Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison is a Brighton-based poet and editor of The Recusant, and Militant Thistles.

Chip Shop & Battlefield - An Obituary of Socialist Poet and Mental Health Activist David Kessel (10th April 1947 – 8th March 2022)
Sunday, 10 April 2022 15:06

Chip Shop & Battlefield - An Obituary of Socialist Poet and Mental Health Activist David Kessel (10th April 1947 – 8th March 2022)

Published in Poetry

It is with deep sadness that I write of the death of lifelong poet, mental health activist, and dear friend, David Kessel, who passed away on 8th March, aged 74. 

I feel privileged to have known David, a deeply compassionate man, and greatly gifted poet, whose sheer humility was an example to us all in the poetry community. David was much loved, as was evidenced in a 2012 anthology of poems, Ravaged Wonderful Earth – A Collection for David Kessel, produced by Outsider Poets and Friends of East End Loonies (F.E.E.L.), two groups of which David was a prominent and—up until this time—active member. Indeed, he had penned a number of radical and thought-provoking pocket polemics on mental health and psychiatry which he used to distribute as small leaflets, often inserted in the folds of his spidery handwritten letters. These often read like speculative manifestoes.

The paranoid schizophrenia from which David suffered all his adult life, and for which he was heavily medicated (his speech became increasingly slurred as a result), never dimmed his empathic humanitarianism nor his ruminative mind which often expressed itself in aphorism. One that springs to mind is ‘Schizophrenia could be a diabetes of the mind’. David also strongly identified with the poets of both world wars, because he was a poet pitted in his own psychical war; for these reasons, and in terms of his poetic style, David most closely recalled Ivor Gurney. For example, David’s ‘Listening to the soft rain on the leaves/ I hear the decency and realism/ of friends’ humour’ has a similar cadence and comradely sentiment as Gurney’s ‘Who for his hours of life had chattered through/ Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent’.

But David also had similarities with Isaac Rosenberg: while Rosenberg was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant who settled in London’s East End, David was the grandson of a tailor of German-Jewish ancestry (‘kessel’ is German for ‘kettle’) who emigrated from South Africa to North London. By bizarre contrast his distaff grandfather had been a ‘Blackshirt’ and poet. Indeed, David was open to the possibility that such a stark clash of ancestral qualities could have played some part in his schizophrenia. This poses an intriguing genetic theory on the illness, and David was ever the self-analyst (as in his essay The Utopianism of the Schizophrenic). His mother, an Irish Catholic and Communist, presumably had some influence on David’s politics and poetics.

I first met David when I was at Survivors’ Poetry in 2004 working as mentoring coordinator and editor of the Survivors’ imprint and magazine. He was sat outside the Diorama Arts Centre rolling a cigarette with liquorice papers, his gentle brown eyes gazing from under a beanie hat atop a stooped frame in crumpled wax jacket, immediately disarming. While sifting through books sent in for review, I’d come upon his hefty chapbook, The Ivy – Collected Poems 1970-1994 (Aldgate Press, 1989), with its inside quotes from Edith Södergran and Christopher Caudwell and introduction by Arthur Clegg with its emphasis on David as a ‘poet of compassion’. That he certainly was. I was immediately taken by his work—lyrical, elegiac, visionary, but also gritty, angry, visceral and sometimes shocking—and strongly identified with its themes of poverty, socialism and mental suffering, as well as its literary references (Lilburne, Winstanley, Emily Brontë, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Robert ‘Tressel’ (sic), Keith Douglas, Drummond Allison) often cropping up in poem titles, and quotes (Wilfred Owen: ‘Poetry is a savage war’ – as well as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim: ‘In the destructive element immerse’), so much of which chimed with my own sympathies. I felt I’d not only found a poet more than deserving of being published through the Survivors’ Press imprint, but also, on a personal level, a poet-soulmate. Suffice it to say, David’s poetry has had more influence on my own than any other poet I have known personally. Whenever, over the years, I’ve visited London to do poetry readings, I always invited David to read alongside me; I regarded him as a spiritual fixture to any events I was involved with. He’d also invited me to read on occasions, once, memorably, at Toynbee Hall for a celebration of the legacy of the International Brigades. But when I last launched a book in London, at Housmans Bookshop, Kings Cross, in 2017, David had sadly been too ill to get to it.

What I most admired about David’s poetry was its aphorismic quality, its eye and ear for the striking line or phrase, too many to quote (though one of my favourites is: ‘I fear this mountain I must climb/ More than I fear fascism in a loved-one’s eyes’), and that’s from a fairly modest output of around 70 or so poems—but in these senses David’s oeuvre is an archetypal testament to quality over quantity: he wrote what he felt had to be written, no more, no less, though inescapably his illness and heavy medicating took their toll on his productivity (as they did on his physical health), as it had other schizophrenic poets before him, such as Nicholas Lafitte, and David’s friend Howard Mingham (1952-84), whom he’d first met at Ken Worpole’s Centreprise Hackney Writers’ Workshop in the late 1970s, and whose poems, devotedly kept for years by David, we published through my small imprint Caparison, which included Forewords from both David and Ken.

David was an indefatigable champion of Howard’s work, to an almost apostolic extent. (Howard had died at just 32 apparently after having fallen from the top of a tower block in the Cambridge Heath Road area of East London). David believed implicitly that Howard was one of the most important poets of the twentieth century and would often rank his name alongside the likes of Charles Sorley, Drummond Allison, Sidney Keyes and Keith Douglas. Regarding Douglas, I’ll never forget when David showed me a spine-cracked edition of his Collected Poems, replete with brittle mauve-and-nicotined dust-jacket, intricately inscribed with cramped notes framing each poem, when I visited him at his sheltered accommodation in Whitechapel. I also have enduring memories of David ruminating over vegetable curry in one of the many loud and bustling Bengali restaurants he habitually frequented. In his later years he was re-sheltered at Sue Starkey House in Stepney.

I wrote at length on David’s poetry in a critical piece, ‘Storming Heaven in a Book’, which served as Foreword to his Collected Poems – O the Windows of the Bookshop Must Be Broken, which I selected, edited and designed, and which became a Survivors’ Poetry bestseller; I can remember at its launch at The Poetry Café in 2006, following David’s recitations—which he howled from his soul and whole being—how almost everyone present queued up to buy their signed copies of the book. That striking title was my choice from a phrase in one of David’s poems but I recall it took me some time to convince him to go with it as he felt it sounded incendiary, though the concept was peaceful enough: to free the books and let them spill into the streets. A selection from this volume was later published in a bilingual German-English volume, Außenseitergedichte (Verlag Edition AV, 2007).

Most of the poems he wrote since publication of his Collected I have over the years published on The Recusant. I have kept all the correspondence he sent me over eighteen years. One of my most treasured possessions is a tattered white and teal first edition of George Thomson’s pamphlet Marxism and Poetry that David gave me some years ago (hugely generous in spirit, he had a tendency to give away books to friends). David’s bibliography stretches back to the late Seventies, some of his poems having previously appeared in some ground breaking anthologies of radical socialist poetry: Bricklight – Poems from the Labour Movement in East London (Pluto Press, 1980),Where There's Smoke (Hackney Writers’ Workshop, 1983), Outsider Poems, Under the Asylum Tree and Orphans of Albion (both Survivors’ Press). Some of David’s poems were also put to music by the EMFEB Symphony Orchestra in Owen Bourne’s score Hackney Chambers.

I have known very few people in my life who have truly deserved the epithets ‘poet’ and ‘socialist’: David was the embodiment, in all the best senses, of both those noble things.

Some poems by David Kessel

David lived in the East End of London his entire adult life, and many of his poems reference places in that district, such as the following:

New Cross
For John Van

We build our own slums. The wind
through the slums blows on the highest
hills. We are all slowly dying
of cold and loneliness, no fags,
no fruit juice, and neighbours with veg stew
and cups of tea. We live with uncertainty,
our giros and our dreams. Yet our aggression
is our frustrated love. In a billion painful
ways we make the little things of love;
a dustman’s sweat, a cleaner’s arthritis,
a streetlight’s mined electricity,
a carpet-layer’s emphysema,
a desperate clerk’s angina,
a mate’s slow moaned caresses.

1984

Some of David’s poems, as with his short essays or leaflets, read a little like a series of slightly dislocated thoughts or images, or they can be a series of declamatory statements, or a manifesto:

Poetry and Poverty
A Declaration

Poetry as witness.
All poetry is a poetry of hunger for the particular rather than the general.
The purpose of poetry is to create hope in desperate circumstances.
The poetry of the common people has been driven underground since 1660.

Poetry and otherness; the otherness of the common people.
When we cease to share, our language becomes a cipher,
the language of the despatch box and the popular press.
Towards a new lyricism we need to rediscover a deciduous
language, that of Gerrard Winstanley and Emily Brontë.

Cockney poetry is underground poetry expressed in Rock music;
downbeat, dissonant, demotic; e.g. The Clash, The Jam, The Free.
Celebration of the ordinary.
Nature of the city.
Metaphysics of poverty.
There can be no cockney power without cockney poetry.

1999

Living his life in the East End of London, the ‘cockney’ identity was something David often referenced in his work. As a leitmotif (recurring phrase or theme), ‘cockney’ has other associations: the great Romantic poet John Keats was from a cockney background and, indeed, the term had been used as a snub of his largely self-taught poetry by a notoriously snooty critic in a Tory-supporting literary journal of his time.

In Memory of Jude

You could still marvel at the blackbird singing
above the dusk college square with sombre bells
ringing beneath May sycamores.
At bookshops bleeding with mankind and the firmament.
Fancy youths with death in their hearts
pass up and down the seductive streets
and behind thick walls make words deadly
with expectation and fear, drunk with themselves.
Only in the cold churches they struggle
to win some divine life.
The desperate vagrant is more solid:
he remembers, as yourself, the rich flinty earth,
cuckoo calling, smell of wheat in rain on a down.
Your death’s carved in stone in library windows.
Your tears angry, soulful music in a pub
by the bus-station. Beneath a bus
your sweetheart wrestles with uncertainty,
spanner in hand, her poems in her pocket.
You are the busman, bright-eyed, eager to know
your mother’s dark land. Your children’s children
may enter this city with nothing but strong
boots, good bread and hope to destroy
and create a strange people’s history.

Oxford, 1982

This poem addresses the eponymous working-class stonemason and amateur scholar of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Jude moves to Oxford (called Christminster in the novel) in an attempt to get accepted at its university to study the Classics but is rejected purely because of his social station.

Mike Mosley

There is a conspiracy against the social democracy of the British common people

Grey, calloused, forgotten at fifty,
he has given his all; his wiry heart,
his skilled locked fingers, his
chipped backbone, his broken welding
language, for this choking fag,
this dark blinding pint,
this scouring Irish lament.

Scorned, down for a bundle in bird,
forsaken by wives and the DHSS,
shy of nothing ’cept himself,
to this bare room, phlegm and loneliness
between stubborn slums and useless sirens.

Driven by fury to this back ward,
wasted, ulcered, unforgiving.

I start from here to make anew
the happiness of children playing
beneath heeding enduring gulls
in a wooded tempered land.

February 1991

It’s not clear who Mike Mosley is but I assume it was someone David knew. Whoever he is, or was, this is a sharply descriptive poem-portrait, a detailed sketch in words, which renders its subject not simply visible but almost tangible.

 Kessel cover copy

O The Windows of the Bookshop Must Be Broken
David Kessel – Collected Poems 1970-2006
Survivors’ Press, 2006
Edited and introduced by Alan Morrison
Cover design by Alan Morrison

Other resources: 

http://studymore.org.uk/donkeyda.htm

http://studymore.org.uk/ravaged.htm

http://friends-of-east-end-loonies.blogspot.com/p/david-kessel.html

 David Kessel

David Kessel was born at Central Middlesex Hospital, Harlesden, London, on 10th April 1947. He suffered a breakdown at 17 prior to medical school where he spent the next six years untreated. With diplomas from the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians, he went on to practise as a GP in East London until his second breakdown put a halt to his medical career with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. David subsequently spent his entire adult life battling his debilitating and harrowing condition whilst simultaneously writing and publishing beautiful and sublime poetry, and intermittent essays. He became a much-loved and admired stalwart and active member of many London-based radical arts community organisations including Hackney Writers, Outsider Poets, the Jewish Socialist Group, News from Nowhere, F.E.E.L., and Survivors’ Poetry. He will be sorely missed and never forgotten by all who knew and loved him. David is survived by a son, a grandson, brother and nephew.

A shorter version of this obituary previously appeared in the Morning Star.

The Republic of Poetry: a review of Smokestack Lightning
Tuesday, 08 February 2022 22:09

The Republic of Poetry: a review of Smokestack Lightning

Published in Poetry

 

Alan Morrison reviews Smokestack Lightning, edited and introduced by Andy Croft, Smokestack Books, 350 pps.

Smokestack Lightning is an anthology comprising excerpts from 199 titles published by Andy Croft’s Smokestack Books since 2004, a thumping 350 paged testament to the vitality and variety of socialist poetics, contemporary and historical, British and international. This is a formidable anthology, bringing together within the same covers radical voices of the past, present and, one might even say, future.

I must from the outset flag up that as a three time Smokestack author there are excerpts from each of my titles included herein, but it is no revelation to anyone who has read my poetry criticism over the years on The Recusant that I have long been a champion of this press, trying my best to keep up with at least a fraction of its prolific output; and my many reasons for doing so should be abundantly clear to anyone who dips into this devastatingly strong gathering of varied and vital talents.  

Andy Croft’s Introduction is a compendious manifesto and recapitulates Smokestack’s core mission:

Smokestack Books was established in 2004 in protest at the dullness, narrowness and triviality of so much of the contemporary British poetry scene. Smokestack’s declared aim has always been to keep open a space for what is left of the radical poetic tradition in the twenty-first century…

…all these poets may be said to inhabit a shared seriousness, and a common preparedness to write about the circumstances in which they found themselves. 

There are many different – and sometimes competing – intellectual and political loyalties represented in these pages. But all these poets may be described as politai or citizens of the Republic of Poetry.

A ‘Republic of Poetry’ is an apt phrase to represent the metaphorical space this publication and its citizen voices inhabit, not only poets but also verse-activists—witnesses to and protagonists of major events—of their times and ours. A chronological arrangement gives the anthology some serendipitous juxtapositions which constantly surprise in stylistic and tonal contrasts.

Heinrich Heine’s ‘Caput 1’ (Germany: A Winter’s Tale, tr. John Goodby, 2005) shows why the German Romantic poet is so highly regarded for his lyricism:

It was in the glum month of November,
with days growing overcast,
and the wind tearing leaves from the trees,
when I left for Germany at last…

My song’s pure epithalamium –
better, newer! – and in my soul,
stars of the most exalted
consecration are ascending –

Andy Willoughby’s wonderfully titled ‘Out of Work with Crows’ (Tough,2004) is strikingly alliterative: ‘Hands red from sanded swarfega,/ Counting the stolen hours and wages’. David Craig’s ‘Robin’s Escape’ (The Fourth Quarter, 2005) has some arresting images:

He would not see their dandelions
In their toothed and rampant sprouting,
He would not see the linens
Stitched to the tapestry of the hawthorns.
The black cowl of the abbess loomed in the doorway
Like a hollow tree…

Equally beguiling iambic lyricism from the late Sebastian Barker in ‘What the Statue Saw’ (The Erotics of God, 2005):

I woke in a whirlwind, sweating in bed,
             senseless in safety, rubbing my eyes.
The future’s a rainbow over the dead
             clothing the statues posthumously wise.

Tom Wintringham, Marxist poet and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, is represented by his sharply descriptive poem ‘International Brigades’ (We’re Going On! The Collected Poems of Tom Wintringham, 2006), which bears comparison with Ivor Gurney and Drummond Allison:

Men are so tired, running fingers down football tables
Or the ticker-tape, or standing still,
Unemployed, hating street-corners, unable
– Earth–damned, famine-forced, worn grey with worklessness –
To remember man hood and marching, a song or a parable...
While the free men of Europe
Pile into Madrid.

This is a heart-stirring encomium to a transnational moral crusade, which seems almost quixotic in today’s climate of Brexit and xenophobia:

Forming today the third of the brigades, equipping Italians,
Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, Jugo-Slavs, Greeks,
- The names mean languages only: these are Europeans –
The staff, corduroy-trousered…

Jacques Gaucheron’s ‘Legend of the International Brigades’ (When the Metro is Free: Contemporary French counter-cultural poetry, tr. Alan Dent, 2007) takes a more declamatory lyrical tone:

O far-sighted Brigades
Come to bar the way to the spectre of war
To take on the sowers of discord
And if possible
To put out once and for all the torches of evil

Michael Povey’s ‘Weaving History’ (Sedgemoor, 2006: first of numerous Smokestack titles depicting historical conflicts of sociopolitical import) is an evocative period piece set at the time of the Monmouth Rebellion:

Sick of weaving, perhaps, to keep a clothier rich:
Devout men, fearing a Papist king force-feeding them
Wine and wafer: village men, eager for pike-thrust:
The chance to cut a lace-wrapped throat…

Ellen Pethean’s dialect poem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ (Wall, 2007) recounts her working-class father taking her to a library when she was a girl: ‘He said Hen – Libraries are there fer all and readin is free.’ Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’ ‘Cover-up’ (Tell It Like It Might Be, 2008) is a short striking lyric meditation on the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War and Picasso’s groundbreaking depiction: ‘Draw the curtains over Guernica./ On no account remember screaming horses,/ let alone the howling mouths of children’.

Arnold Rattenbury, who worked alongside other notables including Randall Swingler and Jack Lindsay on the communist arts monthly Our Time, is represented by the lyric ‘Calendar Song’ (Various Forms of Speech, 2008), which reads like a fusion of Edward Thomas, W.H. Auden, Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas:

The apples I ate in Bedfordshire
             mocked me with red from Alamein
and yellow from sand and the sun that’s there
             and green from the wounds in Englishmen.

The leaves that tumbled on Somerset
             like parachutists from a war
brushed down my khaki battle-suit
             shaming my millions everywhere.

The big bare trees in St. James’s Park
             stretched out their arms like camouflage
and ducks came down like Sunderlands
             and kids pushed off in a landing barge.

The death of Edward Thomas is paid tribute at the beginning of Hugh Underhill’s ‘At Arras’ (Found Wanting, 2008); its final stanza depicts a poet who survived the trenches only to spend the rest of his life in the No-Man’s-Land of extreme mental illness: ‘the heartsick voice of Ivor Gurney –/ he who imagined voices and had/ every right to his sickness’. Michael Shepler’s starkly imagistic ‘Berlin, 1930’ (Dark Room Elegies, 2009) has an ominousness:

Forest of iron & lights.

The sputtering bulbs of electric stars
Flare & dim, casting a livid glow
On faces Kollwitz might have painted.

At windwracked stands headlines snarl
In Deutsch. Each word,
Rough. Black. Bestial.

& no eyes lit toward the velvet sky
Of tinselled heaven. & none hear
The creak of the cheap wings of
The poor lifting aloft;
Fresh from a pawnshop…

Gustavo Pereira’s ‘End of history’ (The Arrival of the Orchestra, tr. Michael Boňcza, 2010) forecasts that under late stage capitalism there will be ‘dresses and jewellery but not the transparency of waters/ metaphors but not poetry’. Andy Jordan’s ‘The General Election’ captures the aphorismic sensibility of his Bonehead’s Utopia (2011), it closes on the haunting: ‘And so my friend waits in the prison of his skin, marvelling/ at democracy; at what it protects, and from who’. ‘Can I say something else?’ is a two-liner from Victoria Bean’s Caught (2011) which says so much so briefly: ‘He says I wish to say a few things./ The judge says it’s usually unwise.’ Elliptical lyricism in Chris Kinsey’s ‘Flight Practice’ (Swarf, 2011):

What’s held in ignites –

Free-falling in burning fuselage

breath expires

roars fade.

A blackbird’s already singing all-clear
loud and liquid from the hazels.

Paul Summers has a penchant for working-class self-assertion in the face of middle-class condescension, as in ‘north’ (Union; New and Selected Poems, 2011):

we are more than sharply contrasting photographs
of massive ships and staithes for coal, more than
crackling films where grimy faced workers are
dwarfed by shadows or omitted by chimneys, more
than foul mouthed men in smoky clubs or well-built
women in a wash-day chorus. we are more than
lessons in post-industrial sociology…

John Gibbens’ ‘The hill’ (Orpheus Ascending, 2012) is a charming pastoral lyric, which closes bookishly:

Against the reconvening rooks
homing below by ones and twos
to croak and wheel out one more time
before the night, tattered volumes

settling into their library,
the owl has loosed her seldom cry
over our heads, a pale banner
shaking from the kingdom coming.

Victor Jara’s poem of political witness, ‘Chile Stadium’ (His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara, tr. Joan Jara, ed. Martín Espada, 2012), makes for powerful and difficult reading, especially since Jara was tortured and murdered at the age of 40 in 1973 under Pinochet’s fascist regime:

The other four wanted
to end their terror
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed look of death.
What horror the face of fascism creates!

To them, blood equals medals,
Slaughter is an act of heroism.

Similarly disturbing is Martín Espada’s ‘Federico’s Ghost’ (The Meaning of the Shovel, 2014), which depicts fruit-pickers in an unspecified Latin country being sprayed with pesticides as they work whereafter they ‘thrashed like dark birds/ in a glistening white net’—this is a malicious conscious act of the pilot who is last seen ‘watching a fine gauze of poison/ drift over the brown bodies’. Pauline Plummer employs rhyming iambic pentameter effectively to convey the enervation of human worker-consumers in the West (From Here to Timbuktu, 2012):

We seem somewhat exhausted and time–poor.
We obey the gods of work and earning cash
But now we want to go where life is raw
And take a little risk, be slightly rash,
Drink palm wine and maybe smoke some hash.

We’ll see how people live at slower speeds
And question our exaggerated needs...

Kate Fox’s ‘Heirloom’ (Fox Populi, 2013) is a touching, colourfully colloquial poem about her Bradford-raised father:

‘Blood’s thicker than custom,’ he adds
in the Smiths Arms,
his hat, his Embassy Number One, his pint
subtly defying the country club gin swiggers
who’d called him a jumped-up council school nothing.

His, the smoggy Bradford
of Titus Salt and hot factory furnaces.
Mine, the sandblasted city
of David Hockney and hot aloo saags.

Mark Robinson’s ‘The Dunno Elegies IX – Teesport, Redcar’ (How I Learned to Sing, 2013) is a plangent elegy to Northern industrial decline and urban decay:

All the power that once was here changed.
Iron made a place appear overnight,
now it is rusting the water ochre.
Ore in these dark hills, a dance in the pipe-work.

The covert pastoral of Gerda Stevenson’s ‘Eden’ from If This Were Real (2013) starts out idyllically (‘cabbage white butterflies/ flickered down the lane’) but then has a faintly disturbing tonal switch at its close:

Heels and stick
click down the path,
fingernail flames rip
through leaves: ‘Get out!
Get out of my garden,
you dirty, dirty girls!’

The impassioned, prayer-like ‘In Memory of Claudia Jones’ from Footprints (2013) exemplifies Peter Blackman’s oratorical oeuvre. Richard Skinner’s ‘izba’ (the light user scheme, 2013) is an aphorismic lyric: ‘She was catching crayfish with her son when he finally understood/ that the afterlife is what we leave in others’. Rob Hindle’s ‘At the cemetry’ from his Spanish Civil War-themed collection Yoke and Arrows (2014) depicts deaths by fascist firing squads with devastating poetic precision:

When they shot Alejandro and his brother Ramón
they were looking at each other and seeing in each
the different faces of fear, one gnurled and dark,
an olive stump, one smooth and still as the moon.
When they fell, their eyes shone exactly the same.

Seminal German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’s Song’ (Mother Courage and her children, 2014) is ingeniously rendered in Scots dialect by translator Tom Leonard. An excerpt from the book-length poem on the sacrifices of the Greek Resistance, Romiosini (tr. Bill Berg, 2014), by “the great poet of the Greek left” Yiannis Ritsos, has a fairytale quality:

The troop passed by here with the flags stuck to their bodies,
with hard-bitten obstinacy between their teeth like an unripe wild pear,
with sand of the moon in their boots,
and coal-dust of the night stuck in their nostrils and ears.

…and when they danced in the square,
ceilings trembled inside the houses and glassware tinkled on the shelves.

In ‘Aphrodite on the New Economic Measures’ (Crisis: Greek Poets on the Crisis, ed. Dinos Siotis, tr. Angelos Sakkis, 2014) Kyriakos Charalambidis interweaves Greek mythology with punishing contemporary Troika-imposed austerity:

As for my subsidiary concerns
and the real estate portfolio
those are included in the new package
that Fate already has submitted at Olympus…

As you can see, gentlemen,
I am about to be unemployed, I’ll become
Aphrodite of Burdens, of the Rocks,
of Rationalization and Conservatism.

István Vas’s ‘The Colours that Day’ (Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust, tr. and ed. Thomas Ország-Land, 2014) gives disturbing first hand insight into 1940s Nazi-gripped Hungary in which, as the title suggests, colour is used to convey emotions, anxieties and symbolisms:

The soldier is tanned and blond, his car and tunic green.
His silken hound is brown and bright and cheerful.
Bound from Paris to Moscow, stranded here,
he regards our streets with mild but blatant loathing…

From the parting car, the hound still holds
our friendly guide in keen, Teutonic gaze.
The sun breaks through. Its yellow rays ignite
the identifying Yellow Stars Jews must display.

Ian Duhig’s ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (Digressions, 2014) is a dextrous and unobtrusively alliterative poem with arresting Eliotic imageries:

Vagrants’ graves stir by the Poorhouse
as midnight prayers to the God of Hosts
wind around the obelisk in Market Place,
a Cleopatra’s needle for bone-lace ghosts…

His khaki threads on the obelisk’s bobbin
could unwind now by candlelight to tell
the miles from his child’s bed to Babylon,
feet to Ozymandias, inches to the Skell.

Prolific Anglo-Australian poet, novelist and historian Jack Lindsay’s ‘Christmas Eve 1952’ (Who are the English? Selected Poems 1935–81, 2014) juxtaposes biblical imagery with modern day urban privations:

And still the new life cries in darkness, still
The masters hoard their sweated pence,
And then the abject terrors strike again
To massacre the innocents.

The dawn moves ever westward, flowing past
The lines of the dividing maps.
It slides through every window of man, and wakes
The heart upon whose pane it taps.

In vain are bolts and bars against this light,
The cry of life renewed
Breaks the old stones, and men uniting stand
Against all Herod’s brood.

Goran Simić’s ‘What I saw’ (New and Selected Sorrows, 2015) is defiantly humorous and ironic in its depiction of corpses in a war zone:

I saw that human feet shrink two sizes when a
person dies. On the streets of Sarajevo you could
see so many shoes in pools of blood. Every time
I went out I tied my shoelaces so tight my feet
turned blue…

…it would be a shame if they carried
me to a mortuary and found dirty underclothes
on me. Better to go to a blue sky with blue feet
than with no shoes.

Clare Saponia’s ‘On a roll’ (The Oranges of Revolution, 2015) is a deft sample of her aphorismic polemical style. John Tait’s ‘Big Meeting’ (Barearse Boy, 2015) is a wry vignette on the mid-Eighties Miners’ Strike:

Packed into the hall with red lodge banner
loud jabbering voices of angry conversations, confusion,
screeching chairs, men in black donkey jackets
with orange back panels
smoke drifting and clinging in yellow, grey and brown clouds
we’d seen the scabs bussed into the pit
with mesh on the windows like Belfast
then the union man with large sideburns
brylcreemed hair and crumpled white shirt
tucked unevenly into a baggy suit
stands at the front with arms raised…

‘January Twilight’ (Talking to the Dead, 2015) is typical of the late Gordon Hodgeon’s beautifully sculpted lyricism:

Sun wants off
quitting this grey, raggedy,
old overcoat, the garden…

I retreat under my blanket,
again read Lawrence’s
impassioned plea,
a new spring
bluebell-singing
primrose-shouting.

Larry Beckett’s book-length poem Paul Bunyan (2015) is a muscularly musical, rumbustious epic work with hints of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Hart Crane:

Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones…

Amir Darwish’s ‘Sorry!’, subtitled ‘An apology from Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) to humanity’ (Don’t Forget the Couscous, 2015), is a powerful protesting riposte to Islamophobia:

Sorry for the guitar that was played by Moriscosin Spain
To ease their pain when they were kicked out of their homes.
Sorry for the hookah as you sip on its lips
And gaze into the moon hearing the Arabian Nay…
Sorry for painting Grenada white to evade social hierarchy.
Sorry for the stories in The Arabian Nights…

Bob Beagrie’s Anglo-Saxon dialect verse from Leásungspell (2016), represented by the poem ‘Hwenne Otha’, demonstrates strikingly—along with Steve Ely’s Oswald’s Book of Hours (2013), Englaland (2015) and Incendium Amoris (2017)—how Smokestack isn’t afraid to publish philologically challenging work.

There’s a breathtaking excerpt from Andy Willoughby’s superlative book-length Between Stations (2016):

industrialists funded temperance and Methodist churches
on our expanding ferric frontier to keep the workers sober,
washed and so called civilised for the rigours of the daily grind.
Hungry Irish held onto Catholicism to suffer beautifully in,
left redemption urges in the weave and weft of my words,
left echoes of a rapidly ageing moral world in my time line…

‘Chet Baker in Bologna’ represents Bernard Saint’s excellent time-shifting Marcus Aurelius-themed satirical Roma (2016). Roque Dalton’s witty ‘On Headaches’ (Looking for Trouble: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton, tr. Michal Boñcza, 2016) speaks of the ‘historical’ ‘headache of communists’ but that ultimately ‘Communism will be … / an aspirin the size of the sun’.

Ruth Valentine’s ‘The Undertaker’s Song’ (Downpour, 2010) commemorates the Indian ‘garment workers’ who were crushed in a dilapidated building in which they laboured. Valerio Magrelli’s ‘Child Labour’ translated by Jamie McKendrick (The Long White Thread of Words: Poems for John Berger, 2016) coins the wonderful phrase ‘sun of utterance’ for the sound of an impoverished child reading aloud ‘writhing letters’ for the first time.

The experimental Belgian avant-garde poet Paul van Ostaijen is represented by the ‘Zeppelin’ page of his typographically groundbreaking book-length concrete poem Occupied City (tr. David Colmer). ‘Galgalla’ is one of the many narrative-stitched lyrical poems from Michael Crowley’s historically fascinating First Fleet (2016). Nancy Charley’s almost Hughesian-Plathian ‘Ancient Miners’ (Little Blue Hut, 2017), with its clever pun on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is particularly effective in juxtaposing miners with crows or cormorants:

Black as the coal which mined their lives,
Black as the dust which lined their lungs,
Black as the night which filled their days,
Black plumage, legs, feet, beaks and eyes.

Scruffily clad in workaday rags
but iridescent as sea glitter.
Restless, they scan the estuary
for barges carrying Black wealth…

Condemned to caw when once they choired,
haunted by caged and cavernous dreams:
floods of faces, bared gleaming teeth,
laid out props, bleak Black screams.

Steve Ely’s ‘Down by the River with Paul and Clara’ (Incendium Amoris, 2017) begins with a beautiful quatrain buoyant with assonance and consonance:

Dripping June. Under Clara’s umbrella,
lit by sou’wester and bright yellow raincoat,
unbuttoned in boudoir of wilting bluebells
and engorged rhododendrons.

‘Cable Street’ is just one of a book’s worth of strikingly lyrical political poems from Ian Parks’ Citizens (2017—another of my favourite Smokestack covers: A Chartist Meeting at Basin Stone by AW Bayes):

And this, my friend, is Cable Street.
Not much to look at I confess.

But this is where we took a final smoke
before we went to beat the Blackshirts down;
and this is where we drank a tepid pint
before we went to stop them in their tracks…

S.J. Litherland’s ‘Looking Glass Street’ (Composition in White, 2017) is a striking aphorismic depiction of Zurich’s political and artistic avant-garde anticipating the imminent Russian revolution:

Across the street at No 6 close by, the Bolsheviks
deepened their plans & Lenin at his desk was at work,

accompanied by our siren songs, the purposeless
fundamental world of laughter, beauty and atoms.

We burnt our boats in a bonfire of the vanities,
no rules allowed. Our ridiculous hats, our quixotic gestures,

lived on the same street, on the Spiegelgasse.
We opened a gallery & Lenin moved under cover

in his closed train to St Petersburg, the revolution
bursting the banks of the Neva; he was never so free,

nothing was accomplished and nothing marred,
our songs were in his back pocket like bombs.

Aptly it’s followed by an excerpt from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s epic work Lenin (tr. Dorian Rottenberg, 2017), first published in 1924, the year of Lenin’s death—this excerpt is particularly fascinating as it anticipates the posthumous marmorealization of the inaugural Soviet head of state:

I fear
these eulogies line upon line like a boy
fears falsehood and delusion.
They’ll rig up an aura round any head:…
I abhor it,
that such a halo
poetry-bred
should hide
Lenin’s real, huge,
human forehead.
I’m anxious lest rituals,
mausoleums
and processions,
the honeyed incense
of homage and publicity
should
obscure
Lenin’s essential
simplicity.
I shudder…
lest Lenin
be falsified
by tinsel beauty…

Phina Shinebourne’s ‘Flag’ (Pike in a Carp Pond, 2017) commemorates a communist mother:

…tucked in the attic
with her fur coat, assorted gloves,
and posters of Rosa Luxemburg
snuggled in the folds of a red flag.
(Always ready for the demonstration,
she’d say)…
as my fingers roll out the wrinkled flag.

Francis Combes’ ‘The Usefulness of Poetry’ (If the Symptoms Persist, tr. Alan Dent, 2018) makes a profound point, I excerpt it in full:

A young beggar seen in the metro
had written these words
on a piece of cardboard hung round his neck;

‘As the burning forest
shouts towards the river’s water
I appeal to you:
Please give me
something to eat.’

And it seems
People were giving.
(Which would tend to point to
the usefulness of poetry
in our societies.)

Combes’ aphorismic lyricism would seem a template for Michael Rosen’s succinct polemical pieces, as in his ‘For Jeremy Corbyn’ (Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio, 2017), which mocks the ancient Establishment’s notions of socialism’s outdatedness. Peter Raynard’s ‘Scholarship boys’ (Precarious, 2018) makes its polemical point in an amusing way:

Inducted with pictured corridors
of Spiritus Vicis
spouting opportunity
from the mothballed grammar
of the cloak-wielding Headmaster
and his fountain of Latin characters.

Amo, amas, a matter of opinion
was to know our place. Our mouths
were swabbed for memories.
We were to become
someone else’s nostalgia.

By the time we left early,
five of a seven-year stretch,
we stooped off to the factories
that laughed at us
for taking the long way round.

Replete with a striking Kes-like cover image later used for the now ubiquitous Shuggie Bain, Stephen Sawyer’s wonderfully titled There Will Be No Miracles Here (2018) is an outstanding collection of poems on a working-class upbringing in a Northern mining town, here represented by ‘The Iron Woman’:

Waiting for the phone to ring in the Miner’s Welfare –
the men told last moment of the night’s mass-picket:
                                                                                …hands
pressed against the roof as we swerved past haulage yards,
treatment plants, the anthracite air leaking darkness…

Orchestras, chapel choirs, dance nights at the Greystones.
Her husband’s lungs ripping themselves inside-out
on summer nights. Elvis in the Closed Shop taproom…

Sawyer’s memories of his activist mother are beautifully wrought:

…She’s as live to me as the guilt
I feel for trying to escape – not the people – the mining life,
through the promise-lie of education, to stumble upon myself
in a stranger on Collegiate Crescent, speaking a language
that wasn’t my own… She carries me home:

coal and a chicken in our handlebar basket. I carry her
in coffee spoons, sleeplessness, a love of nocturnal beasts
that run against the odds. I see her in the childhood of stars,
a spinal canal of grassed-over spoils, words I mine.

Cycling past the pithead baths the miners built themselves…
…the listed Victorian colliery offices
and clock tower…

This is poetry as social document which in many respects echoes Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. On the subject of Smokestack covers, that of French surrealist poet Louis Aragon’s Les Chambres (tr. John Manson, 2018), the pale greens and blues of Louis Aragon at Else Triolet 1955 by Boris Taslitzky has to be one of my favourites. That bilingual book-length poem is represented here by a luxuriously lyrical, rangy passage:

The mirror which looks at me and grieves
He reads on me the story of the years
This deaf alphabet that a solar time tattoos on the forehead of the ill-natured man
The grey mirror makes my story out alone
In the gnarled secrets of my veins
He would have enough to say having read how the holes grow hollow in my flesh
The grey mirror has a deal of trouble in remembering…
I am only a detail of the room for him only a tear on his face
Heavy heavy tear elongated to fall slowly plumb from the eye as usual

Martin Hayes’ hilarious ‘beano’ from Roar! (2018) is an example of his prolific poem-polemics on the punishing nature of contemporary employment:

the mechanics outdid even themselves
on their latest beano down to Southend
with Scott not even making it there
detained at Loughton services
for pissing in a rubber plant next to the Cashino one armed bandits
and then Craig
falling off the pier as soon as he got there

Hayes rewards us at the end with a killer punchline: ‘nothing though/ that a day out at the seaside/ couldn’t put right’. Political cartoonist Martin Rowson has a line in humorous satirical verse, as exemplified here in ‘Angleterre Profonde’ from the hilariously titled Pastrami Faced Racist and Other Verses (2018):

I dived into Deep England,
Rural as a dying hare,
Where centuries of history
Lurks in a broken chair.
I dived down to Deep England,
Rustic as a lichened tomb
But not for them’s were driven out
And then chained to a loom.
I dived down to Deep England
Owned by classes who won’t budge
But accordingly Arcadian
When flogging bags of fudge.

In Ross Wilson’s witty ‘Ex-Factory Toun’ (Line Drawing, 2018) someone called ‘Boab’ from Kirkcaldy has just watched a Cambridge lecture on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on Youtube and mentions in passing that Smith was from his home town; the poem then paints a contemporary street scene of Kirkcaldy:

Boab had thought a visitor
could be forgiven for thinking
Kirkcaldy was called Toilet.

TO LET signs jutted over
shut shops all around him.
Under one,

the bollard of a beggar
was avoided by a man
on his way to the Jobcentre,

a Jobseeker’s Allowance booklet
stuffed into his back pocket
like an empty wallet;

the image of it clear as old photos
Boab had seen of the town’s
linoleum and linen factories…

Reja-e Busailah’s ‘Remembering After Forty Years in the Wilderness’ (Poems of a Palestnian Boyhood, 2019) is a powerful poem-parable of slaughtered innocents. Similarly powerful, in clean-cut, direct language, is an excerpt from David Cain’s Truth Street: a Hillsborough poem (2019). Peter Donnelly’s ‘Die Traum’ makes an important point about the black hole that is money (Money is a Kind of Poetry, 2019).

The title poem from Deborah Moffatt’s (Eating Thistles, 2019) is as its title suggests a nettly polemic, presumably on Brexit:

We slept on stone, bathed in snow,
made combs from thorns, clothes from nettles…

Maddened by power, powered by madness,
they closed their borders, then turned against their own.

Better to sleep on stone, however hard,
better to eat thistles, though we choke,

better our frozen silence than their fiery rhetoric,
better thorns and nettles than pomp and glory…

Bob Beagrie’s ‘Enemies of the People’ from his English Civil War-themed Civil Insolvencies (2019) is another anti-Brexit poem-polemic which closes on the ironic image of ‘Cnut’s wet socks and the incoming tide’. Ben Thompson’s ‘Litakovo’ (White Tulip, 2019—which has another striking cover image, Paul Klee’s Vor dem Schnee (1929), reminiscent of John Varley Jr.’s for Thought-Forms, A. Besant, C. W. Leadbeater, 1905) memorialises his uncle Frank’s execution as a captured fighter with the Bulgarian partisans in 1944:

Here, no-one comes, no flowers fade,
Time gathers dust over a soldier’s grave,
I stand within the shadows
Knowing you are close
And are as well as I am when I sleep
Knowing no more than you do when I’ll wake.

Soviet poet Alexandr Tvardovsky’s ‘On the highway to Berlin’ (Vasili Tyorkin: a book about a soldier, tr. James Womack, 2020) is a length of verses depicting the Russian ‘liberation’ of Berlin at the end of the Second World War, and in some of its stark images it brings to mind Carl Foreman’s gritty 1963 film The Victors:

All along the eternal highway,
ash in clouds like feathers flies.
And the rubble of the cities
smells like burning mattresses.

Jo Colley’s ‘Burgess in Bolshaya Pirogovskaya’ (Sleeper, 2019) is an exquisitely written vignette:

Flatulence follows you to the Moscow flat,
its four square walls.
…throwing up
is normal, part of the order of the day,
although the blood is troubling.

Gone, the boy who ran naked through
Granchester Meadows, swam in the Cam,
compact body pink with privilege. Now
you stagger slant through Gorky Park…

Laura Fusco’s ‘Refugees are survivor’ (Liminal, tr. Caroline Maldonado, 2020) closes on arresting juxtapositions of images:

In the empty courtyard a young pregnant Pakistani stays behind
and a child playing with her hair, pulling it towards him
so as not to fall down,
while the slip of a half-moon
appears between MacDonalds the skyscrapers
and the almond tree.

Nicolas Calas’ ‘Spartans 1940’ (Oedipus is Innocent: Selected Poems, ed. & tr. Lena Hoff, 2020) is a sharp piece of lyrical shrapnel:

Lovers of the Fuhrer
Locked up in iron brothels
Air conditioned with fear
We made you gigolos of death
Paris Place Clichy recognises you
And cries

New York 1940

Anna Greki’s ‘July 1962’ (The Streets of Algiers and Other Poems, tr. Cristina Viti & Souheila Haїmiche, 2020), on the Algerian struggle for independence, in which she took part as an active communist resistor, begins beguilingly: ‘It springs up fully grown from its own mouth/ This love strong & vibrant as the scorching air’. Rob Francis’ ‘Burning Tongues’ (Subsidence, 2020) is a bravura slice of Brummagem commenting on the accent and nature of Birmingham people:

We ay from brumajum
weem in the borderless
pits – black be day
red be night. Where baby
rhymes with Rabbie – that old
bard who kept the burn
in his tongue.
That burn connects, it burns
like our old forges burned –
burning trade and toil and song
and burning a brand
that yow know and yow know –
burns like Saxon shamans
who’s embers were stamped
and pissed on by ministers…
in borderless pits, ready,
with Blakean bows, to fight
shot to shot – to burn back
with our vernacular…

Legendary suffragette (to the left of mother Emmeline and sister Christabel) and little-known poet Sylvia Pankhurst’s ‘For Half a Year’ (Writ on Cold Slate, 2021—which includes some photographic illustrations) depicts her being sentenced to prison for protests, and in spite of somewhat antiquated language, has a vitality and distinctiveness:

Oft interrupting, now he breaketh forth,
his parchment cheeks distort, his eyes spit hate,
libel on libel hurls, that hired Press scribes
may circulate for gulling simple folk,
masking what lights may glimmer forth to show
their present exploitation and his sins,
by talk of loot, loot, loot, and pillage cruel…

Pankhurst’s indignance of tone and impassioned polemicising is stirring, rhythmically propelled by her accomplished blank verse:

For him, in India, poor ryots toil,
their immemorial Communism crushed,
robbed of their produce and by famine scourged,
dying like flies whilst he exports their grain.

For him, in Britain too, the miner delves;
weavers and spinners follow ceaseless toil,
their wage by far competitors depressed…

Here, in Wealth’s citadel, old wretched dens,
for him each week provide most monstrous dues,
a blighting charge upon their tenant hordes.

This is Shelleyean (see his powerful ‘A Tale of Society as It Is: from Facts, 1811’, for comparison):

For him are children stunted, infants die;
poor mother drudges leave their wailing babes;
herself the exploited maiden cheaply sells,
to snatch youth’s pleasures, else debarred from her;
for bare indeed the pittance he accords,
to such as she who are so swift replaced.

Upon his call to war, go millions forth
prepared to die if he will give them bread.

…to cry a challenge in this Mansion House,
this pompous citadel of wealthy pride,
and make its dock a very sounding board
for the indictment of his festering sins,
that shall go ringing forth throughout the world,
and with it carry all my wit can tell
of that most glorious future, long desired,
when Communism like the morning dawns.

In stark contrast is Chawki Abdelamir’s powerful pared-down lyric, ‘In Baghdad’s National Library’ (Attempts on Death, tr. Alan Dent, 2021):

I read, blind seer
between lines of cinders
I touch the text’s carbon
like a child lightly stroking its father’s head
as death approaches

A chair from an office
skeleton with blackened limbs
gripping a still white
leaf…

It sorts the index of lost titles
and the major chapters of the fire’s history
in Baghdad’s parchment

I left
In my hand, my pen
a match

Martin Edwards’ ‘Freetown’ (The Out-Islands, 2021) begins with a beautifully judged piece of scene-setting: ‘Nights when the moon was sunk without trace/ the unlit planes would ghost in low over coral/ where the sea teethed and worried the lagoon.’ Martin Rowson’s ‘Banarnia!’ (Plague Songs, 2021) is a satirical verse in limerick form, which occasionally strikes serendipitous rhymes:

Push past those mothy costumes to Banarnia,
Frost glistens on the statues every night!
Intellectual callisthenics
Disguise our lords’ eugenics
As they chomp Arbeit Mach Frei’s Turkish Delight!

(Though perhaps to better fit the meter you could put ‘ermined’ between ‘our’ and ‘lords’’ in the fourth line). Marcos Ana’s ‘My heart is a prison yard’ (Poems from Prison and Life, tr. David Duncombe, 2021) is effective in its leitmotivs (‘But the world is an enclosed yard/ (a yard paced around/ by men without space)’), and its images (‘the blue chatter of the river’). Palestinian Farid Bitar’s ‘Al-Shutat’ (Screaming Olives, ed. Naomi Foyle, 2021) is poem-as-impassioned-plea at its most searingly polemical:

I passed by the ruins of Hebron’s Gate
Where my father’s shop once was…
Why should ghettoes and death camps
Be repeated in Gaza and Jenin?
In Deir Yasin and the Khasin villages of ’47?
Why the Haganah’s ethnic cleansing
On the northern coast of Palestine?…

One day we Palestinians will return
To al-Barweh, Qatamoun,
Deir Yasin, and the Qazaza villages of ’48.
Rachel Corrie will be re-born…

The children will not have to starve in Gaza.

…No more Balfour Declarations!
No more empty UN resolutions!

Mike Crowley’s ‘Reason’ from his excellent English Civil War-themed The Battle of Heptonstall (2021) is a compendious poem:

A king that hath sent his parliament away
like a lord discharging his servants, believing
saints will cook his supper for him. He lays
with a papist plotting, with rebels turning
church into a place of coloured dolls, painted
walls and altar rails, where men kneeling
upon their own minds recite some scroll

by the Archbishop Laud…

High birth and unearned wealth shall fall.
We make our stand hereafter at Heptonstall.

Emma Jones’ ‘In Retrospect’ (The Incident, 2021) is a lyrical polemic against complacent centrism:

back then we’d have added
more clauses to Magna Carta
seen the point of the Peasants’ Revolt

we’d have stood with the Levellers in Burford
linked arms with the martyrs at Peterloo…

we’d have been the only Chartists
in the village…

we’d never have swooned into war
pro patria mori
or sat in the stalls at Olympia
praising the autobahn as we waited for Mosley

or poured over the blacklist
murmuring darkly…

these days
you’ll find us holding the middle ground

the status quo
now
is basically sound.

Ruth Valentine’s ‘Hostile Environment’ (If You Want Thunder, 2021) juxtaposes the plight of immigrants and refugees in Tory Britain with that of austerity-hit nationals: ‘The informers wait in shaded alleyways./ The soldiers wait tetchily at the border./ I am waiting for my landlord to evict me.’ Anna Robinson’s ‘What is History? Discuss’ (Whatsname Street, 2021) answers itself thus: ‘in the shards of clay pipes on the banks/ of the Thames and the salt-glaze fragments’, ‘t’ick as a coddle and mild as milk’ and sometimes ‘a brown-tail moth’. Nick Moss’s ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ (Swear Down, 2021) is a powerful polemical poem on the plight of refugees:

An exodus impelled by abjection
to thralldom in warehouses,
building sites and homes.
True citizens of nowhere.

We build your basements
your dream kitchens,
wake from sleeping under church pews,
to mend railways
patch your roofing in the rain.

Stephen Wade’s ‘In the Library, Saturday’ (Stretch, 2021) deftly tackles contemporary prison life:

Here they come again, a steady trail of men in grey.
They come from grey boxes, wearing grey cotton.
Faces grey with being inside too long, too deep.
Is there anything here to assuage the seeping boredom?

Jim Greenhalf’s ‘VE Day and William Tyndale’ (Dummy! 2021) paints a parochial scene at a time of national celebrations where images and sense-impressions impart much of the polemic:

…dragon’s teeth bunting
celebrates VE, the day of victory.
Regatta-like loops of red, white and blue
in May morning sunshine.
From lamp post to lamp post
their vapour trail goes
along the length of the path of shades
to the chained gates of the United Reformed Church.
Outside its tall doors painted Prussian green,
I am sitting with William Tyndale,
under beeches, between river and railway.
He tells me that faith is the substance of things unseen.
A page-turning breeze sways the bunting
and brings the smell of bread and roses…

Ishaq Imruh Bakari’s ‘The Impossibility of Being Black’ (The Madman in the House, 2021) strikes many chords for the Black Lives Matter movement and the main cause for its timely and vital emergence:

thank you, George Floyd
unrestful-deadness flows abundantly
from the silence seeping
in the wailing solitude of a sorrow song
The gladiator, licks the wounds of his trophy,
sustenance held securely in the last
flutter of a chokehold, the prey speaks
with delicacy and sometimes difficulty…

The contributors’ biographies at the end of the book are the icing on the cake: they provide over thirty more pages of frequently fascinating reading including as they do so many of the past great and good of radical international political poetry.

Smokestack Lightning will take its place in the canon of socialist poetry anthologies alongside The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (ed. Alan Bold, 1970), Bricklight – Poems from the Labour Movement in East London (ed. Chris Searle, Pluto Press, 1980), Where There’s Smoke (Hackney Writers’ Workshop, 1983), Red Sky at Night: An Anthology of British Socialist Poetry (eds Andy Croft & Adrian Mitchell, Five Leaves, 2003), and Culture Matters’ many anthologies, most recently The Brown Envelope Book (2021) and The Cry of the Poor (ed. Fran Lock, 2021).

What makes Smokestack Lightning singular, however, is that its gatherting of excerpts from individual collections serves as a tantalising sampler of 199 portals into further poetries.

Smokestack Lightning is available here.

The Brown Envelope Ebook and Book
Tuesday, 11 May 2021 09:30

The Brown Envelope Ebook and Book

Published in Books
The Brown Envelope Ebook is now available for orders here, and the printed version is available here.
 
It is published by Caparison in association with Culture Matters and Don't Go Breaking Our Arts. The poems have been selected and edited by Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R, with a Foreword by John McArdle of the Black Triangle Anti-Defamation Campaign. In opposition to the hostile environment against the unemployed, sick and disabled, there are 318 pages of poetry and polemic by 107 poets, writers and activists.

 

Baked Alaska
Saturday, 09 January 2021 09:08

Baked Alaska

Published in Poetry

Baked Alaska

by Alan Morrison

Emperor Trump's mob took him at his word,
Stormed the Capitol, seat of American democracy,
Vandals sacking Rome, Spartans spilling into Athens,
Barbarians at the gates in red baseball caps branded
With the legend: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
Barbarians from within, chanting empty mantras
And chauvinistic rhetoric - "Stop the Steal!"
Amongst the gold-braided Vikings and buffalo-horned
Visigoths, one key agitator known by the moniker
Of 'Baked Alaska', an Alt Right conspiracy theorist,
Real name Anthime "Tim" Gionet, who set about
Trying to prove how fragile American democracy
Actually is when push comes to shove and there's
A lot of shoving, punching, shooting - that the Capitol
Could be, at least symbolically, crushed like meringue,
Shattered glass and debris litter the east steps
It was simply too good an opportunity to miss
For White Supremacists and shadowy Far Right groups
To gather together in broad Washington daylight
And march on that impertinent neoclassical building
Whose wedding-cake dome overpowered its own
Porticos, as it did their rust-belt hopes - how dare
That building pay host to the temerity of representative
Democracy when it didn't represent them,
The Sunburnt White Privileged, Rednecks, Confederates -
A president coaxing his supporters into insurrection,
We're going to walk down Pennsylvania Ave - I love
Pennsylvania Avenue - and we're going to the Capitol -
Only no we're about it: the perma-tanned rabble-rouser
Would be safely tucked behind his Oval Office desk,
Orange thumb poised on Twitter - it would be They,
His underlings, Myrmidons, remote-controlled thugs
Who in one brief afternoon would storm the Capitol,
Overpower the seemingly powerless police, and attempt
To smash up American democracy as easily
As crushing a meringue, too tempting an opportunity
To pass up, too much of a coup, a scoop - that Capitol
Dome sat there impertinently like a Baked Alaska
Seemed in need of some caramelising,
Just long enough to tan and tarnish its exterior
Without completely melting its ice-cream insides...

Knight of the Gutter
Monday, 20 January 2020 19:34

Knight of the Gutter

Published in Poetry

Knight of the Gutter

(aka Iain Duncan Smith's Got a Knighthood)

by Alan Morrison

The media smeared Jeremy Corbyn for good,
Ensured a catastrophic election result,
A thumping majority for Boris's cult,
And Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

The real change we needed exchanged for gnarled wood
Of Parliament's ingrained gig-hegemony,
Members be branded the blue mob's enemy,
And Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

The unemployed doomed to eat more humble pud,
The disabled damned to more brutal assessments,
Food bank queues lengthening, parks filled with tents,
But Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

Schoolchildren fainting in classrooms who should
Be hungering for knowledge not scavenging bins
To nibble at apple cores like waifs from Dickens,
Whilst Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

Working poor parcels of processed tinned food,
Parents on fasts so their kids get the gruel,
Universal Credit's architecture's still cruel,
But Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

 

National Poetry Day: Phineus and the Quest for Personal Independence Payment
Thursday, 03 October 2019 08:37

National Poetry Day: Phineus and the Quest for Personal Independence Payment

Published in Poetry

Phineus and the Quest for Personal Independence Payment

by Alan Morrison

Episode One: Phineus Among the Harpies

The appeal was refused by the tribunal, the tribunal numbered
Three: an insouciant judge, a glacial lawyer, and a GP
Who wilfully misinterpreted him, pinned him at cross-purposes,
Kept making a point of his insight and articulacy -
Qualities going against his case, as if to imply the mentally
Afflicted must be stupid, when it's almost always the opposite case,
Her assumption that intelligence bestows prolific phrenic
Equipment to cope with any symptom of mind, even
The ego-dystonic, a term he'd picked up from some foxed
Blue-spined Pelican (pain makes its own experts), attempting
To explain the impetus of Pure Obsessional Disorder:
That it matters not one whit whether he would act on his
Intrusive thoughts, present risk, this bore no relevance
To the intensity of distress, the inexorable anxiety
Rooted in uncertainty, ever-mutating symptomatology,
A mind besieged by obsessions*; something about him caused
Them umbrage, the three 'impartial' panel members, apparently
'Independent' from Independent Assessment Services
(Atos formerly), and the DWP; pernickety Harpies
Handpicked for nitpicking pedantry, pecking at the scraps of his
Incapacity - he, hapless Phineus, half-crippled by phobias;
Supposed experts deciding his entitlement, or not,
To Personal Independence Payment (PIP (excuse the parentheses));
They even used his avoidance behaviours to argue that he was
High-functioning in spite of therapists' emphases that these
Repetitious rituals are symptoms not coping mechanisms
That retard healing of psychical scars; he might have quoted
Kierkegaard, something along the lines that all the torments
Of the damned pale in comparison to anxiety: excoriating
Guilt of the innocent, gut-aching angst** in the absence of an act
(Hamletic hesitation), spent nerves of no event, but that
Would have also gone against him - as it did that he went
To university, and, more intrusively, that creative writing
Was his 'hobby' (how suburban that sounded!) which makes him
Probably a bit bohemian, thus unreliable, rebellious, anti-
Establishment, and while he might convince as an idiot savant,
He'd obviously been embroidering the truth to a more threadbare brocade
When claiming he was number-blind, they pointed out he'd
Have had to tackle statistics while studying Sociology -
Not as far as he could recall, but in any case he'd later changed
To Ancient History... At school it took until he was fourteen
To see what the clock face had so long been trying to tell him,
A lightning-struck Damascene of horology! Now Old Chronos
Could no longer cock a snook - a little death erupted in him then,
A peripheral epiphany, still trapped in fight or flight of tick -
Tock neuroticism permanently ruminating on past and future,
Never mentally in the present, temporally absent, but at last
Able to tell the time without having to guess, now everything
Pressed more urgently, reassurance at least in grasping
That suffering was time-limited as contribution-based benefits.

* This is a tautology: the Latin root obsessus means besieged.
** From the Latin: angere: to choke.

 

Kipling Buildings
Monday, 10 September 2018 08:18

Kipling Buildings

Published in Poetry

Kipling Buildings

With some debt to Rudyard Kipling's 'If'

by Alan Morrison

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are spy cameras, a deliberate delay
Of the appointment time in an attempt
To break your spirit, a protracted wait
In a claustrophobic, clinical-looking room,
A neutrally decorated purgatory
Silent except for the rumbling water cooler,
Being observed by unseen deciders
Prolonging your agony in a pot-plant garden...

If you can keep your head during a gruelling
Interrogation at Independent Assessment
Services (formerly Atos Solutions),
Being asked trick questions, being observed,
Recorded, monitored, not being listened to,
Only heard, not being respected or
Empathised with, but being judged
In an unacknowledged kangaroo court
Of icy stares and sporadic mouse-clicks
For each of the ticks in the boxes on
The assessor's screen turned away from you
So you can't see – while being observed
Just as a troubled adolescent by
A cryptic psychiatrist's invisible observers
Behind two-way glass; these desk-perched
Harpies who prey on the sick and disabled
For sport, will pick off your weak points
And press all your buttons to get the most
Pool-muddying responses to cloud your claim...

If you can keep your PIP when all about you
Are losing theirs, it'll only be a pyrrhic
Victory, a temporary reprieve, just putting off
The inevitable sting of a future trap-sprung
Reassessment, opportunity for symptom-
Tampering and a spot of goalpost-changing
To ensure next time you're lower scoring...

If you can keep your nerve at Atos
Assessment Services nestled deep
In the grey, mauve and periwinkle plush
Of Kipling Buildings poorly disguised
As a clinic but whose commercial shape
And façade indicate that a bank once operated
There, on the corner of a nondescript street
In an unexplored part of Portsmouth,
Then you will be damned, my son,
Damned with a disability, but worse,
An invisible one, and the points you'll score
Will be in binary numbers – the price
For their bounties, their thirty pieces...

 This poem was one of the winning entries in the 2018 Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite.

Grenfell Engulfed
Friday, 23 June 2017 11:41

Grenfell Engulfed

Published in Poetry

Grenfell Engulfed

In memory of those who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire

by Alan Morrison

In spite of recent refurbishments – fireproofed? –
Grenfell Tower was engulfed in flames the full length
Of its eyesore height ringed by brown-brick mansion blocks
(Much better Thirties relics of curvaceous art deco);
Now Grenfell Tower is a blackened jagged tooth
On the smoking skyline – but still, by night, a whole day after
The main blaze, orange flames flickered from inside
Like the glows from pumpkin lamps lit up at Halloween parties –
And those broken charred windows now glare
Like the zigzagged grimaces of pumpkins' carved mouths,
Once the candles have been snuffed out in their hollowed pulps.

This gutted, lugubrious building burnished black is now
Nothing more than a charnel house, those still missing
Among its tenants now presumed consumed in smoke,
Burnt out of their tenancies, cremated in their flats, no
Spontaneous combustion of a faulty fridge alone
Could have caused such rapid conflagration – no, those
Refurbishments last year had not been properly fireproofed,
In fact, were done more for external aesthetics
Than for the benefit of the residents' wellbeing or safety,
Simply to prettify the outside of the towerblock
To blend better in with its salubrious surroundings
Of the rich part of Kensington – well now the tower
Has been prettified by fire, Kensington's well-rinsed
Can survey, instead, a fuming burnt offering, a black
Smouldering monument in Brutalist anthracite,
A colossal sooty cactus scorched in the hottest June
Since '76 (when millions of ladybirds coated Brighton beach).

Landlords, maintenance agents, Tory councillors and Tory
MPs had unknowingly conspired to lay in place
The components for a catastrophe predicted by the Tenants’
Association, their complaints and warnings ignored by
The men in grey suits at Westminster, and at Kensington
And Chelsea Council – why would any authority listen to the concerns
Of social housing tenants with no stakes in anything,
Not even the right to justice, courtesy of legal aid cuts,
600 impoverished people cooped up in high-piled compartments,
Many trapped on benefits through no faults of their own,
Or caught in the Russian roulette of zero-hours contracts,
Reliant on food banks, many Arabs, Muslims, immigrants,
Asylum-seekers and refugees among their numbers,
Those whose lives are deemed verboten by tabloids,
Now their homes more than metaphorically put to the Tory
Torch – hindsight haunts Kensington: outside sprinklers
Could have been retrofitted, should have been, in fact.

Now after the flames, the blame games: whose gross
Negligence lit this tinder box, what cultural drift of anti-
Immigrant rhetoric ignited the match? The flammable
Padding in the new zinc cladding apparently helped the flames
Catch! The yellow helmets say they've never seen anything
Like this before... The tower protrudes as a combustible
Symbol of the vulnerability of the disadvantaged,
Never have so many people perished for a metaphor,
The surviving tenants are spitting tar, now homeless,
Will they be given permanent shelter? Some survivors
Voice fears that Kensington and Chelsea Council
Will take advantage of the tragedy to decant the tenants
Elsewhere and refurbish the tower block (and properly
Fireproof it this time, presumably) to house better-heeled
Private tenants – Grenfell gentrified by fire? The arms-
Length maintenance organisation might have a hand
In this, more profits for future, while tight-lipped ministers
Of an arms-length Government avoid the gazes
Of camera lenses, mute in suits; and a spineless
Prime Minister is photographed skulking awkwardly in black
Among the uniforms, looking like the rich distant
Relative at the funeral keeping apart from her mourning
Poor relations; while Jeremy Corbyn responds more promptly,
Goes among the families of the missing, comforting them,
Hugging those who are denied even the vent of grieving
For not yet knowing if their bereavement is temporary
Or permanent, surviving relatives who catch on the grapevine
Of drip-fed information that the bodies still inside
Might be so badly burnt they'll not be able to be identified –
Forced out by fire, is this how Grenfell's gentrified?

Poetry, Unemployment and the Welfare Hate
Sunday, 26 March 2017 17:38

Poetry, Unemployment and the Welfare Hate

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison introduces his latest poetry collection, and calls for submissions for his latest anthology of political poetry.

After seven years of what might be termed the ‘welfare hate’, with over 80,000 deaths (and suicides) among sick and disabled claimants between 2011-14, approximately 2,380 within six weeks of the DWP and Atos declaring them “fit for work”, it is only in recent months that the British pathology of what I term ‘Scroungerology’ has shown vague signs of a pausing for thought.

Undoubtedly some factors contributing to this latter cultural hiatus are the United Nations report condemning the Coalition and Tory Governments’ abuses of disability rights through disability-targeted benefit cuts, and veteran social-realist director Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or and BAFTA-winning film intervention, I, Daniel Blake (in some ways a polemical update on Jim Allen and Roland Joffé’s superlative The Spongers, broadcast 1978, which juxtaposes the story of a single mother and her children targeted by punitive disability benefit cuts against the backdrop of the taxpayer-funded Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and which is more than ripe for repeat).

These have come as timely reinforcements to several veteran campaigns –Disabled People Against the Cuts, the Spartacus Report, the Black Triangle Campaign, Calum’s List et al – that have fought valiantly over the past seven years to put the catastrophic impact of the disability cuts in the public domain, in spite of the DWP and a complicit mainstream media’s best efforts to ‘bury’ such issues.

Nevertheless, we have a long way to go politically and attitudinally as a society until we can wrestle back some semblance of a compassionate and tolerant welfare state which looks after the poor, unemployed, disabled and mentally afflicted, and without recourse to stigmatisation and persecution. The front line of ‘scroungermongering’ is the thick red line of the right-wing red tops, most heinously the Daily Express, and, of course, every English person’s favourite hate rag, the Daily Mail – the ubiquitous negative drivers of most public opinion.

To be on benefits today, no matter what one’s personal circumstances or disadvantages, is almost a taboo, and one exploited ruthlessly by the makers of such televisual effluence as Benefits Street, Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, and the reprehensibly titled Saints and Scroungers (one campaigner, Sue Marsh, has tried to re-appropriate that dreadful term on her admirably defiant Diary of a Benefit Scrounger blog).

In spite of a faint sense of relief felt across the unemployed and incapacitated communities at new Work and Pensions Secretary Damien Green’s announcement that there will be no more welfare cuts beyond those already legislated, there is still cause for trepidation when said legislated cuts of £30 per week to new Employment and Support Allowance claims kick in this April – certainly, then, ‘the cruellest month’ this year.

By something of a coincidence, my next poetry collection, precisely on the theme of the welfare and disability cuts and the stigmatisation of the unemployed, Tan Raptures, is published by Smokestack Books on 1 April.

Tan Raptures gathers together poems composed during the past six years of remorseless benefits cuts and welfare stigmatisation. Some of it is from an empirical perspective, my having been for much of this period in the ‘Work-Related Activity Group’ (or ‘WRAG’ as it’s disparagingly abbreviated) of Employment and Support Allowance, where those who are deemed unfit for work for the time being but not necessarily permanently are placed (I am a lifelong sufferer of pure obsessional disorder, an unpredictable and debilitating form of OCD). This has been punctuated by sporadic paid opportunities (termed ‘permitted work’ or ‘therapeutic earnings’ by the DWP) in poetry mentoring, tutoring and commissions.

Poetry and unemployment often go hand-in-hand, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, since writing poetry is a form of occupation (alongside editing it, publishing it, teaching it, mentoring it, workshopping it etc.), even if an often impecunious one as paid opportunities are few and far between. Indeed, the fact that poetry has very little ‘market value’, and employment or occupation in capitalist society is almost entirely defined in terms of earning money, almost all full-time poets are, paradoxically, ‘unemployed’; at least, in purely superficial material terms. Through the sadly seldom-consulted prism of humanistic occupational theory, poetry is certainly an ‘occupation’ in the authentic sense of the term.

Many poets have been unemployed at points in their careers albeit ‘poetically employed’ at the same time. Indeed, unemployment is often an ‘occupational hazard’ of being a poet, and many either still are, or certainly have been in the past, intermittent benefit claimants. Capitalism has no time for poets since it deems them unprofitable and economically unproductive (in any case, it has their occupational replacements: advertising copywriters).

This is in stark contrast to the stipends paid by the state in the old Soviet Union specifically to keep poets in their poetry (a similar scheme would be most welcome here today). The sometimes inescapable relationship between poetry and unemployment – bards on the dole – is almost never spoken let alone written about by poets. Poetry and unemployment are unspoken companions. But many poets will stifle a bitter laugh at the notion of a Department for Waifs and Poets (DWP).

In Tan Raptures I refer to the DWP as the ‘Department for War on the Poor’, since that is undoubtedly its primary purpose today. The collection includes polemical paeans to many victims of the Tory benefits cuts and sanctions, such as Glaswegian playwright Paul Reekie (suicide), ex-soldier David Clapson (death from diabetic complications/malnutrition), and the Coventry soup-kitchen-dependent couple, the Mullins (suicide).

The eponymous polemical poem is an Audenic dialectic in 14 cantos on the social catastrophe of the benefits caps, pernicious red-top “scrounger” propaganda, and Iain Duncan Smith’s despotic six year grip at the DWP. It is also a verse-intervention of Social Catholicism, as epitomised by Pope Francis, in oppositional response to the “appalling policies” (Jeremy Corbyn) of self-proclaimed ‘Roman Catholic’ Duncan Smith.

The title Tan Raptures plays on the biblical notion of ‘The Rapture’ – the ‘raising up’ of living and dead believers to meet their maker in the sky – satirising the ubiquitous ‘tan envelopes’ that strike fear into claimants on a daily basis as passports to a twisted Tory notion of ‘moral salvation’ through benefit sanction.

So common has this phenomenon become that the phrase ‘fear of the brown envelope’ now denotes a recognised phobic condition, and was even used as the first part of a title for an academic paper on exploring welfare reform with long-term sickness benefits recipients’ (Garthwaite, K., 2014).

It is my hope that Tan Raptures will play its part in keeping up the momentum of the belatedly emerging counter-cultural welfare narrative as championed by the likes of Ken Loach, and, of course, Labour’s first socialist leader in decades, Jeremy Corbyn, who put it firmly on record that he opposes any open discrimination against the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled in such reprehensible and hateful terms as “scrounger”, “skiver” and “shirker”.

Our culture of ‘Scroungerology’ has been something I have been writing polemic on for a number of years now at The Recusant and through the two anti-austerity anthologies under its e-imprint Caparison: Emergency Verse – Poets in Defence of the Welfare State (2010/11) and The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity (2012/13).

It also seems an apt time then to pitch Caparison’s belated third poetry anthology, The Brown Envelope Book, or The Brown E-Book for short, since it will be, at least initially, an electronic publication, as was, originally, Emergency Verse.

The main theme of this third anthology is, as the title suggests, benefits cuts and welfare stigmatisation, but it will also be addressing the housing crisis by petitioning for the reintroduction of private rent controls and also raising greater awareness of the prevalence of letting agent-and-landlord negative vetting of prospective tenants on the basis that they claim benefits or Local House Allowance (even if they’re in work!).

Poets of all stripes are invited to submit their poems on the themes of unemployment and welfare; the empathic but, more especially, the empirical, welcome.

Alan Morrison’s Tan Raptures is published by Smokestack Books. It is available now to order at: https://www.waterstones.com/book/tan-raptures/alan-morrison/9780995563506To submit work for consideration in The Brown E-Book, please email up to six poems along with a brief biog in the body of the email to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Please put ‘Brown E-Book’ in the subject header.

Sixth Rapture: Shut Curtains during the Day

Unlike riches, policies do have a trickledown effect,
And the dictates of Damascus Smith –hairshirt Thomas Malthus
Of Caxton House/or Gregor Mendel of the DWP–
Would germinate into a pearl-white species of cropped
Correspondences in Kafkaesque script bespeaking strange augurs,
Barbed inferences, grim omens, pointed portents –vatic tans
Vibrating with cryptic stings: ‘A query has arisen regarding
Your claim…’, or, ‘We are letting you know what might happen to you’,
But without actually doing so, only adumbrating through
Deliberate ambiguity and mystique of omission (the old
Hemingway tip-of-the-iceberg effect), lacings of uncertainty,
Leaving the door wedged open to auto-suggestion, taxing
Anxious imaginations prone to catastrophic projections –
The implicatures captured uniquely in tan paper raptures;
While elliptic and ecliptic occupational purposes, strange
Occulting ranks and titles, Customer Compliance Officers,
Brought thoughts of Thought Police or plain-clothed
Gestapo in tan macs with glacial stares behind impenetrable
Spectacles turning up on doorsteps clutching rolled umbrellas
And black leather briefcases stuffed full with thumbscrews,
Coat-hangers, piano wires, tape-recorders and lie-detectors –
While Government encouragement of neighbourly petit-
Espionage on unemployed suspects (more the ‘Big Brother
Society’) upped the tan ante for vigilante attitudes
And raised the temperature spiking the thunderous atmosphere
To puncture-point as Ministers instructed conscientious
Citizens to take note of those windows with “shut curtains
During the day” –or, in Baronet Osborne’s vocabulary:
“Closed shutters”– as they left for work each morning: dawn
Patrols of resentful workers directed to mark front doors
Of suspected Dole-Judes, like so many beady-eyed jackdaws –
It’s a peculiarly English kind of malice that criminalises
Innocents and victimises victims of circumstances thrust
On them by others’ “tough choices” and “difficult decisions”…
How appropriate that the Department for War on the Poor
Should send out such vindictive missives in envelopes
Of various browns, parcelling captured sunlight
To disinfect the disaffected, frightened, forgotten, pilloried,
Persecuted, tarred-and-feathered benefit spendthrifts
And profligates, scapegoats and targets for the ran-tan tanning
Of stigmatising tans –what strange types of benefits that grant
No benefits, neither to wallet nor wellbeing, but only
Deplete peace of mind and suppress appetites of “useless eaters”,
“Asocial” and “arbeitsscheu”–is that part of the point, to soften
The blow of swallowed-up cash-flow by shrinking stomachs
So there’s less need for food but more room for souls to grow
Like tapeworms of purely spiritual appetites distending
Themselves on the carroty acid reflux of phantom
Mastication, swishing round in rapturous backwashes from
Half-digested papers…? Some recipients experience
Epiphanies: eat the tan envelopes, as if they were unleavened
Victuals, bellies booming out with brown Holy Ghosts…

from 'Tan Raptures' (Tan Raptures, Smokestack Books 1 April 2017)

The poetry of common ownership
Monday, 04 April 2016 15:53

The poetry of common ownership

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison,  the editor of The Recusant and Militant Thistle websites, is preparing a series of articles for Culture Matters on the history of English political poetry. This opening 'proem' is an introduction to the series, building on both Andy Croft's article on The Privatisation of Poetry and Mike Sanders' article on Making Better Rhymes: Chartist Poetry and Working Class Struggle.

Andy Croft’s essay against the implicitly capitalist notion of poetry as ‘property’ (what we might call ‘propetry’), and Mike Sanders' article on working class Chartist poetry, open up a much-needed debate on the contention that poetry and all literature is essentially a communal phenomenon, since its prime purpose is surely to communicate as widely as possible and share ideas and experiences. 

These are notions unfashionable in a capitalistic postmodernist poetry ‘mainstream’, which is often characterised by one-upmanship and individualistic careerism, though also, ironically, a striking uniformity of style. This mainstream poetry is sponsored by what are effectively ‘poetry corporations’ or ‘poetry monopolies’: the hedge-funded Poetry Book Society, the all-encompassing Poetry Society, the ‘top’ metropolitan imprints, and, most pervasively of all, the poetry prize and competition circuit.

But Croft’s communistic premise is one with which great literary thinkers such as Christopher Caudwell and W.H. Auden would have been in complete agreement, back in the Thirties, which was the most pronouncedly ‘political’ period of British poetics.

That there is a germ of commonality in literature is indisputable, and the heartening notion of what might be termed a ‘poetry of common ownership’ is not so quixotic as it might sound when one explores the too-often obscured and ignored ‘shadow lineage’ of proletarian poetics throughout British literary history. For example, the explosion of polemical poetry of the Industrial Revolution, most notably among the Chartist movement (1838–1858) whose political cause was almost inseparable from the prolific school of polemical poetics it inspired, as Michael Sanders is illustrating in his series of articles.

Poets are magpies

Words belong to all of us, and, ultimately, what is poetry, or any other form of literature, but the creative rearranging of words into particular combinations? While the nuances of these verbal rearrangements and phrasal orderings may be claimed as the expressive property of the word-arrangers, the words themselves cannot be, since they are formed from the common tongue, or lexicon, the lingua franca. And who has ever claimed proprietorship over words? Not even seminal lexicographer Samuel Johnson claimed that.

Poets are magpies: attracted to phrases like shiny objects from which they most often fashion other phrases, or variations of phrase, and, sometimes unconsciously, ‘lift’ or ‘borrow’ phrases. To ‘borrow’ in this way is not to claim something belongs to one as much as it belongs to everyone, and can be reused or imbued with new meanings in different contexts. Within reasonable degrees, this is also complimentary to the original ‘phrase maker’. Moreover, what are poets, artists, but creative baton-carriers who are inspired by former works of predecessors and then in turn reshape these influences to the expression of their own personality? And is ‘phrasal borrowing’ less taboo in titles to poems, which can in turn also shape their concepts or themes?

T.S. Eliot, one of the most distinctive and individualistic voices in poetry of any period, had this to say on the subject:

'Traces of Kipling appear in my own mature verse where no diligent scholarly sleuth has yet observed them, but which I am myself prepared to disclose. I once wrote a poem called ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: I am convinced that it would never have been called ‘Love Song’ but for a title of Kipling's that stuck obstinately in my head: The Love Song of Har Dyal'.

Should Eliot be accused of plagiarism, of leeching off Kipling’s imagination to come up with his poem’s title? Few poets were so aware of the poetic canon and tradition, and of their temporal place in the poetic continuum, as T.S. Eliot. Indeed, his aforementioned poem, a ‘seminal’ one for Anglo-American Modernism, is laced thickly with allusions that frequently melt into full-on phrasal borrowings from previous poets and writers, from such ‘common-held’ or ‘folkloric’ sources as the plays of Shakespeare and the aphorisms of the New Testament.

For all of Eliot’s own considerable genius, he was one of the most thoroughly-sourced poets of them all. He was as much a polymath scholar in poetry as James Joyce was in poetic prose, and both of their writings, significantly, were steeped in Greco-Roman mythological allusions.

Indeed, so rich in allusions to previous works of literature, not to say actual quotations couched in the poet’s own tropes, was Eliot’s most celebrated poem, The Waste Land, that he specifically furnished it with detailed annotations ‘with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism’. As Hugh Kenner puts it in his brilliantly insightful and beautifully written, The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, ‘Cities are built out of the ruins of previous cities, as The Waste Land is built out of the remains of older poems’.

Hence, without its sources, The Waste Land, that ‘heap of broken images’, could not have been written, at least, not in the distinctly splintered, aphoristic and fragmentary way that it was, which was an enormous part of the mystique which came to surround it and fascinate poets and scholars for generations afterwards. Is Eliot the sum of his sources? Eliot was part of a poetic pattern, and he knew his place in that pattern, and might well not have become a poet at all were it not for his keen awareness of it.

The Waste Land was Eliot’s definitive expression of this sense of literary inheritance and curatorship, and is in many ways a work of poetic archaeology dealing as it does in poetic relics and ruins, just as Ulysses, published the same year (1922), was for James Joyce. It was also Eliot, of course, who coined the contentious aphorism: ‘Good poets borrow, great poets steal’. We’ll leave the discussion of Eliot and Joyce there, minded as I am as to the irony of discussing two of the most accomplished exponents of what Cyril Connolly called the ‘Mandarin’ tradition in literature, in a proem to a series of articles on a much earthier proletarian poetic tradition.

Ploughing the common land

The literary scholar Hugh Kenner, then, gifts us a fitting metaphor for the nature of poetry, indeed, of all literature and creative human work: ‘cities built out of ruins of previous cities’.

No poetry can ever be truly original, and that’s as much to do with the fundamental homology of language as it is the inheritance of the literature sprouted from it. In this sense, then, and to use a more natural metaphor, every new poem is a transplanting in place of a past crop: the soil that nourishes all crops belongs to no one, hence to everyone; it is not up for grabs, only for refurbishment. Language is common land – the common tongue – and poetry is its most beautiful flower.

All poets are part of a pattern, inspired by their predecessors, thence continuing the creative process and thereby contributing to the ongoing reinvigoration and reorganisation of the common tongue; like ploughing the common land. It is also disputable as to whether any poets, any creative persons, are actually the architects of their own talents or simply the vessels through which transcendent creative powers are operating.

After all, inspiration is a prime component to creativity. The etymology of ‘inspired’ comes from the word ‘inspirited’ i.e. to inspirit, to put spirit into something. And the commonly used term ‘gift’ to describe a talent is too often overlooked in its implications: what else is a ‘gift’ but something given to someone? Creativity might be partly inherited, partly self-nurtured, but can never be entirely self-nurtured: one cannot create oneself, hence cannot create one’s own creativity.

Of course, it’s only polite for the ‘borrower’ to acknowledge such borrowings, but to neglect to do so is more impolite than impious. Don’t all poets begin by borrowing, even sometimes by some subtle form of plagiarising? Some of the most highly respected poets of the past began writing that way. And should a particular poetic metre be the property only of its inventor? If so, Keats’ Spenserian stanzas are metrical theft!

Nothing can get us away from the fundamental fact that language belongs to all of us. Its cogs might be oiled by wordmongers in order to rescue them from neglect, even to retune and neologise, but ultimately no one can claim copyright of the common tongue. The egoistic urge to do so is what Christopher Caudwell would have termed a ‘petit-bourgeois’ one, wrapped up with impulses to oneupmanship and self-promotion, of which all poets can be guilty at times.

But if those are the prime urges of any poets, then it’s perhaps better they don’t write poetry at all, but instead set themselves up as private landlords and deal in bricks and mortar rather than iambs and metaphors, if they are more concerned with impressing themselves and asserting property rights over peers and readers than attempting to upkeep the poetic soil and continue nourishing common consciousness.

Humility is the compost of poetry

There must be humility in the poet – without it, the poetry simply moulders into ornamental solipsism. To extend the agricultural metaphor, humility is the compost of poetry. The notion of literature as private property, or ‘intellectual property’, is not only a relatively recent thing historically-speaking, but also a distinctly bourgeois concept. Tellingly, much of the ‘common’ poetry of the 17th through to the early 19th centuries was often published anonymously or under pseudonyms, which in itself emphasised a sense of shared ownership in the poems. They were often spread by word of mouth as much as by pamphlet or broadside, tipping them into the common psyche in the same way that common prayers and anthems are, and thence entering into a kind of proletarian folkloric cannon. This act of committal to folk memory has, however, been historically obscured by the self-appointed keepers of British literary ‘polite society’; the plenipotentiary of poetic posterity.

This anonymity of authorship not only emphasised a sense of common ownership of poetry and literature, it also hinted at a contempt for notions of property, especially that of creative expression, and, just as impressively, an indifference towards posterity. Indeed, as the fittingly anonymous Introduction to The Common Muse – Popular British ballad poetry from the 15th to the 20th century puts it (my bold italics):

'The ballad-monger was mobile and difficult to regulate; the ballad poet (often the same person) was usually anonymous. Hence, he was not overawed by Authority – legal, clerical or critical – or by Posterity. Though the limitations of his outlook bound him to his own time and place, he was in all other ways free…'

In every sense then, this proletarian poetry by and on behalf of the un-propertied was symbiotically anti-property. And no doubt one of the reasons for the anonymity of polemical poems and broadside ballads of the past was in order to keep the authors safe from any repercussions due to possible inflammatory or seditious messages in their verses. In this sense such widely distributed polemical poems served as anonymous versified Round Robins.

Building Jerusalem

But the signature of a name to a poem hasn’t always carried with it all the rights-asserting implications and trappings of proprietorship. Why is it that so many English poets and readers feel somehow that Blake belongs to them? It’s because of Blake’s implicit humanity, humility, compassion and universalism of sentiment implicates all of us who are exposed to his work. We become a part of it, and so Blake’s works become a part of us, part of our ‘Englishness’ if you like, but a very radical, half-buried timbre of Englishness.

It’s not just the sentiments but also the anthemic, hymnal quality of ‘Jerusalem’ which binds its readers and singers together in poetic fellowship, in much the same way as a common hymn by sundry ‘Anon’ hymnodists. Hence Blake, his work and his evocative Anglo-Saxon name (meaning, depending on the root, ‘pale/fair’ or, alternately, ‘dark’), which becomes a kind of adjective descriptive of his special type of poetics, of his aphorismic ‘Songs’, enter into the folkloric fabric, become part of our cultural character. Blake belongs to the English, just as Burns belongs to the Scots, Yeats to the Irish, and Dylan Thomas to the Welsh, though all of those poets also have an international reach and building Jerusalem these days is a poetic and political project for all of humanity, not just 'in England's green and pleasant land'.

That politics is not only compatible with poetry but actually an integral part of it is a mode of thought institutionally shunned today by much of the poetry establishment. Yet it was once a commonly held view. Throughout the centuries poetry has demonstrated abundantly in many ways that poetry and politics are interrelated, even if that interrelatedness is often a thorny one. In the past, poetry, or poetic language, was often employed by orators and politicians to reinforce their arguments and ideas, and to such a degree that much historical oratory is often a form of public or declamatory poetry, sometimes rich in aphorism and apothegm.

One only has to think of such eloquent and poetic statesmen as Solon (lawgiver and poet of Ancient Athens), Demosthenes, Pericles, Cicero, Seneca, Thomas More, Oliver Cromwell, Walpole, Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Disraeli, Lloyd George, Keir Hardie, Churchill, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King et al. Or political pamphleteers and ideologues such as John Lilburne, Gerrard Winstanley, Robert Owen, William Morris, Bertrand Russell, Max Weber, even Karl Marx. Das Kapital, let us remember, was lauded by Edmund Wilson, in To The Finland Station, as every bit as poetical as it was polemical.

Oratory, an art form in its own right, has always shared much in common with poetry, and in many respects is the poetry of administration. The roots of much oratory are in Rhetoric, itself rooted in philosophy, and the language of much philosophy is deeply poetic and aphorismic – think Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as is religious writing. These interrelations are explored in depth in a compendious essay by Nigel Smith, ‘The English Revolution and the End of Rhetoric: John Toland’s Clito (1700) and the Republican Daemon’, in Poetry and Politics.

The common music of poetry

Frequently, use of the term ‘politics’ or ‘political’ in terms of poetry is inextricably linked with socialist or communist thought. Much of the focus of the series of articles will be on neglected or forgotten poets of the British proletariat and artisan classes, as well as those whom Marx called the lumpenproletariat (e.g. street sellers, the unemployed, travellers, tramps etc.). Thus the ‘politics’ of such poetics, almost entirely informed by empirical privation and dissatisfaction with established social hierarchies, is invariably radical, anarchic, militant, revolutionary. The articles will attempt to trace much of this neglected genealogy of English proletarian poetry, as well as that of political poetry in general, across the social classes, and across approximately four centuries, since the inception of the mass printing press.

It is sadly true that much ‘political’ or ‘radical’ poetry, especially that written by those on the margins of society, by those from less privileged backgrounds, the unemployed or precariously employed, and those who are marginalised due to mental health issues, is poorly represented by the poetry publishing world, in spite of spin to the contrary, and overtures to synthetic inclusiveness and box-ticking on the part of ostensibly ‘liberal’ literary ‘elites’.

Andy Croft’s own imprint, Smokestack Books, remains perhaps the foremost champion of left-wing political poetry in the UK. Its mission statement expresses this explicitly and in keeping with the ethical communism of its founding editor:

'Smokestack aims to keep open a space for what is left of the English radical poetic tradition in the twenty-first century. Smokestack champions poets who are unfashionable, radical, left-field and working a long way from the metropolitan centres of cultural authority. Smokestack is committed to the common music of poetry; is interested in the World as well as the Word; believes that poetry is a part of and not apart from society; argues that if poetry does not belong to everyone it is not poetry.'

In the poetry journal scene, a thin red line of journals keep up this tradition on the fringes: The Penniless Press and Red Poets, as well as Mike Quille’s ‘Soul Food’ columns in the Communist Review, and Jody Porter's ‘Well Versed’ columns in the Morning Star. There are also some other poetry imprints with similar politics to Smokestack, such as Flambard, Red Squirrel, Shoestring and Waterloo Press. Significantly none of those imprints could be classed as ‘mainstream’ or among the ‘top’ metropolitan imprints. Lastly, webzines such as The International Times, Occupy Poetry, Proletarian Poetry and this writer’s own The Recusant and Militant Thistles help to keep the ‘radical poetic tradition’ represented online.

The phrase ‘common music’ is emphatic of universality and inclusiveness, although unlike music, poetry is inhibited in its reach by the frontiers of different languages, the ‘passports’ of translations often furnishing at best adumbrations of the source texts.

And that final clause of Smokestack's mission statement, ‘if poetry does not belong to everyone it is not poetry’, cleverly inverts the notion of ‘poetry as private property’ by arguing that any poetry that is the private property of the poet is therefore not the property of anyone else and thus is socially and culturally redundant. It confiscates itself from the common consciousness. In contrast, it is precisely the ‘English radical poetic tradition’ mentioned by the mission statement which my forthcoming series will seek to map out, in the hope that those who read it will be encouraged to seek out the neglected works of so many lesser known poets of our cultural past.
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