Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital
Thursday, 18 May 2017 14:21

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille traces the links between corporate sponsorship and the distortion of history and art, in two recent exhibitions.

How do the ruling classes manipulate art and culture to secure political consent for oppression and exploitation? Two exhibitions on the 1917 Revolution in Russia go some way to providing an answer.

Most historians of Russian history in 1917 accept that both the February and October Revolutions in 1917 were both clear improvements on the Tsarist autocracy that preceded them.

Most cultural historians also recognise the explosion of creativity and the widespread democratisation of culture which followed the October Revolution. Art and cultural activities suddenly became exciting, accessible and relevant to many ordinary Russians.

But these are uncomfortable facts for our current rulers, who must crush any hopes for political or cultural progress if they are to stay on top. And there are two ways they can undermine those facts and hopes. One is to construct a biased and misleading narrative which ignores historical evidence and downplays artists’ support for the Revolution. This is the strategy which was followed in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, in its openly one-sided and distorted presentation of the politics and art of the Revolution.

The second way is to create a monumental fudge which obscures the real historical and cultural achievements of 1917, through a kind of chaotic eclecticism. This is the strategy followed by the British Library in its current exhibition of ‘a wide range of objects’ and in the mistaken, banal and often meaningless ‘guided tour’ offered by its curator in the Morning Star recently.

Let me take three examples from the curator’s article. The first is this statement:

‘Today, people are not so much concerned about the faults of capitalist society but are trying to find their way through the new challenges of the global world.’

How on earth anyone can write this in the middle of an election campaign in which the Labour Party are quite clearly trying to address the faults of a capitalist society which concern us all, is beyond belief.

The second is the individualistic focus on the ‘personal stories’ of those involved, and reliance on the ‘individual interpretations’ of visitors to the exhibition, rather than providing a broader historically-based understanding of Russian history, which is left for ‘academics to analyse’. Frankly, this is a cop-out, because curatorial practice, including the type of contextual and supporting material supplied, is bound to influence visitors’ perceptions.

It is also disingenuous, because the curators do have a message. They believe that the exhibition ‘can convey a simple idea that violence can only create more violence in response’. This is sloppy and simplistic thinking.

History is full of instances where individuals and classes have violently seized control of commonly held resources, and have been unwilling to give them up peacefully. They have had to be challenged, defeated and restrained by force as well as by peaceful argument, in order that most people can have a fair share of the earth’s resources. Of course peaceful persuasion is best, but what alternative is there to force if that doesn’t work to end exploitation? Would slaves, peasants and serfs have ever been freed without their violent, illegal rebellions?

The ‘violence breeds violence’ message conceals a defeatist political agenda. When the law itself is nothing more than a codification of unjust and oppressive social and economic relationships, it has to be challenged and changed by every means at our disposal.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not so coincidentally – both exhibitions have been sponsored by the Blavatnik Foundation. This foundation is the beneficiary of Britain’s second richest man, Leonard Blavatnik, who made a huge fortune after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying legalised robbery by private individuals and corporations of the wealth built up by the Russian people since 1917.

So money stolen from the Russian people is used to fund cultural exhibitions which – guess what? – distort the truth about Russian history. That is how dominant classes manipulate art and culture to secure consent for exploitation and oppression.

Have there ever been more obvious examples of the increasing corruption of our cultural institutions by corporate capital, masquerading as philanthropic or charitable foundations? A key demand of any progressive arts and culture policy must now be the complete abolition of private sponsorship of our common culture and heritage.

This article is also published in the Morning Star.

Thursday, 12 October 2017 16:27

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award

Published in Round-up

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award, run by Culture Matters in partnership with the Communication Workers Union, is now closed for entries.

Thanks to everyone who sent in entries, we have received a lot of good submissions. We'll work out a way to publish as many as possible online, and announce the winners as soon as possible..

We will also be shortly announcing details of the second Bread and Roses Poetry Award, run by Culture Matters in partnership with Unite.

Watch this space, as they say.....

The struggle never ends
Tuesday, 21 February 2017 18:25

The struggle never ends

Published in Music

Like all artists, musicians enhance the quality of our lives, and expand the cultural commons which we need as much as the air we breathe. Chris Wood has developed into one of the most socially aware songwriters in Britain, and Mike Quille caught up with him during his latest British tour.

MQ: Who are the people who've influenced you most, musically and politically?

CW: The answer to both those questions is - Anon. I grew up listening to folk song and I have to say, it's all there. Our folk songs are a vast repository of wisdom, and are about a history that has largely escaped the airbrush of the establishment. In fact the establishment works quite hard to have us believe that our folk music is not cool, that it is silly and naïve, which a great deal of it is.

But in amongst the fol-de-rols there are works of exquisite genius and great wisdom. Tales of cruelty and injustice, inventiveness and stoicism, love and fortitude. Above all folk music reminds me that, whatever is thrown at us, we abide.

MQ. You won the BBC Folk Award for the song None the Wiser, a melancholy but devastatingly insightful song about the way things are these days. Can you tell us something about the background to the song?

CW: None The Wiser was written on the Joan Armatrading tour bus during a 60 day tour. I remember Elvis Costello saying that he quickly realised if he didn't learn to write while touring he wasn't going to get anything written.

Every morning we'd wake up in a different town and I'd have the whole day to hang out in town centres and coffee shops. I soon realised I was getting a privileged opportunity to observe Britain in the throes of Austerity. Much more immersive than any politician on a 'battle bus' - with or without a lie painted on the side.

I remember a guy whose job was as a 'first on the scene' aircraft crash specialist. He said the first crash he attended he couldn't see any bodies and then, he started to realise there was a piece of something there and another piece of what looked like something there, a smear here and a shape there, the horror that slowly came upon him as he 'got his eye in' was a moment he'd never forget.

Well, without attempting to sound too dramatic, I had a similar experience as I spent time hanging out in town centres the length and breadth of the British Isles. I started to get my eye in, and my ear too. I'm sorry if it's a bit gritty for some people but pretty much all of what takes place in that song happened.

MQ. The way  you've arranged and sing Jerusalem is unusually downbeat and reflective. How far do you identify with Blake’s ‘mental fight’ to ‘build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’?

CW: I woke at 4am one day, with Blake's half-remembered words in my head, so I looked them up. For the first time in my life I encountered the words, not sung by the crowd at the Last Night of the Proms, but as the poet had intended, on the page. It was an epiphany, and two things struck me.

Firstly, the first verse consists not of triumphal statements, but of four questions, to which the answers are all No.

And secondly, that this was a 4am poem. It's not the voice of many, it is a solitary voice. It's the voice of a human reaching into himself to find a reason to carry on. The voice of a man shaken by the depth of indifference the world has for him and all that he believes in.

I managed to get back to sleep but I awoke with a new tune in my head. I'm not trying to sell my thinking or my work here but this setting seems to me to more closely honour the poet.

I know what Blake means – the struggle never ends.

MQ. What’s the music business like these days, for working musicians?

CW: The business is brutal, but I think it always has been. That said, I wouldn't want to do anything else. I asked a fellow music biz worker what would he do if he won the Lottery, and he replied ‘exactly what I'm doing now, but ruder! I love what I do but love is, as they say, blind.

If I could click my fingers and make one change I would have loads more women in the business. It's far too blokey. I'm not so much talking about the principal artists but the backing musicians, crew, producers, promoters, mix engineers etc. Whenever I encounter women in these areas of the industry they are not only, of course, highly accomplished but have a hugely positive effect on the men around them.

MQ: How's your current tour, the So Much to Defend Tour, going?

CW: Well, a few years ago the industry decided to make music available, effectively, for free. The public responded wholeheartedly and now we find we have an industry which is, how shall we put this... fluid.

But you still find people talking like nothing has really happened. So an innocent question like, "When's the album out?" actually means – when will we be able to get what you've been pouring your heart, soul and life savings into for the past three years, for free?

This of course is not isolated to musicians. Driving jobs employ the most males in the western world, and yet the driverless car is only about 4/5 years away. Even lawyers, god bless ‘em, are looking over their shoulders as legal search sofware becomes ever more refined.

So the perfectly reasonable question ‘How's the tour going?’ actually translates as something like - now that your recordings are worthless I expect you're playing every gig you can get?

MQ. Finally, in ‘Trespasser’ you lament the Enclosures, the process of privatising and commercialising the commons, which as you say happens with cultural products like music as well as land. So what’s your thinking on what the way forward should be?

CW: It’s a human fault to always feel that the times through which we’re living are somehow special. There’s nothing particular or special about where we are at the moment. All of history’s archetypes are present – the avaricious, the ignorant, the helpless, the blind, the unquestioning, the naive, the cynical, the jaded, the selfish, the acquisitive, the self-righteous and so on.

Personally, I try to vote with my money. I’ve never been in debt to anyone but a building society. I avoid multinationals, I try and source my needs from my community and keep the VAT down to an absolute minimum. The allotment is a massive part of our life.

And of course there’s the songwriting!

Chris Wood is currently on tour, for dates and venues see http://chriswoodmusic.co.uk/gigs/. This is an extended version of an interview published by the Morning Star.

Bread, roses and the cultural commons
Monday, 30 January 2017 15:24

Bread, roses and the cultural commons

Published in Cultural Commentary

‘The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too’ said the aptly named Rose Schneiderman early in the last century. She was right, we all need bread – fair material rewards for our labour – but we also need roses. We need a popular and extensive cultural commons, including free or cheap access to cultural activities, to develop and enjoy our essentially social natures.

The Culture Matters website aims to contribute to the cultural struggle, what Blake called the ‘mental fight’ for a new Jerusalem, for a more democratic and socialist society. The struggle will be long and hard. Over time, capitalism has penetrated our culture more and more. And culture, as Raymond Williams pointed out, is not just highbrow art but consists of all our ideas, values, beliefs and customs, including all the arts but also sport, religion, eating and drinking, watching TV, etc.

It’s true that capitalism’s dynamism and innovation has helped create a massive expansion in opportunities for cultural education and enjoyment. Think of the number of TV and radio channels, books, art galleries, films, music festivals, and sports facilities there are these days. But there is also a relentless drive for profit in capitalism. Every human activity, including art and cultural activity, has to be measured by its contribution to profitability. It is also fundamentally exploitative, as demonstrated in the famous passage of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where the Great Money Trick is explained. This transfer of value from workers to owners is divisive and unjust, so in order to lessen social conflict there has to be an ideological drive to generate a culture of submission and acceptance of exploitation.

Capitalism shapes culture, and culture expresses capitalism, in many different ways. It’s why sport is so commercialised and corrupt, why so much organised religion is so uncritical of exploitation and injustice, why we have TV programmes like The Apprentice glorifying selfishness and ruthless competitiveness, and why the supermarkets encourage a culture of overconsumption of food and drink.

And it’s why we have a huge and long-term problem of unequal funding by the state for the arts in Britain today. The inequalities are of staggering, Dickensian proportions. Vast swathes of the arts and cultural activities are virtually impossible for most ordinary people – particularly poorer people – to access and enjoy, for reasons linked to social class, geography and education.

On top of these structural problems, we’re suffering massive cutbacks to support for arts and cultural activities across the country, particularly outside London and the South East. These are happening through cuts in funding, directly and through cuts in general support for local authorities – particularly in poorer areas. Critical and creative engagement with the arts is also being shunted out of the educational curriculum.

Culture Matters seeks to expose the Great Culture Trick, the shocking inequalities in the way the arts and cultural activities are currently funded and managed. It will also campaign for more progressive policies. Because we know that the arts and cultural activities can resist, oppose and help overcome alienation and oppression. They can increase awareness, arouse indignation, and imagine alternatives. Robert Tressell’s novel is a good example of that potential. But it’s also there in sports clubs, churches, supermarkets and pubs, as well as in art galleries, concert halls and poetry readings.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which triggered one of the most significant, popular artistic and cultural explosions of the twentieth century. Let’s make 2017 the year of campaigning for bread and roses.

If you think you can help with relevant material for this section of the website, please write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This is an edited version of an article first published in the Morning Star.

Monday, 14 November 2016 00:11

Welcome to Culture Matters

Published in About us

Welcome to Culture Matters


20de757c22c223669137e452488fb41e L

I will not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant land.

- William Blake

                    

 

Culture Matters is part of our cultural struggle or ‘mental fight’ against class divisions, to achieve a cultural commons in a socialist society – a new Jerusalem, as William Blake called it, and not only in England, but across the world. As you can see from the About Us section, we aim to promote a progressive political approach to the arts and all other cultural activities.

You'll find recent material on this Home page, and every piece sent in since our launch a couple of years ago is available under the relevant topic sections in the Arts and Culture Hubs.

Everything on Culture Matters – articles, poems, images, editorial and technical support – has been contributed freely. We are a registered co-operative, firmly rooted in the labour movement, and we're planning to publish more books, deliver cultural education packages, run arts awards in partnership with trade unions, and develop other progressive cultural projects. If you would like to help with this work by joining the co-op and buying shares, please visit Shop & Support. You're also welcome to contribute articles, essays, poems and artworks to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

We hope you enjoy browsing the site, and that you find it entertaining, enlightening and inspiring. Culture Matters!

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: Heretical, Subversive and Revolutionary
Thursday, 10 November 2016 15:43

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: Heretical, Subversive and Revolutionary

Published in Visual Arts

A radical cultural struggle against the established order: Mike Quille reviews the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery.

Curators sometimes overuse the word revolutionary when promoting exhibitions but it is an apt description of the six paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio which hang alongside those of his admirers, rivals and imitators at the National Gallery. The show Beyond Caravaggio demonstrates just how innovative, oppositional and subversive his paintings were — and are.

Rome in the early 17th century was a city deeply divided by class, with a tiny minority of very rich and powerful people and large numbers of poor. It was also dominated by the Church which then, as now, often served to legitimise the exploitation of the many by the few. Art was commissioned and deployed by the popes and cardinals to provide conformist devotional images, part of the ideological justification for an unjust social order.

But Caravaggio’s art was both heretical and revolutionary. Long before thinkers were articulating theories of how religion expressed and inverted worldly suffering, he took religious themes and, visually, brought them down to earth. In Supper at Emmaus, the scepticism and shock on the careworn faces of peasants in their tattered work clothes gives a resolutely human and mundane perspective on sacred events - see how the man on the right of the picture stretches out his arms, like Christ on the cross. Imagine the reactions of poor pilgrims from all over Europe, streaming past these paintings, seeing themselves depicted realistically in sacred scenes for the first time!

The striking realism and “tenebrism” of Caravaggio — strongly contrasting tones, piercing light and vast pools of inky shadows — heightens the emotional challenge and drama in the images, as exemplified in The Taking of Christ.

Caravaggio Taking of Christ rev

The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio, 1602, Dublin


Like the noir film genre, surely part of his legacy, it is a visual expression of the uncertainties, contradictions and obscure, violent terrors of the precarious social existence around him. We can also interpret the painting as depicting the way artistic culture, represented by Judas and Caravaggio himself on the far right of the picture, holding the lamp, betrays truth and justice by allying itself with the violent, armour-clad forces of social domination. It's a prophetic parable of cultural hegemony, centuries before Gramsci was born. 

Caravaggio’s art also has a democratic force: it includes, involves and empowers. In Supper at Emmaus, the disciples’ hands stretch out, drawing us into the composition. For the first time in the history of Western art, the space between viewer and scene has been destroyed. And, in contrast to traditional religious art, the meanings in Caravaggio’s paintings are challenging, ambiguous and negotiable, liberating us from a lazy, deferential consent to the dominant ways of thinking and feeling so omnipresent in class-divided societies.

In paintings such as Card Players, depicting a foppish, soft-skinned aristocrat being cheated at cards by a lowlife character, whose side are we supposed to be on? Is this not a painting of resistance and rebellion, of playfully imagined expropriation by the lower classes from the rich thieves who rule them?

caravaggio cardsharps1

Cardsharps, Caravaggio, 1594, Kimbell Art Museum

In the light — and dark — of Caravaggio’s amazing achievement, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the other paintings in the exhibition are nowhere near as good. There are some technically good imitations but generally his admirers and imitators reverted to the mainstream aesthetics of devotion, awe and pity in religious art and a relatively anaemic realism in secular art.

The upheavals of 20th-century modernism are what make Caravaggio’s art look incredibly of the here and now. The enduring power of his paintings shows us that truly great art is intrinsically opposed to class-divided societies. Now, we are used to subversive ambiguity, social awareness and uncomfortable challenges to the viewer. Then, it was truly revolutionary — a radical cultural struggle against the established aesthetic and ideological order.

And because our unequal world is not so different from his, we can still feel the strength of his challenging, complex and oppositional art. In that sense art has not, in fact, gone beyond Caravaggio.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Beyond Caravaggio runs at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until January 15, and then tours to Dublin and Edinburgh.

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90
Friday, 04 November 2016 15:36

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90

Published in Poetry

John Berger was born on 5th November 1926. To celebrate his 90th birthday, we republish some of his poems, an interview, and some of his quotations.

One of the people who was due to attend the Teeside International Poetry Festival in 2015 was John Berger, the Marxist art critic, essayist, novelist, artist and poet. He could not come in the end, due to severe arthritis, but he appeared via Skype at one of the sessions, and recited some poems from his recent collection, published by Smokestack Books.

Collected Poems reflects Berger's longstanding concerns with art and politics, love and war, history and memory, and the life of the peasantry around him (he used to live in the Haute Savoie, in the French Alps). They demonstrate an enduring commitment to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.

You can tell from the poems that the writer is a fine draughtsman and artist. Each one of them is like a perfectly framed image, a painted still life, sensual, honest and plain. They are sketches of hard lives, caught between the provisional nature of language and the permanence of things. Here are five of the poems.

16.45h The Firing Squad

The dog carried the day in her mouth
over the fields of the small hours
towards a hiding place
which before had been safe.

Nobody was woken before dawn.

At noon
the dog sprawling in the shade
placed the pup between her four paws
and waited in vain
for it to suck.

A line of prisoners
hands knotted
fall forward
into the grave they have dug.

Belly to the earth
the dog carries the day
which has never stirred
back to its dark.

Under the stars the bereaved
imagine they hear
a dog howling too
on the edge of the world.

This piteous day was born
stone-deaf and blind.

Napalm

Mother let me cry
not letterpress
nor telex
nor stainless speech
bulletins
announce disaster
with impunity -
but the pages of the wound.

Mother let me speak
not adjectives
to colour
their maps of wretchedness
nor nouns to classify
the families of pain -
but the verb of suffering.

My mother tongue taps
the sentence
on the prison wall
Mother let me write
the voices
howling in the falls.


History

The pulse of the dead
as interminably
constant as the silence
which pockets the thrush.

The eyes of the dead
inscribed on our palms
as we walk on this earth
which pockets the thrush.


Seven Levels of Despair

To search each morning
to find the scraps
with which to survive another day.

The knowledge on waking
that in this legal wilderness
no rights exist.

The experience over the years
of nothing getting better
only worse.
The humiliation of being able
to change almost nothing,
and of seizing upon the almost
which then leads to another impasse.

The listening to a thousand promises
which pass inexorably
beside you and yours.

The example of those who resist
being bombarded to dust.

The weight of your own killed
a weight which closes
innocence for ever
because they are so many.


Ladle

Pewter pock-marked
moon of the ladle
rising above the mountain
going down into the saucepan
serving generations
steaming
dredging what has grown from seed
in the garden
thickened with potato
outliving us all
on the wooden sky
of the kitchen wall

Serving mother
of the steaming pewter breast
veined by the salts
fed to her children
hungry as boars
with the evening earth
engrained around their nails
and bread the brother
serving mother

Ladle
pour the sky steaming
with the carrot sun
the stars of salt
and the grease of the pig earth
pour the sky steaming
ladle
pour soup for our days
pour sleep for our night
pour years for my children


Art and Politics

As well as being a major poet, John Berger is a cultural critic who has challenged and changed the way we see the world, in countless essays and in books such as Ways of Seeing, Permanent Red, Pig Earth, and the novel G.

During the Skype session at the Festival, he answered some questions about art and politics. I followed this up with a telephone interview with him, and exchanged some texts, and below I set out the questions he was asked, and the answers that he gave.

Q. What constitutes good art?

A. Good art is like a lorry: it transports.

Q. Are poets, as Shelley famously suggested, the unacknowledged legislators of the world?

A. Poets are not legislators themselves, but they can be great agents of change. They evoke the need for a new politics by being able to envision the world, to summon up the past and future, to make them present, thus making it clearer how things could be different.

Q. Auden said that poetry changed nothing, and Brecht said that art is a hammer with which to change reality. Can poetry make useful political interventions, and change reality?

A. Well you have to remember that reality is not just some outside, fixed given, it includes our experience of what’s out there. With that in mind, it seems to me that poetry can indeed change people, because we all know how a good poem alters, no matter how slightly, our perceptions of the world around us. Those perceptions lead to us making hundreds of different choices, including political choices. So its effect is continuous, and multiple.  It can also encourage disobedience, and demonstrate that language is not necessarily the meaningless crap by which we are surrounded!

Q. You have produced many kinds of writing, including art criticism, novels, essays, and poems. Which discipline do you prefer the most?

A. Nearly all my work has involved collaborations with other people. For example, Ways of Seeing, for which most people know me best, was a collaboration with several others, and this tends to get forgotten.  So I would say that I don’t have a preferred genre as such, but I do have a preferred mode of creativity, and that is collaboration. For me, collaboration is a kind of solidarity, in fact it creates solidarity, and that is for me a very important principle of working.

Q. You spoke of the ability of poetry to envision the world. How should teachers and academics approach poetry, what should they do with it, and how should it be taught?

A. Students and people generally should be encouraged to surround themselves with poetry, with the sounds and forms and silences that are in poems.

Q. What impact do you think the internet has had on the arts and society generally?

A. The internet is a fast, effective way of sharing a lot of information. It thus helps expose and clarify the present structures of power in the world. It makes it clearer how globalised capitalism works, how the world is run by decisions taken by giant transnational corporations, by tiny elites of capitalists.
I think many young people see this clearly, partly because of the ease with which they handle new technology, but also because they are one of the main victims of unemployment, low pay and insecure employment.

Politicians have lost power, or perhaps it has become clearer how little power they ever really had. But they won’t admit it, and this leads to great folly and doublespeak in the use of language, which alienates people, it makes us feel lost and desperate. But we can resist it when we realize where power comes from, and as I say, the internet and new technology generally can help clarify where real power lies.

Q. What would be your parting message be to us?

A. We live in a dark age. Art has existed for at least 30,000 years. Another age of hope will come.

Work for it!

Some Quotes from John Berger


'the issue is between a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience and the esoteric approach of a few specialised experts, who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline. In decline, not before the proletariat, but before the new power of the corporation and the state.'

‘I now believe there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or art and state property, unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can be developed any further.'

'My aim has been to try and destroy this bourgeois society'

'The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.'

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 15:28

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War

Published in Poetry

To mark the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and in memory of the British and Irish International Brigaders who wrote poems and who died in that war, Mike Quille introduces a few poems taken from Poems from Spain, edited by Jim Jump.

The war against Franco's fascist rebellion saw 'poets exploding like bombs' as Auden said in his famous poem 'Spain', published in 1937. And the war has sometimes been called 'the poets' war', probably because more progressive political poetry was written about it, from combatants and others on active service, than any other war in the twentieth century, even though it was considerably smaller and shorter than other wars. However, as in every other war in modern times, 80% of the fighters were men from manual trades. None of the poems below were written by professional poets. They were, though, exceptional individuals, activists from the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the trade unions and some of the allied cultural and educational institutions.

Alex McDade was a labourer from Glasgow who fought and was wounded at the battle of Jarama in 1937. He became a company political commissar for the British Battalion and was killed on 6 July 1937. His poem 'Valley of Jarama' was the basis for the song by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, but it's shorter, bleaker, and more soldierly.

Valley of Jarama
by Alex McDade

There's a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That's a place that we all know so well,
For 'tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.

From this valley they tell us we're leaving
But don't hasten to bid us adieu,
For e'en though we make our departure,
We'll be back in an hour or two.

Oh we're proud of our British Battalion,
And the marathon record it's made.
Please do us this little favour,
And take this last word to Brigade:

'You will never be happy with strangers,
They would not understand you as we.
So remember the Jarama Valley
And the old men who wait patiently.'


Charles Donnelly was an Irish Republican, Communist and trade union activist, who was also killed at Jarama. Like a number of war poems, his modernist poetry is formally innovative, finding bluntly effective ways to express the horror, cruelty and inhumanity of war.

The Tolerance of Crows
by Charles Donnelly

Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps, well-ordered dispositions,
Angles of elevation and direction;

Comes innocent from tools children might
Love, retaining under pillows
Innocently impales on any flesh.

And with flesh falls apart the mind
That trails thought from the mind that cuts
Thought clearly for a waiting purpose.

Progress of poison in the nerves and
Discipline’s collapse is halted.
Body awaits the tolerance of crows.

Heroic Heart
by Charles Donnelly

Ice of heroic heart seals plasmic soil
Where things ludicrously take root
To show in leaf kindnesses time had buried
And cry music under a storm of 'planes,
Making thrust head to slacken, muscles waver
And intent mouth recall old tender tricks.
Ice of heroic heart seals steel-bound brain.

There newer organs built for friendship's grappling
Waste down like wax. There only leafless plants
And earth retain disinterestedness.
Though magnetised to lie of the land, moves
Heartily over the map wrapped in its iron
Storm. Battering the toads, armoured columns
Break walls of stone or bone without receipt.
Jawbones find new ways with meats, loins
Raking and blind, new way with women.

Norman Brookfield worked in a library in Essex and died in September 1938 at the Sierra de Caballs in the battalion's last day in action. His style is much more traditional than Donnelly's, almost hymn-like, but equally anguished.

'Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm'
by Norman Brookfield

Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm
Relax my limbs, and feel your sooting balm;
Beneath light's tranquil stars I'll sleep at ease
When dawn's well past, to rise, and day-time fill
With pleasant strolls and food and talk at will.
Shaping vague thoughts beneath the olive trees;
Watching tobacco wreathe its lazy fumes
Quintessence rare, O rest of your perfumes.
And yet this is a respite that must end
An interval between the course of war
Which all too soon will raise its dreadful roar,
Bidding my laggard pace once more to mend;
But 'tis the thoughts of past and future strife
That make you sweet, O rest, and with you – life.

George Green was an ambulance driver, dispatch rider and hospital orderly in Spain, and was killed on the same day and at the same battle. He wrote in a very modern, prosepoetical way, vividly evoking the battlefront in an almost cinematic way. 


Dressing Station
by George Green

Casa de Campo, Madrid, March 1937

Here the surgeon, unsterile, probes by candlelight the embedded bullet.
Here the ambulance-driver waits the next journey; hand tremulous
on the wheel, eye refusing to acknowledge fear of the bridge, of
the barrage at the bad crossing.
Here the stretcher-bearer walks dead on his feet, too tired to
wince at the whistle of death in the black air over the shallow
trench; to tired now to calculate with each journey the
the diminishing chances of any return to his children, to meals at a
table, to music and the sound of feet in the jota.
Here are ears tuned to the wail of shells: lips that say, this one gets the
whole bloody station: the reflex action that flings us into the safer
corners, to cower from the falling masonry and the hot
tearing splinters at our guts.
Here the sweet smell of blood, shit, iodine, the smoke-embittered air,
the furtive odour of the dead.
Here also the dead.
Here also the dead.
This afternoon five.
Then eight.
Then two neat rows.
And now.......this was the courtyard of the road-house, filling-station
for the Hispano-Suizas and the young grandees' bellies. The sign
American Bar still hangs unshattered.
….I cannot count. Three deep: monstrous sprawling: slid from
dripping stretchers for more importunate tenants: bearded
plough-boys' faces: ownerless hand: shatterd pelvis: boots laced
for the last time: eyes moon-cold, moon-bright, defying the moon:
smashed mouth scaring away thought of the peasant breasts that so
recently suckled it....
I cannot count.

But poet, this is old stuff.
This we too have seen.
This is Flanders 1917. sassoon and Wilfred Owen did this so much better.
Is this all?
Do twenty years count for nothing?
Have you no more to show?

Yes, we have more to show.
Yes, though we grant you the two-dimensional similarity, even (to
complete the picture) allowing you the occasional brass-hat and
the self-inflicted wound.
Yet there is another dimension. Look closely. Listen carefully.

Privilege here battles with no real privilege.
The dupe there, machine-gunning us from the trenched hillside,
fights still to preserve a master's title-deeds, but we....we battle
for life.
This....we speak a little proudly, who so recently threw off the slave
shackles to do a man's work.....
This is our war.

These wounds have the red flag in them.
This salute carries respect.
Here the young soldier says 'camarada' to his general.
Here we give heed to no promise of a land fit for heroes to live in, but
take for ourselves the world to mould in our hands.
These ranks can never be broken by four years of mud and bitter
metal, into sporadic and betrayed rebellion.
Here the consciousness of a thousand years' oppression binds us as
brothers....We have learnt our lesson.
Look. Over the bridge (it is not yet dawn) comes a Russian lorry,
ammunition-laden.
Forty-three years gone, unarmed St. Petersburg's blood paid a heavy
duty on those shells.
And I? The Chartists commandeered this ambulance from a Portland
Street shop-window.
I drove: and dead Communards raised living fists as far south as
Perpignan. I saw the perils of the Pyrenees spurned by feet that
once had scaled a Bastille, by the fair-haired boys who graduated in
the streets of Charlottenburg, by those who paid a steerage
passage, to tell us how their fathers fell at Valley Forge.
For this is not 1917.
This is the struggle that justifies the try-outs of history.
This is the light that illuminates, the link that unites Wat Tyler and
the Boxer rebellion.
This is our difference, our strength, this is our manifesto, this
our song that cannot be silenced by bullets.

And finally, to Rupert John Cornford, a Cambridge Communist who was the first Englishman to enlist. He travelled twice to Spain to fight for the POUM and the International Brigades against Franco's rebels, and died in December 1936 at Lopera, near Cordoba.

'These are poems of the will, and the will bangs a drum' wrote Stephen Spender of Cornford's poems, which like some of the poems above combine a modernist sensibility with a direct, blunt and unflowery descriptions, images and diction. Here he is, banging the drum from Aragon.


A Letter From Aragon
by John Cornford

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: 'Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.'

Acknowledgements and grateful thanks are due to Jim Jump. The poems are all taken from a highly recommended book called Poems from Spain, edited by Jim, and published by Lawrence and Wishart, 2006. The book contains a foreword by Jack Jones; an excellent, clear introduction to the poems; notes on the poets and poems; and a brief history of the British and Irish Brigades' involvement in the war.

A picket mounted by the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common, 1982.
Monday, 01 August 2016 16:06

The persistence of protest: the preventative photography of Edward Barber

Published in Visual Arts

A woman sits on a fold-up chair, with a sign – 'Hello, can you stop for a talk?' – inviting passersby to stop for a chat about nuclear proliferation. An elderly woman stands on her own with a sign 'No to nuclear war' round her neck. A sandalled foot sticks out from under a police van, whilst a polieceman leans on the van, smiling uneasily at the camera. A man stands with a paper bag on his head, covered in instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

PM 011 20 A

CND Rally, Hyde Park, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.

'Peace Signs', Edward Barber's collection of arresting and moving photos from the early eighties, taken at Greenham Common and elsewhere, is currently on exhibition at the IWM in London. The photos capture the protests of people from a hugely diverse range of ages and backgrounds, though most are women.

Some images show the creative, almost playful aspects to the performance of protest, as demonstrators try to obstruct, disrupt and prevent the smooth running of the murderous war machine of Britain and its U.S. ally. Lines of singing women join hands around the fences of the missile base. Activists lie in the roads in the shape of the CND sign. Demonstrators and pickets supply an endless stream of volunteers to block the paths of supply lorries, tractors and bulldozers. Women stage a Die-in outside the Stock Exchange.

die in

Women from Greenham Common stage a Die-in outside the London Stock Exchange during the morning rush hour as President Reagan arrives in Britain, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.

In several more sombre images, we see protesters stare unsmilingly at the camera, returning our gaze. In some ways they look vulnerable and helpless. What chance do young children, older people and women have, ranged against large numbers of blank-faced, uniformed policemen? Yet the strength of their determination and conviction also shines through these beautifully clear, well-printed images, and the challenge of their anger comes vividly across the 30-odd years that separate us, mutely willing us to continue their resistance.

PM 018 35

A protester from the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common after keening in Parliament Square, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.

As befits the anti-nuclear cause, the protests are peaceful, and in a forerunner of the Occupy protests they are often playful and witty, part of an unscripted collective performance. It's a kind of folk art, facing off against the bleak, regimented lines of policemen, lifting and dragging their protesting, prostrate bodies off roads and pavements.

There are no prosaic notes accompanying the photos, giving details of the locations and events depicted, because although they would have given documentary precision, they would have limited the power of the exhibition to creatively communicate its still-relevant messages.

Instead, the photos are arranged to echo the creative, chaotic nature of the protests they document. Then, towards the end of the exhibition, Barber's 'mind map', connecting rough ideas and movements with arrows using a thick marker pen, gives some context to the protests. It maps them into a tradition of creative and collective action, reaching from the fifties to modern day protests by Jeremy Corbyn and others.

women linked round fence

'Embrace the Base': 30,000 women link hands, completely surrounding the nine mile perimeter fence at RAF/USAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.

“I saw this as preventative photography” says Edward Barber, about his collection of photographs. “I intended to document, celebrate and warn. It attempts to foreground both individual and collective engagement, courage and resilience.”

The exhibition can hardly be said to have prevented the continuation of the immoral threat to world peace represented by Britain's arsenal of nuclear weapons. But it is certainly a celebration and a warning. It is a celebration of a peculiarly British kind of humorous, angry and incredibly determined type of commitment to persistent protest against state power and militarism.

PM 087 30 A

Protestor at Bank of England. Copyright Edward Barber.

And it's a timely warning of the evils of nuclear proliferation. Just when the genocidal threats implict in the Trident missile programme are being renewed by the Government, the exhibition itself echoes and confirms the protesters' critical resistance to war, and renews their creative call for peace.

Peace Signs is on at IWM London until September 4th.

I believe in the common man: an interview with Fred Voss
Thursday, 12 May 2016 21:15

I believe in the common man: an interview with Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

When I asked Fred Voss if we could do an interview by email, little did I know what would happen. In response to my prosaic questions, he sent back a stream of prosepoetry, an inspired, Whitmanesque outpouring of creative thinking and feeling.

'How did you do that?' I asked him afterwards, amazed at what I'd read. 'It was your questions, they sparked something in me' he said, modestly. But as you will see, there was nothing special about my questions, they are the usual ones all writers get asked. The answers, though, are anything but usual.

However it happened, I feel privileged to have sparked this torrent of imaginative prose, and am very proud to present it to you here on Culture Matters. I hope you feel something of the surprise and joy I felt when I opened his messages. And I hope you agree that if ever proof was needed that culture mattered, then surely this is it.

Q. Can you tell us what it's like to live in Long Beach?

I have lived in Long Beach for 40 years, and I love it. It is Los Angeles County’s second largest city, located 20 miles south of L.A. on the Pacific Ocean, and its port of Long Beach/San Pedro is the largest in the U.S.

It has a long history. It was a navy town for many decades, had one of the most famous amusement parks and roller coasters (The Pike on the beach) in the U.S., and was home to Douglas Aircraft Company, builder of aircraft for the U.S. WW2 war effort and of airplanes for the world after the war.

Star Kist was one of many tuna canneries on the waterfront, there was a ferry from Long Beach to San Pedro across the harbor, Todd Shipyard and the Naval Shipyard employed thousands of blue collar men, a statue of Harry Bridges the famous Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) union hero stood beneath the green Vincent Thomas Bridge, oil refineries and oil islands and oil derricks dotted the landscape, the downtown streets were full of all-night movies showing men’s movies and cowboy movies, bars with names like The Pink Elephant and The Poop Deck and the V Room full of pool hustlers and sailors with peanut shells strewn across the floors were on every corner, there were old Hollywood sound stages and the Villa Riviera 1928 hotel with a green copper roof where Clark Gable and Rock Hudson and many other movie stars liked to stay (the ghost of Clark Gable is still said to haunt Ocean Boulevard). In Visions of Cody Jack Kerouac mentioned visiting Long Beach in the 40s and seeing the downtown streets full of guys in cowboy boots.

It is an eccentric city of nearly half a million, and when I moved here in 1976 The Pike Amusement Park was shutting down and the International Long Beach Grand Prix was starting up, making the downtown streets shake. I got a job at Douglas Aircraft Company where over 50,000 people worked, joined The United Auto and Aerospace Workers union and began my career making aircraft parts.

There were hippies in the parks playing softball and sometimes throwing rocks at police, the Morningland religious cult with its purple banners on 7th Street, witchcraft stores selling oils and herbs, and poetry readings in the many bars. California State University at Long Beach, with its 32,000 students, has fostered a strong creative writing poetry tradition since the late 60s inspired by the literary legend Dr. Gerald Locklin, and Charles Bukowski gave several of his first readings in the early 70s at the university and in the city’s bars where he drank and read his poetry in defense of the down and the defeated and the working men and women and the joys and laughs of going crazy and rebelling against the American bourgeois way of life.

An editor of the Long Beach poetry magazine Maelstrom Review, the late Leo Mailman, said he thought there was something magical about Long Beach that made people write, and I’d have to agree, having written 7 novels and 3,000 poems here at kitchen tables as motorcycles roared and old ladies hobbled down sidewalks on canes. On Grand Ave. I lived next to door to Big Ivan from Russia who told me stories from his days wrestling professionally at the storied Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A., then drank himself to death after his drunken wife went crazy throwing furniture at the walls and singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and was hauled away in a police car. How can you not write when you share a paper-thin wall with people like that?

For 26 years I have lived happily two blocks from the sea with my wife the poet and publisher Joan Jobe Smith, founder and publisher of Pearl magazine for 40 years, close friend of Charles Bukowski and author of “Charles Bukowski: His Art & His Women, and I have enjoyed rubbing shoulders with Long Beach’s vast array of roustabouts, pipefitters, bartenders, welders, electricians, tree trimmers, construction workers who walk hundreds of feet up in the air, bookmobile drivers taking Dickens to old people in wheelchairs, nurses, waitresses, shipyard workers, dishwashers, professional wrestlers and truck drivers with the black asphalt roads of America in their bones, graveyard shift janitors and candle makers and pool hustlers as we shared smiles and stories and raised schooners of beer to life.

Long Beach is indeed some kind of a magical city, the land of workers and poetry.

 Q. What have been the main influences in your life?

Watching the stars and planets with my father on our front lawn
as a young boy
infinity gripped me
H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe at age nine
Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and Hemingway at age 11
Playing basketball in High School age 14-15
Emerson and Kant and Whitman and Hart Crane and Camus’s The Rebel
and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Doors and getting kicked off
the varsity basketball team for going to a Doors concert instead of a game
and James Joyce’s Ulysses at age 15 -16
Rimbaud and LSD and demonstrating against the Vietnam War at The University of California
at Riverside campus and Pindar and Baudelaire and Blake and Beowulf and Pink Floyd and Heraclitus and my first girlfriend at 17-18
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at 19
Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and blues blues blues music and Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski at 20
At age 22 after dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature and going to work
in the factory world my father
came to my side and became a big influence again
my rudder against crashing against the rocks of the real world
as I lost my way and life became a nightmare my father
told me of his wanderings across the country in Great Depression 1933 America
and told me I could make it through the long dark subterranean night of my soul to the light
of some kind of dawn
and working in a steel mill with blast-furnace-burned-face and slivers of cut steel piercing my palms my dawn
was setting pen to paper
and writing 7 novels
to the syncopated rhythms of Thelonious Monk’s piano
the golden midnight tones of Miles Davis’s horn
the angry black throbbing explosions of Charles Mingus’s bass
(always I was close to the soul of the American black man as I floated down the Mississippi with Huck and escaped slave Jim)
then the great Marvin Malone
editor of The Wormwood Review poetry magazine entered my life after I submitted the first 4 poems I wrote to him in 1986 and he told me I would survive in literature
Marvin Malone
the main magazine publisher of the great poet Charles Bukowski
Bukowski a huge influence on me since the age of 20 (I was 34 now) with his poetry and novels made of slaughterhouses and lettuce pickers and bicycle factory and post office Neruda
Henry Miller Herman Melville Mark Twain Richard Wright Tennessee Williams Robinson Jeffers
among my heroes as Marvin Malone published over 100 of my poems and I met my wife Joan Jobe Smith on the pages of Wormwood Review: 105 (we had our poems published together on its pages) and later I met her in person at a Long Beach California poetry reading
and Joan and I were married
Joan the founder and editor of Pearl the leading Long Beach poetry magazine for 40 years now
became the second great editor of my poetry
each weekend morning
she hears my latest poem and helps me with her brilliant instinctive poetry ear
listening to my voice as I read my poems aloud to her
and then John Osborne published 100 of my poems in Hull’s Bete Noire literary magazine
and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books published my first poetry book Goodstone in 1991 (published in the U.S. by Joseph Cowles of Event Horizon Press) and The Poetry Society
booked a whistlestop tour for my wife Joan and I
and we crossed the Atlantic and set foot on the emerald isle of England for the first time
and rode the Brit rails to Hull and The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and The Poetry Society of London and The Bristol Poetry Festival and since then I have been blessed
by being published by some of the best publishers in Britain
Martin Bax in his galvanic avant garde literary magazine Ambit
Alan Dent in his hard hitting Penniless Press and Mistress Quickley’s Bed magazines
Michael Curran in his beautiful limited edition hardbound Dwang
Joan Jobe Smith and Marilyn Johnson at Pearl magazine
and Dan Veach at Atlanta Review are regular publishers of my poems
and I have grown to love classical music these last 20 years
Ives Stravinsky Shostakovich Duke Ellington Mahler Debussy Beethoven
and with me always as inspiration is the great Edward Hopper
with his paintings of the lonely American pushing a rake or standing nude at a window
or cutting hair or sitting in a bright lonely diner
swallowed by American night at 3 am
and Van Gogh’s sunflowers Gauguin’s dreamy-eyed Tahitian women
Eakins’s swimmers Grosz’s
fat piggy cigar-chomping capitalist Berliners
and always Neruda
with the foam of his Chilean beaches his ghost of Magellan
on Cape Horn rocks and Buk
smiling over his typewriter just finishing a poem with a bottle by his side grinning as he laughs
at bourgeois America
and always Joan
my incredibly wise and loving wife by my side with her brilliant sense of humor
inspiring my comic relief Frank and Jane poems
and always the factory workers
the never-boring real-as-nails funny exciting bow-down-to-no-man
ready-to-haul-their-toolbox-down-te-road-to-the-next-machine-shop
never-say-die infuriating inspiring shocking x-rated brutally honest indomitable working men
who keep these poems alive.

 Q. What brought you into writing?

I needed something
I had the fierceness and realness of a steel mill I was working in
and I worked at a blast furnace burning the moustache off my face
then moved into the machine shop where the razor-sharp teeth of shell cutters sliced
through ¼-ton steel standards and threw red-hot
chips of steel onto my neck where
they stuck and sizzled
but I needed something more
something that would keep me from feeling empty and hungry inside
I needed to find a spirit within me
as fierce and real as that steel mill
I needed to nail it down onto a page
I needed to bring art into this steel mill of blank tin walls and ticking time clocks
and snarling foremen where no Vincent Van Gogh sunflower had ever
been seen
no Beethoven DA DA DA DA crescendo ever heard
no Hemingway Cuban fisherman old man ever dreamed of African lions sleeping on the beach
I needed to dream I could change the world just a little bit
like Nelson Mandela stepping out of his Robben Island prison cell
Jim Morrison breaking on through to the other side
Jean Valjean
free at last

Q. Do poetry, music and the other arts have anything to do with economic and political realities?

The great ships have circled the globe and stolen the Mayan gold
200 + years of industrial revolution
and 900 lions are left on this earth
as the tiger and the gorilla
barely hang on….
as America has become an oligarchy/plutocracy mouthing words about free speech and voting rights but enslaves its masses in economic chains of exploitation
America ruled by men with clean hands who shuffle the papers and walk the 80th-floor offices
as the earth enters its death throes….

My viewpoint is from the earth-level shop floor where men get their hands dirty. Whitman and Neruda and Brecht are on my shop floor. Neruda’s father worked for the railroad, my father was an outdoors man swimmer and mountain climber (his grandfather a Nebraskan homesteader) who hopped freights in the Great Depression and could walk up to any man on the street and start up a conversation with him and be at ease with him.
I am walking with Brecht’s Mother Courage as she forges ahead through a war-torn landscape.
I am with Whitman walking down his open road and taking off his hat to no king Neruda escaping the fascists by horseback over the Andes Charles Bukowski saying, “The worst men have the best jobs and the best men have the worst jobs.”
I am with Charles Ives the great iconoclastic American composer writing symphonies and songs of marching bands passing each other in the American streets and the sounds of Central Park in the dark and Emersonian universal brotherhood and small town dance bands playing “Turkey in the Straw”, Ives who sent up Wall Street greed with the cacophonous insanity of his 4th symphony’s 2nd movement.
I am with John Huston and his classic American film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that shows how we rip gold from the earth and how money can ruin and take our marvellous gift of life by dividing men against each other.
I am with Whitman and Blake and D.H. Lawrence and the great American artist Thomas Eakins who believed in the honesty and dignity and holiness of the naked human body the laboring human body and I believe in the soul of the labouring man not in top hats and gold and guns and locks and locked vaults full of money and $2,000 suits but bread
for all free concerts in the parks openness and caring for all Yosemite National Park and Sequoia redwood trees for all

I believe in the common man the man of the earth of sweat of shouts in the street and meetings on street corners of Van Gogh’s coal miner potato eaters Eakins’s shad fishermen Goya’s blacksmiths Hemingway’s old Cuban fisherman Santiago battling the sharks Hugo’s Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the Paris sewers Melville’s sailors and his mighty white whale Steinbeck’s farmers Mark Twain’s escaped slave Jim Neruda’s mineworkers Diego Rivera’s mural glowing with assembly line blast furnace flame Philip Levine’s Detroit auto plant workers Thoreau’s homemade cabin on Walden Pond Kerouac’s Sierra Mountains fire lookout August Wilson’s black trash truck driver Troy Maxson Arthur Miller’s thrown-away-like-an-orange-rind-by-the-company salesman Willy Loman Lautrec’s cancan dancers Homer’s warriors Shakespeare’s gravedigger Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony of revolution Stravinsky’s peasant dance folk music as Jim Morrison sings, “What have they done to the Earth?” and The Rolling Stones sing “Salt of the Earth.”

Where do most of us spend most of our lives?
behind bus wheels at sheet metal bending machines behind donut counters at cash registers over jackhammers gripping wrenches flipping burgers serving coffee laying floor washing windows tarring roofs punching out motorcycle gaskets sitting in cubicles looking at inventories on computer screens where we barely feel human where we need poetry and art and music and theater and film to find us and tell our stories
Let Jackson Pollock paint the wall of a factory
Let a symphony grow from the booms and bangs and rattles and groans of an assembly line
Let the grease on a concrete shop floor be full of soul
Let Rembrandt set up his easel beside steel cutters
Is it the maintenance man gripping the monkey wrench that will save the earth?
Is it the heart of the man straddling the machine big as a locomotive that will save the tiger?
If men who stir red-hot molten steel with 20-foot-long rakes are treated like humans could it
keep the polar icecaps from melting?
men who walk the earth where panthers and giraffes and Buddha and Jesus walked
men who keep wheels rolling
old people walking and breathing
bridges hanging
water flowing
boats floating
with their hands
Can they save the earth?

 Q. What's your vision? What do you aim for when you're writing poetry and prose?

Dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature in 1974, my writer’s instinct told me to leave the dryness and cynicism of the academic ivory tower and turn toward life.
“God is a cry in the street,” Stephen Daedalus said in James Joyce’s Ulysses and my writer heroes were
Jack Kerouac hungry for life rolling automobile wheels across America toward a San Francisco bebop jazz club
Hemingway risking his life on the 1937 Spanish earth fighting the fascists and writing For Whom the Bell Tolls
Whitman putting his arm around a dying soldier on the American Civil War battlefield
Melville on a military ship in his white jacket high up in the crow’s nest in the freezing wind and ice rounding Cape Horn
Richard Wright showing how quickly a black man’s life can turn into a nightmare in 1930s Great Depression America
Mark Twain guiding his steamboat around rocks through the fog on the mighty Mississippi
And I was drawn into the world of the factories and went into a steel mill
the fierceness and realness of a steel mill was what I needed
I was not studying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I was Sir Gawain
in 1977 entering a new strange world of adventure and vernacular speech raw open emotions earthiness the sensuous beauty of toil the honesty of working with hands
humor exuberance shouting with 2-ton drop hammers pounding sizzling of cutting torches hissing of welding rods everything outsized and exploding with life
the backbones of cities ready to be carved and stamped out of red-hot molten steel ex-cons out of prison sweating and straining desperate to remake their lives
laughs and curses and screams all the wild guts and heart and passion of man living life hard

And I started writing novels of truth and fortitude and survival until in my last novel, Making America Strong, written in 1985, my vision and aim for my writing truly began to take shape. It was a short novel set entirely in a machine shop where a defense contractor, Goodstone Aircraft Company, is making nuclear bombers and raking in the big money from the Reagan-era military industrial complex.
Writing Making America Strong I had a vision of the corporation as America and suddenly realized corporate capitalism defined America as much or more than democracy did. In the novel workers without any say in company direction or management and forced to follow often insulting and senseless rules and procedures, turn to harassing and abusing each other like humiliated children, using drink and drugs and falling into racism and violence.

In 1986 I started writing poetry and this world of work became the subject matter of my poetry.
My poetry has been greatly affected by the men I’ve worked with in the factories all these years and the fact that I was a poet in the factories.
At first I thought (as we’ve been taught) the men were somehow less than human
less than poetry
less than me
but as the layoffs hit me and I learned what it felt like to know
I might end up living in the street
as I saw men going on gripping wrenches with hands swollen with arthritis
going on as bosses screamed at them
and aching and tired still smiling at the end of the workweek walking out into the sun like man
must never give up hope
and someday we must all be free
those men didn’t look down on me
because I didn’t yet understand how they could still laugh
between tin walls in the face of firings wrenched backs crazy bosses in this loud grinding factory
where no flower
or poem
ever grew
they didn’t look down on me because I didn’t know
what a micrometer or a ball peen hammer or a compound angle was
they handed me their tools
their hearts
wise with a lifetime of steel dust and driving their rollaway toolboxes down highways
and rolling them through countless machine shops and going on with a twinkle in their eye
I didn’t know I would soon begin writing poems about them
or that years later when they found out and read them
they would like them
who says this world contains
no miracles?

We can begin to see workers in factories are just as human
as kings
firemen orchestra conductors tightrope walkers ship captains ambassadors
nurses and novelists

we are all Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp twirling his cane walking down the open road at dawn
Toulouse Lautrec laying down paint onto canvas celebrating the high-kicking legs of cancan dancers though his crippled stunted legs ache
the fighter
getting up off his stool and coming back out of his corner though he was almost knocked out
in the last round

we invented the gods
built the cities
made the wheels the axles the chimneys the wings the masts the scalpels the rudders the valves
the rails the keys
and no corporation should ever stand above us.

See also: Let the poet lift a hammer: the prophetic poetry of Fred Voss

Page 4 of 6