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 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.
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.
Louis X (the Quarrelsome)
and nobody, nothing more …
what’s with those people
who can’t bloody well even
count up to twenty?
(translated by Sarah Lawson)
‘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.
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.
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 (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’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).
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