands, that one knows are introduced.- I attempted a compliment of that kind, to Afton, as follows: I mean it for Johnson’s Musical Museum.-

Flow gently, clear Afton, among thy green braes,

The song was duly published in Vol. IV, p. 400, of the Scots Musical Museum, with the title, ‘Afton Water’, and with ‘clear’ amended to ‘sweet’. The full text of the lyric is given in all main works of Robert Burns, and, the internal evidence of some verses make it immediately obvious that he had taken considerable poetic license. In the third stanza he comments:

There daily I wander as noon rises high, My flocks and my Mary’s sweet Cot in my eye.

Whilst in the following stanza he continues the theme of Mary and him still together by Afton’s pleasant banks and green valleys:

There oft as mild ev’ning weeps over the lea, The sweet scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Stanza five has Mary bathing her snowy feet in Afton’s wanton waters, and, in the concluding verse, as she sleeps by its ‘murmuring stream’, the river is charged not to disturb her dream. Burns, however, never lived anywhere near the River Afton, with, or without a girl named Mary. He would have passed through the area on his journeys between Ellisland farm and Mauchline, June to November, in 1788, and doubtless enjoyed the picturesque views he observed, which he encapsulated into his exquisite lyric.

Although he expressly stated that his lyric was paying a compliment to the River Afton, there is a reference to Mary in every verse, in all but one by name. In his letter to Mrs Dunlop he gave no indication or identification of any specific Mary. Several months later, in a letter to her, dated 13th December, he did, however, mention a Mary whom he had known intimately. Reflecting on the possibility of a life beyond the grave he declared:

There should I with speechless agony of rapture, again recognise, my lost, my ever dear MARY, whose bosom was fraught with Truth, Honor, Constancy & LOVE.-

My Mary dear departed Shade! Where is thy place of heavenly rest? Seest thou thy Lover lowly laid Hear’st thou the groans that rend his breast!

It is unlikely that Mrs Dunlop would have connected the Mary of ‘Afton Water’ with the “dear departed Shade” she had now learned about. Burns, however, found to his cost that she was none too pleased with his reference to Mary in this letter. This was probably due to the fact that he was still a few months short of a mere two years married to Jean Armour. There is no doubt that, the Mary in his letter was Mary Campbell, who had been parted for ever from him by cruel fate, when she died in the typhoid epidemic at Greenock on, or around, October 20, 1786. It has been established beyond reasonable doubt that she had been betrothed to Burns at the time of her death. Was she, however, the heroine of the exquisite lyric he had sent to Mrs Dunlop in February?

It would seem inconceivable that, an emotionally charged poet such as Burns, could have used the name Mary in his song without reflecting sadly and deeply, about the Highland Lassie whom he had been planning to marry, three years previously. Indeed, one renowned Burns editor, Robert Chambers, thought it quite possible that Burns had written the song back in 1786, when Highland Mary was still alive, that he had shelved the verses on learning of her death; but had decided in 1789 to make it known, with the setting amended from the scenery around the River Ayr, to the area where the Afton flowed into the Nith. Chambers had obtained information from George Thomson that Gilbert Burns regarded Highland Mary as the heroine of ‘Afton Water’, and Chambers concluded that: “The averment of the brother and bosom-friend of Burns must be next, in a case of this kind, to his own.” Chambers was also aware that a daughter of Mrs Dunlop, claimed that she heard Burns confirm Highland Mary as the subject of the song. The introduction to the song in Chambers’s edition had a quotation by the poet drawn from biblical text:

I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, that ye stir not, nor awake my love – my dove, my undefiled! The flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. – R. B.

Taking up on this, Scott Douglas in the headnote of the song in his edition commented: “And where does the adored name of MARY appear in a more glorious setting than in this lyric? Even the inspired ‘Singer of Israel’ has contributed something to heighten the effect of the poet’s rapturous song.” Douglas was quite convinced that, when Burns had written to Clarinda in a drunken rant, telling her of the finest woman he had known, whose name was indelibly written in his heart’s core - though he dared not look in on it - as a degree of agony would be the consequence, he was referring to Highland Mary. For some vague reason Scott Douglas thought this proved, “... beyond reasonable doubt that MARY was the subject of ‘Afton Water’ and that it was composed when she was yet alive.” As it turned out, Burns was actually referring to Margaret Chalmers.

The four volume Centenary Burns (1896), edited by W E Henley and T F Henderson, announced that they were putting Chambers and Douglas right regarding the information about ‘Afton Water’. They insisted, “... that the heroine – if heroine there were – was another than Mary Campbell.” Robert Chambers, in assigning the lyric to 1786, got it completely wrong, in their opinion, as did Scott Douglas who suggested 1791. (Scott Douglas actually gave 1786, as has been shown above). Henley, in his essay on Burns, Life, Genius Achievement, was particularly scathing about the Mariolaters, and justifiably so, for their absurd adulation of Highland Mary; however, his caustic comments on the woman herself were totally unreasonable. Denouncing Chambers for styling her as the heroine-in-chief of Burns’s story, he pointed out that it was Jean Amour whom he (Burns), “appreciated as the fittest to be his wife he’d ever met.” Yet, it is undeniable that, had Mary not died in 1786, it was she, not Jean Armour, who would have been Mrs Robert Burns.

The attempts of Henley and Henderson to deny Highland Mary’s right as the subject of ‘Afton Water’ appeared to be given a boost when the name of another Mary surfaced in an article in the Burns Chronicle (1910), claiming that, Mary Murdoch who lived at Laight, close to the River Afton, was in fact, the girl Burns had in mind when he had written his verses. In the book, Burns and Stair, by John McVie, published in 1927, this opinion was given further coverage with the viewpoint: “Her claim to be the heroine of ‘Flow gently, sweet Afton,’ is certainly the most feasible of any yet put forward.” She was the niece of John Logan of Laight, New Cumnock, whom McVie stated was an intimate friend of the poet, who stayed with him often when in that area. There is, in fact, no definite evidence to substantiate such a claim. Mary Murdoch, according to McVie, “... is said to have been a great favourite with Burns.” Again, where is the evidence to verify such a statement, apart from local hearsay, not published until 122 years after the alleged event, when anything could have been fobbed off as ‘fact’?

It is true that Burns visited John Logan; however, there seems nothing to suggest that he stayed with him at any particular time, far less the frequent overnight stops claimed by McVie. On Sunday, October 19, 1788, Burns dined with Logan at Laight; however, as he made clear in a letter to Jean Armour, after doing so, he intended to continue his journey and arrive at Mauchline late in the evening. On his return journey to Ellisland, on the 23rd October, he again called at the home of Logan, before proceeding to Sanquhar, where he wrote to Mrs Dunlop. The dates of those visits to Logan occurred, incidentally, around the time of the second anniversary of Highland Mary’s death.

The authority of Gilbert Burns in naming Highland Mary, was also dismissed by John McVie, mainly on the grounds of Gilbert being incapable of contradicting Dr Currie. This referred to information supplied to Robert Chambers from George Thomson. Gilbert had inferred that Currie was misinformed in several of the comments he made about the song, in particular the claim of it being presented by Burns to Mrs Stewart of Stair, as a compliment to her; “but Dr Currie must not be contradicted.” This is rather ambiguous – it seems more than likely, that it was Thomson himself, not Gilbert, who was insisting on Currie being correct. It would really have been absurd of Gilbert to point out Currie’s errors, then quite emphatically state that his comments were probably founded on fact after all.

Another version of opinion based on local tradition about the composition of ‘Afton Water’ is given in a book, The Ayrshire Book of Burns-Lore, written by A. M. Boyle, (1987):

Local legend maintains that the song was written in an inn by the River Afton at New Cumnock. The poet had halted at the inn on his way from Ellisland to Mauchline and gone to visit Mr. Logan of Laight, Glen Afton, for the evening. During his absence from the inn, the landlady spread news of the poet’s presence, expecting to have a busy, lively night on his return. When Burns returned he seemed to be pre-occupied with his thoughts and went straight to his room. In the morning he sent a servant to Laight with a draft of the song Clear Afton which he had composed on his way back to the inn.

Again, like the hearsay given out by John McVie, this is no more than a fabricated legend. If Logan received a manuscript of ‘Afton Water’ he was a very privileged fellow indeed, but what became of it? Surely it would have been regarded as a prized and treasured possession, and carefully secured in a safe place. Would Burns not have mentioned to Logan that the Mary of his verses was Logan’s niece? If he had done so, then it would have been made known long before being passed down by word of mouth from 1788 until finally appearing in print in 1910. In more recent times, James Mackay commented that, “Burns visited John Logan on several occasions ... and during one of them is believed to have composed Afton Water.” (Complete Letters, p. 123, headnote). In this and his later comprehensive, well documented biography of Burns, covering the poet’s private life in intimate detail, there is no mention whatsoever, of anyone named Mary Murdoch, nor does any other major biography make any comment concerning her. Indeed, Robert Crawford (The Bard, 2009, p. 309), regarded the song “as an elegy to a dead Mary.”

In all the comments and opinions regarding the song ‘Afton Water’, arguably, none have surpassed that of James C. Dick, for a logical, concise and reasonable assessment, given in his much admired volume, The Songs of Robert Burns, published 1903, p.372:

Currie states that it was written on Afton Water, and in compliment to Mrs. Stewart; Gilbert Burns states that Highland Mary was the heroine; Scott Douglas agrees with this, but in the Centenary Burns it is asserted that it has no connexion with Highland Mary, but was written as a compliment to the River Afton which flows into the Nith near New Cumnock; and that the verses were sent to Mrs. Dunlop on February 5, 1789. This is doubtless correct; but it may be, and very likely is, a reminiscence of Mary Campbell.

It remains, however, perfectly feasible that Burns had at least the idea of the song in 1786, perhaps even an early draft, but on learning of Highland Mary’s death decided to shelve it, reviving it later in the different setting of the River Afton. After all, the lyric, ‘Will ye go the Indies, My Mary’ was not published until the year 1800, although it had been offered to George Thomson in 1792, who rejected it: “This is a very poor song which I do not mean to include in my Collection.” He was not given the opportunity to be the first to publish the lyric gem that is ‘Flow gently sweet Afton’!
Making Better Rhymes: Chartist Poetry and Working Class Struggle
Friday, 22 January 2016 22:44

Making Better Rhymes: Chartist Poetry and Working Class Struggle

Written by
in Poetry

In the first of a series of articles on Chartist poetry and working class struggle, Dr. Mike Sanders traces the background to its development.

Andy Croft in 'The Privatisation of Poetry' cites approvingly, Francis Combes's declaration that "Poetry belongs to everyone". As an aspiration, I couldn't agree more. In reality, the conditional seems more accurate - "Poetry ought to belong to everyone." Andy also suggests, correctly in my view, that poetry ought to be thought of in terms of common ownership. This set me thinking - can poetry be taken into public, or common, ownership? Should we be agitating for the nationalisation of the iambic pentameter?

At first sight, this might seem like a ridiculous question. However, given that poetry has effectively been 'privatised' for a number of centuries, perhaps the question is not so far-fetched. Indeed, the world's first working-class movement - Chartism - devoted a great deal of energy in its attempts to restore poetry to its proper status as the common property of all. In pursuit of this aim Chartist newspapers and journals printed articles such as 'The Politics of Poets' which ran for ten weeks in the Scottish Chartist Circular. This series explicitly sought to reclaim what we would now call 'elite' or 'canonical' poetry for the working-classes. Even more significantly, Chartist newspapers actively supported working-class poets by regularly publishing their poetry. The leading Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, published almost 1,500 poems from at least 390 Chartist poets between 1838 and 1852.

The Northern Star's poetry column was not an attempt to impose ‘culture’ from above, rather it was a response to a popular demand that poetry could and should speak to working-class desires and needs. From the start, literally hundreds of Chartists sent in their poems and quite a few appear to have pestered the editor with enquiries as to when their work would appear. Occasionally, the editor lost patience with his correspondents. In March 1838 he wrote “We have received as much poetry as a donkey could draw; we shall select from it as occasion offers, so let none be jealous, or we will take it by lot”! Poets sending their poetry had to have a fairly thick skin as the editor could be brutal. ‘W.M.’ (a weaver) sent in a poem and gave the editor permission to make any alterations needed. The editor replied “The best thing we can suggest to him is, to alter all the words, or, what might be still better, take them all away, and leave the paper blank.”

Given the risk of such withering criticism what made so many Chartists put pen to paper to produce poetry? Some wrote to promote solidarity, others to celebrate or commemorate leaders and events. Some wrote to rouse their comrades to action, others to reflect on the aims, aspirations, tactics and strategy of the Chartist movement. We are used to this kind of ‘political poetry’ and I have no wish to deny its importance. However, for many Chartists the simple fact of writing poetry (irrespective of its content) was itself a political action. Composing poetry was an affirmation of working-class creativity in the face of the dehumanising grind of industrial capitalism – a reminder that the ‘hands’ who worked the machines themselves possessed hands capable of producing beauty as well as profit.

One example of this is a poem from a woman who signed herself ‘E.H., a Factory Girl of Stalybridge’. Technically speaking E.H.'s poem is not a good one, as she herself acknowledges. Yet for all its technical deficiencies it is, I feel, a particularly moving poem. E.H. dedicates her poem to the factory reformer, Joseph Rayner Stephens, and she compares her position as a ‘factory girl’ with that of the millowners’ wives and children:

Their children, too, to school must be sent,
Till all kinds of learning and music have learnt;
Their wives must have veils, silks dresses, and cloaks,
And some who support them can’t get linsey coats

E.H. not only points out that their advantages are bought at the cost of her class’s impoverishment, she also protests against her cultural as well as her material deprivation:

If they had sent us to school, better rhyme we could make
I think it is time we had some of their cake.

[...]

We factory lasses have but little time,
So I hope you will pardon my bad written rhyme.
God bless him for striving to get us our rights,
And I wish the world over were true Stephenites.

A Stephenite I am from the ground of my heart,
And I hope from the same I shall never depart.
May God spare your life till the tyrants are ended,
So I bid you good bye, till my verses I’ve mended.

E.H. tells us that her poem is not a ‘good’ one, and traces its limitations to her limited education, which is in turn a product of her class position. E.H. wants better – better working conditions, better education, and the chance to write better poetry which she connects imaginatively with cake, that is with something more than the fundamental necessities of life. 'Culture' is the name we give to that desire for something better and, in future articles, I intend to explore some of the ways in which the role of poetry within the Chartist movement can illuminate many of the current challenges facing the working-class movement.

 

NB: Readers interested in reading all of E.H.'s poem will find it in the Northern Star for May 18th, 1839. The digitised version of the Northern Star can be found at the following website: http://www.ncse.ac.uk/index.html

Everything Must Go
Thursday, 14 January 2016 22:27

Everything Must Go

Written by
in Poetry

On Tuesday 15th December, 2015 Christie’s Auction House held a sale of property that had belonged to the late British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The sale realised more than £4.5 million pounds. The Guardian dryly stated that ‘she was worth more dead than alive’. Thatcher presided over one of the most bitter industrial disputes of the 20th century; the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike. Two days after this sale the last deep coal mine in Britain, Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, closed.

The Kaiser Biscuit American Bald Eagle
Realised almost half a million dollars;
More absurd and obscene lots soon followed;
A set of ten gilt miniature oil barrels...
Mencken’s Dictionary of Quotations,
Hammered down for only fourteen grand;
An Emes and Barnard George IV inkstand;
Cinderella flounce and ostentation.
But now the room’s abuzz, they look askance,
Blood drips from each hedgefund manager’s maw,
As ravenously they surge and push and paw,
For surely now, the pièce de résistance;
Kellingley Colliery and its miners renowned,
Who’ll start the bidding! Surely, come, a pound...?

Aylan Kurdi
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 14 January 2016 21:36

Two Poems for Aylan Kurdi

in Poetry
Written by

You'd Only Have To Do It Once

by Chris Amos

"You'd only have to do it once.

One burst of rapid fire - BRRRAAAPPP!
And stop the scum right then and there
And put Great Britain back on track.
They did it in Tiananamen Square - it worked for them.
'Course, they were Commie bastards mind,
But all the same it shut 'em up - fair's fair.
Dish out a similar kind of treatment here
And problem solved, mate!
You'd only have to do it once!"
So there he is - sat at the bar;
The voice of middle aged and Middle England
Spitting bile and half-chewed crisps out into empty air,
His words a red top tabloid blare that echo near and far.
His denims strain to hold his bloated beer gut in,
His Live Aid tee-shirt wearing thin,
His hairdo ageing Status Quo
And knowing all he needs to know
To judge on life and death.
And I'm sat thinking "Christ, shut up!"
But matey-boy's just warming up.

"How come his kids are dead and he's alive?
Eh? Eh?
If they was my kids I would DIE before I let 'em come to harm!
I'd keep 'em safe at home
Among the bombs, among the drones, among the bodies and the rats
And just a hint of mustard gas upon the burning air,
I am a caring parent more than he would ever be!
If that was me, them kids would be alive back home in Migrant Land-Istan!"
And so he talks, and so I hear,
His words a horde, a stinging swarm about my ears.
I've known his kind these thirty years and never liked them.
What he calls common sense I call obscene,
A Katie Hopkins hard wet-dream.
"You're fired - BRRRAAAPPP!"
The bull bars on his four-by-four for ramming shut that open door.
It's always Nineteen Eighty-Four for him;
The generation given everything give something back?
Why?
Back's for wimps!
Unless it's "Back to where you come from, Gunga Din!"
And on the screen
The little child lies cold,
Carried shoreward in the gentle fold of waves that make no judgements.
He can't talk.
Yet he tells more truth in one still, silent image than you'd ever hear
From those slurred, snarling lips fuelled by wilful ignorance and beer.
Be still.
Be silent.
Turn your gaze upon the revelation in those waves
And find the compassion your hatred stunts.
LOOK AT THE PICTURE.
YOU'D ONLY HAVE TO VIEW IT ONCE, I'D HOPE.
And "God?" I think; "We've talked before.
I'm not the best of men, but surely we can do a deal here?
Grant me, O Lord, by Thy great might a one-way helicopter flight
That I might shove him out the door into the Syrian Desert night
Abandoned, frightened, all alone and tell him;
"Make your own way home."
I'd only have to do it once and then I'd be a saint, I swear."
But God's not there.
Or if He is, He's keeping shtum.
The talk subsides.
And meanwhile with the waiting tides more children come.
And more.
And more.
But we're not looking anymore - the footy's on.
The child is gone.

 

Beachcombing

by Jim Aitken

1.
Mackay Brown once combed the beaches
of Orkney. Once he found a boot
of salty leather, throwing it
back into the white foaming waves.

And once, like Hamlet before him,
he brooded on a seaman’s skull
with sand rather than earth dripping
from the base. He threw that back too.

Usually it was just seaweed
strewn over the shore like mulched leaves
but he would always return here
to raise the profile of his place.

2.
Once we called it Mare Nostrum
and it was where the real action
took place. It was there, we were told,
that civilisation started.

And now the Greek beachcombers
would welcome salty leather boots
that had danced the waves from Orkney
rather than real human jetsam.

More troubling still than traffickers
are the voices further in land
proclaiming their Christian values
by telling them to go away.

3.
The universal brotherhood
of brine understands no borders
and would crash through all razor wire
smashing down all fences and walls.

For fragile is what we all are,
vulnerable our condition.
And what should flow, should surge from this
is nothing less than compassion.

We are all at sea, all at sea
in the same sea that soaks us all
and only by us reaching out
can we hope to keep our boots on.

K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 11 January 2016 14:43

The Western Wall Plaza

in Poetry
Written by

THE WESTERN WALL PLAZA

Jerusalem is the dwelling place of the Shekinah

the Plaza rained out, no one at prayer, no one intoning under an umbrella, their
feet would be flooded if so

I take refuge in a wooden shack at the opposite end, wet seats, wet tables,
soldiers on duty, some armed, some unarmed, two teenage girls in green
uniforms, one of African descent, lurid Uzis cocking between their legs

soldiers and tourists smoke in rainy silence, another of the young females has
a raw blush of acne on her cheeks, a child, other soldiers pass a crisp packet
hungrily as dozens more shove in for shelter, the floor over-crowded with black
boots, the scene a makeshift barracks on the site of the ex-Moroccan Quarter

shekinah rains,
above the Herodian wall
deciduous green
grows darker

K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 23 December 2015 21:11

Prickling the politics of permanent austerity with political-polemical poetry

in Poetry
Written by

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.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015 10:10

Two Poems by Lisa Kelly

Written by
in Poetry

Last Man to Leave the Ice Factory

Ice was no chin-chin thing to keep a drink cold;
ice was business, titanic big, tonnes crushed
for the trawlers to keep fish fresh in the hold
tides away from land. Now machines are hushed;
then, up at four we were, 20 waggons waiting
for 20 tonnes of ice each. You’d eat off the floor
it was so polished. Pans of water chilled in a freezing
pool of brine, sliding out in slabs. No more;
now there’s pigeon shit on machines, copper wiring
ripped. Can you fathom this was progress?
No hacking ice from frozen ponds, nor importing
ice from Norway. Ammonia compressed
in the machines meant man-made ice on demand
for the biggest fishing fleet afloat. Cod wars, and fishing
was dying. I stayed on as gallons of water drained.
No shame in admitting to a grown man crying.

The Great Grimsby Ice Factory Trust was unsuccessful in its recent bid for funding to the Heritage Lottery Fund, despite being on the 2014 World Monuments Watch, a worldwide list of cultural sites at risk of being lost forever. The Ice Factory was built in 1901, and closed its doors in 1990. Mike Sonley, former chief rigger, was the last man to work there.

Celebrities

Workers’ photos are erected on posts around the local pond in Asserac, France

Valérie Touya, Coiffeuse
A big silver hoop dangles from one ear,
her T-shirt says, come from the moon.
To the man in the chair,
steel blades grazing his neck hair,
she is a luminary: a goddess in her sphere.

Claude Lelecque, Paludier
He is fierce in the face of the lens – caught
with a stash of the finest white substance
in a basket by his bare feet: harvested salt.
Behind him, his wooden hut is a treasure vault
for shovel; bucket; wooden rake, the long-handled sort.

Chantal Caba, Boulangère
From the interior of her stretch white
van, she smiles at her queuing fans.
‘Let them eat bread, baked on-site
and delivered first thing for their delight.’
Every inch a diva, after being up half the night.

Olivier Bertho, Charpentier
Not a cigar rolled for a star clamped in his teeth –
but a pencil. He will use it to mark his place,
of which he is sure, but now his focus is on the lathe
and the wood. His work will bequeath
craftsmanship for generations: a kind of belief.

Jean-Marc Lecam, Plombier
His rolled up sleeves, deadpan
stare straight to camera as if he means business.
He does. A hero, a leading man
who prevents floods, makes a plan.
A man of few words, whose catchphrase is I can.

Patrick Lecarff, Pompier
His uniform is not a costume. It is no act,
entering a burning building as the camera rolls.
Saving lives is not a drama; but matter-of-fact –
what he does for his community, backed
by a crew of solidarity: a fireproof pact.

Maxime Pierlo, Monteur de Kitesurf
This is his beach, his turf.
He is half man, half Poseidon,
half in his wetsuit, half out. King of the surf,
he harnesses the wind, cuts up the sky, can morph
from man to immortal. The title of his biopic: Sail Forth.

Thursday, 17 December 2015 23:12

The Privatisation of Poetry

Written by
in Poetry

Andy Croft argues 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, it cannot be owned nor become property, and is ultimately committed to the common good of humanity.

‘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.’
Tuesday, 15 December 2015 10:50

November Paris Blue

Written by
in Poetry

Written after the Paris attacks, November 2015

It is a blue November dawn
I imagine a day without conflict
It looks like a globe of light
With an absence of shadow
A world filled with wonder and colour and joy
I close my eyes to soar and fly above the cities we grieve

I don't trust any politicians anymore
I don't believe in our Prime Minister
Or any of our world leaders, presidents and kings
It stinks the way they continue to lie and conspire
To make money, to trade arms, enslave and murder people.

One bomb does not a country kill
But the missile aims to kill the faith in peace and love
One attack will not burn all the flags and castles
But intends to incinerate hope and burn bridges
And fuel the media propaganda trading in fear
Giving the war-mongers ammunition to wage war
Avenge the revenge, that was revenge for the revenge...
And an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind.

We are nothing without each other
We are our reflections and our differences
We are ants on a hot blue marble in space
We have one planet and one chance to be good to each other
Or be smashed and scattered as ash and dust.

Today, France is dropping bombs on Syria
Who knows what retaliation tomorrow brings
Who knows which city gets bombed next?
We can presume the politician holding the receipts for the latest arms deal will know.

But we all know that more bombs means... more bombs
More revenge, more retaliation, more casualties, more death
More refugees, more displacement, more ignorance, more intolerance, more tension
More blood in the gutters and broken bodies tangled in concrete, rubble and glass
More refugees suffocating in abandoned lorries and washed up on beaches
More rape and violence to vulnerable women and children
More shock-stained faces staring down the news camera lens pleading
"Why? Why do you treat us like animals?"
More mouths; bloody mouths, screaming mouths, hungry mouths, angry mouths, lying mouths
Politicians mouths like piranha mouths with razor teeth to bite any truth in half.
Stop people killing people for killing people who are killing people to kill people...

Media, click bait, hot takes, turn us inside out
Guts spilled and wrung like chip paper laundry
We are being spun in a washing machine on a negative cycle
I want to stop the spin
Switch the machine off and press restart
We need soap to wash out these lying mouths
We soak our world in salt water to remove blood stains
But all our tears are never enough.

We slap and split the lip of the present
Bloody our shared history
And leave scars on the future
A black eye for a black eye.

We must be the change we want to see
I won't give up, I won't stop being idealistic
Idealistically we must break the chain:
Stop people killing people for killing people who are killing people...
Stop people killing people for killing people who are killing people...
Stop using death as the whole sentence
When talking was not listening
When listening wasn't hearing.

It is a blue November dawn
I imagine a day without conflict
It looks like a globe of light
With an absence of shadow
A world filled with wonder and colour and joy
I close my eyes to soar and fly above the cities we grieve

Feel the sorrow of the ghosts of all the lost
And the hearts of the souls beating
The universal rhythm of a new day
Fresh coffee, umbrellas and pigeons
And Paris, wine and poetry and
Beirut and music and Syria and spirit and
London and spice and tea and books
And as this blue November dawn breaks
I remember that is who we all are
That there is a breath inside us we share
Together we live through this moment in time
This brand new morning
With one long slow exhale.

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