Sally Flint looks at the state of poetry, continuing the joint series with the Morning Star on the cultural fallout of Covid-19. The photo by Jasbat Malhi is of Dr. Rahat Indor performing in Tagore
History shows that catastrophes, conflicts, traumas and protests provoke poets to write, and that the most insightful poems survive because they contain a universal truth connected to the human condition. So how are poets dealing with disease, death and often contradictory political rhetoric in a world that has suddenly and unexpectedly locked-down our lives – a place where we’re clearly not ‘all in this together’?
However, as the virus spreads there are multiple windows opening, especially related to online technology. Poets are used to connecting things in their heads though, pinning down what Coleridge describes as a poem being, ‘the best words in the best order’; they are well practised in staying focused to search out and unravel the truth.
For example, there are poets taking purposeful walks to scrutinise nearby cemeteries, researching past flu epidemics, noticing signs in newly barricaded shops, and empty public spaces. Poets are asking what matters most to friends and families, what ‘isolation’ means, and what Covid-19 is doing to the poor and BAME communities, imagining alternatives and what happens next for humanity as a whole.
As riots spread across the USA, and marches across other capital cities take off, it shows that while the proletariat can be contained by a life-threatening virus for the common good, they can’t be by the horrific murder of a black man by a policeman on the side of a road in Minnesota, witnessed on screens in homes around the world.
Poets are always on the lookout to connect narrative threads – as storytellers they are alert to ‘plot holes’, and can capture injustice in a few words. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn used poems to great effect, reading Wilfred Owens’ ‘Futility’ on Remembrance Day in 2015 and often quoting Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to drive home a political message, for us to ‘to rise up like lions’. Poet Laureates Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy are also showing showing that poetry is not about privilege or elitism.
Simon Armitage performing 'Lockdown'
We stand united on a precipice unlike any other time, where capitalism is exploiting but not providing for the many. There are new voices and imaginations needing to be heard, and brave new poetry editors who are poised to publish challenging writing. Spiteful, confusing tweets and blogs may come and go, but meaningful poems that reflect the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human condition have the potential to drive positive change and endure. Websites and publishers like Culture Matters can get key messages across quickly and effectively, just as a virus spreads.
Poets’ imaginations will be fired up as more stories emerge out of this pandemic, and political falsehoods will link in creative minds. We will be watching to see if the homeless are back on to the streets this time next year, if health and social care workers receive a pay rise, and whether the newly unemployed desperately chasing poorly paid and precarious jobs remain indebted to private landlords. While politicians and the press turn blind eyes, poets will continue to write and scrutinise the ‘new normal’ in a quest for the truth.
It seems few of us will see out this virus unscathed, but it’s the workers – especially the struggling, less well-off workers who need to be remembered and supported most by progressive politics and progressive political poetry.
Over a decade ago, in her poem ‘Indoors’, the late Eavan Boland writes, as if forecasting Covid-19:
So it was above our neighbourhood, the world straightening under wings, the noise of discord clearly audible, the hinterland reaching to the sea, its skin a map of wounds, its history a treatise of infections.
In a ‘second wave’ of Covid flooding the planet, poets will be peeling back the skin to see what lies beneath, to show among other things how politicians have handled this crisis – or washed their hands of it. As June Jordan said, ‘Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.’ A body of politically driven and socially relevant poetry will surely grow out of this pandemic. It will continue to reach out in protest, anger, sadness and compassion, and touch even the hardest of rich and powerful capitalist hearts, so we can all move towards a greener, kinder, safer and more equal, truthful future.
Will post-pandemic poetry be like this? Steve Pottinger performing a recent poem of his.
'I owe them my life.' - Boris Johnson, thanking NHS staff.
It's early morning: no-one speaks. Not yet. Yellow's Orthopaedics, pink Paediatrics, purple Chemo ‒ not enough aqua for A&E, so there's a sharing out of ICU's blues.
They've sat with the dying beyond shifts, high-fived and hugged each other for the ventilated dads, mums, daughters, sons, brought back. Now, in handovers with bleary-eyed night-staff,
they dread further shortages coming. It'll take more than a pandemic to examine if the 'public purse', can pay those on 'the frontline' enough to 'put food on their tables', settle their debts.
Nurses always applaud patient recoveries, know sometimes it's a word, a touch, saves a life. It's not about colours. They know politicians who clapped loudly when blocking their pay rise. Some dream of a future government unmasked.
In 2020 we want to publish a collection of new writing by established and emerging writers that asks questions and offers insights into links between the climate crisis and capitalism. When readers finish the book – or even when they’re half-way through – we want them to move towards action! Now, before it’s too late.
This callout challenges writers and artists everywhere to address this burning topic, turn their attention and creativity to it and make their voices heard. Our aim is to bring together provocative poems, surprising stories, startling science writing and impactful images, which cross boundaries and help us step confidently and creatively into this next decade.
Topics might include: capitalism as a driving force behind climate change; the need to protect the poor; survival/extinction challenges; the role of women as eco-socialists; children’s fears for the future; and floods, metaphorical or actual. From dystopia to utopia, through linking art and science, we aim to capture some of the ways, big and small, in which the human race will need to unite politically and practically to transform our world, and move towards a better, safer future. Pieces may have been previously published, as long as they will contribute something fresh and intriguing to the anthology.
Poems – send up to three poems (Max 40 lines per poem)
Stories‒ send up to three stories of up to 3000 words each
Science writing – send up to three articles up to 3000 words each
Life Writing – up to 3000 words each
Images – send up to three images as jpegs
Deadline: 30 May 2020
Riptide Journal was co-founded in 2007 by Dr. Sally Flint and Dr. Virginia Baily, and originally published short stories as a way to champion the form. Over the years they have published stories, poems, life writing – and have worked with community projects on socially committed initiatives too. The journal is supported by the University of Exeter.
Top of Google it's a wine bar, a game, a make-up range. I recall science lessons ‒ to rotate, twirl, circuit, cycle, orbit. It's the Earth spinning around the sun. On the screen the little circle rolls over the Thatcher era and a miners' revolt.
It's an instance of sudden change industrial, technological. Political theorists say in terms of evolution a 'revolution' can only happen when a government is weak. It's a rebellion that forces change ‒ as the little circle I have no name for rolls around again.