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

Sure
Monday, 14 November 2016 08:43

Sure

Written by
in Poetry

Sure

by Fred Voss


It is the morning after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and I
am at my machine and I grip my machine’s handle
with my palm
the steel handle is still solid and hard
against my soft flesh
a racist hate-filled egomaniac dictatorial sexual predator swindler infant elected to lead
310 million people
and I turn the handle to my machine and my machine table moves exactly 100 thousandths
of an inch
I want to believe that a thousandth of an inch is still a thousandth of an inch
rivers flow downhill
a dinosaur bone
is 65 million years old he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword but Donald Trump
will soon have his finger on the nuclear trigger and Nero fiddled
while Rome burned and I put on my leather gloves and grab
a 50-pound block of 4130 steel and drop it
into my vise bolted to my milling machine table and send the carbide teeth of a shell mill
plowing through the raw steel
I want to believe when ice melts it still turns into water
Lady Macbeth
still can’t wash those drops of blood off her hand
I want to believe Christ and Buddha
knew something
Beethoven’s
Moonlight Sonata is still beautiful roses
still open train wheels
still can’t roll without the hands of men like me
who make them
I plant my feet on this concrete machine shop floor
surely the mockingbird has not forgotten how to sing
surely a human being still knows
right from wrong surely
the sun still rises steel is still hard and men like Trump fall
in the end
sure as my hammerhead ringing out when I strike it
against steel
sure as Victor Hugo’s statue
Nelson Mandela’s heart
the cat sitting in the sun on your windowsill
the sweat on the back of every workingman on earth
and the stars still there shining
in the sky.

Fred Voss's latest collection, The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand, is published by Culture Matters and is available from http://manifestopress.org.uk/

Trumped! It was the economy, stupid
Wednesday, 09 November 2016 15:41

Trumped! It was the economy, stupid

Written by
in Poetry

We don't usually post up straight political analysis on the this arts and culture site, even though we firmly believe in a close link between politics and culture, but we're making an exception today because of the exceptional events in the US. Also, Culture Matters has now moved into publishing poetry, and our first booklet is by the US poet Fred Voss, whose poetry we have already featured on the site and who writes prophetically about the political situation of the working class in the US. So one of his poems, and an article about our booklet, follows the piece about the Trump victory, which is by Dennis Broe, one of the leading radical film critics in the US.

Everyone, meaning mostly the neoliberal elite, is searching for answers at the moment for why the billionaire Trump beat the corporate candidate Clinton. Was it his xenophobic rhetoric which drew angry white Americans, his macho humiliation of women in the face of which his supporters had to hold their noses to vote for him, or was it the (Trumped-up) charges of “Crooked Hilary” aided and abetted by the FBI “October Surprise” of a new treasure trove of (probably mostly irrelevant) emails that are now being “investigated.”

A revealing article in Le Monde seems instead to contain the answer for why solidly union and industrial states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania would abandon the Democratic party and vote for Trump, who after all was not the choice of the Republican elite. For decades now, politicians have looked to the October economic, labor and jobs report, released last week, to boost their status just prior to the elections. And indeed, the report showed the creation of 161,000 new jobs and a slight decrease in unemployment of one-tenth of a percent for a total of 4.9 percent, figures that compare favorably to pre-2008 financial crisis statistics. So you would think the Democrats would argue that the economy is in good hands.

In fact the Clinton campaigners did not bring up the “optimistic” report because they felt to do so would be incendiary, that is throwing flames on the fire as Trump emphasized that the new jobs were extremely low paying and could not compensate for jobs lost under the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal regime whose Clinton variant featured the repeal of Glass-Stiegel which loosed the banks and financial capital and resulted in the 2008 crisis as well as the implementation of NAFTA, a jobs disaster for both the US and Mexico.

A further examination of the statistics reveals the pain behind this supposed rosy picture, a pain that voters expressed at the polls. This “dynamic” job creation is in the lowest paying sectors of the economy, the service sector, mainly bars and restaurants, where there is constant turnover, such that from 2007, 1.7 million new jobs have been created but at the same time 1.5 million lost their jobs in the industry.

A second “rosy” statistic in the report is that salaries rose 2.8 percent. Great, right. Well, hold on, this rise is in the context, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated so thoroughly, of a dramatic shift of income as a whole upward to the wealthiest 10 percent and now to the wealthiest 1 percent. So, the increase in salaries went mainly to corporate executives who saw their pay increase 4.7 percent, while the bottom 83 percent of the workforce saw their pay increase only 2.1 percent, an increase that was mostly eaten up immediately by an inflation rate of 1.5 percent. So, the rise in pay was essentially meaningless and could have easily been felt as again simply a rewarding of the wealthiest.

But it is in the unemployment statistics themselves, or rather the concealing of the true nature of unemployment, where even more real pain and suffering, and perhaps the key to the Trump victory, emerges. Only 62.8 percent of Americans even have a job, the lowest in 40 years, and, in the 25 to 55 age category that constitutes the majority of the workforce, the percentage keeps falling so that it is now below both 2007, in the supposed boom years of the housing bubble, and below 2000, in the supposed boom years of the dot.com bubble. That is, employment following the constant booms and subsequent busts is no longer fully rebounding, but instead returning to lower levels. After these continual crises, things may get better but they do not fully recover and the recovery is less effective after each crisis, certainly giving rise to a feeling that even when things are apparently getting better they are in fact gradually getting worse.

The true tragedy though lies in a statistical sleight of hand perfected under the Clinton administration, of “retiring” workers from the labor statistics who have given up looking for work, that is, no longer listing them as unemployed. Today this accounts for 11.5 percent of Americans from 25 to 55, with 7 million having simply abandoned the search for work in areas where jobs no longer exist, such as the hollowed out former industrial zones of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If you add these workers, who may not have jobs, but can still go to the polls, to the unemployed, we now have roughly 16 percent unemployment. These are workers who are now resorting to anti-depressants, and other over- and under-the-counter drugs to live with the pain of no prospect of jobs. To that, we might also add, the underemployed, that is, the 5.9 million workers who are working part time but who would very much like to work full time, approximately 4.6 percent of the working population. Add this to the over 16 percent and there is approximately 21 percent of the workforce either not working or working in low paying, part-time jobs with little reward.

Is it any wonder then the hardest hit in these areas went to the polls to express their grief, anger and despair at being left behind. Trump offered a largely delusional hope that someone was hearing their pain and responding. He will most likely betray that hope; that is the history of the far right. But a Democratic party that was so eager to run, in this year of the Brexit and of a generalized anger being expressed everywhere at corporate elites, a candidate who was the epitome of the corporate order, who took more money from corporate funds than any single candidate before her, must now stand chastised.

Clinton stole the California primary and the nomination from Bernie Sanders, a candidate who was speaking to this generalized and largely warranted anger and channeling it in more positive directions and so instead of a battle for the heart and soul of the American black and white working class, we had a name-calling campaign in which the message of the supposedly more rationale candidate was, “under me things will only gradually get worse.” This is what passes for hope at the dawning of the end of the neoliberal age and voters, who felt the pain inflicted on them by a greedy corporate elite which could no longer be concealed in phony statistics, choose outright delusion over gradual hypocrisy.

 

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand

by Fred Voss

“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time clock and the sun
rises
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
but paradise?
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian beaches
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancun
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vise with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and undertakers know
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of men
carving steel
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in Honduras
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their machines
like the sun
couldn’t rise
without them.

 

“I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little.”

Thus US poet Fred Voss, who yearns for that transformation because of the dire situation of the working class in the US, where real wages have stagnated or declined for decades and huge inequalities between rich and poor are spiralling. The top 1 per cent of the US population own 35 per cent of the wealth and bonuses for bankers on Wall Street are more than double the total annual pay of all Americans on the federal minimum wage. Against a background of deindustrialisation and the loss of jobs overseas, there is mass incarceration of males, police violence on black youth and attacks on trade unions and on the social safety net.

The outrageous consequence of this divisive class war by rich elites is that mortality rates amongst white working-class Americans are getting worse. Workers are dying early from obesity, drugs, drink, violence and suicide. It’s happening because the powerful ruling class in the US, running the richest and most powerful country in world history, needs a workforce less than ever before. Many workers are either on the economic scrapheap or on their way there. There are simply not enough jobs for them and the few jobs around are increasingly badly paid.

The US is not a democracy, it is a plutocracy, and most Americans are struggling to cope with the legalised robbery of their labour and their health, wealth and happiness. And many of them are expressing their desperation through support for the racist and sexist politics of Donald Trump.

To help the cultural struggle against similar trends here the website Culture Matters, supported by Unite the Union — the main representative of metalworkers in Britain and Ireland — is jointly publishing Voss’s new booklet of poems The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand with Manifesto Press.

Voss has worked in machine shops for over 30 years. He writes about being hired like a commodity by overbearing bosses and about alienation in workplaces dominated by fear, macho posturing and competition. But there is a vision in the poems of how different things could be. Gradually, the potential for human solidarity emerges, for combining the practical muscle and skill of working men with the political and emotional strength and determination of women like Rosa Parks.

Like William Blake, Voss combines the precision and realism born of years of skilled craftworking with a sweeping, lyrical imagination. And, like Blake, his poetic vision springs from years of reflection on work and the working class and on the oppressive — but alterable — realities of the world around him.

“Britain, Ireland and many other capitalist countries in Europe are becoming more like the US,” Unite general secretary Len McCluskey says in the foreword to the collection in which he explains why the union is backing its publication:

Everyone can see the growing inequality, the precarious and low-paid nature of employment, the housing crisis across the country, the divisions and inequalities between social classes, the health problems and the sheer everyday struggle to pay the bills for many working people. In this situation, Voss is akin to a prophet. He warns us of the consequences of the way we live, tells truth to power and inspires us with a positive vision of a possible — and desirable — socialist future.

 

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand will be published at the end of the month, price £5.99 plus p&p, with discounts for trade unions and bulk and trade purchasers. Enquiries and pre-publication orders: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

 

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90
Friday, 04 November 2016 15:36

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90

Written by
in Poetry

John Berger was born on 5th November 1926. To celebrate his 90th birthday, we republish some of his poems, an interview, and some of his quotations.

One of the people who was due to attend the Teeside International Poetry Festival in 2015 was John Berger, the Marxist art critic, essayist, novelist, artist and poet. He could not come in the end, due to severe arthritis, but he appeared via Skype at one of the sessions, and recited some poems from his recent collection, published by Smokestack Books.

Collected Poems reflects Berger's longstanding concerns with art and politics, love and war, history and memory, and the life of the peasantry around him (he used to live in the Haute Savoie, in the French Alps). They demonstrate an enduring commitment to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.

You can tell from the poems that the writer is a fine draughtsman and artist. Each one of them is like a perfectly framed image, a painted still life, sensual, honest and plain. They are sketches of hard lives, caught between the provisional nature of language and the permanence of things. Here are five of the poems.

16.45h The Firing Squad

The dog carried the day in her mouth
over the fields of the small hours
towards a hiding place
which before had been safe.

Nobody was woken before dawn.

At noon
the dog sprawling in the shade
placed the pup between her four paws
and waited in vain
for it to suck.

A line of prisoners
hands knotted
fall forward
into the grave they have dug.

Belly to the earth
the dog carries the day
which has never stirred
back to its dark.

Under the stars the bereaved
imagine they hear
a dog howling too
on the edge of the world.

This piteous day was born
stone-deaf and blind.

Napalm

Mother let me cry
not letterpress
nor telex
nor stainless speech
bulletins
announce disaster
with impunity -
but the pages of the wound.

Mother let me speak
not adjectives
to colour
their maps of wretchedness
nor nouns to classify
the families of pain -
but the verb of suffering.

My mother tongue taps
the sentence
on the prison wall
Mother let me write
the voices
howling in the falls.


History

The pulse of the dead
as interminably
constant as the silence
which pockets the thrush.

The eyes of the dead
inscribed on our palms
as we walk on this earth
which pockets the thrush.


Seven Levels of Despair

To search each morning
to find the scraps
with which to survive another day.

The knowledge on waking
that in this legal wilderness
no rights exist.

The experience over the years
of nothing getting better
only worse.
The humiliation of being able
to change almost nothing,
and of seizing upon the almost
which then leads to another impasse.

The listening to a thousand promises
which pass inexorably
beside you and yours.

The example of those who resist
being bombarded to dust.

The weight of your own killed
a weight which closes
innocence for ever
because they are so many.


Ladle

Pewter pock-marked
moon of the ladle
rising above the mountain
going down into the saucepan
serving generations
steaming
dredging what has grown from seed
in the garden
thickened with potato
outliving us all
on the wooden sky
of the kitchen wall

Serving mother
of the steaming pewter breast
veined by the salts
fed to her children
hungry as boars
with the evening earth
engrained around their nails
and bread the brother
serving mother

Ladle
pour the sky steaming
with the carrot sun
the stars of salt
and the grease of the pig earth
pour the sky steaming
ladle
pour soup for our days
pour sleep for our night
pour years for my children


Art and Politics

As well as being a major poet, John Berger is a cultural critic who has challenged and changed the way we see the world, in countless essays and in books such as Ways of Seeing, Permanent Red, Pig Earth, and the novel G.

During the Skype session at the Festival, he answered some questions about art and politics. I followed this up with a telephone interview with him, and exchanged some texts, and below I set out the questions he was asked, and the answers that he gave.

Q. What constitutes good art?

A. Good art is like a lorry: it transports.

Q. Are poets, as Shelley famously suggested, the unacknowledged legislators of the world?

A. Poets are not legislators themselves, but they can be great agents of change. They evoke the need for a new politics by being able to envision the world, to summon up the past and future, to make them present, thus making it clearer how things could be different.

Q. Auden said that poetry changed nothing, and Brecht said that art is a hammer with which to change reality. Can poetry make useful political interventions, and change reality?

A. Well you have to remember that reality is not just some outside, fixed given, it includes our experience of what’s out there. With that in mind, it seems to me that poetry can indeed change people, because we all know how a good poem alters, no matter how slightly, our perceptions of the world around us. Those perceptions lead to us making hundreds of different choices, including political choices. So its effect is continuous, and multiple.  It can also encourage disobedience, and demonstrate that language is not necessarily the meaningless crap by which we are surrounded!

Q. You have produced many kinds of writing, including art criticism, novels, essays, and poems. Which discipline do you prefer the most?

A. Nearly all my work has involved collaborations with other people. For example, Ways of Seeing, for which most people know me best, was a collaboration with several others, and this tends to get forgotten.  So I would say that I don’t have a preferred genre as such, but I do have a preferred mode of creativity, and that is collaboration. For me, collaboration is a kind of solidarity, in fact it creates solidarity, and that is for me a very important principle of working.

Q. You spoke of the ability of poetry to envision the world. How should teachers and academics approach poetry, what should they do with it, and how should it be taught?

A. Students and people generally should be encouraged to surround themselves with poetry, with the sounds and forms and silences that are in poems.

Q. What impact do you think the internet has had on the arts and society generally?

A. The internet is a fast, effective way of sharing a lot of information. It thus helps expose and clarify the present structures of power in the world. It makes it clearer how globalised capitalism works, how the world is run by decisions taken by giant transnational corporations, by tiny elites of capitalists.
I think many young people see this clearly, partly because of the ease with which they handle new technology, but also because they are one of the main victims of unemployment, low pay and insecure employment.

Politicians have lost power, or perhaps it has become clearer how little power they ever really had. But they won’t admit it, and this leads to great folly and doublespeak in the use of language, which alienates people, it makes us feel lost and desperate. But we can resist it when we realize where power comes from, and as I say, the internet and new technology generally can help clarify where real power lies.

Q. What would be your parting message be to us?

A. We live in a dark age. Art has existed for at least 30,000 years. Another age of hope will come.

Work for it!

Some Quotes from John Berger


'the issue is between a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience and the esoteric approach of a few specialised experts, who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline. In decline, not before the proletariat, but before the new power of the corporation and the state.'

‘I now believe there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or art and state property, unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can be developed any further.'

'My aim has been to try and destroy this bourgeois society'

'The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.'

as if they are normal folk
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 02 November 2016 15:33

as if they are normal folk

in Poetry
Written by

as if they are normal folk

by Jane Burn

Shops.      Imagine them wanting
shops.       Wanting to buy stuff      as if
they are normal folk.      Wanting to be
just like us,     with our popping out for bread
and milk,      fags, sweets, bsicuits, pop.
Whatever.      Imagine them needing
food like that.      Libraries.      Imagine them
wanting to read.      As if they care about words,
want to educate      their children, pass
the time.       Time on their hands?      What
do they want time on their hands for?      Surely
they should be out       working or something else.
Cafes? Cafes?      Like they are bothered about
meeting up, sharing conversations,      maybe even
make friends.      As if,      as if it is
fucking Butlins!      I mean, are they ever going to
go home if       they’re living in some sort of
holiday camp?      They have a nightclub now.
A nightclub.      Imagine them wanting
to sing and dance?        Kara-bleedin’-oke?
We like our revellers British, ta very much,
our piss-heads        local.      This church,
this beautiful, fragile, plastic sheet and wood-slat church,
painted up with illuminated angels, simple cross on top.
What's the actual?      These scroungers are not
Christians.      Step off our white-skinned, fair faced
God.      Swathes!      Swathes of them.      Rats.
Well done France,      Stephen from Rugby says.     
Londonzone - hiding under an alias - is brisk.      Good.
The comment crows.      Now finish the job.  

Written in reaction to a newspaper story
about the bulldozing of the settlement at Calais. 

Bread and Roses Poetry Award
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 02 November 2016 15:31

Bread and Roses Poetry Award

Written by

Culture Matters is pleased to announce a new poetry award, sponsored by Unite the Union. It is called the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, and is now open for submissions.

The purpose of the new award is to encourage poets to focus on themes which are meaningful to working class people and communities, and to enable those communities to engage more with poetry. There is a £500 cash prize for the winner, £250 second prize and £100 third prize. The judges will be Andy Croft from Smokestack Books, and Mary Sayer from Unite.

Entries should consist of three poems, each no more than 50 lines long. Poems must be the original work of the entrant, in English, and not have been previously published in print or online. Entry is free, and open to everyone regardless of trade union membership. Entries should broadly deal with any aspect of working class life, communities and culture and show commitment to the common people, the common good and the common music of poetry.

Poems should be sent via email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or by post to Culture Matters, c/o 8 Moore Court, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE15 8QE. The deadline for receipt of submissions is midnight on 31st May 2017. Entries will be anonymised before judging, and the winners will be invited to an awards ceremony at a Unite conference in Durham in July.

When emailing or posting submissions please provide your name, email or postal address, and phone number. All entries remain the copyright of the author but Culture Matters and Unite will have the right to publish and/or broadcast them online and in other media.

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 01 November 2016 15:28

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War

in Poetry
Written by

To mark the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and in memory of the British and Irish International Brigaders who wrote poems and who died in that war, Mike Quille introduces a few poems taken from Poems from Spain, edited by Jim Jump.

The war against Franco's fascist rebellion saw 'poets exploding like bombs' as Auden said in his famous poem 'Spain', published in 1937. And the war has sometimes been called 'the poets' war', probably because more progressive political poetry was written about it, from combatants and others on active service, than any other war in the twentieth century, even though it was considerably smaller and shorter than other wars. However, as in every other war in modern times, 80% of the fighters were men from manual trades. None of the poems below were written by professional poets. They were, though, exceptional individuals, activists from the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the trade unions and some of the allied cultural and educational institutions.

Alex McDade was a labourer from Glasgow who fought and was wounded at the battle of Jarama in 1937. He became a company political commissar for the British Battalion and was killed on 6 July 1937. His poem 'Valley of Jarama' was the basis for the song by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, but it's shorter, bleaker, and more soldierly.

Valley of Jarama
by Alex McDade

There's a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That's a place that we all know so well,
For 'tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.

From this valley they tell us we're leaving
But don't hasten to bid us adieu,
For e'en though we make our departure,
We'll be back in an hour or two.

Oh we're proud of our British Battalion,
And the marathon record it's made.
Please do us this little favour,
And take this last word to Brigade:

'You will never be happy with strangers,
They would not understand you as we.
So remember the Jarama Valley
And the old men who wait patiently.'


Charles Donnelly was an Irish Republican, Communist and trade union activist, who was also killed at Jarama. Like a number of war poems, his modernist poetry is formally innovative, finding bluntly effective ways to express the horror, cruelty and inhumanity of war.

The Tolerance of Crows
by Charles Donnelly

Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps, well-ordered dispositions,
Angles of elevation and direction;

Comes innocent from tools children might
Love, retaining under pillows
Innocently impales on any flesh.

And with flesh falls apart the mind
That trails thought from the mind that cuts
Thought clearly for a waiting purpose.

Progress of poison in the nerves and
Discipline’s collapse is halted.
Body awaits the tolerance of crows.

Heroic Heart
by Charles Donnelly

Ice of heroic heart seals plasmic soil
Where things ludicrously take root
To show in leaf kindnesses time had buried
And cry music under a storm of 'planes,
Making thrust head to slacken, muscles waver
And intent mouth recall old tender tricks.
Ice of heroic heart seals steel-bound brain.

There newer organs built for friendship's grappling
Waste down like wax. There only leafless plants
And earth retain disinterestedness.
Though magnetised to lie of the land, moves
Heartily over the map wrapped in its iron
Storm. Battering the toads, armoured columns
Break walls of stone or bone without receipt.
Jawbones find new ways with meats, loins
Raking and blind, new way with women.

Norman Brookfield worked in a library in Essex and died in September 1938 at the Sierra de Caballs in the battalion's last day in action. His style is much more traditional than Donnelly's, almost hymn-like, but equally anguished.

'Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm'
by Norman Brookfield

Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm
Relax my limbs, and feel your sooting balm;
Beneath light's tranquil stars I'll sleep at ease
When dawn's well past, to rise, and day-time fill
With pleasant strolls and food and talk at will.
Shaping vague thoughts beneath the olive trees;
Watching tobacco wreathe its lazy fumes
Quintessence rare, O rest of your perfumes.
And yet this is a respite that must end
An interval between the course of war
Which all too soon will raise its dreadful roar,
Bidding my laggard pace once more to mend;
But 'tis the thoughts of past and future strife
That make you sweet, O rest, and with you – life.

George Green was an ambulance driver, dispatch rider and hospital orderly in Spain, and was killed on the same day and at the same battle. He wrote in a very modern, prosepoetical way, vividly evoking the battlefront in an almost cinematic way. 


Dressing Station
by George Green

Casa de Campo, Madrid, March 1937

Here the surgeon, unsterile, probes by candlelight the embedded bullet.
Here the ambulance-driver waits the next journey; hand tremulous
on the wheel, eye refusing to acknowledge fear of the bridge, of
the barrage at the bad crossing.
Here the stretcher-bearer walks dead on his feet, too tired to
wince at the whistle of death in the black air over the shallow
trench; to tired now to calculate with each journey the
the diminishing chances of any return to his children, to meals at a
table, to music and the sound of feet in the jota.
Here are ears tuned to the wail of shells: lips that say, this one gets the
whole bloody station: the reflex action that flings us into the safer
corners, to cower from the falling masonry and the hot
tearing splinters at our guts.
Here the sweet smell of blood, shit, iodine, the smoke-embittered air,
the furtive odour of the dead.
Here also the dead.
Here also the dead.
This afternoon five.
Then eight.
Then two neat rows.
And now.......this was the courtyard of the road-house, filling-station
for the Hispano-Suizas and the young grandees' bellies. The sign
American Bar still hangs unshattered.
….I cannot count. Three deep: monstrous sprawling: slid from
dripping stretchers for more importunate tenants: bearded
plough-boys' faces: ownerless hand: shatterd pelvis: boots laced
for the last time: eyes moon-cold, moon-bright, defying the moon:
smashed mouth scaring away thought of the peasant breasts that so
recently suckled it....
I cannot count.

But poet, this is old stuff.
This we too have seen.
This is Flanders 1917. sassoon and Wilfred Owen did this so much better.
Is this all?
Do twenty years count for nothing?
Have you no more to show?

Yes, we have more to show.
Yes, though we grant you the two-dimensional similarity, even (to
complete the picture) allowing you the occasional brass-hat and
the self-inflicted wound.
Yet there is another dimension. Look closely. Listen carefully.

Privilege here battles with no real privilege.
The dupe there, machine-gunning us from the trenched hillside,
fights still to preserve a master's title-deeds, but we....we battle
for life.
This....we speak a little proudly, who so recently threw off the slave
shackles to do a man's work.....
This is our war.

These wounds have the red flag in them.
This salute carries respect.
Here the young soldier says 'camarada' to his general.
Here we give heed to no promise of a land fit for heroes to live in, but
take for ourselves the world to mould in our hands.
These ranks can never be broken by four years of mud and bitter
metal, into sporadic and betrayed rebellion.
Here the consciousness of a thousand years' oppression binds us as
brothers....We have learnt our lesson.
Look. Over the bridge (it is not yet dawn) comes a Russian lorry,
ammunition-laden.
Forty-three years gone, unarmed St. Petersburg's blood paid a heavy
duty on those shells.
And I? The Chartists commandeered this ambulance from a Portland
Street shop-window.
I drove: and dead Communards raised living fists as far south as
Perpignan. I saw the perils of the Pyrenees spurned by feet that
once had scaled a Bastille, by the fair-haired boys who graduated in
the streets of Charlottenburg, by those who paid a steerage
passage, to tell us how their fathers fell at Valley Forge.
For this is not 1917.
This is the struggle that justifies the try-outs of history.
This is the light that illuminates, the link that unites Wat Tyler and
the Boxer rebellion.
This is our difference, our strength, this is our manifesto, this
our song that cannot be silenced by bullets.

And finally, to Rupert John Cornford, a Cambridge Communist who was the first Englishman to enlist. He travelled twice to Spain to fight for the POUM and the International Brigades against Franco's rebels, and died in December 1936 at Lopera, near Cordoba.

'These are poems of the will, and the will bangs a drum' wrote Stephen Spender of Cornford's poems, which like some of the poems above combine a modernist sensibility with a direct, blunt and unflowery descriptions, images and diction. Here he is, banging the drum from Aragon.


A Letter From Aragon
by John Cornford

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: 'Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.'

Acknowledgements and grateful thanks are due to Jim Jump. The poems are all taken from a highly recommended book called Poems from Spain, edited by Jim, and published by Lawrence and Wishart, 2006. The book contains a foreword by Jack Jones; an excellent, clear introduction to the poems; notes on the poets and poems; and a brief history of the British and Irish Brigades' involvement in the war.

K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 26 October 2016 15:23

The Sudden Thaw And What It's Doing To You

in Poetry
Written by

The Sudden Thaw And What It’s Doing To You

by Kevin Higgins

At the finish of the recent ice age, when
history suddenly wasn’t over anymore,
and another future began to be written;

you were the first daffodil to push its face
up through earth frozen twenty five years,
before those with stronger stems followed
to better face what the wind would bring.

Today, you’re outraged the resurrected
Allende didn’t consult you on his media strategy
while the coup plotters where bombing
the Presidential palace from the air, though all
the while you left your smart phone on
to take his call.

When the new round of mechanised killing
really gets going – somewhere near Calais,
or due south of Budapest – you’ll make
a latest video for The Guardian,
speak earnestly to camera
about the appalling roughness of some
of the lavatory paper there,
and post it on Twitter.

Can’t be easy
when no one but you gets;
we’ll only defeat great evil
by taking it out for coffee
and seeing its point of view.
Over the years you become its new
more persuasive face.

Sunday, 16 October 2016 14:56

It Ain't Me, Bob

Written by
in Poetry

Heathcote Williams suggests that the latest recipient of the Nobel prize for literature is guilty of cultural identity theft.

A then unknown and insecure folk singer looking to forge an identity for himself latched onto Dylan’s name and by assuming it, Robert Allen Zimmerman saw a way of securing for himself an as yet unearned significance. Robert Allen Zimmerman had previously toyed with the idea of calling himself ‘Elston Gunn’ and even ‘Jack Frost’ but, as soon as he was introduced to the work of Dylan Thomas, he felt a compulsion to help himself to Dylan’s name in order to further his career as poet-folksinger. Dylan Thomas had at this point achieved near-mythic status in New York’s bohemian and literary circles and so Robert Zimmerman’s appropriation of his name was a glaringly obvious way of his trying to pass himself off as a great poet before he’d begun. As Joni Mitchell put it:

“Bob [Dylan] is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”

Now that the name ‘Dylan’ has become commonplace, Zimmerman’s identity theft may seem to have little significance yet, when Dylan Thomas was born there was, in fact, no one else alive who had Dylan as their first name. The use of the name was a unique coinage and especial to Dylan’s family. Thomas’ father, David John Thomas, known as ‘D.J.’, had chosen it with a scholarly care. D.J. had noted his new-born son’s likeness to the Dylan ail Don, the “curly-haired boy” mentioned in the epic poem, ‘Mabinogion’. The mother of the Dylan ail Don, Arianrhod, gives birth to Dylan through magical means – through a wand that bestows life. D.J. was, in other words, giving his son a name that, outside its passing mention in an obscure piece of 12th century Welsh literature, had, in fact, been unused. Florence Thomas, Dylan’s mother, had her doubts about her husband’s choice since the correct Welsh pronunciation of the name was “Dullan” and Florence was worried that other children would tease him by calling him “dull one.” However, despite his wife’s reservations, D.J. had had his way and the aptness of his choice was later borne out in what Dylan Thomas referred to as “that bloody cherub picture”, namely the curly-haired portrait of Dylan by Augustus John.

‘Dylan’, D.J felt, was his son’s ‘soul-name’ – something that tied him to the soil of Wales. It was what T. S. Eliot, in ‘Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats’, called a "deep and inscrutable, singular Name". Dylan’s father had read him poetry as a child – some said he’d even read it to him in the womb – and two thirds of Dylan’s entire life-time’s output was written at 5, Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea the house which D.J. had purchased from his modest earnings as a schoolteacher and to which Dylan would often return for the cwtch (meaning his safe place; his place of affectionate hugs). Dylan’s soul-name would, like a fairy blessing, serve to bestow upon him a kind of ancestral familial magic.

The reason that at the beginning of the 1960s Robert Allen Zimmerman decided to adopt Dylan’s name was patently to help himself to some of Dylan Thomas’ poetic stardust. No reason why not to, some might say, but in an astonishingly short time, through a determined manipulation of the media, Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan was able to make certain that, by the end of the decade, it was he whom people would think of at the mention of the name ‘Dylan’ and not Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas, his body barely cold, was to be pushed aside by Bob Dylan although Bob Dylan’s chutzpah would be unable to save him from a satirical jibe from his song-writing rival Paul Simon: “I knew a man, his brain so small/He couldn't think of nothing at all/He's not the same as you and me/He doesn't dig poetry. He's so unhip that/When you say Dylan, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas/Whoever he was/The man ain’t got no culture/But it’s alright, ma/Everybody must get stoned.”

Obviously anyone in the world of entertainment is at liberty to call themselves whatever they wish and Penny Rimbaud of Crass and the Shakespeare Sisters, for example, have hardly dented the significance of either the French poet or of the English bard but Bob Dylan’s case is perhaps different, if only because Robert Zimmerman’s helping himself to Dylan’s name and to something of his cachet has clearly sat so uneasily with the thief himself over the subsequent decades. Furthermore, fans of Dylan Thomas have found the purloining of their hero’s name irksome since there are several elements of Zimmerman-Dylan’s character that would make Dylan Thomas, were he alive, squirm with righteous revulsion. When Robert Zimmerman arrived in New York in January 1961 his driver's license read “Zimmerman.” His birth name was something that he was self-conscious about; he didn't want anyone to discover the truth. He was Bob Dylan. Nothing else. Once when Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, was asked whether his assumed name was pronounced in the same way as Dylan Thomas, he retorted, “no, like Bob Dylan.” The pilfering of the then much more famous poet’s name would bring Bob Dylan an immediate benefit but there was also to be an unforeseen cost. Bob Dylan would find himself increasingly irritated by the amount of times Dylan Thomas’ name would be brought up by interviewers just as he was trying to build up his career and to establish himself as the only person called ‘Dylan’ who mattered – the only ‘Dylan’ whom, in Bob Dylan’s view, anyone should be paying any attention to.

In 1966 he was so riled by it that he allowed himself the pronouncement, “I’ve done more for Dylan Thomas than he ever did for me.” It’s unclear quite how he could have believed this to be true since, apart from the fake Dylan’s stealing something of the real Dylan’s poetic kudos, the light-fingered Bob had also been feeling entitled to make free with some of Dylan Thomas’ actual lines. Dylan Thomas was doing rather more for Bob Dylan than the other way round. The phrase, for example, "the chains of the sea" in Bob Dylan’s 1963 song, ‘When the Ship Comes In’, matches the last line of Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill: "I sang in my chains like the sea", In an article ‘How Dylan Thomas influenced Bob Dylan’, Alexander Poirer indicates other filchings and stylistic pilferings and suggests, “Lines from Thomas like “Under the windings of the sea/They lying long shall not die windily” sound like they could have been pulled directly from one of Dylan’s songbooks.” And on a record by Steve Goodman, Somebody Else's Troubles, made in September 1972, Bob Dylan contributes some harmony vocals under the pseudonym Robert Milkwood Thomas, echoing the title of Dylan Thomas’s play. Bob Dylan’s parasitic relationship with Thomas was being hidden in plain sight.

His plagiarism is, of course, legendary: the melody for his winsome song “Blowing in the Wind” came directly from an old spiritual “No More Auction Block,” and the song’s central lyric notion was lifted from Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. His copyright infringements have been the subject of a remarkable number of lawsuits, notably those brought by the lyricist James Damiano. There have also been allegations of musical plagiarism from Bob Nolan and it’s long been thought that Bob Dylan’s nasal twang was a pastiche of the great vocalist Carter Stanley - of the 1940's Stanley Brothers bluegrass duo. When challenged about plagiarism however Bob Dylan only says dismissively that "Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff." But Bob Dylan’s unrestrained kleptomania would prompt the folk singer Tim Hardin to say of him:

“He's a cold motherfucker, man. He was thinking, he was listening to what everybody said all the time and going, "Uh-hummm, yup," and writing it down in his little photo-fuckin-graphic memory, you know what I mean? Taking pictures of everything and reproducing the whole lick for himself. Then he learned to give somebody else a little credit, by having their picture on the album or something. Fuck him.” In the case of his feeling free to dip into Dylan Thomas’ oeuvre in order to spice up his own work, it occurs that Bob Dylan’s misplaced sense of entitlement may stem from a kind of magical thinking: ‘I have a right to his work since I’ve taken over Dylan’s name.’ In an early Playboy interview, where Bob is invited to discuss his nomenclatural plagiarism, the freshly incarnated ‘Dylan’ lets slip a striking admission:

“Sometimes you are held back by your name. Sometimes there are advantages to having a certain name. I wouldn't pick a name unless I thought I was that person.”

When the legendary Woody Guthrie was at death's door, young folk musicians would make a pilgrimage to see their hero and to sing with him before his death. Bob Dylan was amongst them and it’s been suggested that he borrowed his vocal style from the dying Guthrie – ghoulishly copying the singer’s slurred speech, the side effect of the illness, Huntington’s disease, that was taking Guthrie's life. However Sidney Carter (author of the cheerfully exuberant hymn ‘The Lord of the Dance’), who met Bob Dylan in London, concluded that, “Dylan Thomas had more influence on Bob Dylan than Woody Guthrie did, with an image of the bard who went forth as a kind of romantic prophet, doomed to an early death.” However it’s worth noting that Bob Dylan didn’t call himself Bob Guthrie. When he made his peculiar statement, “I wouldn't pick a name unless I thought I was that person” he can only have been thinking of Dylan Thomas. But did he really think that he was Dylan Thomas? The flak which Bob Dylan has had to deal with on account of the name change could be thought of as inevitable blowback or even karma.

In order to deal with it he has had to adopt a number of increasingly bizarre coping mechanisms. He’s tried, for example, to give the impression that he’s outgrown Dylan Thomas; he’s implied that he’s a far greater poet than Dylan Thomas ever was, and then confusingly, and almost in the same breath, he’s insisted that there is no connection at all between him and Dylan Thomas. In one recorded comment he seemingly wishes to write Dylan Thomas out of history altogether. Dylan Thomas never existed. There was and there is only Bob Dylan. In an interview with the Chicago Daily News in November 1965 Bob is asked: “What about the story that you changed your name from Bob Zimmerman to Bob Dylan because you admired the poetry of Dylan Thomas?” “No, God, no.” Bob Dylan says, “I took Dylan because I have an uncle called Dillion [sic]. I changed the spelling, but only because it looked better. I’ve read some of Dylan Thomas’ stuff and it’s not the same as mine.”

Like other bogus attempts to romanticise his past, namely that he was an orphan, that he jumped freight trains, that he was brought up on an Indian reservation, this was a blatant attempt at deception: ‘Dillion’ was indeed the surname of a family in Hibbing, Robert Allen Zimmerman’s birth-place, but there was certainly no “Dillion” in the Zimmerman family. In a 1978 interview with Playboy magazine, Dylan repeatedly denied taking his stage name from the poet only to be undermined by Paul McCartney. McCartney gives the lie to Bob’s disingenuous denials that there was any connection between the two, “We all used to like Dylan Thomas. I read him a lot. I think that John started writing because of him. I am sure that the main influence on both (Bob) Dylan and John was Dylan Thomas. That’s why Bob’s not Bob Zimmerman – his real name.” Hardest to swallow of all of Bob Dylan’s apologetics and one that suggests that his identity theft has unbalanced him altogether is his contention that his original self (Robert Zimmerman) has actually been killed off thanks to a Hell’s Angel (coincidentally called Bobby Zimmerman). in a motorcycle accident and was, according to Bob’s delusional narrative, “transfigured in a religious way.”

In September 1977 the Soviet Literature Gazette dismissed Bob as “nothing more than a money-hungry capitalist now” and when Bob Dylan displays his contempt for a poet whom he says he’s outgrown and when he happily does what Dylan Thomas never did and that is to sell out to any and every commercial outfit and when he does so on an industrial scale, then perhaps it’s tempting to recall Norman Mailer’s harsh verdict on him: “If [Bob] Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player.” Joan Baez’s reward for fostering Bob Dylan’s career was betrayal and ridicule. She had introduced Dylan’s song “With God on Our Side,” into a performance of her own and she’d then recorded it on her 1963 album, “Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2.” Her generous support gave him credibility in radical circles and the two of them would sing his songs together at the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963. Then in July of that year, she’d invite him on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. His biographer, Robert Shelton would write: “Baez, the reigning queen of folk music, had made Dylan the crown prince”. Despite this, Bob Dylan refused to allow her to appear on stage and cold-shouldered her out of his tour; and dumped her during the filming of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about him, “Don’t Look Back”. Joan Baez however was cut from a different cloth. When her debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 made her an overnight star, she would have the moral integrity to turn down a $50,000 offer to advertise Coca-Cola.

Bob Dylan by contrast was eager to embrace every opportunity to sell out, to court American capital and to have the troubadour bow to Mammon. Unlike Dylan Thomas who never once sold out – who never ‘shilled’ for anyone –his deadly Doppelganger would prove as keen as mustard to have his voice serve any and every American corporation. Sidney Carter once said, “The word poet means different things to different people. Strange, you can talk about a commercial artist, but you can’t talk about a commercial poet. A poet has to have something holy as well to have genius.” Dylan Thomas once said wistfully but cheerfully that he’d never earned enough from poetry “to feed a goldfinch” and he hadn’t. He left just under a hundred pounds upon his death. The fake Dylan has been voraciously, all-consumingly commercial. Bob Dylan would sing "I Want You" for a commercial for Chobani yogurt; he would sing “Love Sick” for a lingerie company, Victoria's Secret; he’d appear in an ad for the Cadillac Escalade and he’d be shown driving Cadillac’s gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle as he strums, and he’d sing what had been, once upon a time, his generational protest song, "The Times They Are A'Changin'" whilst the advertising company that had hired him projected seductive images designed to convey the virtues of the Bank of Montreal.

 

 Bob Dylan's ad for Chrysler

Bob Dylan’s seemingly insatiable material appetite prompted Joan Baez, his former lover – and along with Pete Seeger and Country Joe McDonald the musical bedrock of the US peace movement – to enquire of him, “Have you forgotten what it’s like to be poor, Bobby?” When he was fourteen Dylan Thomas wrote a poem entitled Clown in the Moon, “I think, that if I touched the earth,/It would crumble;/It is so sad and beautiful,/So tremulously like a dream.” By contrast, the raddled Bob Dylan in his ten-gallon cowboy hat and in his open-topped Chrysler limo stuffed with cash gives the finger to climate change and fondles Chrysler’s remunerative defense contracts as he rides roughshod over that same shared earth, for money. Aldous Huxley once introduced a Stravinsky composition based on a poem of Dylan Thomas’ by quoting a line from Mallarmé which says that “poets purify the dialect of the tribe.” Thomas’ namesake would seem now to be determined that poets should be desacralized and that the language of the tribe be reduced to a money-grubbing sales pitch.

Robert Zimmerman’s cultural theft is to be copyrighted: ‘Dylan’ is to become a brand, set in Wall Street stone. Goldman Sachs, in association with a company called SESAC, have issued bonds in Dylan Inc., bonds that are backed up by the artists’ royalties. You could hardly sell out or be sold out more definitively. Shares in the megastar are to be quoted on the New York stock exchange – here is the ultimate copper-bottomed proof surely that Bob Dylan writes blue-chip poetry. Rock critics and fellow artists have not been slow in showing their contempt: “After decades of carefully manicured deification by Columbia Records,” wrote the music critic Jonny Whiteside, the time has come “to flout indoctrination and examine Dylan’s track record as a Grade-A phony.” Further disdain has come from his fellow songwriter, Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, “Dylan's songs are marijuana leftovers. Dylan is the type of person you'd want to punch out at a party.” Bob Dylan started his career at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village; its Manager, Sam Hood, a close friend of Phil Ochs, permitted himself the succinct: “He [Dylan] was such a prick.” ‬

Bob Dylan assumed Dylan Thomas’s name but he took on nothing of Thomas’s character, and far from possessing Dylan Thomas’s magnanimity towards his fellow poets, as attested by Vernon Watkins, it would seem that the fake Dylan was so envious of his rock and roll rivals that, given the opportunity, he’d sadistically torment them. He once reduced the emotionally fragile Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to tears in Max’s Kansas City. Bob, backed up by his roadie, cornered Brian for Bob to tell him that his voice was crap; that his band was no good and that Brian (who’d admired Bob) had no musical talent. When Bob felt that his fellow folk singer Phil Ochs was threatening to overtake him (thanks to Phil Ochs’s rather more trenchant, more issue-based and more radical songs –such as ”, ‘Draft Dodger Rag’ and ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore’, with lines such as, “Even treason might be worth a try/The country is too young to die”) Bob threw Phil Ochs out of his limo in a fit of pique saying ," I can't keep up with Phil. He just gets better.” Happily for Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs’ suicide would end the competition that was causing Bob such discomfort. Was his supplying John Lennon with heroin born of a sadistic and envious desire to destroy him? who knows, but Bob Dylan’s coolness and hipsterism is surely no more than a euphemism for a kind of grunting, self-regarding nihilism. Dylan Thomas was most certainly more fun. Years later the myth of Bob Dylan as a counter-cultural icon would finally be exploded. ‘The business of America is business’ declared US President Calvin Coolidge and few would deny that the US’s most successful business is war. Those maintaining that the countercultural values of the sixties had something of the eternal verities about them gulped to see Bob Dylan accepting the Congressional Medal of Freedom from a drone-wielding President who’d just passed the largest defense budget in US history, nay world history. So much for Dylan Thomas’s pacifism, Bob Dylan was now joining the Masters of War club with all the imperial baubles to prove it: the medals and the money and the share portfolios.

Perhaps such misjudgments and sell-out moments can be attributed to excessive drug use, maybe that explains the weird paths that his endless identity quest have led him on, like embracing the racist eliminationist murderer Rabbi Meir Kahane, telling Time magazine,

“He's a really sincere guy. He's really put it all together.”

Nonetheless the trahison des clercs still does its best to establish this grotesque as the US Empire’s national treasure. Here is the distinguished US novelist Joyce Carol Oates on Bob Dylan at sixty: "Dylan" was a self-chosen name in homage to the great, legendarily self-destructive Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose lush, lyric, over-the-top poetry presumably influenced many of Bob Dylan's songs.” Joyce Carol Oates comments that it must have “seemed an act of extraordinary chutzpah” for Robert Zimmerman “to anoint himself with the poet's internationally famous name” but now, forty years later,” Bob Dylan’s fellow American declares with a triumphal and patriotic pride, “Dylan is an American classic whose fame far surpasses that of his namesake, who seems to have entered an eclipse.” The roaring sound of the sea as it rushes up the mouth of Afon Conwy, the River Conway in North Wales, is known as "Dylan's death-groan" and the name refers to the hero of the Mabinogion who drowned, but for a while it could also be taken to refer to the drowning out of Dylan Thomas, “The boisterous broth of a boy” with a voice of gold; the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”, Swansea’s “man of words”.

It was drowned out for several decades by a mercenary American – sneering, scowling, spiteful, and self-regarding; a supreme sell-out with an ugly, grating, amphetamine-fuelled voice and the values of Wall Street. Now, mercifully, things may have come full cycle. During Dylan Thomas’s centenary year it’s been proposed that, much like the Scottish Burns’ Night, there should be a Dylan Day. Should that happen it will be Dylan Thomas who’ll be associated with it rather than Bob Dylan. Dylan Thomas’s namesake was invited to Wales to join in the centenary celebrations due to be held in the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. Apparently Bob Dylan’s staff expressed polite interest but then, for reasons best known to His Bobness, as he’s known to his more devoted followers, the invitation was declined. No reason was given but Bob Dylan might have had a certain apprehension at the thought of being overshadowed by an inconvenient revenant in the shape of Dylan Thomas, given Thomas’ now revived and much enlarged stature. There is nothing so constant as change and who knows that it’s not Bob Dylan’s turn to suffer an eclipse whilst Wales’s boy of summer steps back into the sunlight, free from the irksome shackles of lladron enaidiau or soul stealers. 

This is  aversion of an article first published earlier this year in INTERNATIONAL TIMES, The Newspaper of Resistance.

Sunday, 16 October 2016 14:54

'the bravest of the brave'

Written by
in Poetry

'the bravest of the brave'

by Fran Lock

We will never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces - PM Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference 2016

you could spit this distance. a night carved up along our
wounded latitudes. these, the deathbed territories: houses
you can wake at night with howling; weekends, when flags
mutate the gaptooth terraces. blue dufflecoat, spineless in
a sightline; a black lung, obliviously butterflied, small
matters. a pristine buckle of bone; the plump dependency
of children, milk teeth courting spores in yellow bedrooms.
you could spit this distance. the engine’s wheezing sync,
the armoured pig, the gun. your anti-language gratifies
itself. the blind eye keeps your worshipful company. all
laws in accordance with screeching. curfew. groping
sorceries. the tv screen, a white sail stretched tight by
light, not air. no one is there. a smile that spreads
like an infection; your hands sculpt the flesh of us from
silence. a body’s soft reckoning. you crouch in stairwells
like botanists. we are searched out, sampled, categories
of life. vexing scent of humankind. warren. open sewer.
running sore. subspecies. the trigger bristles with fingers.
flatblocks hum with it: picturesque demises, velvety
texture of mouths you smash like oysters, plumbing pearl.
fatigue, amplified, unfocussed. a church you crumple
like an egg box. conceal a solemn promise in fist. you
could spit this distance. in your vindictive livery. we have
nothing but a vagrant immortality; insinuating holiness,
a hope that stops just short. you name the slate, the dust.
you lure the earth to language. our culture is a bitten
tongue. young girls, knotting their hair like nylon ropes.
such deeds. and who will speak of them? it is an
antique zero you are counting on. the rust around
the hole. a boot prevails upon a bending back forever;
persuades a face to open in a failure to scream.

Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:35

Long live those who died like dogs

Written by
in Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This article was first published in the Morning Star.

Tuesday, 04 October 2016 14:34

Coup Plotter's Elegy for Self

Written by
in Poetry

Coup Plotter’s Elegy for Self: to be read in the voice of Owen Smith MP
after Chidiock Tichborne 

I offered them free ice cream
but they would not eat.
I kept pulling the trigger,
but the gun kept jamming and he would not die.
My voice is lost, and I have repeatedly
said nothing in interviews I’ll spend
the rest of my days paying people to forget. .

My prime of career was but a rickety bicycle
with two punctures and no saddle.
My victory feast was but a prehistoric sponge cake
and a plastic cup of lemonade gone flat
during the Labour government before last.
My bunch of grapes, fresh from the vine,
was but a bowl of diahorhea.

My left wing rhetoric was but an ill-fitting codpiece.
This disco’s over and I have not scored.
My leadership prospects are but a lock-up garage full of
unsaleable t-shirts and ventriloquist’s dummies
that look like more authentic versions of me.
I’ve tried sleep but the dream’s always
I’ve mislaid my boxer shorts
and my tie’s on fire.


Chidiock Tichborne joined the conspiracy known as the Babington Plot, which aimed to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. The plot was foiled, and Tichborne arrested. His poem ‘Tychbornes Elegie, written with his owne hand in the Tower before his execution’ was enclosed with a letter to his wife Agnes, despatched from the Tower of London on the eve of his execution for treason. Owen Smith unsuccessfully challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the British Labour during the summer of 2016 and went on to be the answer to a pub quiz question.

Page 3 of 8