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

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso
Tuesday, 26 April 2016 13:56

Communism by way of the poem

Written by
in Poetry

Alain Badiou writes about the links between poetry and communism, with particular reference to the poetry of the Spanish Civil War.


In the last century, some truly great poets, in almost all languages on earth, have been communists. In an explicit or formal way, for example, the following poets were committed to communism: in Turkey, Nâzim Hikmet; in Chile, Pablo Neruda; in Spain, Rafael Alberti; in Italy, Eduardo Sanguinetti; in Greece, Yannis Ritsos; in China, Ai Qing; in Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish; in Peru, César Vallejo; and in Germany, the shining example is above all Bertolt Brecht. But we could cite a very large number of other names in other languages, throughout the world.

Can we understand this link between poetic commitment and communist commitment as a simple illusion? An error, or an errancy? An ignorance of the ferocity of states ruled by communist parties? I do not believe so. I wish to argue, on the contrary, that there exists an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand ‘communism’ closely in its primary sense: the concern for what is common to all. A tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common; the desire that what ought to be common and accessible to all should not be appropriated by the servants of Capital. The poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night – that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world.

Poets are communist for a primary reason, which is absolutely essential: their domain is language, most often their native tongue. Now, language is what is given to all from birth as an absolutely common good. Poets are those who try to make a language say what it seems incapable of saying. Poets are those who seek to create in language new names to name that which, before the poem, has no name. And it is essential for poetry that these inventions, these creations, which are internal to language, have the same destiny as the mother tongue itself: for them to be given to all without exception. The poem is a gift of the poet to language. But this gift, like language itself, is destined to the common – that is, to this anonymous point where what matters is not one person in particular but all, in the singular.

Thus, the great poets of the twentieth century recognized in the grandiose revolutionary project of communism something that was familiar to them – namely that, as the poem gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.

This is why the poets have seen in communism above all a new figure of the destiny of the people. And ‘people’, here, means first and foremost the poor people, the workers, the abandoned women, the landless peasants. Why? Because it is first and foremost to those who have nothing that everything must be given. It is to the mute, to the stutterer, to the stranger, that the poem must be offered, and not to the chatterbox, to the grammarian, or to the nationalist. It is to the proletarian – whom Marx defined as those who have nothing except their own body capable of work – that we must give the entire earth, as well as all the books, and all the music, and all the paintings, and all the sciences. What is more, it is to them, to the proletarians in all their forms, that the poem of communism must be offered.

What is striking is that this should lead all those poets to rediscover a very old poetic form: the epic. The communists’ poem is first the epic of the heroism of the proletarians. The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet thus distinguishes lyric poems, dedicated to love, from epic poems, dedicated to the action of the popular masses. But even a poet as wise and as hermetic as César Vallejo does not hesitate to write a poem with the title, ‘Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic’. Such a title evidently belongs to the order of the commemoration of war, to epic commitment.

These communist poets rediscover what in France Victor Hugo had already discovered: the duty of the poet is to look in language for the new resources of an epic that would no longer be that of the aristocracy of knights but the epic of the people in the process of creating another world. The fundamental link organized into song by the poet is the one that the new politics is capable of founding between, on the one hand, the misery and extreme hardship of life, the horror of oppression, everything that calls for our pity, and, on the other hand, the levying, the combat, the collective thought, the new world – and, thus, everything that calls for our admiration.

It is of this dialectic of compassion and admiration, of this violently poetic opposition between debasement and levying, of this reversal of resignation into heroism, that the communist poets seek the living metaphor, the nonrealist representation, the symbolic power. They search for the words to express the moment in which the eternal patience of the oppressed of all times changes into a collective force which is indivisibly that of raised bodies and shared thoughts.

The Spanish Civil War and Poetry

That is why one moment – a singular historic moment – has been sung by all the communist poets who wrote between the 1920s and 1940s: the moment of the civil war in Spain, which as you know ran from 1936 to 1939.

Let us observe that the Spanish civil war is certainly the historic event that has most intensely mobilized all the artists and intellectuals of the world. On one hand, the personal commitment of writers from all ideological tendencies on the side of the republicans, including therefore the communists, is remarkable: whether we are dealing with organized communists, social democrats, mere liberals, or even fervent Catholics, such as the French writer Georges Bernanos, the list is extraordinary if we gather all those who publicly spoke out, who went to Spain in the midst of the war, or even entered into combat on the side of the republican forces. On the other hand, the number of masterpieces produced on this occasion is no less astonishing. I have already noted as much for poetry. But let us also think of the splendid painting by Pablo Picasso that is titled Guernica; let us think of two of the greatest novels in their genre: Man’s Hope by André Malraux and For Whom the Bell Tolls by the American Ernest Hemingway. The frightening and bloody civil war in Spain has illuminated the art of the world for several years.

I see at least four reasons for this massive and international commitment of intellectuals on the occasion of the war in Spain.

First, in the 1930s the world found itself in a vast ideological and political crisis. Public opinion sensed more and more that this crisis could not have a peaceful ending, no legal or consensual solution. The horizon was a fearsome one of internal and external warfare. Among intellectuals, the tendency was to choose between two absolutely contrary orientations: the fascist and the communist orientations. During the war in Spain, this conflict took the form of civil war pure and simple. Spain had become the violent emblem of the central ideological conflict of the time. This is what we might call the symbolic and therefore universal value of this war.

Second, during the Spanish war, the occasion arose for artists and intellectuals all over the world not only to show their support for the popular camp, but also to participate directly in combat. Thus what had been an opinion changed into action; what had been a form of solidarity became a form of fraternity.

Third, the war in Spain took on a fierceness that hit people over the head. Misery and destruction were present everywhere. The systematic massacre of prisoners, the indiscriminate bombing of villages, the relentlessness of both camps: all this gave people an idea of what could be and what in fact was to be the worldwide conflict to which the war in Spain was the prologue.

Fourth, the Spanish war was the strongest moment, perhaps unique in the history of the world, of the realization of the great Marxist project: that of a truly internationalist revolutionary politics. We should remember what the intervention of the International Brigades meant: they showed that the vast international mobilization of minds was also, and before anything, an international mobilization of peoples. I am thinking of the example of France: thousands of workers, often communists, had come as volunteers to do battle in Spain. But there were also Americans, Germans, Italians, Russians, people from all countries. This exemplary international dedication, this vital internationalist subjectivity, is perhaps the most striking accomplishment of what Marx had thought, which can be summarized in two phrases: negatively, the proletarians have no fatherland, their political homeland is the whole world of living men and women; positively, international organization is what allows for the confrontation and in the end the real victory over the enemy of all, the capitalist camp, including in its extreme form, which is fascism.

Thus, the communist poets had found major subjective reasons in the Spanish war for renewing epic poetry in the direction of a popular epic – one that was both that of the suffering of peoples and that of their internationalist heroism, organized and combative.

Already the titles of the poems or collections of poems are significant. They indicate almost always a kind of sensible reaction of the poet, a kind of shared suffering with the horrible fate and hardship reserved for the Spanish people. Thus, Pablo Neruda’s collection bears the title Spain in Our Hearts. This goes to show that the first commitment of the poet is an affective, subjective, immediate solidarity with the Spanish people at war. Similarly, the very beautiful title of César Vallejo’s collection is Spain, Take This Cup from Me. This title indicates that, for the poet, the sense of shared suffering becomes its own poetic ordeal, which is almost impossible to bear.

However, both poets will develop this first personal and affective impulse almost in the opposite direction – that of a creative use of suffering itself, that of an unknown liberty. This unknown liberty is precisely that of the reversal of misery into heroism, the reversal of a particular anxiety-ridden situation into a universal promise of emancipation. Here is how César Vallejo puts it, with his mysterious metaphors, in Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic:

Proletarian who dies of the universe, in what frantic harmony
your grandeur will end, your extreme poverty, your impelling whirlpool,
your methodical violence, your theoretical & practical chaos, your Dantesque
wish, so very Spanish, to love, even treacherously, your enemy!

Liberator wrapped in shackles,
without whose labour extension would still be without handles ,
the nails would wander headless,
the day, ancient, slow, reddish,
our beloved helmets, unburied!
peasant fallen with your green foliage for man,
with the social inflection of your little finger,
with your ox that stays, with your physics,
also with your word tied to a stick
& your rented sky
& with the clay inserted in your tiredness
& with that in your fingernail, walking!
Agricultural
builders, civilian & military,
of the active, ant-swarming eternity: it was written
that you will create the light, half-closing
your eyes in death;
that, at the cruel fall of your mouths,
abundance will come on seven platters, everything
in the world will be of sudden gold
& the gold,
fabulous beggars for your own secretion of blood,
& the gold itself will then be made of gold!

You see how death itself – the death in combat of the volunteers of the Spanish people – becomes a construction; better yet, a kind of nonreligious eternity, an earthly eternity. The communist poet can say this: ‘Agricultural builders, civilian & military, of the active, ant-swarming eternity’. This eternity is that of the real truth, the real life, wrested away from the cruel powers that be. It changes everything into the gold of true life. Even the accursed gold of the rich and the oppressors will simply become once more what it is: ‘the gold itself will then be made of gold’.

We might say that, in the ordeal of the Spanish war, communist poetry sings of the world that has returned to what it really is – the world-truth, which can be born forever, when hardship and death change into paradoxical heroism. This is what César Vallejo will say later on by invoking the ‘victim in a column of victors’, and when he exclaims that ‘in Spain, in Madrid, the command is to kill, volunteers who fight for life!’

Pablo Neruda, as I have mentioned, likewise starts out from pain, misery and compassion. Thus, in the great epic poem titled ‘Arrival in Madrid of the International Brigade’, he begins by saying that ‘Spanish death, more acrid and sharper than other deaths, filled fields up to then honoured by wheat.’ But the poet is most sensitive to the internationalism of the arrival in Spain from all over the world of those whom he directly calls ‘comrades’. Let us listen to the poem of this arrival:

Comrades,
then
I saw you,
and my eyes are even now filled with pride
because through the misty morning I saw you reach
the pure brow of Castile
silent and firm
like bells before dawn,
filled with solemnity and blue-eyed, come from far,
far away,
come from your corners, from your lost fatherlands,
from your dreams,
covered with burning gentleness and guns
to defend the Spanish city in which besieged liberty
could fall and die bitten by the beasts.

Brothers,
from now on
let your pureness and your strength, your solemn story
be known by children and by men, by women and by old men,
let it reach all men without hope, let it go down to the mines
corroded by sulphuric air
let it mount the inhuman stairways of the slave,
let all the stars, let all the flowers of Castile
and of the world
write your name and your bitter struggle
and your victory strong and earthen as a red oak.
Because you have revived with your sacrifice
lost faith, absent heart, trust in the earth,
and through your abundance, through your nobility, through
your dead,
as if through a valley of harsh bloody rocks,
flows an immense river with doves of steel and of hope.

What we see this time is first the evidence of fraternity. The word ‘comrades’ is followed later on by the word ‘brothers’. This fraternity puts forward not so much the changing of the real world as the changing of subjectivity. Certainly, at first, all these international communist militants have come ‘from far’, ‘from your corners’, ‘from your lost fatherlands’. But above all they have come from their ‘dreams covered with burning gentleness and guns’. You will note the typical proximity of gentleness and violence. This will be repeated with the image of a ‘dove of steel’: combat is the building not of naked violence, not of power, but of a subjectivity capable of confronting the long run because it has confidence in itself.

The workers and intellectuals of the international brigades, mixed together, have given new birth to ‘lost faith, absent heart, trust in the earth’. Because we are at war, the dove of peace must be a dove of steel, but it is also and above all, says the poem, a dove of hope. In the end, the epic of war that Neruda celebrates, what he calls ‘your victory strong and earthen as a red oak’, is above all the creation of a new confidence or trust. The point is to escape from nihilistic resignation. And this constructive value of communist confidence, I believe, is also needed today.

The French poet Paul Eluard picks up on two of the motifs that we have seen so far, and mixes them together. On one hand, as César Vallejo says, the international volunteers of the Spanish war represent a new humanity, simply because they are true human beings, and not the false humanity of the capitalist world, competitive and obsessed with money and commodities. On the other hand, as Pablo Neruda says, these volunteers transform the surrounding nihilism into a new confidence. A stanza of the poem ‘The Victory of Guernica’ says this with precision:

True men for whom despair
Feeds the devouring fire of hope
Let us open together the last bud of the future.

However, in the Spanish war Eluard is sensitive to another factor with universal value. For him, as for Rousseau, humanity is fundamentally good natured, with a good nature that is being destroyed by oppression through competition, forced labour, money. This fundamental goodness of the world resides in the people, in their obstinate life, in the courage to live that is theirs. The poem begins as follows:

Fair world of hovel
Of the mine and fields.

Eluard thinks that women and children especially incarnate this universal good nature, this subjective treasure that finally is what men are trying to defend in the war in Spain:

VIII
Women and children have the same riches
Of green leaves of spring and pure milk
And endurance
In their pure eyes.

IX
Women and children have the same riches
In their eyes
Men defend them as they can.
X
Women and children have the same red roses
In their eyes
They show each their blood.
XI
The fear and the courage to live and to die
Death so difficult and so easy.

The Spanish war, for Eluard, reveals what simple riches are at the disposal of human life. This is why extreme oppression and war are also the revelation of the fact that men must guard the riches of life. And to do so you must keep the trust, even when the enemy is crushing you, imposing on you the easiness of death. We clearly sense that this trust is communism itself. This is why the poem is titled ‘The Victory of Guernica’. The destruction of this town by German bombers, the 2,000 dead of this first savage experience that announces the world war: all this will also be a victory, if people continue to be confident that the riches of simple life are indestructible. This is why the poem concludes as follows:

Outcasts the death the ground the hideous sight
Of our enemies have the dull
Colour of our night
Despite them we shall overcome.

Poetic communism

This is what we can call poetic communism: to sing the certainty that humanity is right to create a world in which the treasure of simple life will be preserved peacefully, and that, because it has reason on its side, humanity will impose this reason, and its reason will overcome its enemies. This link between popular life, political reason and confidence in victory: that is what Eluard seeks to confer, in language, upon the suffering and heroism of the Spanish war.

Nâzim Hikmet, in the truly beautiful poem titled ‘It Is Snowing in the Night’, will in turn traverse all these themes of communist poetics, starting out from a subjective identification. He imagines a sentry from the popular camp at the gates of Madrid. This sentinel, this lonely man – just as the poet is always alone in the work of language – carries inside him, fragile and threatened, everything the poet desires, everything that according to him gives meaning to existence. Thus, a lonely man at the gates of Madrid is in charge of the dreams of all of humanity:

It is snowing in the night,
You are at the door of Madrid.
In front of you an army
Killing the most beautiful things we own,
Hope, yearning, freedom and children,
The City …

You see how all the Spanish themes of communist poetics return: the volunteer of the Spanish war is the guardian of universal revolutionary hope. He finds himself at night, in the snow, trying to prohibit the killing of hope.

Nâzim Hikmet’s singular achievement no doubt consists in finding the profound universality of nostalgic yearning in this war. Communist poetics cannot be reduced to a vigorous and solid certainty of victory. It is also what we might call the nostalgia of the future. The hymn to the sentry of Madrid is related to this truly peculiar sentiment: the nostalgia for a grandeur and a beauty that nevertheless have not yet been created. Communism here works in the future anterior: we experience a kind of poetic regret for what we imagine the world will have been when communism has come. Therein lies the force of the conclusion of Hikmet’s poem:

I know,
everything great and beautiful there is,
everything great and beautiful man has still to create
that is, everything my nostalgic soul hopes for
smiles in the eyes
of the sentry at the door of Madrid.
And tomorrow, like yesterday, like tonight
I can do nothing else but love him.

You can hear that strange mixture of the present, of the past and future that the poem crystallizes in the imagined character of the solitary sentry, confronted with the fascist army, in the night and snow of Madrid. There is already nostalgia for what true humanity, the combatant people of Madrid, is capable of creating in terms of beauty and grandeur. If the people are capable of creating this, then humanity will certainly create it. And, then, we can have the nostalgia for that which the world would be if this possible creation had already taken place. Thus, communist poetry is not only epic poetry of combat, historic poetry of the future, affirmative poetry of confidence. It is also lyric poetry of what communism, as the figure of humanity reconciled with its own grandeur, will have been after victory, which for the poet is already regret and melancholy as well as ‘nostalgic hope’ of his soul, past as well as future, nostalgia as well as hope.

With regard to the Spanish civil war properly speaking, Bertolt Brecht also committed himself by writing a didactic play, Señora Carrar’s Rifles, which is devoted to the interior debate over the need to participate in the right battle, whatever the excellent reasons may be to stay at a safe remove.

But perhaps the most important aspect is the following: as the independent communist that he has always been, Brecht is the contemporary of very serious and bloody defeats of the communist cause. He has been directly present and active in the moment of the defeat of German communism in the face of the Nazis. And of course he has also been the contemporary of the terrible defeat of Spanish communism in the face of Franco’s military fascism. But one of the tasks that Brecht has always assigned to himself as a poet is to give poetic support to confidence, to political confidence, even in the worst of all conditions, when the defeat is at its most terrifying. Here we rediscover the motif of confidence, as that which the poem must stir up based on the reversal of compassion into admiration, and of resignation into heroism.

To this subjective task Brecht devoted some of his most beautiful poems, in which the almost abstract focus of the topic aims to produce an enthusiasm of sorts. I am thinking of the end of the poem ‘InPraise of Dialectics’, in which we again find the temporal metamorphoses that I have already talked about – the future that becomes the past, the present that is reduced to the power of the future – all of which makes a poem out of the way in which political subjectivity supports a highly complex connection to historical becoming. Brecht, for his part, in Lob der Dialektik, poeticizes the refusal of powerlessness in the name of the future’s presence in the present itself:

Who dares say: never?
On who does it depend if oppression remains? On us.
On who does it depend if its thrall is broken? Also on us.
Whoever has been beaten down must rise up!
Whoever is lost must fight back!
Whoever has recognized his condition – how can anyone stop him?
Because the vanquished of today are tomorrow’s victors
And never will become: already today!

Must we, too, not desire that ‘never’ become ‘already today’? They pretend to chain us to the financial necessities of Capital. They pretend that we ought to obey today so that tomorrow may exist. They pretend that the communist Idea is dead forever, after the disaster of Stalinism. But must we not in turn ‘recognize [our] condition’? Why do we accept a world in which one percent of the global population possesses 47 per cent of the world’s wealth, and in which 10 per cent possesses 86 per cent of the world’s wealth? Must we accept that the world is organized by such terrible inequalities? Must we think that nothing will ever change this? Must we think that the world will forever be organized by private property and the ferocity of monetary competition?

Poetry always says what is essential. Communist poetry from the 1930s and 1940s recalls for us that the essential aspect of communism, or of the communist Idea, is not and never has been the ferocity of a state, the bureaucracy of a party, or the stupidity of blind obedience. These poems tell us that the communist Idea is the compassion for the simple life of the people afflicted by inequality and injustice – that it is the broad vision of a raising up, both in thought and in practice, which is opposed to resignation and changes it into a patient heroism. It tells us that this patient heroism is aimed at the collective construction of a new world, with the means of a new thinking about what politics might be. And it recalls for us, with the riches of its images and metaphors, with the rhythm and musicality of its words, that communism in its essence is the political projection of the riches of the life of all.

Brecht saw all this very clearly, too. He is opposed to the tragic and monumental vision of communism. Yes, there is an epic poetry of communism, but it is the patient epic, which is heroic for its very patience, of all those who gather and organize themselves to heal the world of its deadly diseases that are injustice and inequality; and to do so requires going to the root of things: limit private property, end the violent separation of the power of the state, overcome the division of labour. This, Brecht tells us, is not an apocalyptic vision. On the contrary, it is what is normal and sensible, reflecting the average desire of all. This is why the communist poem recalls for us that sickness and violence are on the side of the capitalist and imperialist world as we know it, and not on the side of the calm, normal and average grandeur of the communist Idea. This is what Brecht is going to tell us in a poem that carries the absolutely surprising title, ‘Communism is the Middle Term’:

To call for the overthrow of the existing order
May seem a terrible thing
But what exists is no order.
To seek refuge in violence
May seem evil.
But what is constantly at work is violence
And there is nothing special about it.
Communism is not the extreme outlier
That only in a small part can be realized,
and until it is not completely realized,
The situation is unbearable
Even for someone who is insensitive.
Communism is really the most minimal demand
What is nearest, reasonable, the middle term.
Whoever is opposed to it is not someone who thinks otherwise
It is someone who does not think or who thinks only about himself
It is an enemy of the human species who,
Terrible
Evil
Insensitive
And, in particular,
Wanting the most extreme, realized even in the tiniest part,
Plunges all humankind into destruction.

Thus, communist poetry presents us with a peculiar epic: the epic of the minimal demand, the epic of what is never extreme nor monstrous. Communist poetry, with its resource of gentleness combined with that of enthusiasm, tells us: rise up with the will to think and act so that the world may be offered to all as the world that belongs to all, just as the poem in language offers to all the common world that is always contained therein, even if in secret. There have been and continue to be all kinds of discussions about the communist hypothesis: in philosophy, sociology, economics, history, political science. But I have wanted to tell you that there exists a proof of communism by way of the poem.

Translated by Bruno Bosteels. This essay is from The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose, by Alain Badiou, edited and translated by Bruno Bosteels with an introduction by Emily Apter and Bruno Bosteels (London-New York: Verso, 2014). Thanks to Alain Badiou and Verso Books for permission to republish this essay.

Just like you
Tuesday, 19 April 2016 07:32

Just like you

Written by
in Poetry

Just Like You
by Hanna Abdullah

I am human
Just like you.
I eat and I sleep
Just like you.
I walk and talk
Just like you. I have a family and friends
Just like you.
I have an education and I study
Just like you.
I have dreams and aspirations
Just like you.
And I have a home
Just like you.
Except my home has been crushed and raided by soldiers.
I witnessed my friends get killed right in front of me.
My mother is being held prisoner.
My baby brother was taken away by soldiers.
And me, I am alone, trying to live a normal live in a foreign country.
Remember, I have a beating heart
And blood running through my veins
Just like you.
I am not an animal,
I am not an insect,
I am not trash,
I am human,
Just like you.

Refugee Week

by Guste Bekionyte

Realising in the steam will make me,
Embarrass myself.
Flowing away,
Unforgettable pain that is still there.
Grief, not going away.
Ethiopia is where I was,
Extreme war was in my life.

We hate it here, it is very violent,
Empathy is what we need.
Enraged! We need justice,
Keeping hope in my heart.

These two poems by schoolchildren in Newham, London, are taken from the Newham Poetry Book, published by the Newham Teachers' Association and sponsored by the NUT. See

http://newhamteachers.org.uk/z-docs/refugeecomp/newham-poetry-book_0_2015.pdf

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

The poetry of common ownership

Written by
in Poetry

Alan Morrison,  the editor of The Recusant and Militant Thistle websites, is preparing a series of articles for Culture Matters on the history of English political poetry. This opening 'proem' is an introduction to the series, building on both Andy Croft's article on The Privatisation of Poetry and Mike Sanders' article on Making Better Rhymes: Chartist Poetry and Working Class Struggle.

Andy Croft’s essay against the implicitly capitalist notion of poetry as ‘property’ (what we might call ‘propetry’), and Mike Sanders' article on working class Chartist poetry, open up a much-needed debate on the contention that poetry and all literature is essentially a communal phenomenon, since its prime purpose is surely to communicate as widely as possible and share ideas and experiences. 

These are notions unfashionable in a capitalistic postmodernist poetry ‘mainstream’, which is often characterised by one-upmanship and individualistic careerism, though also, ironically, a striking uniformity of style. This mainstream poetry is sponsored by what are effectively ‘poetry corporations’ or ‘poetry monopolies’: the hedge-funded Poetry Book Society, the all-encompassing Poetry Society, the ‘top’ metropolitan imprints, and, most pervasively of all, the poetry prize and competition circuit.

But Croft’s communistic premise is one with which great literary thinkers such as Christopher Caudwell and W.H. Auden would have been in complete agreement, back in the Thirties, which was the most pronouncedly ‘political’ period of British poetics.

That there is a germ of commonality in literature is indisputable, and the heartening notion of what might be termed a ‘poetry of common ownership’ is not so quixotic as it might sound when one explores the too-often obscured and ignored ‘shadow lineage’ of proletarian poetics throughout British literary history. For example, the explosion of polemical poetry of the Industrial Revolution, most notably among the Chartist movement (1838–1858) whose political cause was almost inseparable from the prolific school of polemical poetics it inspired, as Michael Sanders is illustrating in his series of articles.

Poets are magpies

Words belong to all of us, and, ultimately, what is poetry, or any other form of literature, but the creative rearranging of words into particular combinations? While the nuances of these verbal rearrangements and phrasal orderings may be claimed as the expressive property of the word-arrangers, the words themselves cannot be, since they are formed from the common tongue, or lexicon, the lingua franca. And who has ever claimed proprietorship over words? Not even seminal lexicographer Samuel Johnson claimed that.

Poets are magpies: attracted to phrases like shiny objects from which they most often fashion other phrases, or variations of phrase, and, sometimes unconsciously, ‘lift’ or ‘borrow’ phrases. To ‘borrow’ in this way is not to claim something belongs to one as much as it belongs to everyone, and can be reused or imbued with new meanings in different contexts. Within reasonable degrees, this is also complimentary to the original ‘phrase maker’. Moreover, what are poets, artists, but creative baton-carriers who are inspired by former works of predecessors and then in turn reshape these influences to the expression of their own personality? And is ‘phrasal borrowing’ less taboo in titles to poems, which can in turn also shape their concepts or themes?

T.S. Eliot, one of the most distinctive and individualistic voices in poetry of any period, had this to say on the subject:

'Traces of Kipling appear in my own mature verse where no diligent scholarly sleuth has yet observed them, but which I am myself prepared to disclose. I once wrote a poem called ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: I am convinced that it would never have been called ‘Love Song’ but for a title of Kipling's that stuck obstinately in my head: The Love Song of Har Dyal'.

Should Eliot be accused of plagiarism, of leeching off Kipling’s imagination to come up with his poem’s title? Few poets were so aware of the poetic canon and tradition, and of their temporal place in the poetic continuum, as T.S. Eliot. Indeed, his aforementioned poem, a ‘seminal’ one for Anglo-American Modernism, is laced thickly with allusions that frequently melt into full-on phrasal borrowings from previous poets and writers, from such ‘common-held’ or ‘folkloric’ sources as the plays of Shakespeare and the aphorisms of the New Testament.

For all of Eliot’s own considerable genius, he was one of the most thoroughly-sourced poets of them all. He was as much a polymath scholar in poetry as James Joyce was in poetic prose, and both of their writings, significantly, were steeped in Greco-Roman mythological allusions.

Indeed, so rich in allusions to previous works of literature, not to say actual quotations couched in the poet’s own tropes, was Eliot’s most celebrated poem, The Waste Land, that he specifically furnished it with detailed annotations ‘with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism’. As Hugh Kenner puts it in his brilliantly insightful and beautifully written, The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, ‘Cities are built out of the ruins of previous cities, as The Waste Land is built out of the remains of older poems’.

Hence, without its sources, The Waste Land, that ‘heap of broken images’, could not have been written, at least, not in the distinctly splintered, aphoristic and fragmentary way that it was, which was an enormous part of the mystique which came to surround it and fascinate poets and scholars for generations afterwards. Is Eliot the sum of his sources? Eliot was part of a poetic pattern, and he knew his place in that pattern, and might well not have become a poet at all were it not for his keen awareness of it.

The Waste Land was Eliot’s definitive expression of this sense of literary inheritance and curatorship, and is in many ways a work of poetic archaeology dealing as it does in poetic relics and ruins, just as Ulysses, published the same year (1922), was for James Joyce. It was also Eliot, of course, who coined the contentious aphorism: ‘Good poets borrow, great poets steal’. We’ll leave the discussion of Eliot and Joyce there, minded as I am as to the irony of discussing two of the most accomplished exponents of what Cyril Connolly called the ‘Mandarin’ tradition in literature, in a proem to a series of articles on a much earthier proletarian poetic tradition.

Ploughing the common land

The literary scholar Hugh Kenner, then, gifts us a fitting metaphor for the nature of poetry, indeed, of all literature and creative human work: ‘cities built out of ruins of previous cities’.

No poetry can ever be truly original, and that’s as much to do with the fundamental homology of language as it is the inheritance of the literature sprouted from it. In this sense, then, and to use a more natural metaphor, every new poem is a transplanting in place of a past crop: the soil that nourishes all crops belongs to no one, hence to everyone; it is not up for grabs, only for refurbishment. Language is common land – the common tongue – and poetry is its most beautiful flower.

All poets are part of a pattern, inspired by their predecessors, thence continuing the creative process and thereby contributing to the ongoing reinvigoration and reorganisation of the common tongue; like ploughing the common land. It is also disputable as to whether any poets, any creative persons, are actually the architects of their own talents or simply the vessels through which transcendent creative powers are operating.

After all, inspiration is a prime component to creativity. The etymology of ‘inspired’ comes from the word ‘inspirited’ i.e. to inspirit, to put spirit into something. And the commonly used term ‘gift’ to describe a talent is too often overlooked in its implications: what else is a ‘gift’ but something given to someone? Creativity might be partly inherited, partly self-nurtured, but can never be entirely self-nurtured: one cannot create oneself, hence cannot create one’s own creativity.

Of course, it’s only polite for the ‘borrower’ to acknowledge such borrowings, but to neglect to do so is more impolite than impious. Don’t all poets begin by borrowing, even sometimes by some subtle form of plagiarising? Some of the most highly respected poets of the past began writing that way. And should a particular poetic metre be the property only of its inventor? If so, Keats’ Spenserian stanzas are metrical theft!

Nothing can get us away from the fundamental fact that language belongs to all of us. Its cogs might be oiled by wordmongers in order to rescue them from neglect, even to retune and neologise, but ultimately no one can claim copyright of the common tongue. The egoistic urge to do so is what Christopher Caudwell would have termed a ‘petit-bourgeois’ one, wrapped up with impulses to oneupmanship and self-promotion, of which all poets can be guilty at times.

But if those are the prime urges of any poets, then it’s perhaps better they don’t write poetry at all, but instead set themselves up as private landlords and deal in bricks and mortar rather than iambs and metaphors, if they are more concerned with impressing themselves and asserting property rights over peers and readers than attempting to upkeep the poetic soil and continue nourishing common consciousness.

Humility is the compost of poetry

There must be humility in the poet – without it, the poetry simply moulders into ornamental solipsism. To extend the agricultural metaphor, humility is the compost of poetry. The notion of literature as private property, or ‘intellectual property’, is not only a relatively recent thing historically-speaking, but also a distinctly bourgeois concept. Tellingly, much of the ‘common’ poetry of the 17th through to the early 19th centuries was often published anonymously or under pseudonyms, which in itself emphasised a sense of shared ownership in the poems. They were often spread by word of mouth as much as by pamphlet or broadside, tipping them into the common psyche in the same way that common prayers and anthems are, and thence entering into a kind of proletarian folkloric cannon. This act of committal to folk memory has, however, been historically obscured by the self-appointed keepers of British literary ‘polite society’; the plenipotentiary of poetic posterity.

This anonymity of authorship not only emphasised a sense of common ownership of poetry and literature, it also hinted at a contempt for notions of property, especially that of creative expression, and, just as impressively, an indifference towards posterity. Indeed, as the fittingly anonymous Introduction to The Common Muse – Popular British ballad poetry from the 15th to the 20th century puts it (my bold italics):

'The ballad-monger was mobile and difficult to regulate; the ballad poet (often the same person) was usually anonymous. Hence, he was not overawed by Authority – legal, clerical or critical – or by Posterity. Though the limitations of his outlook bound him to his own time and place, he was in all other ways free…'

In every sense then, this proletarian poetry by and on behalf of the un-propertied was symbiotically anti-property. And no doubt one of the reasons for the anonymity of polemical poems and broadside ballads of the past was in order to keep the authors safe from any repercussions due to possible inflammatory or seditious messages in their verses. In this sense such widely distributed polemical poems served as anonymous versified Round Robins.

Building Jerusalem

But the signature of a name to a poem hasn’t always carried with it all the rights-asserting implications and trappings of proprietorship. Why is it that so many English poets and readers feel somehow that Blake belongs to them? It’s because of Blake’s implicit humanity, humility, compassion and universalism of sentiment implicates all of us who are exposed to his work. We become a part of it, and so Blake’s works become a part of us, part of our ‘Englishness’ if you like, but a very radical, half-buried timbre of Englishness.

It’s not just the sentiments but also the anthemic, hymnal quality of ‘Jerusalem’ which binds its readers and singers together in poetic fellowship, in much the same way as a common hymn by sundry ‘Anon’ hymnodists. Hence Blake, his work and his evocative Anglo-Saxon name (meaning, depending on the root, ‘pale/fair’ or, alternately, ‘dark’), which becomes a kind of adjective descriptive of his special type of poetics, of his aphorismic ‘Songs’, enter into the folkloric fabric, become part of our cultural character. Blake belongs to the English, just as Burns belongs to the Scots, Yeats to the Irish, and Dylan Thomas to the Welsh, though all of those poets also have an international reach and building Jerusalem these days is a poetic and political project for all of humanity, not just 'in England's green and pleasant land'.

That politics is not only compatible with poetry but actually an integral part of it is a mode of thought institutionally shunned today by much of the poetry establishment. Yet it was once a commonly held view. Throughout the centuries poetry has demonstrated abundantly in many ways that poetry and politics are interrelated, even if that interrelatedness is often a thorny one. In the past, poetry, or poetic language, was often employed by orators and politicians to reinforce their arguments and ideas, and to such a degree that much historical oratory is often a form of public or declamatory poetry, sometimes rich in aphorism and apothegm.

One only has to think of such eloquent and poetic statesmen as Solon (lawgiver and poet of Ancient Athens), Demosthenes, Pericles, Cicero, Seneca, Thomas More, Oliver Cromwell, Walpole, Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Disraeli, Lloyd George, Keir Hardie, Churchill, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King et al. Or political pamphleteers and ideologues such as John Lilburne, Gerrard Winstanley, Robert Owen, William Morris, Bertrand Russell, Max Weber, even Karl Marx. Das Kapital, let us remember, was lauded by Edmund Wilson, in To The Finland Station, as every bit as poetical as it was polemical.

Oratory, an art form in its own right, has always shared much in common with poetry, and in many respects is the poetry of administration. The roots of much oratory are in Rhetoric, itself rooted in philosophy, and the language of much philosophy is deeply poetic and aphorismic – think Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as is religious writing. These interrelations are explored in depth in a compendious essay by Nigel Smith, ‘The English Revolution and the End of Rhetoric: John Toland’s Clito (1700) and the Republican Daemon’, in Poetry and Politics.

The common music of poetry

Frequently, use of the term ‘politics’ or ‘political’ in terms of poetry is inextricably linked with socialist or communist thought. Much of the focus of the series of articles will be on neglected or forgotten poets of the British proletariat and artisan classes, as well as those whom Marx called the lumpenproletariat (e.g. street sellers, the unemployed, travellers, tramps etc.). Thus the ‘politics’ of such poetics, almost entirely informed by empirical privation and dissatisfaction with established social hierarchies, is invariably radical, anarchic, militant, revolutionary. The articles will attempt to trace much of this neglected genealogy of English proletarian poetry, as well as that of political poetry in general, across the social classes, and across approximately four centuries, since the inception of the mass printing press.

It is sadly true that much ‘political’ or ‘radical’ poetry, especially that written by those on the margins of society, by those from less privileged backgrounds, the unemployed or precariously employed, and those who are marginalised due to mental health issues, is poorly represented by the poetry publishing world, in spite of spin to the contrary, and overtures to synthetic inclusiveness and box-ticking on the part of ostensibly ‘liberal’ literary ‘elites’.

Andy Croft’s own imprint, Smokestack Books, remains perhaps the foremost champion of left-wing political poetry in the UK. Its mission statement expresses this explicitly and in keeping with the ethical communism of its founding editor:

'Smokestack aims to keep open a space for what is left of the English radical poetic tradition in the twenty-first century. Smokestack champions poets who are unfashionable, radical, left-field and working a long way from the metropolitan centres of cultural authority. Smokestack is committed to the common music of poetry; is interested in the World as well as the Word; believes that poetry is a part of and not apart from society; argues that if poetry does not belong to everyone it is not poetry.'

In the poetry journal scene, a thin red line of journals keep up this tradition on the fringes: The Penniless Press and Red Poets, as well as Mike Quille’s ‘Soul Food’ columns in the Communist Review, and Jody Porter's ‘Well Versed’ columns in the Morning Star. There are also some other poetry imprints with similar politics to Smokestack, such as Flambard, Red Squirrel, Shoestring and Waterloo Press. Significantly none of those imprints could be classed as ‘mainstream’ or among the ‘top’ metropolitan imprints. Lastly, webzines such as The International Times, Occupy Poetry, Proletarian Poetry and this writer’s own The Recusant and Militant Thistles help to keep the ‘radical poetic tradition’ represented online.

The phrase ‘common music’ is emphatic of universality and inclusiveness, although unlike music, poetry is inhibited in its reach by the frontiers of different languages, the ‘passports’ of translations often furnishing at best adumbrations of the source texts.

And that final clause of Smokestack's mission statement, ‘if poetry does not belong to everyone it is not poetry’, cleverly inverts the notion of ‘poetry as private property’ by arguing that any poetry that is the private property of the poet is therefore not the property of anyone else and thus is socially and culturally redundant. It confiscates itself from the common consciousness. In contrast, it is precisely the ‘English radical poetic tradition’ mentioned by the mission statement which my forthcoming series will seek to map out, in the hope that those who read it will be encouraged to seek out the neglected works of so many lesser known poets of our cultural past.
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 25 March 2016 10:10

The Minister for poetry has decreed

in Poetry
Written by

The Minister for Poetry Has Decreed
by Kevin Higgins, after Zbigniew Herbert

That during the Centenary celebrations
in memory of our late revolution,
poets in each of the twenty six counties
from Kerry to Louth
will participate in evenings
of moderation during which even
the moderation will be moderate in the extreme.
Participants will arrive dressed
in their Confirmation suits, or the kind of blazer
one might wear to the funeral
of a much indulged uncle,
when hoping for a mention in the Will.
For poets of the female persuasion
Irish tweed trouser suits
will be provided. Nothing will be said
with which anyone could disagree,
or agree with too vehemently.
Everyone will stand around pretending
to be Seamus, with the best bits
subtracted. The poems we require
are those that instead of embracing
the reader too intimately –
the way couples who’ve just met each other
at bus-stops in Eyre Square sometimes do –
shake your hand limply,
as if about to be interviewed for a position
as an administrative assistant in an office
which specialises in shredding documents
for abattoirs all over the Midlands.
The Minister for Poetry has decreed.

Demo outside the GPO, Dublin, 2016
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 19 March 2016 20:15

Cherishing for beginners

in Poetry
Written by

Cherishing for Beginners

'The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally....... '
- The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 1916

Cherish the meek
cherish the ranchers
cherish the guards
cherish the bankers
cherish the virgins
then ride them and cherish their sisters,
cherish tax exiles and entrepreneurs
cherish the rewards of intergenerational privilege
or if that's too hard for beginners
sure cherish the Rose of Tralee for starters,
cherish the goal and the point and the foul
cherish the priest's dirty sheets
but not the woman who washes them,
don't mention her
or what she might need,
go on and cherish the IFSC
and its type of laundries-
those ones are fine, they are grand sure.
Cherish Them.

Cherish the men
because they couldn’t help it
if the women and girls went and fell pregnant,
cherish the foetus, the heartbeat,
but not the person it's in
then cherish the small graves
in their undisclosed wastelands
cherish the shovels
and boot soles that dug them-
let there be no doubt about it-
Yes We Can!
cherish the children
if they're from the right class
aren’t travelling people
and are not for god’s sake
seeking asylum,
don't forget too that we must
cherish the mute
and cherish the sheepish
but hate those in need,
worship Fr Peter McVerry himself,
go ahead make him an icon
but don’t hear what he’s saying
about anything.

Cherish the poor
for how you can use them
to frighten those who are just one rung above
cherish the people
who learned early and often
what happens to those
with big mouths,
cherish your local TDs,
and the crowd in Listowel
who didn't care that he raped her
sure wasn't he one of their own?
Yea cherish the rapist,
why don't you?

Cherish the golf course
and its sprinklers
sure Irish Water will save us
cherish piece work and internships,
and zero hour contracts
aren't you lucky you have a job at all?
Do you not remember the coffin ships
and are you not grateful?
Yea cherish your own exploitation
cherish the school board,
for our lack of gay teachers,
cherish women's place in the home
then cut their allowances,
sure they don’t deserve them
having all of those children
repeat after me- Cherish Privatisation;
and if you don't then you better learn
to cherish the knock on your door
in the morning.
Consider this a warning.

Cherish Dev and Pearse
and blood sacrifice
but don't mention James Connolly
who said until Ireland's women are free
none of us will be, most of all though
cherish outsourcing and remember
your call is important,
you too will be cherished equally
if you can afford it
as soon as an operator
becomes available
which may well take
another hundred years.

4928

Irish protesters against the water charges
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 19 March 2016 18:30

Poets, presidents and politics

in Poetry
Written by

As we approach the centenary of the Easter Rising, Kevin Higgins, the Bogman's Cannon satirist-in-residence, lets rip at the state of poetry and politics in Ireland. See also Cold Old Fire.

It’s probably best that I nail my underpants to the mast at the get-go as an active participant in the events I describe rather than pretend to be any sort of objective observer. In any case, in these fraught times here in Ireland the objective observers are mostly languishing in the particularly hot corner of Hell to which Dante consigned those who in a time of crisis, such as now, have nothing to declare but their neutrality. Since the late summer of 2013 the apparently stable edifice that was the Irish poetry world has been struck by a number of earthquakes–and several significant aftershocks–which have left the building looking shaky.

First, the death of Seamus Heaney who, whatever your poetic aesthetic or politics, was undeniably a world-class poet who dominated Irish poetry in a way that is rare. Heaney wasn’t just our best poet; he was our second, third, fourth, and fifth best poets as well; and was to a large extent the currency on which Irish Poetry Inc. traded with the rest of the poetry world. His passing was like the retirement of a great player from the team built around him; a few games into the next season the fans, media, and even the chairman of the board suddenly realize how threadbare the rest of the existing lot look without him, and the dread sets in.

The second big happening was the going up in flames last autumn of the fantasy, beloved of many Irish media or arts liberals –our equivalent of those Americans who orgasm at the very idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency–that unlike the French and the Greeks and whoever else, the Irish never protest. Ireland has had inflicted upon it seven years of severe austerity since 2008, much of it to bail out–on orders from the European Union–one bank which, though it only ever had six branches, managed to lose about $10,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. The spark that finally led to the uprising was the government’s farcical attempt to introduce new, additional water charges while at the same time preparing to sell the country’s water resources and infrastructure to a businessman known to have (ahem) a close and sometimes very financial relationship with the main governing party. Hundreds of thousands marched in hammering rain last November; two vans believed to be connected to the Irish Water company were set alight in the middle of the night in West Cork; and the attempt to install water meters outside each and every house has met with an organized campaign of physical resistance nationwide. It’s been great fun.

Last October I got a Facebook message from Rhona McCord who works in the office of Clare Daly – a United Left member of the Irish parliament (Dáil) best known in the United States for describing President Obama as “a war criminal” – asking me where my poem against water charges was? The resulting poem ‘Irish Air: Message From the CEO’ was a modest proposal of sorts in which the CEO of the newly formed company “Irish Air” outlines how charging the Irish people for the right to breathe is a sensible policy for a happier twenty first century.

To me, there would be no point at all publishing such a poem in a small magazine read only by poets, for at least some of whom the phrase “change we can believe in” brings to mind their dream of one day getting to give Don Share a shoulder rub in the hope that he might in return favorite one of their Tweets. "Irish Air: Message From the CEO" was published simultaneously on Clare Daly’s political website and on the Irish Left Review web site. On the morning of the most recent national demonstration against the charges, Luke "Ming" Flanagan, who represents our area in the European Parliament, posted the poem on his Facebook page and urged people to share. All the evidence is that this poem, which was in effect commissioned by the office of a politician in our national parliament, has been read by many hundreds, more like thousands of people, the majority of whom, I’m sure, would ordinarily think themselves to have no interest in, or use for, poetry. The advent of social media–especially when combined with a sudden challenge to long-taken-for-granted cultural and political status quos–has made the usual literary gatekeepers seem, at times, next to irrelevant, and sent said individuals into a cold sweat panic.

Galway poet Sarah Clancy (born 1973) won the inaugural Irish People's Poetry Prize for the video of her public reading of her poem "And Yet We Must Live In These Times" at the November 1 anti-water charges demonstration. The essential message of this finely delivered poem is that after the past seven years–during which Clancy herself lost her house–that actually, no, we Irish are not "grand" with all of this, however much we might sometimes pretend we are. Clancy last year published her third collection of poems, The Truth & Other Stories (Salmon Poetry). Clancy’s work is often sharply political but, unlike many a protest versifier, her language is always particular rather than clichéd or sloganeering, and the focus remains on the individual humans behind the latest set of miserable official statistics rather than flying off into ideology and bad rhymes.

 The somewhat ironically titled Irish People's Poetry Prize is administered by Dave Lordan, one of the finest poets of this generation (born 1975), who runs the literary website The Bogman’s Cannon which, since its foundation in January, has exploded to become by far the liveliest literary publication in Ireland and the place where the increasingly disloyal opposition to the rackety old mansion that is Irish poetry post-Heaney gather and publicly talk about stuff. People are for or against The Bogman’s Cannon in the way that people are for or against Obama, or, before that, were for or against the Russian Revolution or the execution of King Charles I. If Walt Whitman, Mayakovsky, and John Milton were hanging around Ireland writing poetry today, they’d certainly be emailing Dave Lordan poems to be published on The Bogman’s Cannon.

As I’ve implied, the reaction to this has not been universally positive; it would almost be disappointing if it were. The heads of one or two PhD students at Trinity and Queens University Belfast have exploded; one or two fans of the restrained autobiographical lyric have begun screaming like young ladies from Greenwich, Connecticut who’ve just been flashed by Teamsters; and the esteemed critic Maria Johnston of Trinity College Dublin last week had to go for a long lie down after going into battle on Twitter in support of moderation, respecting one’s elders, and the short well-made personal lyric. She is not expected to make a full recovery. Neither is Cork poet Gerry Murphy, the title of whose 2010 collection was My Flirtation With International Socialism (Dedalus Press). Murphy–a poet who has traded on faux radicalism pretty much all his life–has been jumping up and down on social media describing the tactics of the anti-water charges movement as being reminiscent of “fascism” and, somewhat less importantly, telling me that I should “take a break [from writing poetry] for a month, and then give up altogether.” Just at the moment when the old order got a thoroughly deserved shaking–and may there be more of it–Gerry Murphy and others in and around the Irish poetry world discovered how much they love the political establishment, at whose teat they of course all suckle.

Of course not all the poetry produced by our recently very charged news cycles has been of equal quality; it would be shocking if it were. Young Leitrim poet Stephen Murphy has become a YouTube sensation, with his signature piece "Was It For This?" being viewed almost 27,000 times to date. The poem has been re-Tweeted by, among others, Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams, and Stephen read it at the huge anti-water charges demonstration outside the G.P.O. in Dublin in October. To be sure, worse poems than Stephen’s have been inspired by the water charges issue; someone told me in confidence that if she hears one more bad rhyming poem on this issue that she will seriously consider paying her water bill, in the unlikely event that is that our shambling government actually succeeds at bringing the charges in. There is no excuse though for rhyming (or sort of) as Stephen Murphy does “racketeering” with “profiteering” and the poem is full of an utterly naïve idealization of the rough reality that was pre-Christian Ireland with its pagans and druids, though there’s no denying that this sounded groovy to many, including apparently Mr. Adams. I tried to help Stephen out, as is my way, by re-writing (some would say parodying) his poem and giving it a more definite title, "It Was For This"; this seems to have led Stephen Murphy’s wife to the opinion that I am a bad person, and on that point at least she’s probably right.

By far the worst poem though to make its way into recent Irish political discourse arrived on our computer screens on the terrible morning that was Wednesday, February 11, when our President Michael D. Higgins “released” the text of the only poem he has written since he became president in November 2011, in The Irish Times, no less. His use of the word “released” is interesting in that it calls to mind, among other things, David Bowie’s surprise release a while back of a new single on iTunes. Here is the poem in full:

To those on the road it is reported that
The Prophets are weeping,
At the abuse
Of their words,
Scattered to sow an evil seed.

Rumour has it that,
The prophets are weeping.
At their texts distorted,
The death and destruction,
Imposed in their name.

The sun burns down,
On the children who are crying,
On the long journeys repeated,
Their questions not answered.
Mothers and Fathers hide their faces,
Unable to explain,
Why they must endlessly,
No end in sight,
Move for shelter,
for food, for safety, for hope.

The Prophets are weeping,
For the words that have been stolen,
From texts that once offered,
To reveal in ancient times,
A shared space,
Of love and care,
Above all for the stranger.

It’s difficult to know how to respond to this collection of warmed over banalities and abstractions which seems, or so rumor has it, to have been inspired by the Charlie Hebdo massacre in early January. I will say two things in Michael D. Higgins's defense here: (1) at least he came out against the Charlie Hebdo massacre in this poem, even if only in the vaguest possible way; it is more than can be said for some on the Jihad loving left, and (2) though his poetry may not to date have achieved universal critical acclaim, he has written far better poems than this.

The crucial thing about this poem was not its decidedly anaemic words but the timing of its release. Six weeks earlier President Higgins, who once used my mother’s downstairs bathroom and bought me my first ever Black Forest Gateaux when I was just fifteen years old, had signed the Irish Water bill into law when he could have delayed it by referring it to the Supreme Court. Many were surprised by this, and a good number were angry, because, in the past, now-President Higgins had a flirtation with international socialism that was altogether more serious than that experienced by the abovementioned Gerry Murphy.

On a memorable January morning in Dublin one protester, a Mr. Derek Byrne, shouted “midget parasite” at President Higgins’s car, though he later withdrew the word “midget” as he recognized that it might be potentially insulting to all people of diminutive stature, many of whom would themselves be against water charges. The release of this poem looked like a PR stunt designed to warm the genitalia of your typical Irish junk progressive, who just loves that we have a poet president. I responded in the only way I could, by re-writing President Higgins’s poem for him, re-titling it "Socially Acceptable Vegetables," and publishing it on The Bogman’s Cannon. It was at this point that Gerry Murphy’s beard burst into flames and he began telling me via social media that I should give up writing poetry.

Another recent Irish news cycle poem has been "Queer" by Elaine Feeney–also published first on The Bogman’s Cannon and made topical by our upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage. The poem ironically suggests some possible cures for lesbianism:

“Did they tell you a herbalist
Might be the best option?

(Or a priest)”

Feeney is the also the author of the classic satire, "Mass," which features in her 2013 collection, The Radio Was Gospel (Salmon Poetry), and which savagely mocks the tendency of some in Ireland to see the saying of a Mass, be it for success in your exams, or “your granny’s black lung,” as the obvious thing to do in most situations bar none.

In the aftermath of Heaney a new type of Irish poem is beginning to predominate. And it is not the well-made anecdotal lyric which Irish poets have tended to be so good at producing. Such poems now have a means of entirely bypassing the usual gatekeepers who no longer have any effective way to put manners on us. Though most of them don’t say it publicly, it is believed that the thought of an Irish poetry world increasingly dominated by irreverent corner boys (and girls) such as Dave Lordan, Sarah Clancy, Elaine Feeney, and yours truly makes some arts administrators throw up repeatedly each morning before leaving for work. The nub of their problem is this: the poets of the generation immediately under Heaney are nothing like as consistently good as he was, especially when it comes to the public poem. So there is a desperate rush on to find the next acceptable face of Irish poetry.

This year Ireland marks the centenary of the 1916 Rising, an armed revolutionary uprising by a group that was at least partly self-appointed; had they been around at the time most of our leaders would certainly have not supported the Rising; nor most likely would Mr. Pat Cotter, whom Don Share has asked to edit a special Irish issue of Poetry. Cotter has lately been on social media expressing grave concern that Sinn Féin might be in government after the next election; he will do his best to find for the Irish cultural establishment some poets they can feel safe with. I understand that Dave Lordan has a poem in the issue, which showcases poets born after 1970 and was put together on an invitation-only basis. There will be some good younger poets in there too; but I doubt you’ll get from its pages much more than the occasional hint of the very real ongoing changes I’ve talked about here. It was Pat Cotter’s shambolic attempt, from which he–in the end–had to back down, to censor the literary criticism section of the Munster Literature Centre’s magazine Southword in January which led to the revolt which gave birth to The Bogman’s Cannon. Having him edit such a special issue right now is akin to exhuming from the grave the late great Norman Podhoretz and asking long-decomposed Norm to edit an anthology of poetry of the Vietnam War.

Were he around, Seamus Heaney would be commissioned to write a poem for the 2016 commemorations, and he would do it well. But that time is over. And the Irish establishment, both cultural and political, is quaking in its flip-flops about how it's going to bluff its way through all this. At bottom, they fear for their jobs. If a new and very different government were to take office this year–and it probably won’t–then many of these people’s time at the trough may be over.

 This article also appears in the current issue of The Raintown Review (Volume 13 Issue 1) http://www.theraintownreview.com/

The First Art Critic
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 17 March 2016 16:42

The First Art Critic

in Poetry
Written by

The First Art Critic

 

I put the sticks in this progression

so they mimic the thorn holes

that let the day come through at night.

 

Their relative sizes show

the order in our tribe: elders,

hunters, those who make homes.

 

The fact I’ve stripped the bark

shows the hardships we suffer

in the ice, how few prey are.

 

The shapes make me feel cold, stabbed,

but show defiance, how we fight the storms,

rebuild our fires, search for summer.

 

Tuk says

they look like little swans.

Red Shift
Wednesday, 16 March 2016 13:07

Red Shift

Written by
in Poetry

Red Shift

by Peter Branson

'Neither a borrower nor a lender be' (Hamlet)

Before this latest mess they badgered us
to use their cards, take out those "Own-your-own
home" loans. Phone call, spam mail or snail, imprint,
TV; end of the day, we fall. Roll up:
"It trickles down, prosperity, so all
do well, d'you see." Ring out that tired theme tune.
Don't tell us when they've taken out their share,
there'll be just bare bones there for you and me.

They bind us to them heart and mind, refine
with clever marketing how we consume,
when, what and where, control our spending lives.
If they could knock them out, they'd steal our souls;
bankrupt, buy out and asset-strip whole third
estate. The bubble burst, it's panic time.
There are no gay Antonios about
to bail you out before their ships come in.

No comfort blanket, see. Not how it's done
these days. Once you're destabilized, may be
too late; the toy balloon, inflated, grasped
by finger tips, released. No siren's raised;
no fire engine, police car or ambulance,
that drop in pitch to signify you've flipped,
blue chip to sheer insolvency, worn out
your credit-rating stations-of-the-shop.

Micawber's hope that "Something will turn up"
simply won't do in this brave virtual age.
They'll goose you while you're healthy, salmon-pink,
try not to drain you dry; gentled you cope.
Red shift: you're irredeemable so can't
catch up. They take the reins: "The deal was all
explained to you before you signed. See there,
small print, the bottom of the page." No change.

They charge-you-till-you-bleed and when you do,
they seize what they already own: buy now -
pay later stuff, your car, your home. You're in
a mental Marshalsea. They're in control.
"I'm being reasonable. Don't take that tone
with me. It's here in black and white. What's that?
You didn't realise? Why? Can't you read?
Those tears won't wash. There's nothing I can do."

 

from Red Shift, e-book from Caparison, www.therecusant.org.uk/#/caparison-e-books/4538998565

I Want To Be The Light
Monday, 07 March 2016 20:27

I Want To Be The Light

Written by
in Poetry

In honour of International Women’s Day, I would like to share with you some new poetry that I have been writing which looks at women from the past, who I have a lot to be thankful for. I have also been exploring issues that women have to tackle day in and day out, not just within society at large but also within their own thoughts and feelings towards themselves.

The first poem is about my search for the foremother of Black British Women’s Poetry, Phillis Wheatley. An African slave educated in America, her collection of poetry was published in London in 1773, and called Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

they say she was an uncultivated barbarian

Art is not just for oneself, not just a marker
of one's own understanding. It is a map for
those who follow after us - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Chapter 1

i look for you when i lecture in Boston
i walk the long avenue through budded
trees and snow unsure of my path
i need to see you
for myself     what is left of you
it's cold and bright     busy and noisy
i think the city is getting prepared
for their marathon

you are a memorial
poised in bronze  imagining the stars
you strike the pose i've seen many times
quill in right hand   left hand tucked
under chin   deep in thought

i advance close    look into your eyes
the eyes that claimed the authority
to see for yourself
but you   here   now   are   still
carved  in the way    they saw you
always having    to prove    your worth
prove your humanity

Chapter 3

i take your story like medicine
the facts are there
sometime in 1772
you  as the young African girl walk
into a room in Boston   Massachusetts
to undergo an examination
by (white) men of worth
merchants   governors   pastors

they give you permission to use
your voice    a voice already yours
i'm interested in    how you stand
are your hands begin your back
wringing within your lap
or sticking firmly to your hips

Chapter 5

long i stand in your radiance
this afternoon
my hand    on your hand
with the weight of history
against us   but i see you
i walk on     down the avenue
on my own terms.

 

Our Labour Saving Device

the lay sister sits by the open fire
knitting after another busy day
she longs for space to breathe
her clicking needles keep time with
the clock upon the mantel
and a barn owl swoops between the firs
as the new moon remains hidden
she longs for that moment of release
too old for use then she will take off
her stockings and run barefoot amongst
the fallen blossom    cool petals
clinging to damp flesh
and one heart beating just for her

(A lay sister is a woman who has taken religious vows and habit but is employed for manual labour and nothing else.)

 

Sometimes, women have a difficult time around their own and others' opinions towards their bodies. Self-hate, as well as trying to live up to unrealistic standards that are within the airbrushed media, puts serious pressure on women to fit ‘the standard’. Here I take a serious and not so serious look at my own body. Self-love is a practice, something we as women have to learn and keep re-learning.

i want to be the light

i will roll upwards towards the light
tilting my breasts out and up
pushing out my rounded stomach
i gain a stretch through my thighs
it takes me closer
i will not gather up my broad backside
and try to squeeze tight into a small space
that will never accommodate my size
i want to spread share my flesh
like the warmth touching me
as I arch my back hands behind my head
head turned towards the light opening
my body to the light
i want to be the light

 

On discovering my navel

Just the other day, I caught a glimpse
of it while getting out the bath. I almost
lost my balance as I was unsure what to make of it.

Even from that angle, I could tell it was deep,
a deep cavernous tunnel
burrowing through the centre of my being.
Almost like a gaping mouth forever

open as I clutched the billowing flesh
around it. I'll be honest with you,
I was quite perturbed by the whole affair.
And would you believe that I let out a cry

of Eureka. Yes quite definitely Eureka.
And then I proceeded to name it Norman.

 

In some societies marriage is still the only way out for woman. ‘Out’ being the optimum word as it can be argued in some cases, that this ‘out’ is from one restricted life into another. In the past a woman's worth was defined by her husband's status. Things are changing, but in some societies, a woman is still nothing without a man.

a wall of ocean between

she threw away the two person
turkey carcass that morning
as three waves thundered
their way over a tropical island

he spent the holidays
glued to news reports
how can you watch the destruction
i'm being a witness   he replied

upstairs she placed the red dress
and black heels into a Sainbury's
carrier bag    the whiff of vanilla
reminds her of their wedding

the warnings were there to see
just like the ocean quickly withdrew
from the shore    a curious sight
luring people closer

only to be left exposed
when the water returns
powers over their heads
tunnelling through their homes

she left him on the couch
absorbed in the spectacle
she heard later    more women
than men perished

women waiting on the beach
for their fishermen's return
ready to fillet the fish
ready to discard the bones

Phenomenal Woman, That's Me
Monday, 07 March 2016 09:19

Phenomenal Woman, That's Me

Written by
in Poetry

Sheree Mack, the poet mentioned by Andy Croft in his article on the privatisation of poetry, presents a selection of poems to mark International Women's Day.

Phenomenal Woman, That's Me

by Maya Angelou

‘Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.’

International Women’s Day is the one day in the year when we actively mark, honour and celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women around the world. Women contribute so much to the day to day working of this world that one day is hardly enough to recognise this. But it’s a start. And we may celebrate this day, but the fight to recognise and equally repay our debt to women in society is far from over. The move towards gender parity has slowed down.

‘The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn't close entirely until 2133: see http://www.internationalwomensday.com/Theme

So this year’s IWD campaign theme is #PledgeForParity. How will you mark the day? What will you do to help women advance equal to their numbers?
Visit the link above to pledge your action.

The first poem in my selection comes from Mark Smith who has been campaigning endlessly to support his friend, Aderonke. Aderonke fled to the UK, from her native Nigeria about a decade ago. She was sentenced to death there for being in a lesbian relationship and has witnessed terrible things there, including the murder of loved ones. Despite this, she has been a strong campaigner for LGBTQI rights and in recent times has been awarded the LGBT Positive Role Model National Diversity Award. In addition to this, Aderonke has for two years running been officially one of the 101 most influential people in Britain. She faces a continual struggle to remain in the UK, having lost numerous (and humiliating) court cases. I continue to share her petition, (which has many signatories) in the hope that she shall finally gain political asylum here. Mark’s poem is a mini-tribute to her.

 

An Ode to Aderonke

by Mark Smith

She has passion, love and resilience
though her life requires great persistence.

Fighting prejudices of intolerable measure
she still seeks out the joy of life’s treasures.

Having gained many supporters,
there is a lot she has taught us!

 

The next poem was generously given by Caroline Kemp, a woman who tirelessly provides a voice for people with mental illnesses through her university work, lectures, talks and poetry. The poem explores the difficulties faced by women wanting to write.

Poem for Katharine Mansfield

by Caroline Kemp

'Oh to be a writer, a real writer, given up to it and it alone'.

I see you as the middle child,
Unwilling             Willed out
No favourite        uncomfortable words
Family remarks
'I see you are still fat'
Restless little thundercloud.

And later grown taller
cello fingers head full of words
the river pulled you,
the pine forests called
sultry swooning heavy with heat
in stockings bodices petticoats arm shields and dress
hem lines water damp wet.
A cover of night stars
A morning of birdsong
breast high in the manuka trees,
mimosa clover lily of the valley
pausing in the moment with the giant horse fly
by the clear water.

Splashes splashes of light falling falling
falling through the trees

I dream of your pen tumbling
with ink
slipping easily over paper
feelings rushing
living in the twilight.

And so much loving and hating,
Packets of love and hate hastily doled out.
Virginia grasped it straight away
Lawrence's rainbow
The presence of those eyes,
the mocking lips,
a mask a ghost

I see you in Paris
a hat of cherries    a long cloak     a white fez
a turban over a bold red mouth.

Soon the bacillus would grow.
Pen teeming emotion
A garden party in your head.

Lies    Lies    Lies
How you loved them, breathed them....your truths.
Living a life of half made dreams....such dreams....
The black bird in the corner of your eyes
waiting to alight,
shadows racing across the sky
Grass of bluebells cuckoo song
afraid to stop or settle
quickly
footsteps hurrying on.

The ink spilling
'I feel I shall die soon but not of my lungs'
Your blood buzzing rushing
your heart full of bees....
These truths you told yourself ....

Too soon too soon the bacillus gathering,
growing.

The feeling of the closed door, the locked gate
the twilight, the leaves, the dust.

And at the end too soon too soon
Virginia would mourn
despite the words, the promises,
your miss.
She saw the wreath on your hair,
the cold white flowers.
Another dream....
Leaving always leaving
impatient to be gone
The ink spilling
Leaving leaving
the curtains closed
impatient to be
gone.

With thanks to Claire Tomalin for her fine biography 'A Secret Life'
And the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

 

Catherine Graham wrote the next poem in response to hearing Lucia Matibenga’s story. Lucia Matibenga is a Zimbabwean politician working with the United Movement for Democratic Change.

Sticks and Stones

by Catherine Graham

Even though you beat me,
you cannot keep me under your table.

You beat me
to put me in my right place
as a woman. My right place is being free.

Free to fight for the right to speak out.
Speak out against injustice, inaction, poverty.

If you believe that pain will
make me put my hands over my mouth,
then you are misled.

I cup my hands up to my lips and drink
to Justice, Equality, Dignity.

For I do not fade like a bruise fades,
I heal like a broken bone.

from Things I Will Put In My Mother's Pocket (Indigo Dreams Publishing)

 

Eliot North submitted a poem in honour of IWD which is taken from a developing collection of poems called ‘Flora Speaks’, a working collaboration with Dr Henry Oakeley, Garden Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians. Henry’s book ‘Doctors in the Medicinal Garden’ has been source material throughout and this poem was inspired by ‘Asclepias tuberosa’ or ‘American Milkweed,’ named after Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo.

Self-migration

by Eliot North

My re-birth will eclipse
Mother’s funeral pyre;

Layers of self stripped
Back and light-bolted,

Biology enhanced
With digital snips.

How I milked my host,
Poison sap to bone;

A snake wrapped around
The wooden staff of life.

You. Do not eat my hope.
These wings are poised

To visit Pine valleys
From Canada to Mexico.

I’ll overwinter there,
My undergarments spun

From the senses, coded
In silken memory.

 

Next up we have translations by Niveen Kassem of two poems by Ghada Al-Samman. Al-Samman is gaining an international reputation, as she continues to write controversially about the Arab world. A prolific writer, she isn’t afraid to speak out, documenting and sharing, in innovative ways, Middle Eastern life and suffering which mostly goes ignored.

Al-Samman's writing shows defiance and determination to challenge the status of women in traditional, patriarchal Arab society. The poems tackle gender inequality in all affairs of life. Taking women's emancipation to a higher level, the poems take off like spreading wings of thoughts, flying in our imaginations like liberated birds, escaping a tradition that enriches and nourishes gender inequality.

Two Poems

by Ghada Al-Samman

1.

Do not bless me coldly
kill me warmly
so we can be loyal for life

rather expiring together slowly
we become patriots in death.

Behold, I now open the box of sins

to recall my share of stars,
of flowers, butterflies and the lies;
I run from the orphanage of women
Who yield kindness and tearfulness

to where I can make my own seasons,
winds, forests and falcons
and demagnetizes my compass needle that leads
only to the directions of you …

2.

When met
the gypsy inside me suddenly wakes
from long slumber of social oppressions.

Nature had spoken,
her delicious river beckons:
‘Come and learn how to swim,’

breathe and your lungs filled with air.

And the wind assures:
‘I am the voice of the unexplored Continents,’

do you miss travelling there……

The Sun declares:
‘Avail the wisdom of birds,’

residing in the nest, a transient ritual.
Only aviation is the absolute truth.

 

The final poem included in this selection comes from Sue Spencer, a former Senior Lecturer of Nursing, now fighting hard to marry her writing and good health together. I think this poem illustrates well the lengths a woman has to go to in order to be true to herself, to be authentic at the same time as changing the world around her. Check out Sue’s blog, https://kindandcurious.wordpress.com/

Finding the path

by Sue Spencer

She thought that to be a trail blazer
you had to create an indelible course,
burning signs into the landscape.

Now she knows that the route
can be determined by subtle,
almost imperceptible chips in the bark.

The way ahead will then be there
for those that know what to look for,
those who can notice nuanced clues.

That way the tribe can grow slowly
and also they will get there in their own time.

 

Women Without Face
Sunday, 06 March 2016 11:11

Be Someone

Written by
in Poetry

Be Someone

For Christ’s sake,
learn to type
and have something
to fall back on.

Be someone,
make something of yourself,
look at Gertrudo Ganley.

Always draw the curtains
when the lights are on.

Have nothing to do
with the Shantalla gang,
get yourself a right man
with a Humber Sceptre.

For Christ’s sake
wash your neck
before going into God’s house.

Learn to speak properly,
always pronounce your ings.
Never smoke on the street,
don’t be caught dead
in them shameful tight slacks,

spare the butter,
economise,

and for Christ’s sake
at all times,
watch your language.

from The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry.

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