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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Is There Really No Political Poetry?

Why are there no political poets?  In a long article by Alan Morrison, "Reoccupying Auden Country" in International Times he offers a long (I wish it had been written more concisely) answer which interrogates the question in a useful way.

Morrison points out that whenever this question is put, either by canonised saints of the Left like Eagleton or Pilger or, far less satisfactorily, by poetry magazines like Poetry Review in a singularly ineffective recent issue flagging up the topic, there is an assumption that the question really is: "Why don't the established poets of The Guardian, the big imprints, and the prize shortlists write any decent political poetry in a time like ours of profound political upheaval?" In other words political poetry is being written.  It's just that we don't always get to hear about it and when it does appear these outlets and public poetry voices ignore it because they aren't writing it themselves and they haven't stamped its visa.

When there's a call for more political poetry the answer that invariably comes back is the traditional one that, in Auden's famous words 'poetry makes nothing happen'.  It's a thought that chimes in with the dominant view that political poetry is a form of bad taste, that it will almost certainly be tonally "strident" or formally "doggerel" or morally "posturing".  Proper poetry, this argument runs, "survives in the valley of its making", it is itself and obeys only the laws of poetry, cherishing its aesthetic freedom, untainted by the partisan and tendentious.  Tell that to Milton, Marvell, Blake, Tony Harrison, Liu Xiaobo, Yannis Ritsos, etc etc.

Obviously no one wants to read crudely buttonholing, head-banging doggerel, especially if it lacks any stylistic or poetic interest, but it seems to me that there are two kinds of political poetry: the upfront and the indirect.  The upfront is clear and I have written just such a poem myself, Get Real!, a polemic against the Coalition Government published a year ago and, apart from a favourable mention in the TLS diary column, it has been almost completely ignored by the handwringers of poetic opinion mentioned earlier.  It was sent to every progressive (and unprogressive) publication that seemed relevant but they preferred not to acknowledge it.  It did, however, sell out.  It can be downloaded free until 23rd April when it is republished in my new book Acapulco: New and Selected Poems (Melos Press).  [The new book, by the way, contains several other political poems, including one about Peter Tatchell's courageous defiance of the anti-gay thugs in Moscow, that has one fan so far in Peter himself, who accepted the dedication by calling it "a fab poem".  There's also one called "City of Culture" which will put my Freedom of the City of Liverpool on permanent hold.]  Get Real! is written in a regular Burns-style stanza and it is unambiguously and plainly an excoriation of our current government.

But there are other ways of writing political poetry, more subtle engagements than the direct polemic (vital as that is).  And here I agree with Eagleton, quoted by Alan Morrison, when he says "for almost the first time in two centuries there is no eminent British poet...prepared to question the foundations of the Western way of life".  [I think Geoffrey Hill thinks he is but we can't understand him.] We are still allowed to smile approval at Shelley's assertion that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.  We could argue about what that phrase signifies but let's say it means that they have something to say that is valuable and that may change society in the longer term.  In advocating less in-your-face, direct polemical engagement with immediate political realities, the Poetry Review and poetry prize ceremony crowds will breathe a sigh of relief and feel able to relax again.  They will be much happier with a kind of writing that is not "politically partisan" (ie challenging the political framework they themselves are quite happy to work inside).  But this broader work of engaging with the deepest springs of contemporary society and culture and attempting to criticise it, change it, rebuild it, is a task every bit as important as the lively topical broadside.  It may do more long term good.  We need it, but it does not seem to be forthcoming, unless I am falling into the same trap as the Guardian/New Statesman seers who don't see enough of what is already here.

If I am wrong I would be delighted to hear of my omissions.

4 comments:

Kathleen Jones said...

Any attempt to publish a 'political' poem, either overt or oblique, is such a humiliation that most of us write the stuff but don't show it to anyone. I've also been to poetry workshops where the workshop leader has advised against writing anything 'with a message'. It doesn't help that a lot of political poetry is bad. There needs to be an editorial shift, and a more constructive and illuminating approach to the writing of political poems - some wonderful work came out of Rumania during the dark years of Ceauscesceau, and there's some fantastic middle eastern poetry.

Nicholas Murray said...

You are right that there are many pitfalls but also many successes too and there is no intrinsic reason why one can't write about ANY subject as a poet. Marvell's Horatian Ode is one of the great English poems. I think it is worth trying, but of course only if you feel it is worth doing, that engaging in this way is a vital organic process not something put on, because a poem has to come from a very deep source to be any good. I've never been to a poetry workshop but I imagine the advice was good if it meant don't start with a 'point' but a poetic idea or image.

Nicholas Murray said...

PS: And what about love poetry, often a very "tendentious" kind of poem that breaks Keats's rule that poetry should not have a "palpable design on us"!!

Shelley said...

It's hard to write it well.

But it's more important than ever.