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Well versed

From publishing translations of the only known female poet whose work has survived from Roman times to editing a successful poetry column in the Morning Star, the anarchist-communist John Rety is well respected in the poetry world. Here he describes his long involvement with poetry and chooses four poems from his new book Well Versed, an anthology of his Morning Star column, to share with Red Pepper readers

December 1, 2008
8 min read

I was surprised and grateful when the Morning Star newspaper invited me to edit a weekly poetry column. I have been actively involved in supporting poetry for more than 25 years, hosting Sunday evening poetry readings at Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town, north London, and running the independent poetry press Hearing Eye.

Torriano Meeting House has functioned as a venue for poetry since 1982. The regular readings started during one of the most difficult periods for almost everybody – except for authority. The communities of miners and others and the trade unions were all being ruthlessly dealt with by the Thatcher government.

The opportunity to say exactly what you wanted existed in poetry for obvious reasons – hardly anybody read it, or those who did took very little notice of it. But it did offer the possibility of making a small stand against the prevailing onslaught on civil liberties.

Hearing Eye

Hearing Eye started almost by accident, when John Heath-Stubbs came and read at Torriano in 1987. He read his marvellous sequence about death: death and the politician, death and the washerwoman, and so on. I suggested to him that maybe that sequence ought to be published – not necessarily by me.

He misheard what I was saying, and in the next post we received a manuscript called Cats Parnassus. It was only a few poems, but after they were beautifully illustrated by Emily Johns and published, Peter Levi reviewed it in the Times. That edition went into three printings within two months.

Other titles followed, with us thinking they would all have the same success. Alas, we had to wait until Heath-Stubbs’s translations of Sulpicia, the only known female Roman poet whose work has survived, caught the Guardian’s eye and again went into many printings.

Before Hearing Eye came into existence, I had been an editor of the anarchist Freedom newspaper. So when, in 2005, I was asked to edit a poetry column for the Morning Star (‘daily paper of the left, incorporating [former Communist Party paper] the Daily Worker – for peace and socialism’), I was conscious of the fact that something had substantially altered in the political climate if an erstwhile editor of an anarchist paper should and could be entrusted with the task.

Anarchist communism

For me, the words communism and anarchism are interchangeable; cooperation is the main core of my philosophy. It is unthinkable that humans could have survived since Palaeolithic times if they had not willingly helped each other to survive. Even today, there remains the trace of anarchist communism within each home, where there is no exchange of goods for payment, and each person has their own free will and choices. If at home, why not in public? I say this so that the reader may know my criteria in choosing poems.

The column, called ‘Well Versed’, first appeared in the Morning Star in January 2006. The first poem I chose was by Arthur Jacobs, and I hoped it would set the tone. Re-reading all the poems for a new anthology, also called Well Versed, I am very pleased with the result. Poets have the knack of dealing with the unexplained and unexpected. Somehow, here in this book, with an introduction by Tony Benn and illustrations by the artist Emily Johns, there can be heard a constant, confident voice, always eloquent, quirky and wise. The poems hint at a new age, when the cooperative ethics that pertain behind closed doors at home suddenly, as if by a quantum leap, will take over the public domain.

There are no role models from the past that we can follow. There has never been a poet who wasn’t also a sovereign individual. But that they all, without exception, gave their pearls of wisdom freely to be included in this volume is another proof that a new age is gestating in the womb of the old.

As reported in the Guardian (21 July 2008), the Well Versed column has helped to raise the circulation of the Morning Star by 2 per cent on Thursdays ‘with 200 more copies sold on that day. For a paper with a 10,000 circulation (15,000 readership), that’s a big leap.’ It is the longest-running national newspaper poetry column currently in existence. I have chosen four poems to give Red Pepper readers an idea of the range of the poems that have appeared in the column.

Grand families

Louis I

Louis II

Louis III

Louis IV

Louis V

Louis VI

Louis VII

Louis VIII

Louis IX

Louis X (the Quarrelsome)

Louis XI

Louis XII

Louis XIII

Louis XIV

Louis XV

Louis XVI

Louis XVIII

and nobody, nothing more …

what’s with those people

who can’t bloody well even

count up to twenty?

Jacques Prevert

(translated by Sarah Lawson)

Yes madam

‘Fetch your blanket,’

she said to the houseboy,

‘and sleep in the kitchen

till the boss comes home.’

‘Yes, madam,’ he replied.

The Mau Mau

was spoken of

at bridge and tea parties.

Father would be late back

from his Masonic lodge.

Uneasy, she asked the boy:

‘If your brothers

in the Freedom Movement

told you to kill me,

you wouldn’t do it, would you?’

‘Yes, madam,’ he replied.

Wanda Barford

What are you talking about?

Afterwards, as we know,

There are those who virtuously

Declare: We didn’t know.

Things happened somewhere else,

Or didn’t happen like that,

Or we weren’t really told.

Anyway, we had no power

To alter or divert

What did or didn’t go on.

It’s a familiar sound

To be heard among us now,

The deceiving whine of those

Who participate and know.

A C Jacobs

Days like this

We’re running, head thrown back so we can see

how fast we are, faster than the clouds

(today’s windy) and faster than the police

whose cordon we broke through at Waterloo

There’s so many of us and the sun is hanging

so low above York Road and is bouncing itself

off so many windows it has made a long

gold tunnel that none of us could resist.

I have the megaphone. This is not normal.

I’m usually the one with the banner,

windsurfing to rallies with someone smaller

than me, but not today – today I can see

my long voice spreading out in front

shimmering like a heat haze towards

the bridge where it blends with others

and we look like one, we believe we can fly.

We’re heading for Westminster Bridge and later,

after the stand-off and riot (which will begin

when some drift home and the crowd gets smaller

and we’re stuck and night’s wet-blanket takes

the shine off our skins, just before that woman

from Tottenham – Maria, I think – has her leg

broken by a police horse) will it prove

worth it? We won’t get to win this one,

but we ran, heads back, down that road and now

on days like this, in a certain light, I’m weightless.

Anna Robinson

A C Jacobs

A C Jacobs died in 1994 in Madrid, aged 56. He was a respected translator and poet but most of his work has been published posthumously. I’ve chosen this poem for its social concern, although it did get published in the poet’s own lifetime. It is a poem that ought to be memorised by people in and out of authority. Jacobs’ entire output can be found in his Collected Poems and Selected Translations, published by Hearing Eye/The Menard Press, £13.99.

Jacques Prevert

Jacques Prevert (1900-1977) is a widely-read poet in France but he is hardly known in the English-speaking world, except perhaps as the screenwriter of Les Enfants du Paradis. He was anarchic, whimsical, erotic, childlike and, as the poem indicates, politically committed. This poem is from Jacques Prevert: Selected Poetry (Hearing Eye, £8.95), translated by Sarah Lawson, a Poetry Book Society recommended translation.

Anna Robinson

Anna Robinson’s poems explore the themes of home and rebellion within an urban dreamtime. Her first pamphlet, Songs from the Flats, won the Poetry Book Society’s pamphlet recommendation. This poem is from Songs from the Flats (Hearing Eye, £3).

Wanda Barford

On retiring from teaching music, Wanda Barford decided to put poetry at the centre of her life. She has had four collections published by Flambard: Sweet Wine and Bitter Herbs; A Moon at the Door; Losing, Finding; and What is The Purpose of Your Visit?

With thanks to Richard Bagley, features editor of the Morning Star. For more information on Hearing Eye go to www.hearingeye.org

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