Wednesday, 05 June 2024 19:26

Poetry, Humour, the General Election, and the Dream of a Better World

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Poetry, Humour, the General Election, and the Dream of a Better World

Fran Lock excoriates the Tories and presents some great poems. Image above: Soldiers Leave the Armed Forces, by Chad McCail

I cannot tell a lie, I began writing this article to the sound of maniacal laughter (mostly my own). The sight of a desolated, slump-shouldered Rishi Sunak, announcing a general election in the pouring rain was an occasion for much hilarity in the Lock household. And let's face it, many of us needed that release. The final dark days of Tory rule in Britain have been grim. Scrap that, the entire fourteen years of Tory rule have been grim, but this last couple of months have felt especially feverish and unpleasant.

In the midst of a monumentally racist immigration policy, an unprecedented funding crisis in health and social care, inflation, wage stagnation, soaring rents, multiple escalating environmental urgencies, and – worse than all of these – continued licencing of arms to Israel, changes to the Criminal Justice Bill (8th Feb) now further empower police and criminalise protesters, curbing peaceful public displays of solidarity and dissent. Without wishing to succumb to hyperbole, you wake up some mornings wondering if you haven't sleep-walked into a police state.

We need to laugh, however hollow it sometimes sounds: the personal wealth of Rishi Sunak and his wife rose by £122 million last year. Their fortune now stands at around £651 million. He might be the target of open public ridicule, but he sleeps on a dragon hoard of obscene and unearned wealth, so my guess is he probably doesn't give a shit. I have friends who tell me that in this context laughter – and the art that is its vehicle – dissipates energies that might otherwise (better) be directed towards resistance and protest. With the greatest of respect, I'm not quite sure that's right. I think our poems, skits, memes, and songs serve an important social function; not in allowing us individual release, but providing a moment to coalesce around, offering us a shared expression of solidarity inside of cultural space. More than this, I think humour and art can provide a much-needed break in the relentless, deadening logic of the present moment.

What do I mean by that? I suppose I have been thinking that while creative responses to the end of Tory power have been energetic, humorous, sometimes exciting, the accompanying political discourse often feels depressingly utilitarian: vote for the best placed/ least unprincipled candidate; in a straight fight, vote Labour, anything to get the Tories out. Absolutely rational, but hardly joyful. A cursory scroll through social media and the mood is nonplussed. No one is delighted by the prospect of Starmer's “Tory-lite” government, nor impressed by his restoration of the Blairite capitalist character of the Labour party. Why would they be? With high-profile hard-right defections (most recently Dover's own nauseating Natalie Elphicke) can the party even be described as Labour in anything but name? Starmer's recent protestations of “socialism” leave a nasty taste in the mouth. They also leave a person wondering if we have entered some kind of parallel reality in which well-known words and phrases mean the opposite of their real-world equivalents. It is, let's face it, pretty depressing.

Grotesque reality

'Broad Church' by Bridget Frances Keating takes this miserable state of affairs to its logical yet most outrageous conclusion, welcoming into her unnamed party a cast of dangerous criminals, outlandish cartoon super-villains, and medieval monstrosities. While satire broaches its criticism of society from a safe value-point or stable centre, the grotesque emerges when the centre does not hold, when we have no way to orient or navigate the bewildering events unfolding around us; when our political reality fits no known rational framework, even an abhorrent one. Keating's poem is a grotesque, then, in that true sense: monstrous and absurd in equal measure.

I was immediately struck by this poem's sonic properties: the long vowel sounds suggestive of bovine lowing, and evoking (while exaggerating) the glib “smooth-talking” of those political elites the speaker describes. I was also intrigued by Keating's mixture of real and fantasy characters, and the way in which the poet choreographs these to signal the seeming unreality of our own political moment. I would also suggest that by placing these real-world oppressors, abusers and genocidal maniacs next to their comic-book counterparts, Keating reduces these figures of fear, refuses to be cowed by them, and denies them something of their power.

The poem is, perhaps strangely, in the form of a loose sonnet. Keating plays, I think, on the sonnet's association with “love”, as well as with that most English of literary figures, William Shakespeare. On one level, the piece is ironising the romantic or peaceable ideals conjured by the form (something echoed on the semantic level through use of the word “welcome”), while on another level the poem addresses how cultural forms are recruited to serve dangerous political or nationalistic scripts. In her choice of form Keating gives us a timely reminder of the absurdities to which language is subjected, and the murderous abuses in which it is often implicated.

Broad Church

By Bridget Frances Keating

Welcome, lugubrious smooth-talkers.
Welcome, you ruthless, pecunious stake-
holders. Welcome,you students of ruin.
Welcome, Lex Luthor and Idi Amin.
Welcome, you sellers of snake oil.
Welcome, you wantons of risk.
Welcome, mad Magoth and Belial.
Welcome, you stooges of frictionless
hubris. Welcome, clown princes of burial.
Welcome, you breakers of necks.
Welcome, you charmers and dealers
of arms. Welcome, you snatchers of milk.
We, with our welcome, will smother
all qualms. Lay out your conscience on silk.

'Between a rock and a hard place' by P.V. Tims takes a slightly different approach: the speaker is a voter asked to choose between equally unappealing political candidates, and not at all excited by the prospect. In the opening lines, Tims frames this choice in schlocky pop-cultural terms, riffing on the chorus of the 1972 stoner classic 'Stuck in the Middle' by Stealers Wheel. The stanza then segues into the well-known Tennyson poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. While the speaker plays the conflation of these two texts for laughs, the juxtaposition is an uneasy one, implying that while the situation is laughable, the consequences may nevertheless prove fatal. 'Charge of the Light Brigade', lest we forget, is a poem about a suicidal cavalry charge during the Crimean war, in which countless (working-class) lives were sacrificed by the decisions of their commanding officers.

While the speaker initially interrupts himself to correct his mistake, he undercuts this in the second stanza with 'Or perhaps not', implying that the confusion is a meaningful one; that once again we exist within a time and political climate in which working-class life is to be sacrificed: this sacrifice is political and figurative, certainly, but perhaps – the poem suggests – also literal.

The yellow labels are a striking motif throughout the piece. The repetition of the image signals their oppressive ubiquity within the life of the speaker. While they refer literally to the yellow discount labels on supermarket food, they soon become a badge or stamp that marks the speaker himself, that circumscribes his choices and designates him as a low-income working-class person. I think the most arresting (and horrible) image is that of the speaker's tongue, even his wife's kiss, tasting of yellow labels: something of conspicuously poor quality; not nourishing or pleasurable. While the image itself is exaggerated and darkly comic, with its blurring of food and food packaging into one unpalatable image, it nevertheless signals the extent to which capitalist logics have infiltrated the speaker's life and body, even down to his most intimate connections. There is nowhere he can go, even inside himself, where he can escape or forget his classed identity. In the final stanza the labels are places (presumably in lieu of coins) over the dead speaker's eyes: his status as poor and working-class follows him even into death; reduces him in the final extremis to a cheap, chuck-away product.

In the fourth stanza of the poem, the speaker is placed in a 'portable stocks of debt', made to walk up and down looking for 'a job I do not want and that/ does not exist.' The Kafkaesque nature of this punishment is initially funny, then quickly disturbing. The stocks have a long association with public shaming, and the image speaks to the demonisation of the “undeserving poor”, forced to offer themselves up for ever more abject forms of labour in an economy within which full employment is literally impossible. Reading this stanza, I found it impossible not to hear echoes of both Labour and the Tories appeals to mythical “hard-working” families, and the political scapegoating of benefits claimants.

Ultimately, Tims' poem is full of humour, but of a barbed and rather bleak variety, heralding a 'brave new world' in which little seems likely to change for the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us. ‘Stuck in the middle’ feels about right.

Between a rock and a hard place

By P.V. Tims

Clowns to the left of me,
jokers to the right, into
the jaws of death – wait,
wrong song.

Or, perhaps not.
Our food tastes
of yellow labels.
My tongue tastes
of yellow label.
My wife's kiss
tastes of yellow
label.

In the brave new world
the leccy is still metered,
the walls are still mouldy,
the labels are still yellow.

In the brave new world
I will still walk up and down
with my neck in the portable
stocks of debt, looking for
a job I do not want and that
does not exist.

I'll still die in the brave
new world. When I die
in the brave new world
they will seal my eyes
with yellow labels. 

'Après moi, le déluge' by Sabrina Lyall is a different animal altogether and (I think) a real hoot of a poem. While the title refers to a quote attributed to King Louis XV of France, generally understood as an expression of political indifference to whatever happens after one is gone, Lyall repurposes the famous lines to apply to Rishi Sunak's general election announcement, imagining polluted floodwaters of biblical proportions carrying off not just Sunak but the entire Tory tribe. Here, the result of their indifference is returned spectacularly to sender. Don't care was made to care, as the aphorism goes.

For myself, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is that in using quotes from various memes and tweets, Lyall positions the poem within the same kind of fundamentally unserious space, situating it inside a shared media culture, and performing a kind of coterie address. A joke is better if it's shared, right? But I  also think this allows the poem to mount something of a stealth attack: broaching serious political criticism through humour and play. I really relish this aspect of the poem, and the implied claim that Lyall is making for poetry: that it belongs to the same daily world as memes, tweets, shared jokes, general banter, and not in some self-serious ivory tower. Poetry is, therefore, absolutely the proper place for collective political challenge.

The poem invokes the Tories' disastrous privatisation of the water (no reservoirs have been built in this country since privatisation in 1989), their serial failures to protect our waterways from the dumping of raw sewage, and their apathetic attitude to flood defence for poor rural areas. Yet the piece is also haunted by the spectre of Tory immigration policy, which ruthlessly targets those entering the country on “small boats”. It is not by accident that these boats become the vehicles of salvation and hope in the final stanza of the poem. As the biblical ark is a symbol of hope and life restored, so too are Lyall's “small boats” representative of a Tory-free future of mutual kindness and radical care.

Après moi, le déluge

By Sabrina Lyall

Thi-i-i-ngs can only get wetter!
For Rishi asleep-at-the-wheel
Sunak, as pools of brown
unreservoired water begin to
rise around his knees .

Suddenly:
It's a torrent! It's a tide!
It's Rishi Washy Sunak,
partially submerged!
King Cnut. With a typo.

Dry land is not a myth!
But even his promises
are sodden. He wades
through refrains
like a drowning man.

And still the deluge!
All the waters of retribution.
To make an estuary
of Westminster.

While they flounder
in the flood, tasting
the filthy silt of their
polluted rivers.

We make our hope
an ark. On small boats
we're sailing away.

As I struggled to choose the poems and organise my thoughts for this column, I was chatting with poet, comrade, author and educator Kevin Patrick McCann, and he said something to me that really speaks to the poems I've selected this quarter, and to what poetry can be or do for us in general: “poetry can help you learn to sidestep the obvious […] socialism isn't just about economics. It's so much more than that. It's about human beings’ inner lives as well as their outer ones.”

Kevin is a wise owl, and I think he nails it: what both poetry and humour are uniquely placed to do is to negotiate between those inner and outer lives; the rage, disappointment or pain often felt by the individual, and the collective political engagements such feelings demand. Poetry can be a bridge between personal feelings and political engagement; they can transform those feelings into provocations, calls to arms; they can give us great purpose. Poetry is also a place, I think, where we can step outside of (or sidestep) the dogged realism required of us in daily life. It can be a place for big gestures, for exaggeration, hyperbole, play. All of which serve to reinvigorate our commitment, to strengthen our bongs, to fuel the fire for the task ahead. 

Bridget Frances Keating is the author of two poetry pamphlets, Party Like its 1381 (2018), and Totally F**king Disco (2021), both published by the late lamented Two Yellow Dogs Press. She has recently moved to London and is feeling overwhelmed.

P.V. Tims Like everyone else, is trapped by the illusion of linear time, a condition he seeks to alleviate through therapeutic engagement with the polymorphic Infinite. He is the author of various novels and short-story collections, most recently Small Infinities (Culture Matters, 2023) and Warning: Infohazard, due from X Press later this year. He lives Up North with the love of his life, their adopted daughter, five cats and the most sarcastic trans woman on Earth. When he isn’t writing really weird stories, he practices sleight of hand, and hopes one day to be recognised as the Magician King of Britannia – a title he invented and which means absolutely nothing.

Sabrina Lyall divides her time between Clonmel and London. She is fairly new to poetry but is currently seeking a publisher for her first collection, tentatively titled Savant.

Read 105 times Last modified on Wednesday, 05 June 2024 20:04
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.