Andy Croft argues that poetry is essentially a collective and communist art, with the potential to overcome alienation and increase our sociality and connectedness. It belongs to everyone, it cannot be owned nor become property, and is ultimately committed to the common good of humanity.
‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto’
(‘I am human, and nothing which is human can be alien to me’)
- Marx’s favourite maxim
At the end of the fourth film in the ‘Alien’ franchise, Alien Resurrection (1997), the film’s only two survivors are preparing to visit Earth. Although we have previously been told that it is a toxic ‘shithole’, one of them observes that from a distance the planet looks beautiful. ‘I didn't expect it to be,’ she says, ‘what happens now?’ The other gives a puzzled half-smile and shrugs, ‘I don't know. I'm a stranger here myself.’
The ‘stranger’ is Ellen Ripley, who has been fighting the xenomorph aliens ever since Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979). Her bewildered description of herself as a ‘stranger’ is one of cinema’s great understatements. For Ripley is a stranger, not only to a planet she has not seen for three hundred years, but to herself. Ripley was killed at the end of the third film, and has been resurrected as a clone with part-alien DNA. She does not yet understand the extent of her humanity or know just how much of an alien she is.
All the human characters are dead at the end of Alien Resurrection. The film’s only other survivor (played by Winona Ryder) is an android. Earlier in the film, when Ripley discovers that her companion is a robot, she observes, ‘I should have known. No human being is that humane.’ This is an idea that has been running through the series since Aliens (1986), when Ripley compares one of her companions to the aliens he is planning to sell to the Company’s weapons division – ‘I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage...’
Alien Resurrection was a bleak fin-de-siecle farewell to a century of violence, avarice, fear and cruelty, and a grim welcome to a new millennium in which we are estranged from each other and from ourselves by exaggerated fears of differences. Ripley is a familiar figure in the twenty-first century – an alien, a homeless exile whose children are dead, a stranger in a strange land.
ALIENATION AND POETRY
The phrase ‘I’m a stranger here myself’ is also a quotation from a song by Kurt Weill (another exile). Written with Ogden Nash for the 1943 Broadway hit One Touch of Venus, the song is a satirical comment on contemporary US life. In the musical, an ancient statue of the Greek goddess of sexual love (played by Mary Martin) comes alive in a New York museum. She is confused by the strangeness of the world in which she finds herself, especially by the apparent absence of love in the cold modern city:
‘Tell me is love still a popular suggestion
Or merely an obsolete art?
Forgive me for asking, this simple question
I'm unfamiliar with this part
I am a stranger here myself.
Please tell me, tell a stranger
My curiosity goaded
Is there really any danger
That love is now out-moded?
I'm interested especially
In knowing why you waste it
True romance is so freshly
With what have you replaced it?’
As a study in alienation, One Touch of Venus may not have been as hard-hitting as The Threepenny Opera or Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, but it was nevertheless clearly shaped by Weill’s experiences in Weimar Germany, where hysterical ideas about ‘aliens’ of course carried toxic political meanings. In the musical it is the non-human alien who understands more about human happiness than the human characters. It is not an exaggeration to say that Venus is both ‘the heart of a heartless world’, and an example of the commodification of desire in a society where ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away... all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’
Which brings us to Marx’s idea of entfremdung, the process by which, in class societies, we are alienated from Nature, from our work, from the products of our work, from each other and from ourselves. Each dramatic new stage of human social, economic and technological development has simultaneously pushed us farther apart from each other and from ourselves – property, slavery, money, territory, caste, class, religion, industrialisation, migration, urbanisation, mechanisation, militarisation, nationalism, empire, computerisation, globalisation...
Of course we all experience this ‘self-estrangement’ differently. As Marx argued in The Holy Family, although ‘the propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement,’
‘the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in the reality of an inhuman existence.’
In a bewildering world where we feel ourselves to be strangers in our own lives, the false consolations of nostalgia, nationalism, chauvinism, religious fundamentalism and racism are tempting to many, especially to those with the least power. Each of these is an illusion ‘which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself’ (during international football tournaments there is always a greater concentration of England flags in those parts of our cities with the smallest economic or political stake in British society). But fearing ‘strangers’ will not make the world less strange; attacking ‘aliens’ cannot mitigate our alienation from ourselves.
On the other hand there are those forces that still pull us together – kinship, friendship, desire, solidarity, collectivity, utopianism, socialism. Despite all the commercial, cultural, social, economic and political pressures to emphasise our uniqueness and our separateness, the differences between us are not very great. We all share the same small planet, we breathe the same air and we share the same fate. And one of the ways in which we demonstrate and feel our common natures is through art. It is not just that creativity can raise individual ‘self-esteem’ or ‘well-being’. All artistic creation, whether individual or collective, amateur or professional, private or public represents a kind of resistance to the complex, centrifugal forces that push us apart. Art is both a reminder of our co-operative origins and a promise of a collective future. Art can be many things – painting, dance, music, literature, sculpture, poetry – but it cannot be property. As soon as a work of art is owned by one individual it is not shared; if it is not shared, then it is not art.
THE POWER OF POETRY
Poetry in particular contains the potential to connect writers to readers, and readers to each other. It can help us feel a little more connected to each other than usual. When any poet stands up to read in public they have to address the readers outside the page, the listeners across the room and beyond. Poetry can remind us what is significant and help us to imagine what is important. It can help to naturalise ideas and arguments by placing them within popular literary traditions. Anticipation and memory implicates reader and listener in the making of a line or a phrase and therefore in the making of the argument. This establishes a potentially inclusive community of interest between the writer/speaker and the reader/ audience – through shared laughter, anger or understanding.
According to George Thompson in Marxism and Poetry:
‘we find in all languages two modes of speech – common speech, the normal, everyday means of communication between individuals, and poetical speech a medium more intense, appropriate to collective acts of ritual, fantastic, rhythmical, magical... the language of poetry is essentially more primitive than common speech, because it preserves in a higher degree the qualities of rhythm, melody, fantasy, inherent in speech as such... And its function is magical. It is designed to effect some change in the external world by mimesis – to impose illusion on reality.’
Over the last five hundred years, poetry has lost many of its historic functions. Character has fled to the novel, dialogue to the stage, persuasion to advertising and public relations, action to cinema, comedy to television. This always seems to me to be an unnecessarily heavy price to pay for the development of the original ‘voice’ of the poet. But the shared, public music of common language and common experience remains its greatest asset – the power to communicate, universalise and shape a common human identity. The power of all poetry is still located in society – in the audience and not in the poet. Writing – in the sense of the composition of memorable language to record events that need remembering – is essentially a shared, collective, public activity. Poetry is essentially a means of communication, not a form of self-expression. Difficulty is only a virtue if the poem justifies the effort to understand it. Why write at all, if no-one is listening? If they think no-one is listening, poets end up talking only to each other, or to themselves. The poet Adrian Mitchell (who once observed that ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’) put it like this:
‘In the days when everyone lived in tribes, poetry was always something which was sung and danced, sometimes by one person, sometimes by the whole tribe. Song always had a purpose – a courting song, a song to make the crops grow, a song top help or instruct the hunter of seals, a song to thank the sun. Later on, when poetry began to be printed, it took on airs. When the universities started studying verse instead of alchemy, poetry began to strut around like a duchess full of snuff. By the middle of the twentieth century very few British poets would dare to sing.’
It seems to me that this is still understood at a subterranean level within British society, a long way from the centres of cultural authority and the cult of the ‘new’. Poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kokumo, Moqapi Selassie, Benjamain Zephaniah and Jean Binta Breeze do not read their poems in public – they sing them. The most distinctive feature of an Urdu-Punjabi musha’ara (a marathon poetry-reading) is the level of audience participation. Poets do not always read their ‘own’ work. They often sing. And they are frequently interrupted by applause, by requests for a line to be read again, by the audience guessing the rhyme at the end of a couplet or by joining in the reading of well-known poems. This is a collective, shared poetry, the expression of a literary, linguistic and religious identity among a community whose first language is English, but whose first literary language is Urdu. And musha’ara attract hundreds of people of all ages.
POETRY AND COMMUNISM
There is something comparable about the role of poetry inside prison. Men who would not often go near a library in their ordinary lives, in prison can find solace and encouragement in reading and writing poetry. Prison magazines always carry pages of poetry. The Koestler Awards are an important part of the prison calendar. No-one is embarrassed to say that they like poetry in prison. There are certain poems – usually about love, heroin and regret – that prisoners take with them from one prison to another, copying them out and learning them by heart until the poems ‘belong’ to them.
In other words, the idea that language – and therefore poetry – belongs to everyone, is still felt most vividly among those who have been historically excluded from education and literacy by the forces of caste and class, empire and slavery.
The French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou has moreover argued that it is not a coincidence that most of the great poets of the twentieth-century were communists (Hikmet, Brecht, Neruda, Eluard, Ritsos, Vallejo, Faiz, MacDiarmid, Aragon, Mayakovsky, Alberti, Darwish, Sanguineti, etc). For Badiou, there exists ‘an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand “communism” closely in its primary sense’:
‘the concern for what is common to all. A tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common; the desire that what ought to be common and accessible to all should not be appropriated by the servants of Capital. The poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night – that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world... it is first and foremost to those who have nothing that everything must be given. It is to the mute, to the stutterer, to the stranger, that the poem must be offered, and not to the chatterbox, to the grammarian, or to the nationalist. It is to the proletarians – whom Marx defined as those who have nothing except their own body capable of work – that we must give the entire earth, as well as all the books, and all the music, and all the paintings, and all the sciences. What is more, it is to them, to the proletarians in all their forms, that the poem of communism must be offered.’
Of course, there are always forces pulling poets in the other direction. Like everything else, poetry is a contested space. The broadsheets, the BBC and most literary festivals are dominated by corporate publishers and a celebrity star-system. The whole apparatus of arts-coverage by press-release, celebrity book-festivals, short-lists, awards and prize-giving ceremonies seems almost designed to alienate as many people as possible from poetry – except as consumers. The result is the victory march of Dullness, characterised by humorlessness, political indifference, a disregard for tradition, a serious underestimation of poetry’s music and a snobbish hostility to amateurs. And all decorated in the usual language of PR disguised as literary criticism (‘sexy’, ‘dark’, ‘sassy’, ‘edgy’, ‘bold’, ‘daring’ etc).
POETRY CAN NEVER BE PROPERTY
Last year I published, at Smokestack Books, a collection of poems by the Newcastle writer Sheree Mack. Sheree’s mother is of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry; her father is from Trinidad. Laventille told the story of the 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, when for forty-five days an uprising of students, trade unions and the disaffected poor threatened to overthrow the government. It was a courageous and beautiful book, an original attempt to combine history and poetry as a ‘shrine of remembrances’ for the ordinary people behind the headlines.
A few weeks after the book was published Sheree found herself accused of borrowing phrases without attribution from other poets. Most were happy to see elements of their work resurrected and re-made like this, but a few were not. Although I variously offered to insert erratum slips in the book, to reprint the book with the necessary acknowledgements, and to print a new version of the book without the poems in question, Sheree’s accusers seemed more interested in mobilising a howling mob on social-media, armed with the usual pitchforks and burning torches. There followed several weeks of extraordinary personal abuse directed at author and publisher, a feature on Channel 4 News, demands that Sheree should be stripped of her qualifications and sacked from her teaching job, an editorial in Poetry News, and threats of legal action from two corporate publishers. Several festivals withdrew invitations for Sheree to read from the book. Eventually the book was withdrawn from sale and pulped.
I do not believe for a minute that Sheree intended to ‘steal’ anyone else’s work. Some of her borrowings were so obvious that they did not need acknowledging (any more than her poem called ‘What’s Going On?’ did not need to spell out its debt to Marvin Gaye). ‘Laventille Love Song’ for example, did not attempt to disguise its debt to Langston Hughes’ ‘Juke Box Love Song’. The point of the poem was to throw together two different moments in Black history, dialectically linked by the deliberate echoes of one poem in the other.
Sheree’s fault was one of omission and carelessness; the reaction of her accusers was deliberate, hysterical and disproportionate. Sheree made no attempt to conceal her borrowings, she did not profit from them, she has apologised for them repeatedly and she has been excessively punished. No-one has lost anything – except a sense of proportion and decency. Sheree’s faults may be forgiven; the venom of her pursuers is unforgiveable. And a beautiful, revolutionary book has been lost.
I am not interested in calculating how many words a poet may borrow from another writer without being accused of ‘theft’, or swapping examples of successful plagiarists – most notably, of course, Shakespeare, Stendhal and Brecht. (For the record, my last three books were comic verse-novels based on Hamlet, Nineteen Eighty-four and Don Juan.) But I am fascinated by the moral panic around ‘intellectual property’ in the contemporary poetry world, in the way that notions of private property have entered the world of poetry.
Property is a very recent (and contested) innovation in human history, usually used to determine access to scarce or limited resources such as land, buildings, the means of production, manufactured goods and money. It is a shifting concept; not so long ago, women, children and slaves were subject to property law; today we have ‘copyright’, ‘intellectual property’, ‘identity theft’ and ‘image rights’.
There are three kinds of property – common property (where resources are governed by rules which make them available for use by all or any members of the society), collective property (where the community as a whole determines how important resources are to be used), and private property (where contested resources are assigned to particular individuals).
It is difficult to see how the many various elements of any poem – words, phrases, grammatical structures, rhyme and metre, emotional syntax, allusions, echoes, patterns, imagery and metaphor etc – can be described as ‘property’ in any of the above senses (except perhaps ‘common property’). None of these elements are scarce or finite; their use by one person does not preclude their use by any number of others. In an age of mechanical reproduction, it is not possible to ‘steal’ a poem or part of a poem, only to copy it.
POETRY BELONGS TO EVERYONE
All poetry inhabits the common language of everyday living. A poem can be unique without being original; it can be ‘new’ at the same time that it is already known. As the French communist poet Francis Combes has argued:
‘Poetry belongs to everyone. Poetry does not belong to a small group of specialists. It arises from the everyday use of language. Like language, poetry only exists because we share it. Writing, singing, painting, cooking – these are ways of sharing pleasure. For me poetry is like an electrical transformer which converts our feelings and our ideas into energy. It is a way of keeping your feet on the ground without losing sight of the stars. It is at the same time both the world’s conscience and its best dreams; it’s an intimate language and a public necessity.’
Most important human activities are not subject to ideas of ownership. Talking, walking, whistling, running, making love, speaking a foreign language, cooking, playing football, baking bread, dancing, conversation, knitting, drawing – these are all acquired skills which we learn by imitating others, but they are not subject to ideas of ownership.
Historically, poetry was always understood to be much closer to these than to those things that the law regards as ‘property’ (land, money etc). No-one in, say fourteenth-century Italy would have understood the idea of ‘stealing’ a poem. Most cultures, even today, regard poetry as ‘common property’. You don’t hear many ‘original’ poems at an Urdu-Punjabi musha’ara. Everyone borrows/steals/copies/appropriates poetry in prison. Which is another way of saying that everyone owns it. And if everyone owns it, there is nothing to steal.
Until very recently in human history, poets were popularly understood to speak for and to the societies to which they belonged. The development of printing and publishing and the emergence of a reading-public have helped to elevate poets into a separate and professional caste. The Romantic idea of the sensitive individual alienated from ordinary society (by education, sensibility and mobility) has become in our time the cult of the international poet as exile, crossing cultural, intellectual and linguistic borders. This cult reached its logical conclusion a few years ago with the Martian poets, who wrote about life on earth as if they really were aliens.
The current moral panic over ‘plagiarism in poetry’ seems to derive from several overlapping elements – the post-Romantic privatisation of feeling and language, the fetishisation of ‘novelty’ in contemporary culture, half-hearted notions of intellectual property, the long-term consequences of Creative Writing moving from university adult education onto campus as an academic subject, the creation of a large pool of Creative Writing graduates competing for publication, jobs and prizes and the decline in the number of poetry publishers. If poetry is privatised, a personalised form of individual expression rather a means of public communication, then it needs to be policed by ideas of copyright, grammatical rules, unified spelling, critical standards and a canonical tradition.
The witch-hunting of Sheree Mack was an instructive episode in the internal workings of intellectual hegemony. The corporate lawyers and national media only joined the chase after a handful of poets (most of whom had not read Laventille) had already attacked one of their own, in the name of economic forces which are inimical to poetry.
Poetry arises out of the contradictions and consolations of a whole life and a whole society. It requires the proper humility necessary for any art. Poetry is not a Meritocracy of the educated, the privileged or the lucky. It is a Republic. Poetry is indivisible. If it doesn’t belong to everybody, it is something else – show business, big business, self-promotion, attention-seeking, property. As Alain Badiou argues:
‘Poets are communist for a primary reason, which is absolutely essential: their domain is language, most often their native tongue. Now language is what is given to all from birth as an absolutely common good. Poets are those who try to make a language say what it seems incapable of saying. Poets are those who seem to create in language new names to name that which, before the poem, has no name. And it is essential for poetry that these inventions, these creations, which are internal to language, have the same destiny as the mother tongue itself: for them to be given to all without exception. The poem is a gift of the poet to language. But this gift, like language itself, is destined to the common – that is, to this anonymous point where what matters is not one person in particular, but all, in the singular. Thus, the great poets of the twentieth century recognized the grandiose revolutionary project of communism something that was familiar to them – namely that, as the poem gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.’