The message is not the medium

Radical poetry just sloganises, argues BRIGG57. Good poetry is about much more than its politics

May 7, 2009
9 min read

I don’t usually like radical poetry – especially protest poetry. What an outrageous thing to say, you might think, especially given the recent death of Adrian Mitchell, one of Britain’s best protest poets. Radical poetry is the voice of the oppressed, the rebellion of the unemployed street kid, of the black ghetto – the emotions that give credence to our politics. Anyone who doesn’t like it must be dead to any radical politics, must lack heart.

But still I am turned off by it. It shouts, it sloganises. It pretends to be daring, but usually it just confirms, rather than challenges our stereotypes, our politics, when it’s those stereotypes and prejudices of ‘ours’, not just ‘theirs’, that need challenging.

I have the suspicion that some of the people who trumpet radical poetry don’t really like poetry, just radicalism. They’re just putting a poet on the stage to prettify their causes. ‘You think we’re nasty people? We have William Morris, whose News From Nowhere and other medievalist prettiness justifies our socialist dreams.’ If we’re communists, we can take pride in Alexander Blok’s bizarre poem ‘The Twelve’, comparing a group of Red Guards to Christ’s apostles.

Imitation Woody Guthries

We idolise Auden’s declaration that ‘Yes, I am Spain’ because it celebrates the cause of anti-fascism with the sense of immediacy of the idealistic young radical looking to end evil. That it carries the seeds of the more emotionally complex later poems such as ‘The Sea and the Mirror’ is overlooked. We have our imitation Woody Guthries, who flatter our sense of combat and commitment, and we have our alternative poet laureates who read their odes to modern disasters. It’s an alternative culture that creates its own rules, tells us what we’re supposed to like … and dislike.

Bob Dylan was an imitation Woody Guthrie, the radical hero of the early 1960s, but at the end of 1963 he rejected the smiles and applause of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, denouncing them as old people putting him up for sale. It was only at that point that he started exploring a poetic world of his own, rejecting songs about the Klan to write the dreamy poetry/music of ‘Visions of Johanna’ or strange word games of ‘4th Time Around’. To point this out is not to reject radicalism. The Civil Liberties Committee were idealists, deeply involved in progressive causes, but they were libertarians, not poets. It’s for their advocacy of civil liberties, not for their poetry, that they earn respect.

Radical poetry is too often the self-proclaimed voice of the people – it borrows too heavily from Mayakovsky’s belief that poetry is a megaphone. And that’s the problem. The megaphone blots out complexity of feelings.

Even Trotsky, whose Literature and Revolution avoided the rigidities of historical materialism when it came to poetry, denounced Anna Akhmatova as a silly woman who just wanted to write about love and relationships when factories were waiting to be built. Yet it was Akhmatova who wrote ‘Requiem’, memorising each line painfully at a time when a poem written on a scrap of paper could mean a death sentence: ‘I was where my people were/Where, alas, they had to be.’

Its power will last long after the socialist-realist poems and Stalinist wall murals about tractors and factory committee meetings have faded.

The need for the poetic

Now we’re being asked for new protest poets – look at the recent issue of Poetry Review, in which the literary editor John Walsh bewails the absence of political poetry and tells us that all that is needed is the words and the passion. But it’s not.

Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Tell Me Lies about Vietnam’ has lost much of its contemporary force; we don’t live in that world any more. Our rulers are no longer those hypocrites of the 1960s, pretending to be more than US stooges, lecturing us about the family while indulging in their expensive sexual orgies. Now it’s not hypocrisy, but a near-universal cynicism – murder with a smile, the celebration of gulling people as you advance in your career, pull a trick on your opponent, sell your car to some poor mug.

A new rhetoric is needed, not that punk spitting at the world, which long ago become a pose. And it needs to be poetic. In a time when a lot of young people write ‘sincere poetry’ but not nearly so many read it, poetry – classical as well as unorthodox – needs to be read to see what makes a poem tick. Of course, young people should be encouraged to write poetry, but they should be encouraged to write good poetry, and that means reading – even the classics.

For poetry is more than rhetoric, more than words and passion. There’s a reason for those lines being divided from one another, even in the most irregular, the freest verse. A lot of techniques are needed, as in music, not just shouting out sincerely.

When Allen Ginsberg electrified the US literary world in 1956 with his cry that ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’, the poetry lies in the length of the line – Ginsberg said that the length of his line was measured by each breath in his body. It’s a technique he derived from Walt Whitman, and the result, as in Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, is a heady, ecstatic feeling, heightened with each verse. That is why the line is so powerful, not just the words.

I do not wish to over-generalise. Gwendolyn Brooks expresses the silent contempt and pain of her race in ‘The Lovers of the Poor’. The sufferings of war, too, have proved a crucible for poetry, which can’t escape being political. The moving poetry of Mahmoud Darwish expresses the alienation and suffering of the Palestinian people.

Even so, the sickly romanticism used by Wilfred Owen to describe the horrors of war, which attracts so many adolescents to poetry, can serve to conceal the less well-known and more complex poem about the Somme, ‘In Parenthesis’, by the Christian poet David Jones. Bertolt Brecht’s sense of irony led his actors to blow dog whistles at the audience, and his bitterness fuelled poems such as ‘What Did The Soldier’s Wife Receive?’ But even there, the poetry is harmed by the Stalinism – Brecht’s reputation as the poet of the KGB qualifies much of his work, despite his later condemnation of East German Stalinism.

The most complex of poetry is often only obliquely political. W D Snodgrass’s ‘Heart’s Needle’ expresses the feelings caused by separation from his young daughter through rhyme and rhythm : ‘Child of my winter/Born when the new fallen soldiers froze/In Asia’s steep ravines and fouled the snows.’ It’s the curling, near-cruel insolence of the sound of Benjamin Zephaniah as he tells us that he is mugging the Queen’s English that gives that poet’s words their power. It’s more than the words; it’s the beat, the line, the sound to the point where the words have meaning only in the sound, expressing dream-worlds in order to explore the full complexity of human emotions.

‘As to poetry/it just ain’t till it is lived/Best of it has to be knocked out of a man/at the end of his tether’ – thus Ezra Pound in 1936. He wasn’t left-wing, he was a fascist and blatant racist, anti-semitic to the core, supporting Mussolini in the dying days of the Salo Republic, imprisoned in a cage in Pisa by US troops, shunned by the orthodox thereafter. But in the Pisan Cantos – with the heart-breaking evocation of ‘a man on whom the sun has gone down’, the intelligence of ‘Here error is all in the not done,/all in the diffidence that faltered’ – we have the word-hoards stored up from his youth and unlocked as he stalked his cage.

Just posh poetry? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s among the finest writing of the last century. His friends, Louis Zukovsky and Basil Bunting, denounced Pound for his anti-Jewish comments, but they worshipped his poetry: ‘There are the Alps, fools/Sit down and wait for them to crumble.’

Poetry that doesn’t fit in

I like the one who doesn’t fit in, not even with the poetry industry. I like the doubter – ‘some who are uncertain compel me’ (Delmore Schwartz). I laugh at ‘Every Word Counts’, Gavin Ewart’s parody of a feminist poem. I am intrigued by John Ashbery’s ‘Girls on the Run’, looking at the world through the art of Henry Darger, a school janitor whose paintings of young girls menaced by the dark clouds of puberty are so genuinely ambiguous. I’m drawn to Geoffrey Hill’s meditations on ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’.

And I love the poetry of James Merrill, the sort of poet that radicals are not supposed to like. Born wealthy (Merrill Lynch RIP), gay without writing ‘gay poetry’, he was apolitical, certainly not particularly radical. In ‘The Changing Light at Sandover’, his readings of the ouija board with his lover summon the dead to care, be cared for, and to warn of the world’s fate. He didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve and he didn’t wave any flags; he doesn’t write self-centred poems, like those written by the Confessional poets – but their lyrical beauty, their evocation of memory and place have a genuine touch of humanity.

I don’t think that radical poems should be applauded merely because they are radical. We should read poems because they are poems, with the sounds and techniques that involves – not manifestos. Good radical poetry, like that of Mahmoud Darwish, is good because the politics is made interesting by the poem.

So I am totally in sympathy with the Palestinian people, but that is my politics; my liking of poetry is different. The instinctive dislike of many on the left for conservative, even classical poems – derided as ‘Oxford poetry’ – is nothing but an obstacle to good poetry. An understanding of the human condition can be found in Donne and Sexton, in Tagore and Akhmatova; it’s not the monopoly of radical poets.

‘Brigg57’ is a regular contributor to the Red Pepper forums, where the idea for this article originated in the course of a discussion about poetry and the left. Join us at: http://forums.redpepper.org.uk

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