Poetry

Poetry

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care to act,
it starts when you do it again after they said no,
it starts when you say we and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.

Marge Piercy

Muses and Bruises
Wednesday, 11 October 2017 15:27

Muses and Bruises

Written by
in Poetry

Culture Matters has published a brilliant new collection of poetry called Muses and Bruises by Fran Lock, an activist, writer and illustrator, and one of the finest political poets writing in Britain today. Her feminist and socialist poetry weaves psychological insight and social awareness into themes of poverty, mental health problems, sexual abuse, domestic violence and political struggle. Vivid, lavish and punchy, her writing combines a smouldering sense of anger and injustice with a deeply humane and vulnerable empathy and compassion. The poems are complemented by the collages of Steev Burgess, whose images dance with the poems, deepening their meaning.

The book will be launched at The Duke Pub, 7 Roger Street, London WC1N 2PB on Saturday 14th October at 7.30pm. Have a look at these two fabulous videos made by Fran and Steev to accompany the book.

Our Lady of the Lock - from Muses and Bruises

​​Rag Town Girls do Poetry - from Muses and Bruises

​And here is Fran's Introduction to the collection.

'Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.'
- Adrian Mitchell

I've got a lot of love for the late Adrian Mitchell, but I think he was wrong about this. I didn't have much access to poetry growing up, but that wasn't because poetry was ignoring me, that was because poetry had been deliberately engineered out of my life. I had never been told that poetry was for me, that I was allowed poetry, entitled to poetry, deserving of poetry. And no one ever told me how much I needed it, and I did need it, we do need it, all of us.

I came to poetry alone, late, and by chance. My first feeling at having found this beautiful, radiant thing was a mixture of exhilaration and relief, rapidly followed by a massive sense of blind and burning rage that something so essential, so sustaining, something so rich in sweetness and in meaning had been kept from me. I carry that rage with me still.

Poetry does not ignore people, but there is a system at work designed to exclude people from poetry. People like me. People like you. It starts at school, with a hidden curriculum that attempts to circumscribe and to manipulate the cultural expectations and experiences of working-class kids by telling them what is and isn’t for them; what constitutes an appropriate and realistic interest, what counts as a legitimate achievement.

You can't be a poet, people said to me. No, because heaven forfend I should aim so high, heaven forfend I should have such an unrealistic ambition as to acquire language, to articulate and to express myself. No, because if I, as a marginalised or oppressed person, acquire that language, develop that skill, then I am arming myself.

If I am articulate then I cannot be discounted and I will not be ignored. If I have access to the written word, then I am connected to the whole world, I can build movements, I can move mountains, I can understand the nature of that which keeps me down. If I am dexterous with language, then I understand how language is used to ensnare and enslave me. If I understand how language is used then I know when I'm being lied about and when I'm being lied to. If I have poetry, I have a voice, and that voice is a sword and a shield. If I can think for myself, speak for myself, then I can define myself and represent myself. That is a dangerous and wonderful thing.

Better for some if art and culture remain behind high fences in self-policing middle-class enclaves. They'll stuff my head with shit instead, with disposable, sneerable pop and dross. They'll create a climate of bread and circuses. They’ll dehumanise the lumpenproles because all we've got are stunted words for ugly lives – because we're rough, ill-educated, stupid.

We’re not stupid. I love language. I love poetry, all poetry: the Lais of Marie de France, Chaucer, Milton, Blake, Clare, Keats, Yeats, Fiacc, Plath, Brookes, all of it. I reclaim it, I appropriate it, I snatch it back as an act of daily, defiant radicalism. It all belongs to all of us.

And language belongs to us, in all its complexity and richness, in all its rolling, roiling musicality. I was told once that my writing was inauthentic because working-class women don't think or speak that way. Bollocks. I am a working-class woman, and I do write and think and speak this way. There is no one homogeneous working-class voice, any more than there is a single monolithic working-class culture. No one has any right to set limits on the way we sound or the words we use.

The poems in this collection revel in richness and in strangeness, they positively wallow in it. I don't apologise for that. I won’t strenuously enact anybody else’s vision of working-class identity – I assert my right to be lavish, to be complicated. The poems are about beauty and meaning and the unlikely places working-class women and girls find these things, the unlikely materials from which they are composed. Steev's collages bring this to the fore, a mixture of decadence and squalor; grind and grime with a lick of glitter.

Emma Goldman is often misquoted as saying that without dancing it's not her revolution. She didn’t actually say this, but I approve the sentiment, and I'd go further. Without dancing – or poetry – there is no revolution of any description. We first have to recognise our right to joy, to pleasure. Poetry is waiting, go and claim it.

Muses and Bruises is available here.

We're reviewing Culture Matters and would really like some feedback from our readers and supporters. What is your overall impression of the website? How well are we fulfilling our mission of promoting a socialist and progressive approach to the arts and other cultural activities, where culture is organised for the many, not the few? What do you think of the quality and range of the material we publish? Have you considered joining the Culture Matters co-operative? If not, why not?

Click here to do the survey.

Thanks to those who have already responded.

Letter to W. H. Auden
Tuesday, 03 October 2017 20:14

Letter to W. H. Auden

Written by
in Poetry

by Christopher Norris

Note

This verse-letter is written in Rhyme Royal, the seven-line stanza-form (rhyming ababbcc) that goes back to some of the earliest English poetry and was taken up by W.H. Auden in his ‘Letter to Lord Byron’. The piece first appeared in Letters from Iceland (1937), a jointly-authored book by Auden and Louis MacNeice containing a mixture of verse and prose, travel-notes and politics, the serious and the anecdotal or skittish. My poem is addressed to Auden and talks about our current world-political scene in relation to likewise ominous developments during the 1930s. It emulates Auden’s way of mixing the formal with the casual and his knack of moving out, cinematic-style, from the personal or parochial to the global or world-historical.

(‘MacSpaunday’: collective name invented by Roy Campbell for the group of prominent left-leaning 1930s writers [mostly poets] which included Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis. Campbell was a right-wing poet and polemicist who meant nothing very kindly or affectionate by it. A quick Google search will help with ‘Chad Valley’ and other perhaps unfamiliar references.)

 

Forgive, dear Wystan, my presuming thus
To pinch your rhyme-scheme, though you can afford
To humour me or not make too much fuss
Since you first lifted it from Byron (Lord)
And took some other tricks of his on board
(Which I'll do here), like using verse to chat,
As mood suggests, concerning this and that.

Still, let’s admit the parallels extend
Beyond such formal matters to the fact
That you, back in the 1930s, penned
Those stanzas full of doubts and fears, though tact
As well as your un-Faustian poet-pact
With sage Apollo, god of form, required
That verse-craft quell what panic-state inspired.

You won’t believe it but, just eighty years
On from your time of writing, we’ve now got
A US president who brings those fears
Of yours right back to life and shows we’d not
Yet managed to dig out the fascist rot
You saw as enemy to all that stood
For civic virtue and the common good.

CN gop 2016 trump

You keep it up, that semi-jester role
Encouraged by the verse-form, but it’s hard
To keep up now, in part because a droll
Or laid-back style’s the standard calling-card
Of satire’s current leftist avant-garde,
And partly owing to the thought that it’s
Quite likely he’ll soon blow us all to bits.

You don’t yet know it, writing from your own
Mid-thirties standpoint, but they’ll fight and win
The war they strive by all means to postpone,
Those old appeasers whose pro-Hitler spin
On world affairs our Tory toffs begin
To try once more, kowtowing to a fool-
Cum-gangster bred up in the self-same school.

CN trump and may

You see them now, hot-footing it to pay
Their fawning overtures as soon as he’s
Installed as president, though really they
Just want to front the quisling queue and seize
This lucky chance to get down on their knees,
Kiss arse if needed, and declare that he’ll
Have their loyal backing after that trade-deal.

One thing the verse-form helps with, as you know,
Is how to handle the eight-decade lapse
Which gives us knowledge of the way things go
Post-'39 while your temporal maps
Have lots of ‘here be dragons’ blanks and gaps
Which we can now fill in with all the late-
Won wisdom brought by simple change of date.

This form’s a winner chiefly through its use
Of that capacious rhyme-scheme, plus the way
Its mix of formal structure with some loose
Or casual phrasing lets us have our say
About how you lot might have saved the day
But not risk sounding smug or acting wise
After events that matched your worst surmise.

Besides, what price the dubious benefit
Of our historic wisdom if we take
From it no more than an excuse to sit
Around composing verses, or to make
Your low decade our theme just for the sake
Of cranking out more poems that allow
Us more escape-routes from the here-and-now.

So not for us to tax that ’thirties crew
Of poet fellow-travellers with the crime,
If such it is, of having much to do
With ideas, words and clever turns of rhyme
But not with urgencies of place and time
That, so we judge, should properly demand
They exit poetry’s cloud-cuckoo-land.

That's why I’m not the least degree inclined
To join the Orwell-clones who now deplore
You and your generation, or who find
Self-love and self-advertisement, no more,
In those formalities devised to shore
Against your sense of a world-order gone
To pot: let good verse-manners carry on!

CN macspaunday

Yet getting old MacSpaunday off the hook
Is too much like extending special leave
To us, or promising to close the book
On our inaction just so long as we’ve
Made good our case for history’s reprieve
On grounds of service to the poet’s art
In homage to its formal world apart.

For – truth to tell – we now have far less scope
Than you for any self-defensive move
Which says that poetry’s our last, best hope,
That its constraints may help us jump the groove
Of prose-constricted habit, and so prove
Not just an action-blocking trick of thought
But one that brings bad action-plans up short.

The point is, we’ve your own example there
In front of us, your poems and the whole
Mind-set we call ‘The Thirties’, so you bear
The burden of our thinking how you might
Have done much more to carry forward the fight
From literary speech-act to the sphere
Of action where the world may lend an ear.

So, like I said, we’re all the more to blame
For blaming you yet failing still to learn
The lesson that you ‘thirties poets came,
In different ways, to mark as your great turn
Of life and thought, so that you’d either spurn
Much of your early work or make it known
That we should deem it kid’s stuff, long outgrown.

Not so, at least not always, so why strain
Credulity by asking us to twist
Our judgement round and treat your poem ‘Spain’,
That conscience-call, as if we’d somehow missed
Its glaring faults because they offered grist
To Orwell's tetchy mill and also fed
Your taste for giving self-reproach its head.

Always a flip-side, and for us it’s that
Temptation to indulge our own retreat
From deed to word or act to poem-chat
By totting up your moral balance-sheet
And fancying our tame versicles to meet
The kinds of standard you applied, not just
Late on but when your muse was more robust.

In short, no jacking up our feeble score
As activists or militants by dint
Of self-applied analogy with your
Half-century sustained poetic stint
And, more than that, your having left in print
So many poems that (late qualms aside)
Took politics and ethics well in stride.

Suppose our situations were reversed,
You looking back across the eight-decade-
Long interval and witnessing the worst
Of times again, what with this bottom-grade
Moronic US president who’s made
It clear he’ll kill all life on Earth through one
Means or another by the time he’s done.

CN north korea kim jong un donald trump nuclear threat uss john c stennis 584269

Just think (the implications won’t be lost
On you) how it’s within the power of this
Illiterate thug to start a war whose cost,
Should just a few ICBMs not miss
Their target, adds up to the thought-abyss
Of humankind extinct along with all
The arts and sciences on the small ball.

God knows, you had it bad back then, but think:
What shall they say of us who had the chance
To put a stop to him, that missing link
In modern guise, yet chose to look askance
At action-plans and cultivate a trance-
Like will to have no distant rumours spoil
Our peace with echoes of that mortal coil.

You’ve heard me out, and patiently, so I’ll
Not try your patience too far but remark,
For what it’s worth, that elements of ‘style’
(So-called) in your best poems strike a spark
Of shared humanity against the dark
And all-destructive potency that waits
On one man's word as will or whim dictates.

My point: you had the hint of gravitas,
The serious note, as in an end-of-term
School homily by one who might just pass
As Head-material, that it took to firm
Your satire up and make the guilty squirm,
Along with just the light touch to disarm
Our finely tuned self-righteousness alarm.

For, unlike some, you managed to hold out
Against the idea that satiric scorn,
Or saeva indignatio, had clout
Enough by fear of mockery to warn
The wicked off their ways so that, twice-born
At its dread summons, they confessed in full
How far they’d yielded to temptation’s pull.

Just think of Peter Cook (I know, he showed
Up decades later – Pete-and-Dud sketch guy),
And how he talked about the debt he owed,
As satirist, not just to Private Eye
But to those Berlin cabarets whose wry
Take on the 1930s did so much
To save the world from war and Hitler’s clutch.

No, satire’s not enough to show the likes
Of Trump in their true colours, or arouse
Such popular revulsion that he strikes
Them suddenly as just a big girl’s blouse
(Nice phrase – you’ll like it) and the people’s vows
Go up: God help us if we don’t get rid
Of this buffoon and mend the harm he did.

Allow me just one last attempt to nail
Down what I mean, although perhaps the drift
Is fairly clear: that poetry must fail
In times like yours and mine because the gift
Of words-in-order’s not a thing to lift
The curse of evil government or fill
Wrong-doers with a cautionary chill.

The formalist in you said poems had
No power to ‘make things happen’, since their place
Was ‘in the valley of their making’ – Chad
Valley, or so it seems – and lacked the space
For anything so brute or in-your-face
As politics, or palpable intent,
Or speech-acts of a world-transforming bent.

But that was you late on, when you’d long switched
Allegiances from Marx and Freud to God
With Freud as handy back-up, and so ditched
All thought of poetry as lightning rod
Or galvanizer for the ’thirties squad
Who had no time for any such divorce
Between the conjoint claims of form and force.

If you were sitting now in that ‘low dive
On 52nd Street’ and read a page
Or two of our news coverage, you’d arrive
At much the same conclusion: not an age
For private threnodies rehearsed offstage
But one that leaves the poets, now as then,
Lone formalists against the anchormen.

CN auden

Paraic and Jack and John
Monday, 02 October 2017 21:58

Paraic and Jack and John

Written by
in Poetry

Paraic and Jack and John

by Mike Gallagher

Hardly ten years between them,
the next door neighbours
from that huddle of houses
under Mullach an Airde,
close, too, their destinies,
not too many options there,
the bus up Gowlawám,
the train to Westland Row.
Holyhead gave them choices:
Preston? Ormskirk? Cricklewood?

Leaving behind

their Dark Rosaleen,
her surplus-to-requirements,
her spalpeen fanachs,
her jilted lovers, cast-offs.
And yet they sang her praises,
her songs of love and hate,
of repression and rebellion
in the Cocks and Crowns and Clarences
of a thousand English towns.

Drilled by

the teachers, the leather-lashing teachers,
no knowledge, no history
imparted here, only know-how,
know how to swing a pick, to wield an axe,
to dig their way through London clay.
Leadógs, twelve of the best, my boys,
now, on your ways, we have no room
for your likes here.

Blessed by

the priests, upholders of the status quo,
apologists for poverty,
for blind obedience,
sex obsessed, the lure of sex,
more sex, less sex,
fill the pews, fill the plates,
fill the boats, go, spread the word;
your road to heaven
does not leave
from here

Pawns of

politicians, truth's contortionists,
purveyors of false promises,
self-serving hoors,
too busy building dynasties.
No need for you in their grand plans,
more use, you overseas;
so take the boat, the cattle boat,
join the herd.
Prime Beef.

Goodbyes to

the mothers, always the mothers,
the father-mother-farmer mothers,
the savers of hay,
the spreaders of turf;
brought into heat once, maybe twice,
a year, migrant's return, marital duties,
children's allowances, God's word –
stuff like that.

Returning to

the mothers, the dazed, distraught mothers,
in the wake houses, huddled
under Mullach an Airde
after the scaffolds collapsed
and the trenches collapsed
and their lives collapsed
and their whole bloody worlds

collapsed.

And the teachers came
and the priests came
and the politicians came
and these, the weavers of their destinies,
these seekers-out of brawn,
and not of brain
explained
that it was the will of God,
that it was the way of the world,
then spilled a few self-cleansing tears
and left
the sons
to the mothers that bore them –
and buried them
in cold Slievemore.

MG Huddle

National Poetry Day: Vignettes of Working Class Exhaustion
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 27 September 2017 20:25

National Poetry Day: Vignettes of Working Class Exhaustion

in Poetry
Written by

Vignettes of Working Class Exhaustion

by Fran Lock

Malkin

Sacred, not wise, the black cat's acid
casualty stare, traversing a crumbling
cul-de-sac, under a starlessly inkjet sky.
We cross each other's path, and she
leans into my unluck, a clot of deeper
dark, unstuck from the rest of the night.
Then she is gone, the quick misshapen
sleek of her; the yellow pellets of her
eyes dissolving into distance. I am
alone on the corner, holding my shoes
in my hand. Her charm unwinds from
around my ankles. The night returns
to bind my wrists.

Breath

In the concrete playground, city kids,
the pigeon-chested victims of chimneys,
wheezing like slow punctures through
gritted teeth and cigarettey breath. I was
young. I remember well, the boy with
a laugh like a chewed-up cassette, hocking
his egg-yolk phlegm at passing girls.
It was exciting then to press my lips to
his, taste and acrid copper shock and run,
uphill, where he could not follow.
My own chest tightens now to think
of it, and his strained white face
like an old balloon.

Everything you think you know about me

At home, in my cradle of copper wire, I spin
the unvaried light into curses. I sleep on a soiled
mattress stuffed with horsehair, lucky heather,
hubcaps, stolen modems, baby's breath. I devour
men whole, licking the piquant gloss of their
blood from my scrimshawed scramasax blade.
I suck the meat from their fingers, melt
their wedding rings down for ingots of bling,
golden molars. My pit-bull dog is a brute, he's
a gallowglass with a tactical mouth. In the still
cold pond beyond the site, the babies unfold
like lilies.

You are not your nine to five prison

Monday beings and ends with the need
to numb my own desperate tendency. I keep
catching the loose threads of an old pain
on the jagged edges of the day. London,
like a hardman with hate tattooed
on the knuckles of his right hand,
and hate tattooed on the knuckles
of his left hand. There's an ant farm
under my skin, and my brain is tuned
to some bumfuck nowhere bandwidth,
all Armageddon and Christian rock.
Between work and hospital visits
I pass the same graffiti every day.
Sometimes I smile in lowercase,
but today its optimism irks me. I think,
in fact, I am the clock. I turn, but in
a circle, chase the self I can't outrun.

National Poetry Day: Pretend
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 27 September 2017 13:31

National Poetry Day: Pretend

in Poetry
Written by

Pretend

by a postal worker

pretend that the scars on your knuckles come from boxing, not letterboxes
make out that the pains in your neck are just age, the snaps in your knees,
the feet worn rough by work shoes slanted at heels, soles like a burst couch,
front up that you’ll not get a pension anyway, you’ll be dead by 65,
kid on that nine miles, five hours in rain or sun doesn’t shatter you,
you’re not flat out on the sofa by four, you don’t panic with six door2door,
you don’t sweat in an orange coat, you drink water on your round,
you get by on more than two biscuits in an eight hour shift humping 20 kilo bags
up streets, laden with packets that need scanned and signed for
at doors that never open, being snapped at by dogs and junkies and dole wallahs,
that you never need a piss, that you brave a mid-week curry,
you’re not arsed that the holiday book is full, that you have to carry lapsing,
that the Chief Exec is on eight figures and you don’t need a raise,
that shareholder’s profits are more important than you, that you can’t go on strike
as your parents voted blue.

CWU Royal Mail potal workers walk out on strike and picket their depot

Postal workers may soon have to take industrial action to defend themselves. Dave Ward, General Secretary of the Comunication Workers Union, said this:

More than ever before, postal workers are under relentless pressure to work faster and cheaper. In local offices, resources are stretched to breaking point and delivery rounds just keep getting longer and later. This is a direct result of chaotic management planning and the wholly unrealistic efficiency targets our members are subjected to.

Yet far from being rewarded for their efforts, their terms and conditions are under attack. From April next year Royal Mail Group will be slashing pensions, leaving many postal workers tens of thousands of pounds worse off in retirement.

Their pay is being frozen while living costs continue to rise. And increasingly Royal Mail is viewing part-time, temporary and insecure employment practices that should have been consigned to the Victorian era, as the model for the future.

National Poetry Day: as the poets write about the smell of their dead fathers' tweed jackets
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 27 September 2017 09:05

National Poetry Day: as the poets write about the smell of their dead fathers' tweed jackets

in Poetry
Written by

as the poets write about the smell of their dead fathers' tweed jackets

by Martin Hayes

a crust of dry bread has become the dream of millions
running water and one bar of electric heat
amenities out of reach for a quarter of the globe
as CEOs stand in their kitchens
warming their feet on underground heated slate tiles while peeling an avocado
slate
ripped from the earth by people whose hands have to squeeze the last drop of milk from a dead breast
wring a sleeping bag dry
so they can sleep at night without freezing their guts
people who have jobs but still have to queue in foodbanks just to feed their families
as their Prime Ministers and Presidents talk about nuclear wars
destroy
whole communities with an idea they had while playing a round of golf
people who once worked on a farm or in a call centre or under the ground
who now have no jobs because of an agreement signed on a jet
30,000 feet above the clouds
people who are moved on from country to country
unwanted
who have to live in makeshift camps for years
just because their God lost an election
and had His fingertips replaced on the trigger of a gun
people who can't clothe or take their children on a holiday anymore
because the price of oil drained from the ground 5000 miles away shot up into the sky
and closed all of their factories
people who once worked in industries long ago shut by progress
who once used their hands to rivet together ships haul a piece of steel out of a blast furnace replace
the heart of a 12 year old girl hand over a cup of tea to a miner squeeze
tomato ketchup into a factory worker’s bacon sandwich
who now sit at home with nothing to do
using those same hands to put together 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles
or knit hats for their grandchildren who will grow up to be a number
on a list of numbers who don’t have any jobs

as the poets write about the smell of their dead fathers' tweed jackets
are Forwarded £5,000 for a poem about the opening of a wardrobe
have enough time on their hands
to stand in front of mirrors
contemplating whether they exist or not
and books about wizards and bondage
sell millions

 

The World Transformed, Brighton
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 27 September 2017 08:49

National Poetry Day: Ciúnas/Quiet

in Poetry
Written by

Ciúnas/Quiet
after Camillo Sbarbero

by Kevin Higgins

Ciúnas, sad person, these are the great
days when one must speak without whining.
The children of the long political sleep forced awake.
Like a vine heavy with grapes in peak season,
laughing at its own potential riches,
I don’t think I shall die again
and now know I did not die before.

Walking the public squares together again,
everyone clicking our picture,
I am there with you even when
three hundred miles away
on enforced holiday,
or home unable to get up for
lack of the necessary breath.
I am drawn to the recognised face
in the crowd, checking itself
in the shop window,
stunned to find itself here again.

At the pinnacle of a familiar song
sung anew, or the glimpse on a passing
TV screen of a pale boy being
what I once was, tears,
and my eyes relit with old light.
Because the permafrost I thought my lot
gives way, and the Earth shifts as it must,
I am like an old loudspeaker with a new battery
switched on after years in the garden shed.

Back there, I must not go,
as there’s nothing but vacated spiders’ webs
and the ruins of lamps and lawnmowers.

Kevin Higgins, one of our sharpest and most prolific contributors, has been diagnosed with sarcoidosis, see here.

National Poetry Day: None of us are really machines
Wednesday, 27 September 2017 08:28

National Poetry Day: None of us are really machines

Written by
in Poetry

None of us are really machines

by Fred Voss

Every once in a while a man
falls apart next to a machine with perfect thousandth-of-an-inch calibration marks
all over its dials
trains roll on time
time clocks never miss a tick
Jupiter never stops revolving or orbiting the sun
but a man
who has come through a tin door with a lunch pail in his fist for 20 or 30 years
and stood tall and firm as a redwood tree beside his machine turning out perfect
door hinges or engine rings like clockwork
can suddenly
start shaking
and collapse onto a steel stool and cry and not be able to turn out
one more part
as his micrometers calibrated to one-ten-thousandth-of-an-inch accuracy sit
on the workbench waiting for him
to pick them up
like he has 10 million times before
there are men between these factory tin walls where we work away our lives we hardly
know at all
until suddenly
they fire their fist into a foreman’s face
or start screaming at the top of their lungs and can’t
stop
as the tooling cabinets sit full of check pins ground to one-ten-thousandth-of-an-inch-perfect
diameter
and the timeclock ticks its millionth perfect tiny tick
and pendulums all over the earth swing according to Galileo’s formula for gravity
and the machines roar and rattle and chew steel
there is a man out on the shop floor who can’t go on
one more minute
and maybe a few weeks off to sit in a lounge chair on a beach and watch the waves roll in
or play and sing silly songs with his 2-year-old granddaughter
will fix this man
or maybe we will never see him again
but every so often there is a man on this hard concrete shop floor who must remind us
none of us are really
machines.

National Poetry Day: Justice and Peace
Tuesday, 26 September 2017 15:38

National Poetry Day: Justice and Peace

Written by
in Poetry

Justice and Peace

by Alan Dunnett

Then I killed him. It was appropriate.
Then his sister hired some men who shot

my brother when they could not find me. Chest
down, he was paralysed. Following that,

my sister-in-law spoke to her brothers
and they took revenge but two of them died.

Then it was quiet. They put new windows
in the local store and scrubbed the bloodstains

on the white steps. I came out of hiding
but would be looking over my shoulder

for the rest of my days. Did I do wrong?
You don't know the whole story. If the clock

goes back, I am still doing the same thing.
I did not start this, I swear; and I know

for sure, it will never end as long as
memory lasts. Killing must continue

unless

 

Plagiarism and the Privatisation of Poetry
Tuesday, 12 September 2017 15:49

Plagiarism and the Privatisation of Poetry

Written by
in Poetry

The Guardian recently ran an article on plagiarism in poetry by Will Storr. Andy Croft, author of two very widely read and influential articles on Culture MattersThe Privatisation of Poetry and Poetry Belongs to Everyone, was interviewed at what was called 'an anarchist bookfair' (actually London's Radical Bookfair).

It is very tempting to reduce these issues to questions of individual blame and shame, as the Guardian article did. However, we believe at Culture Matters that the problem of plagiarism is an inevitable consequence of the capitalistic corruption of poetry. Just as commercially motivated pressures on sportspeople turn essentially social and co-operative activities into matters of individualistic competition and excellence, encouraging cheating and drug-taking, so poetry is deformed and twisted from an essentially social art into a competitive, individualistic activity where new-ness and complete 'originality' is over-rated. This is the root cause of actual and alleged plagiarism.

So we are re-publishing Andy Croft's original article, because it puts all the issues into context. Andy Croft's argument is that poetry is essentially a collective and communist art, with the potential to overcome alienation and increase our sociality and connectedness. It belongs to everyone, cannot be owned nor become property, and is essentially committed to the common good of humanity. 

See also Communism by way of the Poem by Alain Badiou, and The Poetry of Common Ownership by Alan Morrison. Further contributions to this important debate are welcome.

The Privatisation of Poetry

by Andy Croft

‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto' - 'I am human, and nothing which is human can be alien to me’ - Marx’s favourite maxim


At the end of the fourth film in the ‘Alien’ franchise, Alien Resurrection (1997), the film’s only two survivors are preparing to visit Earth. Although we have previously been told that it is a toxic ‘shithole’, one of them observes that from a distance the planet looks beautiful. ‘I didn't expect it to be,’ she says, ‘what happens now?’ The other gives a puzzled half-smile and shrugs, ‘I don't know. I'm a stranger here myself.’

The ‘stranger’ is Ellen Ripley, who has been fighting the xenomorph aliens ever since Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979). Her bewildered description of herself as a ‘stranger’ is one of cinema’s great understatements. For Ripley is a stranger, not only to a planet she has not seen for three hundred years, but to herself. Ripley was killed at the end of the third film, and has been resurrected as a clone with part-alien DNA. She does not yet understand the extent of her humanity or know just how much of an alien she is.

All the human characters are dead at the end of Alien Resurrection. The film’s only other survivor (played by Winona Ryder) is an android. Earlier in the film, when Ripley discovers that her companion is a robot, she observes, ‘I should have known. No human being is that humane.’ This is an idea that has been running through the series since Aliens (1986), when Ripley compares one of her companions to the aliens he is planning to sell to the Company’s weapons division – ‘I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage...’

Alien Resurrection was a bleak fin-de-siecle farewell to a century of violence, avarice, fear and cruelty, and a grim welcome to a new millennium in which we are estranged from each other and from ourselves by exaggerated fears of differences. Ripley is a familiar figure in the twenty-first century – an alien, a homeless exile whose children are dead, a stranger in a strange land.

ALIENATION AND POETRY

The phrase ‘I’m a stranger here myself’ is also a quotation from a song by Kurt Weill (another exile). Written with Ogden Nash for the 1943 Broadway hit One Touch of Venus, the song is a satirical comment on contemporary US life. In the musical, an ancient statue of the Greek goddess of sexual love (played by Mary Martin) comes alive in a New York museum. She is confused by the strangeness of the world in which she finds herself, especially by the apparent absence of love in the cold modern city:

‘Tell me is love still a popular suggestion
Or merely an obsolete art?
Forgive me for asking, this simple question
I'm unfamiliar with this part
I am a stranger here myself.

Please tell me, tell a stranger
My curiosity goaded
Is there really any danger
That love is now out-moded?

I'm interested especially
In knowing why you waste it
True romance is so freshly
With what have you replaced it?’

As a study in alienation, One Touch of Venus may not have been as hard-hitting as The Threepenny Opera or Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, but it was nevertheless clearly shaped by Weill’s experiences in Weimar Germany, where hysterical ideas about ‘aliens’ of course carried toxic political meanings. In the musical it is the non-human alien who understands more about human happiness than the human characters. It is not an exaggeration to say that Venus is both ‘the heart of a heartless world’, and an example of the commodification of desire in a society where ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away... all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’

Which brings us to Marx’s idea of entfremdung, the process by which, in class societies, we are alienated from Nature, from our work, from the products of our work, from each other and from ourselves. Each dramatic new stage of human social, economic and technological development has simultaneously pushed us farther apart from each other and from ourselves – property, slavery, money, territory, caste, class, religion, industrialisation, migration, urbanisation, mechanisation, militarisation, nationalism, empire, computerisation, globalisation...

Of course we all experience this ‘self-estrangement’ differently. As Marx argued in The Holy Family, although ‘the propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement,’

‘the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in the reality of an inhuman existence.’

In a bewildering world where we feel ourselves to be strangers in our own lives, the false consolations of nostalgia, nationalism, chauvinism, religious fundamentalism and racism are tempting to many, especially to those with the least power. Each of these is an illusion ‘which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself’ (during international football tournaments there is always a greater concentration of England flags in those parts of our cities with the smallest economic or political stake in British society). But fearing ‘strangers’ will not make the world less strange; attacking ‘aliens’ cannot mitigate our alienation from ourselves.

On the other hand there are those forces that still pull us together – kinship, friendship, desire, solidarity, collectivity, utopianism, socialism. Despite all the commercial, cultural, social, economic and political pressures to emphasise our uniqueness and our separateness, the differences between us are not very great. We all share the same small planet, we breathe the same air and we share the same fate. And one of the ways in which we demonstrate and feel our common natures is through art. It is not just that creativity can raise individual ‘self-esteem’ or ‘well-being’. All artistic creation, whether individual or collective, amateur or professional, private or public represents a kind of resistance to the complex, centrifugal forces that push us apart. Art is both a reminder of our co-operative origins and a promise of a collective future. Art can be many things – painting, dance, music, literature, sculpture, poetry – but it cannot be property. As soon as a work of art is owned by one individual it is not shared; if it is not shared, then it is not art.

THE POWER OF POETRY

Poetry in particular contains the potential to connect writers to readers, and readers to each other. It can help us feel a little more connected to each other than usual. When any poet stands up to read in public they have to address the readers outside the page, the listeners across the room and beyond. Poetry can remind us what is significant and help us to imagine what is important. It can help to naturalise ideas and arguments by placing them within popular literary traditions. Anticipation and memory implicates reader and listener in the making of a line or a phrase and therefore in the making of the argument. This establishes a potentially inclusive community of interest between the writer/speaker and the reader/ audience – through shared laughter, anger or understanding.

According to George Thompson in Marxism and Poetry:

‘we find in all languages two modes of speech – common speech, the normal, everyday means of communication between individuals, and poetical speech a medium more intense, appropriate to collective acts of ritual, fantastic, rhythmical, magical... the language of poetry is essentially more primitive than common speech, because it preserves in a higher degree the qualities of rhythm, melody, fantasy, inherent in speech as such... And its function is magical. It is designed to effect some change in the external world by mimesis – to impose illusion on reality.’

Over the last five hundred years, poetry has lost many of its historic functions. Character has fled to the novel, dialogue to the stage, persuasion to advertising and public relations, action to cinema, comedy to television. This always seems to me to be an unnecessarily heavy price to pay for the development of the original ‘voice’ of the poet. But the shared, public music of common language and common experience remains its greatest asset – the power to communicate, universalise and shape a common human identity. The power of all poetry is still located in society – in the audience and not in the poet. Writing – in the sense of the composition of memorable language to record events that need remembering – is essentially a shared, collective, public activity. Poetry is essentially a means of communication, not a form of self-expression. Difficulty is only a virtue if the poem justifies the effort to understand it. Why write at all, if no-one is listening? If they think no-one is listening, poets end up talking only to each other, or to themselves. The poet Adrian Mitchell (who once observed that ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’) put it like this:

‘In the days when everyone lived in tribes, poetry was always something which was sung and danced, sometimes by one person, sometimes by the whole tribe. Song always had a purpose – a courting song, a song to make the crops grow, a song top help or instruct the hunter of seals, a song to thank the sun. Later on, when poetry began to be printed, it took on airs. When the universities started studying verse instead of alchemy, poetry began to strut around like a duchess full of snuff. By the middle of the twentieth century very few British poets would dare to sing.’

It seems to me that this is still understood at a subterranean level within British society, a long way from the centres of cultural authority and the cult of the ‘new’. Poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kokumo, Moqapi Selassie, Benjamain Zephaniah and Jean Binta Breeze do not read their poems in public – they sing them. The most distinctive feature of an Urdu-Punjabi musha’ara (a marathon poetry-reading) is the level of audience participation. Poets do not always read their ‘own’ work. They often sing. And they are frequently interrupted by applause, by requests for a line to be read again, by the audience guessing the rhyme at the end of a couplet or by joining in the reading of well-known poems. This is a collective, shared poetry, the expression of a literary, linguistic and religious identity among a community whose first language is English, but whose first literary language is Urdu. And musha’ara attract hundreds of people of all ages.

POETRY AND COMMUNISM

There is something comparable about the role of poetry inside prison. Men who would not often go near a library in their ordinary lives, in prison can find solace and encouragement in reading and writing poetry. Prison magazines always carry pages of poetry. The Koestler Awards are an important part of the prison calendar. No-one is embarrassed to say that they like poetry in prison. There are certain poems – usually about love, heroin and regret – that prisoners take with them from one prison to another, copying them out and learning them by heart until the poems ‘belong’ to them.

In other words, the idea that language – and therefore poetry – belongs to everyone, is still felt most vividly among those who have been historically excluded from education and literacy by the forces of caste and class, empire and slavery.

The French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou has moreover argued that it is not a coincidence that most of the great poets of the twentieth-century were communists (Hikmet, Brecht, Neruda, Eluard, Ritsos, Vallejo, Faiz, MacDiarmid, Aragon, Mayakovsky, Alberti, Darwish, Sanguineti, etc). For Badiou, there exists ‘an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand “communism” closely in its primary sense’:

‘the concern for what is common to all. A tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common; the desire that what ought to be common and accessible to all should not be appropriated by the servants of Capital. The poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night – that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world... it is first and foremost to those who have nothing that everything must be given. It is to the mute, to the stutterer, to the stranger, that the poem must be offered, and not to the chatterbox, to the grammarian, or to the nationalist. It is to the proletarians – whom Marx defined as those who have nothing except their own body capable of work – that we must give the entire earth, as well as all the books, and all the music, and all the paintings, and all the sciences. What is more, it is to them, to the proletarians in all their forms, that the poem of communism must be offered.’

Of course, there are always forces pulling poets in the other direction. Like everything else, poetry is a contested space. The broadsheets, the BBC and most literary festivals are dominated by corporate publishers and a celebrity star-system. The whole apparatus of arts-coverage by press-release, celebrity book-festivals, short-lists, awards and prize-giving ceremonies seems almost designed to alienate as many people as possible from poetry – except as consumers. The result is the victory march of Dullness, characterised by humorlessness, political indifference, a disregard for tradition, a serious underestimation of poetry’s music and a snobbish hostility to amateurs. And all decorated in the usual language of PR disguised as literary criticism (‘sexy’, ‘dark’, ‘sassy’, ‘edgy’, ‘bold’, ‘daring’ etc).

POETRY CAN NEVER BE PROPERTY

Last year I published, at Smokestack Books, a collection of poems by the Newcastle writer Sheree Mack. Sheree’s mother is of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry; her father is from Trinidad. Laventille told the story of the 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, when for forty-five days an uprising of students, trade unions and the disaffected poor threatened to overthrow the government. It was a courageous and beautiful book, an original attempt to combine history and poetry as a ‘shrine of remembrances’ for the ordinary people behind the headlines.

A few weeks after the book was published Sheree found herself accused of borrowing phrases without attribution from other poets. Most were happy to see elements of their work resurrected and re-made like this, but a few were not. Although I variously offered to insert erratum slips in the book, to reprint the book with the necessary acknowledgements, and to print a new version of the book without the poems in question, Sheree’s accusers seemed more interested in mobilising a howling mob on social-media, armed with the usual pitchforks and burning torches. There followed several weeks of extraordinary personal abuse directed at author and publisher, a feature on Channel 4 News, demands that Sheree should be stripped of her qualifications and sacked from her teaching job, an editorial in Poetry News, and threats of legal action from two corporate publishers. Several festivals withdrew invitations for Sheree to read from the book. Eventually the book was withdrawn from sale and pulped.

I do not believe for a minute that Sheree intended to ‘steal’ anyone else’s work. Some of her borrowings were so obvious that they did not need acknowledging (any more than her poem called ‘What’s Going On?’ did not need to spell out its debt to Marvin Gaye). ‘Laventille Love Song’ for example, did not attempt to disguise its debt to Langston Hughes’ ‘Juke Box Love Song’. The point of the poem was to throw together two different moments in Black history, dialectically linked by the deliberate echoes of one poem in the other.

Sheree’s fault was one of omission and carelessness; the reaction of her accusers was deliberate, hysterical and disproportionate. Sheree made no attempt to conceal her borrowings, she did not profit from them, she has apologised for them repeatedly and she has been excessively punished. No-one has lost anything – except a sense of proportion and decency. Sheree’s faults may be forgiven; the venom of her pursuers is unforgiveable. And a beautiful, revolutionary book has been lost.

I am not interested in calculating how many words a poet may borrow from another writer without being accused of ‘theft’, or swapping examples of successful plagiarists – most notably, of course, Shakespeare, Stendhal and Brecht. (For the record, my last three books were comic verse-novels based on Hamlet, Nineteen Eighty-four and Don Juan.) But I am fascinated by the moral panic around ‘intellectual property’ in the contemporary poetry world, in the way that notions of private property have entered the world of poetry.

Property is a very recent (and contested) innovation in human history, usually used to determine access to scarce or limited resources such as land, buildings, the means of production, manufactured goods and money. It is a shifting concept; not so long ago, women, children and slaves were subject to property law; today we have ‘copyright’, ‘intellectual property’, ‘identity theft’ and ‘image rights’.

There are three kinds of property – common property (where resources are governed by rules which make them available for use by all or any members of the society), collective property (where the community as a whole determines how important resources are to be used), and private property (where contested resources are assigned to particular individuals).

It is difficult to see how the many various elements of any poem – words, phrases, grammatical structures, rhyme and metre, emotional syntax, allusions, echoes, patterns, imagery and metaphor etc – can be described as ‘property’ in any of the above senses (except perhaps ‘common property’). None of these elements are scarce or finite; their use by one person does not preclude their use by any number of others. In an age of mechanical reproduction, it is not possible to ‘steal’ a poem or part of a poem, only to copy it.

POETRY BELONGS TO EVERYONE

All poetry inhabits the common language of everyday living. A poem can be unique without being original; it can be ‘new’ at the same time that it is already known. As the French communist poet Francis Combes has argued:

‘Poetry belongs to everyone. Poetry does not belong to a small group of specialists. It arises from the everyday use of language. Like language, poetry only exists because we share it. Writing, singing, painting, cooking – these are ways of sharing pleasure. For me poetry is like an electrical transformer which converts our feelings and our ideas into energy. It is a way of keeping your feet on the ground without losing sight of the stars. It is at the same time both the world’s conscience and its best dreams; it’s an intimate language and a public necessity.’

Most important human activities are not subject to ideas of ownership. Talking, walking, whistling, running, making love, speaking a foreign language, cooking, playing football, baking bread, dancing, conversation, knitting, drawing – these are all acquired skills which we learn by imitating others, but they are not subject to ideas of ownership.

Historically, poetry was always understood to be much closer to these than to those things that the law regards as ‘property’ (land, money etc). No-one in, say fourteenth-century Italy would have understood the idea of ‘stealing’ a poem. Most cultures, even today, regard poetry as ‘common property’. You don’t hear many ‘original’ poems at an Urdu-Punjabi musha’ara. Everyone borrows/steals/copies/appropriates poetry in prison. Which is another way of saying that everyone owns it. And if everyone owns it, there is nothing to steal.

Until very recently in human history, poets were popularly understood to speak for and to the societies to which they belonged. The development of printing and publishing and the emergence of a reading-public have helped to elevate poets into a separate and professional caste. The Romantic idea of the sensitive individual alienated from ordinary society (by education, sensibility and mobility) has become in our time the cult of the international poet as exile, crossing cultural, intellectual and linguistic borders. This cult reached its logical conclusion a few years ago with the Martian poets, who wrote about life on earth as if they really were aliens.

The current moral panic over ‘plagiarism in poetry’ seems to derive from several overlapping elements – the post-Romantic privatisation of feeling and language, the fetishisation of ‘novelty’ in contemporary culture, half-hearted notions of intellectual property, the long-term consequences of Creative Writing moving from university adult education onto campus as an academic subject, the creation of a large pool of Creative Writing graduates competing for publication, jobs and prizes and the decline in the number of poetry publishers. If poetry is privatised, a personalised form of individual expression rather a means of public communication, then it needs to be policed by ideas of copyright, grammatical rules, unified spelling, critical standards and a canonical tradition.

The witch-hunting of Sheree Mack was an instructive episode in the internal workings of intellectual hegemony. The corporate lawyers and national media only joined the chase after a handful of poets (most of whom had not read Laventille) had already attacked one of their own, in the name of economic forces which are inimical to poetry.

Poetry arises out of the contradictions and consolations of a whole life and a whole society. It requires the proper humility necessary for any art. Poetry is not a Meritocracy of the educated, the privileged or the lucky. It is a Republic. Poetry is indivisible. If it doesn’t belong to everybody, it is something else – show business, big business, self-promotion, attention-seeking, property. As Alain Badiou argues:

‘Poets are communist for a primary reason, which is absolutely essential: their domain is language, most often their native tongue. Now language is what is given to all from birth as an absolutely common good. Poets are those who try to make a language say what it seems incapable of saying. Poets are those who seem to create in language new names to name that which, before the poem, has no name. And it is essential for poetry that these inventions, these creations, which are internal to language, have the same destiny as the mother tongue itself: for them to be given to all without exception. The poem is a gift of the poet to language. But this gift, like language itself, is destined to the common – that is, to this anonymous point where what matters is not one person in particular, but all, in the singular. Thus, the great poets of the twentieth century recognized the grandiose revolutionary project of communism something that was familiar to them – namely that, as the poem gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.’

Roar!
Wednesday, 06 September 2017 08:31

Roar!

Written by
in Poetry

Roar!

by Martin Hayes

as we allocated out the thousands of jobs
trying to keep it safe and tidy
so that we could protect our minds and dignity
from the supervisors who would come out
every time they caught us fucking up
and try to strip it all away
by screaming and shouting at us
that we were “idiots”
and “fucking morons”
poets are writing about the shadows tulips cast in distilling light

and what help does that give us!

as we spoke to customers
whose jobs hadn’t been picked up on time
whose lives now will never be the same
trying to appease them by using our street learned charm
sweet talking them with our treacle tongue’s
convincing them that this was a one off
that will most certainly never happen again madam
poets are writing about their sexuality
and how hard it is coming to terms with it

and what help does that give us!

as we tried to manage the couriers needs
tried to convince them that we were not there
just to stitch them up
but were just trying to do our job
because we also had our rent to be paid
and our electricity bill to be paid
and our council tax to pay for
and our county court judgements to pay for
poets are writing about oak trees and how a bowl of fruit
left for a week on one of their 5-grand breakfast tables
gives off a scent that reminds them of their childhood

and what help does that give us!

as we get drunk on wine after our 55 hour weeks
move around our flats naked at 4 am on a Saturday morning
walking into the bedroom
holding our cocks out in front of us like surfboards
for our ladies to hop on
even though she stays half-asleep and screams at us to “fuck off!”
poets are writing about the smell of their dead father’s tweed jackets
and studying what type of poem they should write
if they want that editor
to put them in their magazine

and what good does that do us!

as we sit on toilets drunk
smoking cocaine
letting our heads loll about on our necks in complete happiness
complete uselessness
trying to wipe clean away
the consequences of the debt we are in
the worries of the recent takeover
the recent layoffs
the uncertainty of who will next
be squashed down into a digit
by their crunching of the numbers
and ejected out like a piece of industrial waste
poets are writing gutless poems
about irrelevant subjects
using fake words

and what good does that do us!

every day
when we walk in to do our shifts
put those headphones on
and begin allocating out the work
poets are writing about something

poets are always trying
to write about something

the trouble is
it often doesn’t ever mean anything
because none of their lives
are ever falling apart
quite enough to make their poems
ROAR! ROAR! ROAR!

and what good does that do us!

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