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

Sunday, 16 October 2016 14:56

It Ain't Me, Bob

Written by
in Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 Bob Dylan's ad for Chrysler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 October 2016 14:54

'the bravest of the brave'

Written by
in Poetry

'the bravest of the brave'

by Fran Lock

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

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

Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:35

Long live those who died like dogs

Written by
in Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article was first published in the Morning Star.

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.


K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:13

Poetry belongs to everyone

in Poetry
Written by

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
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:12

The War Abroad

in Poetry
Written by

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.

Thursday, 01 September 2016 11:30


Written by
in Poetry


by Salena Godden

I used to love the film Titanic
The last 45 minutes or so
After the sex scene in the car
When the sea water starts to flow

The sinking ship
All slopping and swaying
The band how they
Bravely keep on playing

A man dressing up
As a girly waif
To hide in a boat
And get himself safe

The human catastrophe
The chaos, panic and drama
I used to love that film,
Titanic, all the melodrama

But now it just looks
Like the Channel 4 news
People grabbing for life jackets
No coats and no shoes

Now I'm just reminded
Of the plight of refugees
All those humans drowning
In the open seas

People hungry and cold
In overcrowded boats
Crying for help
With salt-burned throats

There's a Syrian Leo
And Kate the Kurd
I used to like Titanic
But now it looks absurd

And My love will go on
Is such a truly terrible song
I used to like Titanic
But no, never Celine Dion.


'Late leaves mean zero hours contracts': a review of Jim Aitken's 'Flutterings'
Wednesday, 31 August 2016 14:55

'Late leaves mean zero hours contracts': a review of Jim Aitken's 'Flutterings'

Written by
in Poetry

David Betteridge reviews Jim Aitken's latest collection.

In the three dozen poems that make up Jim Aitken’s latest collection, Flutterings, we sense a mind fully engaged in the world. The poet’s senses, feelings and intelligence are all equally involved; and it is a large world that he inhabits, ranging from such minute particulars as the bark of a silver birch tree peeling like “paint-work starting to flake” to such over-arching ideas as “the world turned upside down”.

The viewpoint from which Jim Aitken makes his observations is, in the first instance, his native Edinburgh, but behind that, through his family’s connections, lies a hinterland extending from Ireland to the Scottish Highlands. Add to that a wide internationalist perspective gained partly by travel and partly by engagement in socialist politics.

Flutterings is organised around three themes, leaves (at the beginning of the collection), feathers (at the end), with “Unum - All One to Me” in between. So we encounter plenty of trees and plenty of birds, beautifully captured in words, in all their uniqueness. There are the “plane and palm, / their branches flapping like washing on a line”; and there are arrogant blackbirds with their “frogspawn eyes”, and gallus magpies, and cormorants doing tai-chi. Permeating all these observations and capturings, however, and expressed directly in the book’s central section of poems, is the poet’s understanding that “the One encompasses all – / one world, one race, one love for all”.

This human (and humane) understanding informs a lovely tribute-poem dedicated to one of Jim Aitken’s friends, the Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, now settled in Scotland, and recently widowed here. Its closing lines give us a good taste of what the collection offers:

Sometimes tears can fill his eyes and not just
for his wife but for the lands that are within him...

Yet he is here with us and at home with us;
he is one of us, he is one of our ain folk
extending us with his experience -
an Arab in Scotland and a home in Scotland
transported way beyond the madness of borders.

Flutterings can best be described as a book of elegies, in the full, old-fashioned sense of the term “elegies”, that is to say poems of serious reflection, including laments for the dead. Jim Aitken’s serious reflection does not shy away from looking hard at politics (“adverse governance by the few”), nor from the upsets of everyday life, but it also delights in family and friends and simply being in the world. His serious reflection includes the comic, too, and the absurd, as in a poem about his grandson, Michael, called “Running and Chasing”:

As far as Michael is concerned
all birds are essentially ducks.
Not for him fluffy cats or dogs
or even farmyard animals.

For him any bird means a quack
and if he can he will chase them,
possibly hoping to enter
into flight if he does not catch one...

As for laments for the dead, in a sequence of six poems at the heart of the collection, the poet commemorates his mother, Mary Aitken, placing her with great precision in her time and place (as in the poem “Dunnet Head”), and honouring her influence, after “your stem broke and fell”.

The language of Flutterings is a flexible, extended, precise, and often conversational English. In a comment on one of Jim Aitken’s earlier collections, Neptune’s Staff and Other Formations (published by Scottish CND in 2007), Terry Eagleton commended its “delightful combination of lyrical delicacy and political toughness”. These characteristics are still very much in evidence here.

The English used is the English that Jim Aitken himself speaks, learned in a family where Irish and Highland and Leith vernaculars were the norm. “You talk in the first instance as your parents’ talk,” he explains. “That is your initial linguistic sound and register. Then, of course, there was the Englishing that went on in school...” He endured this process of having “street talk knocked out of you”, but can now happily report that, “I actually love English as a language, while I speak it with an East-coast Scottish accent.” In his own work as a teacher in an Edinburgh secondary school, he supported the use of Scots as well as English, and also Gaelic, and “left teaching with more Scottish literature being more widely used than when I was a student.”

The “political toughness” that Terry Eagleton remarked on makes its bone and muscle and sinew felt even in those poems in Flutterings that begin somewhere else. “Late Leaves” is a good example:

Late Leaves
by Jim Aitken

All the leaves were later this year
with the extended cold and the snow.
And when the first buds burst open
delight and relief became one.

Now in full flush they shine and sway
in sunlight as they always should.
Yet so many seem to take this
for granted as they always do.

In a world turned upside down
by the monstrous greed of the few
there is little of permanence
and much more precariousness.

Late leaves mean zero hours contracts,
a shuffling people on the move
from one bedroom just too many
imposed by those in their mansions.

Late leaves like the merging seasons
should be telling us something true,
to challenge the drift to darkness
where stunted trees produce no leaves.

By leaves we breathe, by leaves we live
and through our dumb disharmony
we threaten the leaves’ appearance
where all their wealth then turns to dust.

It may be worth pointing out that 'By leaves we live' is a core idea underpinning the life, work and thinking of the great biologist, sociologist, geographer, town-planner and educationalist Patrick Geddes (1854 - 1932). It is also a motto text that is built into the very fabric of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.

Political toughness was evident from the very start of Jim Aitken’s writing career, both in his collections of poetry and in the plays he wrote for such groups as Stop the War, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Scottish CND, and the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers. These include Twelve Poems for Mikolaj (1993), From the Front Line of Terror (2002), Celta Arabica (with Ghazi Hussein, 2004), Jock Campbell’s Bairns (2008), and Leaving George (2015). He also contributed two historical poems to A Rose Loupt Oot (2011), commemorating the UCS Work-in of 1971-72.

It is sometimes asserted, against all the evidence, that poetry and politics do not mix, the assumption being that propagandist ranting is the inevitable result. The political writings of Milton and Blake and Burns and Wordsworth and Shelley and MacDiarmid and a thousand others contradict this assertion. Yeats made the useful distinction between poetry that is merely rhetorical, a quarrel with others, and poetry that rings true. Jim Aitken avoids lapsing into the former, and achieves the latter, by grounding his poems very firmly and consistently in the material world of particular places and trees and birds and, above all, people.

His voice is a quiet one, and a wise one, imbued with a Wordsworthian “music of humanity”. It is at the same time a voice of today. In Flutterings, the reader hears this voice very clearly. The book is attractively printed, with good photographic design work. Recommended!

Flutterings, by Jim Aitken, is published by Red Rose Press, Edinburgh, ISBN 978-0-9955281-0-9.

Page 7 of 12