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

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

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War

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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.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016 15:23

The Sudden Thaw And What It's Doing To You

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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

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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 a version of an article first published earlier this year in INTERNATIONAL TIMES, The Newspaper of Resistance.

K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 16 October 2016 14:54

'the bravest of the brave'

in Poetry
Written by

'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.

K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:35

Long live those who died like dogs

in Poetry
Written by

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.

K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 04 October 2016 14:34

Coup Plotter's Elegy for Self

in Poetry
Written by

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.

K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 25 September 2016 14:18

Olive Branch: On The Divine Right of Honourable Members

in Poetry
Written by

Olive Branch: On The Divine Right of Honourable Members

for the Parliamentary Labour Party

Hardly any of us wish you dead.
The decapitation machine (pictured) is mostly metaphorical.
We have no immediate plans to place
your severed heads – eyes and tongues protruding wildly –
in a line along the railings outside Westminster
or leave them there for the next
twenty years, as a warning to others.

It’s just we think many of you would benefit
from six months working part time
minimum wage in a home for cancer
patients who refuse to wear pants;

a year or two of Sunday
mornings scrubbing clean the back seats
of the inferior sort of taxi
hoping you’ll eventually be taken on
another day a week;

or five years carting what appear to you to be
the same set of boxes round and round a warehouse
in one of the less cosmopolitan bits of Walsall,
working a guaranteed minimum of no hours a fortnight;

to help you adjust to the new
undeniable: after years when – in your
Alexandra Wood supreme bespoke suit –
you ruled;

you’re no longer even on the committee
organising your own destiny.

 

Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:13

Poetry belongs to everyone

Written by
in Poetry

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

Q. Is there a difference between allusion and plagiarism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result is an unpleasantly competitive poetic culture, once described by the poet Sean O’Brien as a bunch of ‘ferrets fighting for mastery of a septic tank.’ If there were any money involved it would be tragic. But considering the tiny amounts of money that anyone ever earns from poetry in the UK, there is something grimly comical about poets accusing each other of stealing something which belongs to everyone.
The War Abroad
Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:12

The War Abroad

Written by
in Poetry

The War Abroad

by Alan Dunnett

I have heard that in war
people often don't know
what's going on. I mean
ordinary people caught in the middle
although others too get confused.

I have heard that before
it can end, you must go through
trauma. To some, that will seem
normal but, if you're caught in the middle,
it's normal abuse.

There is no need to travel far,
you can watch it on TV.
The necessary deaths are there to shock
but you can get used to them, safe
as you are or so you think.

This argument's quite circular
and simple, ending in a plea:
some say that running amok
is not the order of the day. Life,
all life, makes the count. Others drink

to how it is and how we must be clear
that as we do keeps us back from the brink.
They say: it could not happen here.

When the well runs dry
Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:05

When the well runs dry

Written by
in Poetry

When The Well Runs Dry

by Alan Dunnett


I got to the piss-edge last night
sharp and painful like an infection
with you below looking up
from a hole in hell.

I thought, this must be a joke
after all the admonitions
but then there's no telling what people
may do and be done by

in spite of precautions. Listen,
it is not too late. I know I said
I would never leave this place
but I failed to see the future.

Surely I can change my mind?
This could be a first day
instead of the last no burning no
ash to swallow.

I'm getting up. I'm on the move
before the rafters fall in.
Talk to me differently.
It is not reason

not a question of reason only.
I am doing these things
like a killer as if I live
outside myself and my beliefs

count for nothing but it doesn't matter.
People learn to use guns
and we reply because we have to.
That's history. Crucifixions

on either side and winter
coming on although it is still warm.
In the streets are banners
and megaphones sounding

through open shop doors,
marching, democracy, discussion,
disagreement. Let me help you up.
It's not too late.

The drawing is by Ann Course, who studied at the Royal College of Art and lives and works in London. Her films and sculptures have been widely screened and exhibited, including Tate Britain/Modern, Royal Academy, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Angel Row Gallery, Stroom Den Hague, Galerie Barbara Thumm, The Drawing Room, the Rotterdam Film Festival, Oberhausen film Festival, LUX gallery and the Whitechapel Gallery, London. She teaches at Central Saint Martins and Camberwell College of Art.

 

The Chalk Fairy
Thursday, 01 September 2016 13:51

The Chalk Fairy

Written by
in Poetry

The Chalk Fairy

by Thomas McColl

Each night I traipse
the streets of London,
drawing chalk lines
round homeless people
sleeping rough.

I’ve found
that, even in the early hours
of Christmas Day,
there’s no shortage of bodies
to draw my outlines round:
London’s one big crime scene
every single day of the year.

This poem is from Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, published by Shoestring Press in mid-September.

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