Chris Norris

Chris Norris

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.

Windrush: a reckoning
Wednesday, 09 May 2018 21:22

Windrush: a reckoning

Published in Poetry

Windrush: a reckoning

 by Chris Norris

 On 18 October 2017, Wilson was detained at the Wolverhampton Home Office reporting centre where she had been reporting on a fortnightly basis since August 2015. She was put in a vehicle that reminded her of a ‘meat van’, because it had no windows, and taken to Yarl’s Wood for six days; she says this was the worst experience of her life.

She called her daughter from the detention centre and cried uncontrollably down the line. ‘I said: “Get me out of here, Natalie, please get me out of here”.’ After six days she was put in another van, and when she got out she realised she was being taken to a building next to Heathrow airport; she was told that she would be put on a plane the next day.

It was only at the last minute that she was released, given a travel warrant for train tickets and let out to make her way back to Wolverhampton. ‘The planes were taking off over my head; I had to put my hands to my ears because of the noise’, she said. - The Guardian, May 5th, 2018


The good ship Windrush brought us here,
Seven decades back and more.
They greeted us with many a cheer,
With ‘Welcome’ flags galore.

The Windrush docked at Tilbury pier,
The news had gone before.
Our lives ahead shone bright and clear
With jobs and hopes in store.

Yes, we had lots of things to fear,
We travellers knew the score,
The smile that hid the racist sneer,
The threat you can't ignore.

We'd left behind our homeland dear
To cross a foreign shore,
A flag-adorned yet strange frontier
Like a half-opened door.

We'd known them long enough to know
Their double-dealing ways,
Those crafty Brits who'd run the show
Since old colonial days.

We knew they'd got us over so
We'd help with some new phase
Of labour-shortage, plus the glow
Of public pride we'd raise.

Besides, we knew how touch-and-go
It can be when some craze
Like that wears off, or jobs don't grow
And we're put out to graze.

Then it would be a case of slow
Boat home, or seeking stays
Of judgment while the call to throw
Us out hit law's delays.

Yet now what strikes me, looking back
Across those seven decades,
Is just how long they took to crack
Down on us renegades.

For that's their chief line of attack,
The endless press tirades
By every soul-corrupted hack
Who'll dish the dirt in spades.

Still they held off, that Tory pack,
For so long that the shades
Of prison lifted till our lack
Of papers struck their aides.

Then it became their task to track,
Through spying and dawn raids,
The hundreds who'd soon get the sack
From their long-serving trades.

Those seven decades: a time of grace
They've come to seem when viewed
By those, like us, who've had to face
The witch-hunt that ensued.

For now it's hostile looks in place
Of feigned solicitude,
And Tory placemen keen to chase
Out migrants they once wooed.

This whole land seems a holding-space
Where we've long sat or queued
While some weird Kafkaesque court-case
Takes lifetimes to conclude.

Maybe they planned it from first base,
Those bureaucrats who screwed
Things up by wiping out all trace
Of our old Windrush brood.

Or maybe there were decent guys
In the Home Office then
Who'd not destroy our family ties
With one stroke of their pen.

But now they're planning our goodbyes,
Those brutal-hearted men,
As if it was their greatest prize
To send us back again.

They think the moral law applies
To human beings when
They're British-born but can't arise
For folk classed ‘alien’.

So their big project’s to devise
A native regimen
Where those born under foreign skies
Are deemed an allergen.

women nurses

No thought those politicians spare
For all the time we've been
Your porters, nurses, respite care
Providers, folk who clean

For you, bus-drivers, car repair
Men, ambulance-men, canteen
Staff, railway workers, below-stair
Domestics, skilled machine-

Tool operators, firemen, fare-
Collectors, cooks, routine
Home-visitors, and our fair share
Of writers, teachers, screen-

Familiars, voices known on-air
From far back, and their teen-
Age grandkids rapping songs that bear
The mark of years between.

It's you, the politicians, whose
Destructive hand we see
At work each time the morning news
Repeats our Windrush plea.

Why bring us here, it says, why schmooze
Us with your oratory
And tempt us on that cut-price cruise
To shame and poverty?

Why, decades on, decide to use
Your utmost powers so we,
Your guests, should feel the tightening screws
Crush out our life-debris?

And if, back then, we'd read the clues
On that Tilbury quay
Who knows which future life we'd choose,
Which hostile fate we’d flee?

CN Yarls Wood Pic Darren Johnson

'Structures don't take to the streets!' May '68: a structuralist riposte
Wednesday, 25 April 2018 09:32

'Structures don't take to the streets!' May '68: a structuralist riposte

Published in Poetry

May ’68: a structuralist riposte

by Chris Norris

A cloud no bigger than a man’s hand crosses the English Channel from Paris, and then, in an instant, the trees, the orchard, the hedgerows, the field of wheat, are black with locusts. When at length they rise to fly on to the next parish, the boughs are bared of all culture, the fields have been stripped of every green blade of human aspiration; and in those skeletal forms and that blackened landscape, theoretical practice announces its ‘discovery’: the mode of production. - E.P. Thompson

‘Structures don’t take to the streets!’ - graffito on wall of the Sorbonne, May 1968

OK, point taken: it's not 'on the street'
You'd find them, all those 'structures' that we went
On endlessly about till soixante-huit
When we skulked in our academic tent
(Or so the story goes). We'd failed to meet
Our one great chance and challenge heaven-sent
To end the left's two-centuries-long defeat
By making good the two decades we'd spent
On theory-talk.

perpignan 1 2

Small wonder should they greet
Us lot, those militants, with slogans lent
An added force by dint of our elite
Normalien credentials, native bent
For high-flown chat, and tendency to treat
The world as theory's oyster. We'd frequent
Only those streets (they said) where a discreet
Escape-route helped us twisters circumvent
Our own past calls to action. Then some neat
Debating-trick did service to augment
Our cultural capital, and take the heat
Off any failings that we might repent
Were they not wiped clean from our record-sheet
By the fine structuralist expedient
Of counting subjectivity a cheat
That's foisted on us when we represent
Ourselves as 'free'.

La liberté est le crime qui contient tous les crimes

Thus all our thoughts repeat
The lie that has us willingly assent
To ideology's absurd conceit
Whereby the hoodwinked subject rests content
With a fake ‘freedom’ that would have him beat
Its own unyielding bounds. How orient
Ourselves to action if the driver's seat
Of willed intent contains a subject pent
By structures that perpetually secrete
The solvent of each self-constituent.

That's the idea: that all those Althusser-
Primed theorists could do, faced with the May
Événements, was to disown all share
Of agency, urge strikers to delay
That premature revolt, and so declare
The present conjoncture not one that they
Could possibly endorse. Then they'd compare
The current prospects with the grisly way
Things go whenever passions start to flare
And, as so many times before, betray
The white-hot zealots to the black despair
That comes of hopes and dreams long kept at bay
By the same powers that soon must conquer their
Ill-timed charade.

18418534 5MLIV

                   Yet I'd still say,
All these years on, that you'd best spare
Us street-averse soixante-huitards your pay-
Back accusations of our taking care
To hide ourselves behind a great array
Of abstract propositions framed to bear
Whatever weight of evidence might fray
Our threadbare theory-hope. It's you who err
Most grievously if you take that cliché,
'No structures on the streets', as if to square
Accounts with real-world history and play
The role of less-deceived. Who more aware
Than us how world-events will often stray
Far wide of anything that the armchair
Philosopher might dream hors de mêlée
Since structures don't emerge out of thin air
But just when subjects meet the come-what-may.

a cause indifference generale

Quick recap for the faint of heart or weak
Of memory: 'structure' signified the site
Of struggle, contestation, and critique
Where subjects found a leverage-point despite
Appearances. It seemed to show a bleak
Since language-based determinism quite
Devoid of all idea that we might speak,
Act, criticise, and thus relieve our plight
As drifters up the croc-infested creek
Of any ideology that might
Recruit compliant minds.

may 68 graffito 3

              That's how the clique
Of New-Right, mostly ex-left types indict
Us true soixante-huitards, we who still seek
A way to get the basic issue right,
The one that comes to us from Ancient Greek
Philosophy and yet remains the blight
Of system-builders as of those who'd sneak
Free-will back into some (it seems) airtight
Construction through a small but handy leak
Of subjectivity. No inner light
For us old structuralists, no high mystique,
Like Sartre's, of a freedom shining bright
With existential promise through that freak
Of nature, human choice. Hail the White Knight
Who comes (though often by the most oblique
Or complex ways around) to wing our flight
From the iron grip of causal laws that wreak
Destruction on our human will to slight
Mere circumstance and end the losing streak
We suffered as if fate had fixed the fight.

Prenez vos désirs pour des réalités 1968

My point: that structuralism helped us see
Beyond that Sartrean fix by letting go,
Once and for all, the thought of subjects 'free'
In the sense 'really, deep down, prone to no
Impediments of kind or of degree
To their free choice: 'defend the status quo
Or strive against it!'
             That's the reason we
Took language as our model, or – you know
The story well enough – the master-key
Of structural linguistics. This we owe
To Saussure, Jakobson and company,
Plus Althusser who managed to bestow
On Marx a reading that could claim to be
Both rigorous and well equipped to show
Our own conjuncture with the clarity
Such thinking brings. The syntagmatic flow
Of speech is like the combinatory
Of actions and events, an ordered row
That bears the mark of willing agency,
Whether to hold in place or overthrow
Such order. Yet it shows unconsciously –
So structuralists maintain – the sous-niveau
Of differences and contrasts that decree
How speech or actions signify although
The speaker, like the agent, won't agree
That what they've said or done makes sense on so
Arcane a set of terms.
            Think: why should she,
The militant, however street-wise, grow
Conversant with depth-codes of strategy,
Or speaker venture nothing till, below

The surface utterance, he too can trace
The signifying systems that elude
Our conscious grasp? For else they’d slow the pace
Of speech, or thought, or action, and preclude
All access to the generative space
Where subjects somehow find the aptitude
For words and acts that promise to displace
The ideologies that once subdued
All stirrings of revolt. So we gave chase
To errant signifiers, or pursued
Those fleeting signs – exposed to us by grace
Of Marx and Freud, plus insights late accrued
From Althusser and Lacan – that the case
Is not at all as it's naively viewed
By those who take our words and deeds at face
Acceptance but, more tellingly construed,
Half-yields to ideology's embrace
Yet kicks against it.

may 68 graffito 3

                  Hence the multitude
Of symptoms that would promptly self-erase
At its behest if not for us, the brood
Of old-school structuralists who opt to base
Our strategies and methods on a clued-
Up symptom-reader's grasp. This shuns the race
From thought to deed, reminds us what ensued
In ‘68, and bids we play our ace
Card to warn just how easily a mood
Of premature euphoria takes the place
That, we say, falls more aptly to a shrewd
Since theory-guided project to retrace
The structural constraints that had us screwed.


An Unfortunate Case
Tuesday, 06 March 2018 22:03

An Unfortunate Case

Published in Poetry

An Unfortunate Case

by Chris Norris

Portugal’s president has described the circumstances in which a homeless Portuguese man died near the UK parliament as ‘inhumane’. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa paid tribute to the unnamed man found dead in an underpass near Westminster tube station, a stone’s throw from an entrance to the Houses of Parliament. In a statement on the official website of the president of the Portuguese republic, de Sousa said he ‘laments the death in inhumane circumstances of our fellow countryman of 35 years, who was found without life in one of the metro entries in the British capital’.

- The Guardian, 16th February, 2018 

The Jesus note: not one that I
Play up but there's that line
Of his that goes
'Look on me, all ye who pass by:
Was ever grief like mine?'
Bit lachrymose,
You'll say, and on the whole I try
To give no outward sign
Of inner woes,
Though times there are when I could die
And none would grieve or pine
Excepting those
Who paused awhile to wonder why
The tourist crowds confine
Their passing shows
Of interest to Big Ben on high
Or to the sty of swine
Our nation knows
As Parliament. Great place for my
Campaign to take the shine
Off its fake pose
As friend of every little guy,
That time-dishonoured shrine
To freedom's foes.

There's lots of MPs walk my way,
The Tories nose-in-air
Or keen to show
They'd have me thrown in gaol today
If it was left to their
Best judgment (know
Them by their rotten fruits, I say),
And 'socialists' who'll spare
Small change then go
On endlessly about how they,
The old guard, did their share
To overthrow
Class-prejudice or some cliché
Stamped 'vintage Tony Blair',
And then – although
An off-note in that cabaret –
Real socialists who'll dare
To halt the flow
Of tourist-trade and disobey
The bylaws with a rare
And powerful show
Of outrage fitted to convey
'Blame that lot over there,
Just a stone's throw'.

The Mail and Sun delight to call
Them 'Corbynistas', these
New types who seem
A breed that’s worlds apart from all
The self-styled 'left' MPs
Whose only dream
Is getting on, or playing ball,
Or trying hard to please
Whatever team
Of crass time-servers have the gall
To pull their usual wheeze
And switch mid-stream
To business-class. It's a long haul
For anyone who sees
How the regime
Of capital has us in thrall,
Yet those who hold the keys
Lack any scheme
To buck the future or forestall
A turning tide that frees
The distant gleam
Of hopes renewed at every fall
Of fortunes built on sleaze –
The Levellers' theme!

Myself, I'll just hang on here till
The next election (must
Come soon enough!)
And then let's hope the people's will
Revolts in sheer disgust
At folk who stuff
Their pockets, gourmandise their fill,
And think it fair and just
That we sleep rough,
Us whom the cold nights sometimes kill,
Yet who retain their trust,
When times are tough,
That in the long death-dealing chill
Of Tory rule we've sussed
An age-old bluff
And figured how the plebs might still
Find the right ass to bust,
Vow not to fluff
It yet again, but bend our skill
Against those upper-crust
Class-laws we’ll slough
Off like each parliamentary bill
Now set to bite the dust
At our rebuff.

That’s why the Corbynistas link
My situation here,
Begging for bread
And living always on the brink
Of the deep freeze I fear
Lies just ahead,
To Tory policies that sync
A code-word like 'austere'
With plans to shed
All care for those our masters think
Beyond the civic sphere,
Hence good as dead
Already. This new lot won't shrink
From setting out to clear
The Augean shed
Despite the daily growing stink
Of many a privateer
Caught short instead
Of mixing it with Graft Corp Inc,
Advancing their career,
And helping spread
The moral rot at which we wink
Till, of a sudden, we're
Unhoused, unfed.

The Communist Hypothesis: ten lessons from Alain Badiou
Tuesday, 30 January 2018 11:26

The Communist Hypothesis: ten lessons from Alain Badiou

Published in Poetry

The Communist Hypothesis: ten lessons from Alain Badiou

by Chris Norris

We know that communism is the right hypothesis. All those who abandon this hypothesis immediately resign themselves to the market economy, to parliamentary democracy – the form of state suited to capitalism – and to the inevitable and 'natural' character of the most monstrous inequalities. - Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis

 I would say, if you like, that the party is like an out-moded mathematics. That is to say, the mathematics of Euclid. We need to invent a non-Euclidian mathematics with respect to political discipline. - Badiou, The Concept of Model

Without mathematics, we are blind. - Badiou, Short Treatise on Transient Ontology

First lesson: there's a truth as yet unknown
In every situation, and its place
Is marked out by some problematic zone,
'Evental site', or looming crisis-space
Where – after all the errors that postpone
Discovery – the truth of what's-the-case
Stands clear to view. For now the signs have grown
Quite unmistakable and bear the trace
Of bygone struggles that faint-hearts are prone
To call 'defeats' but communists embrace
As their instructive past. That way they'll hone
A sharpened sense of how the long-haul race
Goes not to those who'll eagerly disown
Old causes vanquished but to those who base
Their hopes on revolutions overthrown
Yet yielding truths no setback can efface.

Lesson the second: lesson one applies
Across as many disciplines as find
Sufficient room for truth, or recognise
How states of knowledge always lag behind
New truth-procedures. These we must devise,
Through thought and force of circumstance combined,
To meet unlooked-for issues that arise
In truth's domain, or forms of double-bind
That current thinking struggles to disguise
Since, by its nature, always pre-inclined
To save appearances. So what complies
With common sense wins credence of a kind
Withheld from that which radically denies
The truth, consistency or sense assigned
By expert lore to those ideas we prize
As if by timeless intellect divined.

Third lesson: mathematics is the key
To thinking through those issues in the spheres
Of science, politics and art that we
Old compartmentalisers must shift gears
To think about at all. What links the three
Is how a grounding in set theory clears
The way to truths which those alone can see
Who understand how each domain appears
Dilemma-prone and without guarantee
Once Cantor's infinite breaks old frontiers.
This shows the mirage of consistency
To license our discounting all that veers
From any norm where those allowed to be –
To count as subjects, citizens, or peers –
Are just those who, the ruling powers decree,
Can best ensure the counting-scheme

CN GC 338px Georg Cantor2

Georg Cantor, inventor of set theory

Fourth lesson: it's anomalies like those
That plagued set theory which gave rise to its
Great revolutions, just as tests expose
An unknown problem with the working fits
In some machine, or analysts disclose
How certain logic-systems fall to bits
If rigorously quizzed. This also goes
For sites where some state apparatus pits
Its power against the multitude yet throws
The system into crisis when it hits
One non-included multiple that grows
In number, size and force. This then permits
No mere adjustment of the ratios
To ease the deadlock or to call it quits
Since such anomalies entail who knows
What threat to all the state's survival-kits.

Lesson the fifth: we communists will err,
And seriously so, if we should take
A vulgar-Marxist line and so declare
Ourselves resolved in principle to break
With all that 'abstract', 'formal', or 'armchair'
Philosophising. Such a view would make
Small sense of my expending so much care
On laying out events in Cantor's wake,
Or my erecting castles in the air
Around them. All these efforts for the sake –
So grumble the innumerate – of their
Enabling me to claim an active stake
In the ongoing struggle. Yet my share
Involves (they say) procedures so opaque
And technical that very few would dare
To call me out as muddle-head or fake.

Sixth lesson, just for them: if it's concrete
Reality you want, then nothing's more
Entirely up your preferential street
Than all those numbers you'd have us ignore
As 'merely abstract'. Fact: the balance-sheet
Of every corporation shows they store
Our fates and futures like a trick-or-treat
Run wild. Truth is, the further we explore
Their complex ways, the better chance we'll meet
Those horrors that left-moralists deplore
With sharp analyses of how the cheat
Works out in detail. That's just when the lore
Of capital serves handily to beat
Off challenges, so our best way to score
Max points against it is to turn the heat
Up mathematically: wage number-war!

CN corporate greed 2

Another Day Under Corporate Control, by Clay Bennett

And that's my seventh lesson: we should choose
Our ground with utmost care, make sure we play
Our cards right tactically, but also use
Strict thought-procedures that insist we pay
The past due heed. They point to what ensues
From our hypothesis when, come the day,
Some mounting perturbation puts the screws
On every link that held revolt at bay
Until things took this turn. We look for cues,
Us communists, in what the papers say
About such happenings. But – please excuse
My coming back to it – we need a way
To link whatever piece of current news
Grabs our attention with the dossier
Of past (don't call them 'failed') popular coups
Wherein we read hope’s mixed communiqué.

For lesson eight's the truth that Cantor showed
And that's borne out implicitly by all
Attempts to crack the errant master-code
Of politics. It says that off-the-wall
Procedures, like events, might just explode
All bounds and show how change goes epochal
By yielding some unguessed-at episode
That far exceeds thought's finite wherewithal
Or drives its systems into overload
At every point. Hence Cantor's Saul-to-Paul
Conversion on the long Damascus road
That started out from scruples deep in thrall
To fear of all the paradoxes stowed
In the bad infinite. Yet soon they'd fall
Like bread from heaven as thinking overflowed
All limits that the finite would install.

So, lesson nine: no crisis-point so taut
With future possibility as that
Which comes unnoticed by the expert sort
Of change-predictor out to bell the cat
Of revolution. Fending off that thought
Is just what they're so very expert at,
Like those old dix-huitards who still hold court
On what went wrong in '68, or chat
Dismissively about the battles fought
To save the Paris Commune, or – old hat
To them – have their obligatory sport
With notions of the proletariat
As vanguard class. Close kin to those, in short,
For whom the Cantor great leap forward begat
Such monsters that they did their best to thwart
Its spread with every queasy caveat.

CN May 68 paris

Les evenements, Paris 1968

For lesson ten I leave you to reflect
On Jean Cavaillès whom the Nazis shot
As a résistant, one whose intellect –
Whose work in mathematics – showed him what
It likewise meant in ethics to select
One's axioms and pursue them though you'd not,
At first, decisive reasons to expect
They'd see you through. That fatal trouble-spot
Makes him a case apart, but helps connect
The truth-procedures scientists have got
To follow lest their errors go unchecked
With those that once convinced the sans-culottes
To let no bourgeois allies redirect
And skew the course of their self-scripted plot.
Agreed: ten lessons drawn from Marx and Brecht,
But think how Cantor cut the Gordian knot.

CN Jean Cavailles


An Embarrassment
Sunday, 14 January 2018 13:07

An Embarrassment

Published in Poetry

An Embarrassment

by Chris Norris

LONDON — A political storm is brewing ahead of Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s May 19 wedding over whether to crack down on homeless people and beggars in the well-to-do English town of Windsor . . . . Borough council leader Simon Dudley kicked off the controversy by tweeting over the Christmas holidays about the need to clean up Windsor’s streets. He then wrote to police and Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May suggesting that action be taken to reduce the presence of beggars and the homeless. Dudley referred to an ‘epidemic’ of homelessness and vagrancy in Windsor and suggested many of those begging in the town are not really homeless. He said the situation presents a beautiful town in an unfavourable light. - The Washington Post, January 4th 2018

It can be hard to find a vacant pitch.
You think you've cornered one, but then
It turns out there's some unexpected hitch,
Like 'let's not see your face again',
Or cops with that let's-send-them-packing itch,
Or druggies looking for a den,
Or doorway-minders stationed by the rich
Lest we scare some good citizen.

It's quite a simple trade-off once you know
The ropes. Choose an impoverished part
Of town with hopes and incomes running low
And chances are the cops won't start
Those same old scare-techniques from the word go
Because that's not where all the smart
Set live or those who have the clout and dough
To silence any bleeding heart.

But then of course folk won't have much to spare
In poor parts, so we chase the dosh
And tend to wind up in those places where
The local council's run by posh-
End bureaucrats who seem to think that their
Fine precincts will soon be awash
With us lot if they show a moment's care
For all that human-kindness bosh.

Myself, I did quite nicely for a while
In Windsor, locals rich enough
To spare at least some fraction of their pile,
And others doing all the tourist stuff,
Which meant they'd sometimes go the extra mile,
When they saw I'd been sleeping rough,
And give as if to say: let our life-style
Rub off on you though times are tough.

So not a bad pitch, Windsor, all in all,
Until this jobsworth got the word
That he, as Council Chairman, must play ball
And make sure us lot were transferred
Elsewhere, us human flotsam, with as small
Upset as could be lest we stirred
An impulse of regret that might just gall
The conscience of the royalist herd.

The reason? Some dim-witted legatee
Of a half-dozen clans far-gone
In the descent to inbred idiocy
Of Europe's royals had got it on
At last with some royal-fancier, so we
Folk in the lowest echelon
Must up sticks so that Windsor has its spree
And we don't spoil the denouement.

The lesson? If you want a country fit
For Tory toffs, for all those Royal
Flunkies and floozies, and the tabloid shit
Put out to keep the commoners loyal,
Then, fellow-subjects, just get used to it:
We'll always be around to foil
Your best-laid civic plans and do our bit
To see what fake dreams we can spoil.

For here's my point, beyond just being pissed
Off with the whole Royal-wedding binge,
Or at not being on the invite list:
That it's the same habitual cringe
That bends the knee of every monarchist,
That frees that Chairman from a twinge
Of conscience, and that tells us: don't resist
Or push your anti-royalist whinge.

For you'll not clear us losers from your streets
Until you clear them from your dreams,
Those royals, as well as from the gossip-sheets
That feed your fantasy with streams
Of reportage where your worst life-defeats,
Like mine, look less important themes
Than the crowd of adoring fools that greets
The couple with their PR teams.

Think harder and you'll maybe come to hate
The system that keeps them in place,
Those useless idlers, while it views our state
Of penury as no disgrace
But ours alone, or else as just what fate
Decreed for us so that we face
Up to it, like Prince Harry and his mate,
Secure in destiny's embrace.

See through that crap and you'll be on the way
To seeing how it works, how we're
Kept down, kept quiet, kept under, kept at bay,
Or just kept moving on by mere
Compliance with the roles they'd have us play,
Those harkers-back to yesteryear
Who seize their chance, with each Royal-wedding day,
To re-infantilise the public sphere.

A Disillusionment
Friday, 29 December 2017 22:54

A Disillusionment

Published in Poetry

A Disillusionment

by Chris Norris

 It sounds counter-intuitive. How can the ‘Jewish State’ or the Zionist movement be anti-Semitic? But several of US President Donald Trump’s appointments have made it clearer than ever. He leads the most pro-Israel US administration in history, even while appointing key figures with anti-Semitic ties as his most important advisers.

- Asa Winstanley, Memo: Middle-East Monitor

The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devalue words and reasons . . . . How futile and frivolous discussions about the rights of the Jew [cf. Palestinian] appear to him . . . . If out of courtesy he consents for a moment to defend his point of view, he lends himself but does not give himself. He tries simply to project his intuitive certainty onto the plane of discourse.

But some will object: what if he is like that only with regard to the Jews [cf. Palestinians]? What if he otherwise conducts himself with good sense? I reply that that is impossible . . . . A man who finds it entirely natural to denounce other men cannot have our conception of humanity; he does not see even those whom he aids in the same light as we do. His generosity, his kindness, are not like our kindness, our generosity. You cannot confine passion to one sphere.

- Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’

 (Note: ‘Bibi’ is the nickname, affectionate or otherwise, of Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel.)

My parents spoke of Israel
As of a Promised Land,
A place on which our dreams might dwell,
Though not (we'd understand)
A dwelling-place since its far spell
Could not be known first-hand
And some folk there had been through hell
En route for Haifa’s strand.

Still it remained my soul's ideal,
My youthful hope and dream,
That magic place-name that would steal
Upon me as the theme
Of reverie, though a country real
Enough for it to seem,
In bad times, the one name to heal
My wounded self-esteem.

For that, to me, was what it meant,
Aside from all the fuss
(As then I thought) about those sent
Away to clear for us,
Or ours, more Lebensraum that lent
A God-sent chance to bus
Or fly folk in and circumvent
Land-claims we'd not discuss.

But then the doubts began to crowd
Back in and wake a sense
Of what injustices allowed
My joy at their expense,
Those Palestinians, once a proud
And free-born people; whence
Their courage to endure unbowed
In rightful self-defence.

These five decades, since Israel fought
Its war for 'living-space',
I've watched the dream go sour and thought
Their talk of 'by God's grace'
The sort of thing routinely taught
When people make a case 
For causes desperately short
Of any moral base.

And now we've evidence, if more
Was needed, in the way
That Bibi's happy to ignore
The bulging dossier
With Trump's additions to the store
Of handy ways to play
The fascist card and give his core
Supporters a field-day.

For now I have to count the name
Of 'Israel' one we lump,
To its and my eternal shame,
With that of Donald Trump,
An anti-semite who would blame
'The Jews' as soon as plump
For Moslems or whoever came
In next for the high jump.

And then I think: was Sartre right
To say that what we mean
By 'Jew', or ought to mean in light
Of history, is seen
Most clearly in the victim-plight
Of everyone who's been
Killed, dispossessed, or put to flight
By hatred's lie-machine.

So 'anti-semite' would extend
Beyond its usual scope
To take in haters who depend
On 'Jews' to let them cope
With categories of foe and friend
So stark that they must grope
Around for scapegoats fit to lend
Their hate-crusade new hope.

For who, I ask you, wants or dares
To come straight out and state
The chosen-people case: that there's
Some type-specific trait,
Of grace or shame, that no-one shares
Who's not a candidate
For marking down as one of theirs
Or one they're bound to hate?

So I’m among the dispossessed,
An inner exile, though
I've only lost the dream that blessed
My early years, and so
Am now resolved to do my best
For those who undergo
Such pains as only the oppressed
In soul and body know.

Why then should I, deprived of all
I once believed in, keep
Faith with a state whose actions call
For me to take the leap
And say I’ve now crossed Bibi’s wall
With soul-wounds that go deep
Because such late-life Paul-to-Saul
Conversions don't come cheap.

Yes, I'm still 'Jewish', but the word
Now signifies, for me,
Whatever voices can't be heard,
Whoever lives unfree,
And those whose minds and hearts are stirred
By acts we daily see
When history’s victims, undeterred
By force, seek liberty.

So when they couple 'Zionist'
With (what seems quite insane)
'Anti-semitic' I insist
That first we ascertain
Just what they mean in case we've missed
Their point and it's the strain
Induced by that mind-wrenching twist
Of thought that's most germane.

All praise to those Israelis brave
Enough to stay around,
Confront the threats, and fight to save
The name in which they found,
Like me, a source of pride that gave
Fresh hope yet runs aground
More jarringly with each new wave
Of war-planes Gaza-bound.

For now the hate-name 'Arab' rings,
On every settler's tongue,
With a harsh resonance that brings
Back memories fresh sprung,
Like 'Jew', said brusquely, which still stings
Me now as once it stung
Years back, and other hurtful things
They'd say when I was young.

And, worse, we have to quell our rage
When Trump and Bibi use
Our history of victimage
As a means to excuse
Their choice of some new war to wage,
Which makes it seem us Jews
Are cast forever as front-page
And soul-destroying news.

Yet most of all it's this that drives
Me nearly to despair:
The thought that Palestinian lives
Should be the ones that bear
The lethal cost of what arrives
Like karma when we dare
To reenact a scene that thrives
On sufferings elsewhere.

Yet that's the hideous double-bind
They'd wish on us, those two
Gut-populists who’ve now combined
Their forces with a view
To ‘common interests’ redefined
So as to let them do
Whatever gets the mob behind
Their demagogic coup.

So if we’re so keen to appease
Our ‘ally' Trump, then how
Come he and his own allies seize
Each chance to re-avow
Those sentiments that show that he's,
Like them, one who'd allow
A pogrom-blitz if that would please
His followers right now.

So – pray forgive me if I rub
The lesson in too hard – 
What price our entry to the club
Of players with Trump card
If, from now on, we have to grub
Around for such ill-starred
Alliances as earn a snub
Even in our backyard?

Why then rebuke me when I stake
My faith on it that we've
A duty now, as Jews, to take
Our conscientious leave
Of any creed that, for the sake
Of striving to achieve
The New Jerusalem, would make
Us prone to self-deceive.

For there's no telling just how far
This grim charade might run
Before it hits a credence-bar
When we'll at last have done
With any rule that says we are
Required to honour none
But tales of faith that may now jar
No matter how they're spun.

You find me now, I must confess,
A man of darker mood
And one perhaps too keen to stress
These things on which I brood
Incessantly, though hoping less
For some new certitude
Than for some way to dispossess
Myself of hopes renewed.

It's when I think again of that
Embrace so warmly shared
Between the fascist plutocrat
And Bibi, aptly paired
As they may be, that I feel flat-
Out thankful to be spared
All last pretence of aiming at
The moral circle squared.

For who could make-believe the dream
Lives on now Israel's made
Its Faustian pact with Trump's regime
And bolstered the parade
Of those whose latest master-scheme,
Once all the plans are laid,
Leaves no place on the winning team
For their back-up brigade?

The Hate-Song of J. William Rees-Mogg
Monday, 11 December 2017 14:14

The Hate-Song of J. William Rees-Mogg

Published in Poetry

The Hate-Song of J. William Rees-Mogg

by Chris Norris

My name is Jacob Rees-Mogg, and
I’ll have you peasants know
I'm here to save this precious land
From many a deadly foe.

I'm ten years old but please don't laugh;
I'm grown-up as can be.
I read the Daily Telegraph
And that’s the rag for me.

It's great, a name like J. Rees-Mogg;
It helps me meet celebs,
And keeps the tabloid press agog,
And wows the idiot plebs.

My way of talking’s a big plus:
Old man or pimply boy?
A cross between Gerontius
And Little Lord Fauntleroy.

CN jacob fresher images

But I have plans they cannot guess,
Those types who'll love to mock
My weird beliefs or style of dress;
They're in for quite a shock.

I like to say, when interviewed,
That my ambition's height
Is to have loads of dosh accrued
And put the nation right.

CN jacob William Rees Mogg images

Sometimes I like to flummox them,
Those interviewer-chaps,
By saying I'll become PM
By age eighteen, perhaps.

But really what most stirs my soul
And seems the better plan
Is casting myself in the role
Of Mosley, my main man.

CN jacob mosley staring

Already I've the right ideas
And the right attitudes
To make us two, across the years,
A hand-picked pair of dudes.

I look ahead and seem to see,
Like him eight decades back,
A fascist column proud and free
All dressed in shirts of black.

CN jacob mosley marching

I'll meet their chief ideologues,
Their neo-Nazi clones,
And love it when they tell me 'Moggs,
You're fascist in your bones'.

* * * * * * * *

And now I tick each box of theirs,
Those splendid chaps who find
In Trump a president who shares
Their every turn of mind.

Yet – here’s the neat bit – people say
‘Rees-Mogg’s a harmless fool’,
Or ‘Anyone who talks that way
Deserves plain ridicule.’

Meanwhile I hold forth all the time
On all my latest fads,
Like making birth-control a crime
Or anything that adds

To my large fan-base among those
Who think me just a clown
And those for whom my class-act goes
A whole lot deeper down.

For some watch film-clips and recall
How many folk would scoff
When Mosley spoke; yet still they fall
For any right-wing toff.

CN trump 3

It's still the same fifth-column stuff,
With Trump in Hitler's place,
And us his side-kicks keen enough
To push the fascist case.

This Brexit thing’s come bang on cue;
It’s set friend against friend,
Remobilized our street-mob crew,
And let me set the trend.

Meanwhile the Tory faithful choose
Me as their pin-up guy
And propagate my right-wing views
So followers multiply.

The beauty is, they’re simple folk
And know not what they speak,
Or half-suspect it’s all a joke
Amongst their Tory clique.

The Guardian sounds a warning note:
‘Don’t trust this man an inch
Or one day they’ll be at your throat,
Those who’ve long felt the pinch’.

‘For now’, its columnists intone,
‘This fraudster has their ear,
And though his head seems solid bone
His words are words to fear.’

But I can happily ignore
Their cautionary tales
Since for each reader twenty more
Pick up their Suns or Mails.

Else it will be some viral tweet
Passed on in that mixed mode
Of call-to-arms and ‘Can you beat
This guy?’ that they decode,

My readers, pretty much as taste
Or politics incline
Though few are favourably placed
To grasp my true design.

They said of Mosley he was our
Lost leader, one who might
Have done great things had lust-for-power
Not put his wits to flight.

CN jacob mosley salutes

Me, I’m much subtler in my bid;
I’m well prepared to wait
With powder dry and keep the lid
Tight lest it detonate.

For soon there’ll come a time when it’s
All up with bleeding hearts,
With those who say that Trump’s the pits,
Like his Brit counterparts,

Who think that I’m a nasty piece
Of work in clownish guise,
And whose emotions find release
In new things to despise.

I’ll keep it up, my fogey act,
But leave them in no doubt,
My trusty Blackshirts, of the fact
That what it’s all about

Is bringing on the day when we
Can raise our flag again
And celebrate the victory
Of true-born Englishmen.

Then there’ll be no more flannelling
To keep the Guardian quiet,
No delicate news-channelling
In case the peasants riot.

CN jacob with textimages

I’d come right out with it and nail
My theses to the door,
Except that Luther won’t prevail
With those who know the score.

For ours will be a nation ruled
By Catholic decrees,
Where women are from childhood schooled
Their men and God to please.

We’ll have no liberal talk of choice
But preach the right to life
And how each woman should rejoice
In what befits a wife.

For that’s God’s law as certified
By chaps, like J. R-M,
With God-appointed role of guide
To weaker souls like them.

Then we’ll be near to heaven on earth,
A heaven for all but pro-
Life activists who think of birth
As their gift to bestow,

Not God’s, or those poor infidels
Who question the command
Of scripture when it plainly tells
Truths given us first-hand.

So let them mock my speech so quaint,
My breakfast shirt and tie,
And say the patience of a saint
Is what my witterings try.

I’d just remind them: now we’ve Trump
And Boris plus the hordes
Of disaffected types who’ll plump
For anyone who lords

It over them like me and spouts,
In truth, a load of tosh
Yet wows them as he flaunts and flouts
The rules of being posh.

CN jacob top hat

Deny it as you may, I’ve tapped
Into a certain vein
Of Brit class-sentiment that’s apt
To go against the grain

Only for those who spot my ruse
And think back eight decades
To the last time when toffs would use
It on the hate-brigades.

So don’t desert me now, my loyal
Supporters from the ranks
Of those on whose delight in royal
Occasions our lot banks.

For we’ve deep things to draw upon
And old myths to revive
Which might see you lot dead and gone
While we still live and thrive.

 CN jacob hate tories











Migrants: a dialogue
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 14:37

Migrants: a dialogue

Published in Poetry

Migrants: a dialogue

by Chris Norris

Some certainly recognized the suffering of the migrants concerned, but comments beneath a Daily Mail article included the following: ‘Isn’t it about time these people stayed to sort out the mess in their own countries instead of running away?’; and ‘Hard as it may seem, the only solution is to send all of them (without exception) back to the port where they came from’ . . . . These are not the comments of people simply too absorbed in their own lives to dwell on the suffering of distant people. They express an active resistance against the ethical claim that these migrants’ suffering might make upon the authors.
- Julia O’Connell Davidson, ‘Migration, Suffering and Rights’

We've travelled many seas, my love,
We've travelled many lands,
For when you're refugees, my love,
There's no-one understands;
Sometimes I think the Lord above
Just wants us off his hands.

Shall we not rest awhile, my dear,
Shall we not stop to rest?
I weaken mile by mile, my dear,
And still we travel West,
And still those looks that say: you're here
An uninvited guest.

Don't take it so to heart, my sweet,
Don't let it cloud your days.
If those dark looks should start, my sweet,
Don't mind their curious ways,
And should they curse when they should greet
Think naught of such displays.

But how shall we survive, my chuck,
These endless days and nights?
How keep our hopes alive, my chuck,
When black despair invites,
When it's our being out-of-luck
That brands us parasites?

Let's trust we're through the worst, my pet,
Let's trust there's light ahead;
Else it would seem we're cursed, my pet,
And dark-ward bound instead.
No cause for deathly thoughts just yet
Though some might wish us dead.

But that Home Office man, my love,
That man who spoke so soft,
He said we'd better plan, my love,
And then he sort-of coughed
As if to say: push come to shove
You'll both be upped and offed.

Don't worry about him, my dear,
Don't fret about him still.
He said it on a whim, my dear,
And didn't mean us ill,
Although the episode struck fear
In us, as these things will.

But that's the least of it, my sweet,
The least of all our woes,
For others say 'just quit', my sweet,
'Or we'll soon come to blows'.
They wear black t-shirts in the street
With words that punch your nose.

And there's the UKIP folk, my chuck,
Or hard-core Brexiteers,
Who'd kick us at a stroke, my chuck,
Beyond their state frontiers,
Or otherwise make sure we're stuck
In holding-cells for years.

It's here the seas run dry, my love,
It's here the lands run out.
We've fetched up you and I, my love,
And should we send a scout
Or else, like Noah, a questing dove
It might search far about.

For it's a shallow sea, my dear,
And it's an angry land,
And migrants – you and me, my dear –
Are so much contraband
Brought in by some smart racketeer
When there's the job-demand.

But here we'll have to wait, my sweet,
Just wait until they find
Some other folk to hate, my sweet,
And bring them peace of mind.
For hate-campaigns go down a treat
With fearful humankind.

So don't give in to rage, my chuck;
Don't give in to despair.
Just turn another page, my chuck,
To see what's written there
And try to make-believe we'll pluck
Some blessing from thin air.

O it’s white lies you tell, my love,
Yet lies so kindly meant
That when they cast their spell, my love,
I’m instantly content
To fancy all I'm dreaming of
Made true should fate relent.

Yet it’s just lies they told, my dear,
Not wishful truths but lies,
Those swine who had us sold, my dear,
On hell in heaven's guise,
And made this hostile zone appear
A haven in our eyes.

CN migrants life jackets cropped thumb large

To the Wife of an All-Too-Interventionist Foreign Secretary
Friday, 17 November 2017 09:45

To the Wife of an All-Too-Interventionist Foreign Secretary

Published in Poetry

To the Wife of an All-Too-Interventionist Foreign Secretary

by Chris Norris

Note: This piece is an updated reprise of Edgell Rickword’s mid-1930s poem ‘To the Wife of Any Non-Interventionist Statesman’. Rickword was addressing those mainly Conservative politicians who opposed sending military aid to the Republican Government in Spain on grounds of Britain’s supposed ‘neutrality’ in keeping with the policy of other European powers. This was in flagrant disregard of the fact that Germany and Italy were providing large amounts of logistical support to the rebel (Francoist or Fascist) side. 

So. Cut to Yemen, 2017.......

Bad form, I know, intruding thus on your
Most intimate proceedings at a time,
Of all times, when you'd wish to shut the door
On such intrusions, let alone what I'm
Proposing here. Just let me say, before
You cut short this rude visitant mid-rhyme,
That though it's something most folk might deplore,
And some would count a veritable crime,
Still certain faults may merit rather more
By way of censure, and - if my words chime
With your assessment - urge you to ignore
Your husband's overtures. So, should he climb

Into the marriage-bed and indicate
That maybe you'd now like to have a go
For old time's sake, so he can demonstrate
His undiminished powers, please let him know
It's just not on and that he'll have to wait
Till you've delivered him a blow-by-blow
Account of why you're dead set to frustrate
This new-found fervent craving to bestow
His favours nearer home. Affairs of state
Are more the sort of stuff you'll want to throw
At him than those affairs that hardly rate
Brief mention in the gossip-pages. So
Let me, your voice of conscience, intimate
Some counter-thoughts to interrupt the flow
Of pillow-talk that then begins to grate
Until you give that dolt the old heave-ho.

Past forty people tend to have the face
That they deserve, as Auden said - a bit
Unfair to some, perhaps, but just the place
To start in figuring how you'd better quit
His soon detested marital embrace
As the truth dawns. For it's a phizog fit
For detailed study should one wish to trace
The path by which this liar, hypocrite
And bully-boy outlived each new disgrace,
Each proven lie or piece of pure bullshit
Exposed, and, after letting in some space
Of time - alms for oblivion - strove to hit
The headlines once again. He'd join the race
As if from a fresh start, and so omit
To mention how he'd made a basket-case
Of every job for lack of mother-wit

Or through an ego whose enormous size
And utter lack of scruple left it prone
To all variety of tricks and lies,
The sort of thing he'd never quite outgrown
Since Oxford. They're presented in the guise
(As you'll best know) of one just lately flown
That second nest and not yet worldly-wise
Though quick enough, when his thin cover's blown,
To play the Bullingdon and exercise
The toff's old privilege of uttering bone-
Head platitudes that win the booby-prize
Except as judged by members of his own
Select bunch with their Oxford-nurtured ties
Of influence, patronage, and social tone.
They made sure he could never jeopardise
His chances through excess testosterone,

Stupidity, or (now you'll see just where
I'm coming from) his willingness to sell
This country down the river, bring despair
To countless migrant lives, make each day hell-
On-earth for starving Yemenis since they're
In line of fire for every British shell
Rained on them by the Saudis, do his share,
And more, in building up the current swell
Of fear-fed xenophobia, and prepare
The witches' brew of lies that cast its spell
On those without the time or thought to spare
For checking things. That's why they promptly fell
For every false prospectus he'd declare
With all the chutzpah of the ne'er-do-well
Street-trader trying to flog a dodgy pair
Of Levis to a cash-strapped clientele.

So when he next lets on he's keen to get
Back on connubial terms, or starts to press
The chat beyond a spot of tete-a-tete,
Please think - before allowing him to mess
With your sleep-patterns - how it might be met,
This fumbling boss-shot at a first caress,
By firm repudiation of your debt
To nature, custom or the old-style stress
On wifely duty. Then - to make him sweat -
Recount his sundry acts of boorishness,
Hypocrisy, self-interest, covert threat,
Bad faith, and willingness to acquiesce
In proven war-crimes. No cause for regret:
Think Lysistrata, watch him detumesce,
Then hit him with your choicest epithet
As he finds cause to rue his state of dress.



Letter to W. H. Auden
Tuesday, 03 October 2017 20:14

Letter to W. H. Auden

Published in Poetry

by Christopher Norris


This verse-letter is written in Rhyme Royal, the seven-line stanza-form (rhyming ababbcc) that goes back to some of the earliest English poetry and was taken up by W.H. Auden in his ‘Letter to Lord Byron’. The piece first appeared in Letters from Iceland (1937), a jointly-authored book by Auden and Louis MacNeice containing a mixture of verse and prose, travel-notes and politics, the serious and the anecdotal or skittish. My poem is addressed to Auden and talks about our current world-political scene in relation to likewise ominous developments during the 1930s. It emulates Auden’s way of mixing the formal with the casual and his knack of moving out, cinematic-style, from the personal or parochial to the global or world-historical.

(‘MacSpaunday’: collective name invented by Roy Campbell for the group of prominent left-leaning 1930s writers [mostly poets] which included Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis. Campbell was a right-wing poet and polemicist who meant nothing very kindly or affectionate by it. A quick Google search will help with ‘Chad Valley’ and other perhaps unfamiliar references.)


Forgive, dear Wystan, my presuming thus
To pinch your rhyme-scheme, though you can afford
To humour me or not make too much fuss
Since you first lifted it from Byron (Lord)
And took some other tricks of his on board
(Which I'll do here), like using verse to chat,
As mood suggests, concerning this and that.

Still, let’s admit the parallels extend
Beyond such formal matters to the fact
That you, back in the 1930s, penned
Those stanzas full of doubts and fears, though tact
As well as your un-Faustian poet-pact
With sage Apollo, god of form, required
That verse-craft quell what panic-state inspired.

You won’t believe it but, just eighty years
On from your time of writing, we’ve now got
A US president who brings those fears
Of yours right back to life and shows we’d not
Yet managed to dig out the fascist rot
You saw as enemy to all that stood
For civic virtue and the common good.

CN gop 2016 trump

You keep it up, that semi-jester role
Encouraged by the verse-form, but it’s hard
To keep up now, in part because a droll
Or laid-back style’s the standard calling-card
Of satire’s current leftist avant-garde,
And partly owing to the thought that it’s
Quite likely he’ll soon blow us all to bits.

You don’t yet know it, writing from your own
Mid-thirties standpoint, but they’ll fight and win
The war they strive by all means to postpone,
Those old appeasers whose pro-Hitler spin
On world affairs our Tory toffs begin
To try once more, kowtowing to a fool-
Cum-gangster bred up in the self-same school.

CN trump and may

You see them now, hot-footing it to pay
Their fawning overtures as soon as he’s
Installed as president, though really they
Just want to front the quisling queue and seize
This lucky chance to get down on their knees,
Kiss arse if needed, and declare that he’ll
Have their loyal backing after that trade-deal.

One thing the verse-form helps with, as you know,
Is how to handle the eight-decade lapse
Which gives us knowledge of the way things go
Post-'39 while your temporal maps
Have lots of ‘here be dragons’ blanks and gaps
Which we can now fill in with all the late-
Won wisdom brought by simple change of date.

This form’s a winner chiefly through its use
Of that capacious rhyme-scheme, plus the way
Its mix of formal structure with some loose
Or casual phrasing lets us have our say
About how you lot might have saved the day
But not risk sounding smug or acting wise
After events that matched your worst surmise.

Besides, what price the dubious benefit
Of our historic wisdom if we take
From it no more than an excuse to sit
Around composing verses, or to make
Your low decade our theme just for the sake
Of cranking out more poems that allow
Us more escape-routes from the here-and-now.

So not for us to tax that ’thirties crew
Of poet fellow-travellers with the crime,
If such it is, of having much to do
With ideas, words and clever turns of rhyme
But not with urgencies of place and time
That, so we judge, should properly demand
They exit poetry’s cloud-cuckoo-land.

That's why I’m not the least degree inclined
To join the Orwell-clones who now deplore
You and your generation, or who find
Self-love and self-advertisement, no more,
In those formalities devised to shore
Against your sense of a world-order gone
To pot: let good verse-manners carry on!

CN macspaunday

Yet getting old MacSpaunday off the hook
Is too much like extending special leave
To us, or promising to close the book
On our inaction just so long as we’ve
Made good our case for history’s reprieve
On grounds of service to the poet’s art
In homage to its formal world apart.

For – truth to tell – we now have far less scope
Than you for any self-defensive move
Which says that poetry’s our last, best hope,
That its constraints may help us jump the groove
Of prose-constricted habit, and so prove
Not just an action-blocking trick of thought
But one that brings bad action-plans up short.

The point is, we’ve your own example there
In front of us, your poems and the whole
Mind-set we call ‘The Thirties’, so you bear
The burden of our thinking how you might
Have done much more to carry forward the fight
From literary speech-act to the sphere
Of action where the world may lend an ear.

So, like I said, we’re all the more to blame
For blaming you yet failing still to learn
The lesson that you ‘thirties poets came,
In different ways, to mark as your great turn
Of life and thought, so that you’d either spurn
Much of your early work or make it known
That we should deem it kid’s stuff, long outgrown.

Not so, at least not always, so why strain
Credulity by asking us to twist
Our judgement round and treat your poem ‘Spain’,
That conscience-call, as if we’d somehow missed
Its glaring faults because they offered grist
To Orwell's tetchy mill and also fed
Your taste for giving self-reproach its head.

Always a flip-side, and for us it’s that
Temptation to indulge our own retreat
From deed to word or act to poem-chat
By totting up your moral balance-sheet
And fancying our tame versicles to meet
The kinds of standard you applied, not just
Late on but when your muse was more robust.

In short, no jacking up our feeble score
As activists or militants by dint
Of self-applied analogy with your
Half-century sustained poetic stint
And, more than that, your having left in print
So many poems that (late qualms aside)
Took politics and ethics well in stride.

Suppose our situations were reversed,
You looking back across the eight-decade-
Long interval and witnessing the worst
Of times again, what with this bottom-grade
Moronic US president who’s made
It clear he’ll kill all life on Earth through one
Means or another by the time he’s done.

CN north korea kim jong un donald trump nuclear threat uss john c stennis 584269

Just think (the implications won’t be lost
On you) how it’s within the power of this
Illiterate thug to start a war whose cost,
Should just a few ICBMs not miss
Their target, adds up to the thought-abyss
Of humankind extinct along with all
The arts and sciences on the small ball.

God knows, you had it bad back then, but think:
What shall they say of us who had the chance
To put a stop to him, that missing link
In modern guise, yet chose to look askance
At action-plans and cultivate a trance-
Like will to have no distant rumours spoil
Our peace with echoes of that mortal coil.

You’ve heard me out, and patiently, so I’ll
Not try your patience too far but remark,
For what it’s worth, that elements of ‘style’
(So-called) in your best poems strike a spark
Of shared humanity against the dark
And all-destructive potency that waits
On one man's word as will or whim dictates.

My point: you had the hint of gravitas,
The serious note, as in an end-of-term
School homily by one who might just pass
As Head-material, that it took to firm
Your satire up and make the guilty squirm,
Along with just the light touch to disarm
Our finely tuned self-righteousness alarm.

For, unlike some, you managed to hold out
Against the idea that satiric scorn,
Or saeva indignatio, had clout
Enough by fear of mockery to warn
The wicked off their ways so that, twice-born
At its dread summons, they confessed in full
How far they’d yielded to temptation’s pull.

Just think of Peter Cook (I know, he showed
Up decades later – Pete-and-Dud sketch guy),
And how he talked about the debt he owed,
As satirist, not just to Private Eye
But to those Berlin cabarets whose wry
Take on the 1930s did so much
To save the world from war and Hitler’s clutch.

No, satire’s not enough to show the likes
Of Trump in their true colours, or arouse
Such popular revulsion that he strikes
Them suddenly as just a big girl’s blouse
(Nice phrase – you’ll like it) and the people’s vows
Go up: God help us if we don’t get rid
Of this buffoon and mend the harm he did.

Allow me just one last attempt to nail
Down what I mean, although perhaps the drift
Is fairly clear: that poetry must fail
In times like yours and mine because the gift
Of words-in-order’s not a thing to lift
The curse of evil government or fill
Wrong-doers with a cautionary chill.

The formalist in you said poems had
No power to ‘make things happen’, since their place
Was ‘in the valley of their making’ – Chad
Valley, or so it seems – and lacked the space
For anything so brute or in-your-face
As politics, or palpable intent,
Or speech-acts of a world-transforming bent.

But that was you late on, when you’d long switched
Allegiances from Marx and Freud to God
With Freud as handy back-up, and so ditched
All thought of poetry as lightning rod
Or galvanizer for the ’thirties squad
Who had no time for any such divorce
Between the conjoint claims of form and force.

If you were sitting now in that ‘low dive
On 52nd Street’ and read a page
Or two of our news coverage, you’d arrive
At much the same conclusion: not an age
For private threnodies rehearsed offstage
But one that leaves the poets, now as then,
Lone formalists against the anchormen.

CN auden

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