Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Poetry Of Dissent

This article is from Anarchy, 16, June 1962.

HAROLD DRASDO teaches English at Nottingham.

TRADITIONALLY, POETRY IS A STRONGHOLD OF FREEDOM. More precisely it has been used as the vehicle for all manner of ideas, including restrictive ones. But since, at this critical moment, authority is seen limiting the lives and thoughts of men in ways previously unimaginable; and since we have the benefit of an always clearer view of history and human possibility: then it is natural to expect to find modern poetry increasingly at grips with the state or its outward signs. If, however, someone were to ask today’s dissentients where to find this body of poetry it is probable that each group would recommend first to him those poets associated with it, at some time, by active participation or apparent alignment. Socialists might suggest he search the work of the Auden coterie, as it stood before the war. Anarchists might advise him to try Sir Herbert Read or Alex Comfort. A part of the unclassified resistance might refer him to Christopher Logue, Alan Sillitoe, or the West Coast writers. Unhappily, a discriminating reader would quickly see that, saving perhaps Auden, the most gifted of these poets have somehow seemed unable to use their talents to best advantage on these themes. And, in fact, it appears impossible to gather from these sources a reasonably-sized collection which is at once good poetry and forceful criticism.

On the other hand, if you start from the mainstream of recent English poetry — including some Americans who can’t be overlooked — you will find attacks upon the state and comment on politics and social affairs in the most surprising places. This survey makes note of some of them without suggesting that there has been any sort of movement. Attempts to correlate ‘tendencies’ and styles are often ill-founded and even Orwell can be seen in uncertainty about this matter in his rather unfair essay on Yeats. This makes a useful starting point.

Yeats died in 1939 but his last poems are at least as impressive as anything he wrote and since he is generally taken to be the greatest poet of this century it seems appropriate to begin with a word in his defence. It is true that he admired the aristocracies of the past inordinately; that he dabbled in politics and made undemocratic remarks. Orwell, however, was able to find evidence of Fascist tendencies whilst admitting that it is hard to tell how serious Yeats really was about many of his assertions. The old question of the suspension of disbelief arises here in relation to the poetry at least. But, in any case, it seems only fair to draw attention to some poems which suggest a quite different attitude to political affairs. Politics, for instance, is the declaration of a man with small interest in power, a man bored by tales of intrigue and crisis. Sometimes he announces a straight contempt for the mendacity of the modern world and advocates the sort of quietism Orwell so deplored in Henry Miller — as in The Old Stone Cross.

A statesman is an easy man
He tells his lies by rote;
A journalist makes up his lies
And takes you by the throat;
So stay at home and drink your beer
And let the neighbours vote….

One can also admire his curt refusal to compromise himself in On Being Asked For A War Poem; or point to the epigrams The Great Day and Parnell as evidence of an intelligent cynicism about revolutions and governments.

Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone.’

With one exception, these poems were written during the last three years of his life.

Of the small group of poets still writing who drew attention as far back as the mid-twenties the most incisive is the American E. E. Cummings; by preference, e. e. cummings. Initially he had a reputation for obscurity but this was mainly owing to a lack of confidence in readers confronted for the first time with his typographical tricks. Most of his work is not especially difficult and though not wide in scope it often has a tender or rapturous lyricism without parallel in modern poetry. Added to this he is not afraid to say what he thinks about current affairs and says it forcefully with wit, irony and passion. To set the tone there is his definition: ‘a politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man’. Some of his pieces are required reading for those interested in the political scene. No chauvinist or militarist has ever been deflated so adroitly as the one in the poem which begins ‘next to of course god america i/love you’. The poem written in memory of a conscientious objector — i sing of Olaf glad and big — is a wonderful satire, urgent with anger and compassion. Cummings lashes those who think ‘to differ a disease of some/conform the pinnacle of am’. And his loathing of communism is not reflected in a satisfaction with American affairs —

so rah-rah-rah democracy
let’s all be as thankful as hell
and bury the statue of liberty
(because it begins to smell)

It has often been noticed that the last war produced no body of poetry like that of the Trench Poets. Certainly, there is a difference in the general tone, sometimes an actual resignation typified perhaps by Keith Douglas: ‘Remember me when I am dead/and simplify me when I’m dead’. Or despair or disgust are masked by a fine irony as in Henry Reed’s Naming Of Parts. But one short poem deserves attention as standing comparison with anything Orwell or Sassoon wrote: Randall Jarrell’s The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Jarrell, as you see, is pessimistic about the chances of the individual today. He concludes an interesting essay on Alex Comfort by agreeing that the state is the chief enemy, but finishes —

Yet when one considers the mechanisms of contemporary states — from the advertising agencies that turn out their principles to the aircraft factories, that turn out their practice — it is hard to think of the triumph of any proletariat as more than a wistful, compensating dream: it is we who wither away, not the state.

If it were true, however, that the Second World War did not produce the sort of poetry that might have been expected, some poets have, at any rate, already turned their attention to the next: as if in recognition of the risk that after that nuclear Doomsday there may be no-one left to write or read. Edwin Muir, who is conspicuous amongst these, first became known for his translations into English of Kafka’s nightmare worlds of authority and the individual; and his own poetry is pervaded by a like obsessive sense of disquiet. The poetry, which only drew full acknowledgment towards the end of his life, is not easily represented by brief quotation. It has no clear affinity with any other modern work. Its apparent flatness vanishes on hearing a sympathetic reading. During his last years Muir obviously became pre-occupied with the fear of a final holocaust and three poems use the three possible consequences of such a war. In The Day Before The Last Day, written shortly before his death in 1959 he envisages the annihilation of life — ‘Mechanical parody of the Judgment Day/That does not judge but only deals damnation’; he reveals his ‘imaginary picture of a stationary fear’. The Horses tells of a farming community which has survived ‘the seven days war that put the world to sleep’ and which is discovering that life without tractors and radios is possible after all; the people are reconciled to the uncanny silence and tranquility. After a Hypothetical War assumes, by contrast, the wreck of civilised values, an earth of miscegenation and waste. Muir treats of other aspects of modern politics too: in Nightmare Of Peace we are with the United Nations.

Even in a dream how were we there
Among the commissars of peace
And that meek humming in the air
From the assenting devotees?
Police disguised on every chair
Up on the platform. Peace was there
In hands where it would never stir.
Aloft a battle-plated dove
Throned over all in menacing love.

Several good poems which are directly, or by implication, ‘anti-bomb’ have appeared during the last ten years. One has found its way into a popular school anthology: The Birds by Clive Sansom — who has had another poem, Loyalties, which lists worship of the state as a betrayal of individuality. Robert Conquest and I. A. Richards have neat little attacks on nuclear weapons. From John Wain there is A Song About Major Eatherly. It is symptomatic, though, that Edith Sitwell in Three Poems Of The Atomic Age simply incorporates eye-witness accounts of the explosions into her poems in support of her own pyrotechnics: ‘Then to the murdered Sun a totem pole of dust arose in memory of Man.’ As if the experience were too immediate, the reports of the survivors too anguished, to warrant interference or embellishment. Indeed, the reader of such works as John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ and Robert Jungsk’s ‘Brighter Than A Thousand Suns’ may be uncomfortably aware that the descriptions of the actual explosions first lay claim on him in the generalised manner of poetry and might even tend to inhibit somewhat the response that their context must arouse. This seduction by magnitude or sensation is something the propagandist must weigh carefully.

Of all the English poets who have made reputations since the war it might only be said of one that his work is very often the direct expression of his social conscience. This is D. J. Enright. His poetry seems at first glance rather erudite and mannered owing to the occasional and reverberatingly poetic phrases. But a good reader will quickly feel the force of Enright’s work and find in it a sense of compassion and an integrity seldom shown in social contexts at present. Enright, who has travelled widely in the war-reduced countries of Europe and the Far East, might almost be called the poet of hunger. He writes about poverty, exile, starvation, prostitution, the offences of the state against the individual, the opportunism of politicians.

The only enigma that I saw
Was the plump sayings of the politicians
Against the thin faces of the poor.

The Monuments Of Hiroshima may well be the best thing yet written on that city. The mood of this poem makes one think back to such pieces as Sassoon’s At The New Menin Gate. Enright has a directness and an ironic intelligence which save him from sentimentalism. He concludes —

Little of peace for them to rest in, less of them
to rest in peace:
Dust to dust a swift transition, ashes to ash
with awful ease.
Their only monument will be of other’s casting —
A Tower of Peace, a Hall of Peace, a Bridge of Peace
— who might have wished for something lasting,
Like a wooden box.

Writing about hunger, in Where Charity Begins and The Short Life of Kazuo Yamamoto, he contrasts the verbal world of the politicians with the real world of the victims.

Elsewhere the great ones have their headaches, too,
As they grapple with those notable tongue-twisters
Such as Liberation and Oppression.
But they were not talking about you,
Kazuo, who found rat poison cheaper than aspirin.

His sympathy is extended to starving animals too, as in the sharp little epigram Asiatic Premises, where it becomes an indictment.

This largish whitish newish building is devoted
to the study of the Liberal Arts and the Humanities.
Under the surrounding hedges lie the minute and bloated
bodies of starved kittens. Vanity of vanities.

These poems are in no sense occasional observation or comment but begin and end in a flat and sometimes premonitory rejection of power politics.

But the politicians live in their own climate,
The cold chairs where they incubate
A future spring of plum and peach and cherry, in superb mutations.
Blossoming across the blind and ruined nations.

Complementary to this is his feeling for the individual sufferer, especially the political refugee; best exemplified in the beautiful Meeting An Egyptian At A Cocktail Party. Of course, Enright devotes himself to other, quite different themes, too: notably the arts, criticism, and impressions of place. From a social standpoint ‘Bread Rather Than Blossoms’ is the most interesting of his books of verse.

In conclusion, what can be said about the state of poetry today? The last decade has seen the appearance of a handful of excellent poets. Enright might be included amongst these but what of the others? — Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Burns Singer, Elizabeth Jennings, C. A. Trypanis, Donald Davie. The critic cannot ignore the astonishing absence of social comment in their work. Indeed, he might draw attention to such a poem as Davie’s Too Late For Satire. Davie has the elegance, clarity, and point of the perfect satirist; and he knows this but through a lamentable fatalism declines the task —

I might have been as pitiless as Pope
But to no purpose; in a tragic age
We share the hatred but we lack the hope
By pinning follies to reform the age.
To blame is lame and satirists are late.
No knife can stick in history or the id,
No cutlass carve us from the lime of fate.

To go further, the critic might consider A Woman Unconscious, an impressive piece by Ted Hughes. Hughes visualises an atomic war which might expunge all living things — ‘the toil of all our ages a loss with leaf and insect’; then he rejects his fancy as melodramatic and (by dubious extension) not conforming to the pattern of history; until, reverting to the original idea he compares the extinction of all life with the loss of consciousness, or death, of a single woman —

And though bomb be matched against bomb,
Though all mankind wince out and nothing endure —
Earth gone in an instant flare —
Did a lesser death come
Onto the white hospital bed
Where one, numb beyond her last of sense,
Closed her eyes on the world’s evidence
And into pillows sunk her head.

This sort of solipsism must seem to many to be maddeningly perverse. Indeed, it would be amusing, were it not for the sense of crisis, that readers who have always insisted that poetry can ignore morality may now find themselves — oppressed by the urgent final threat of a nuclear war — impelled to prescribe attitudes and themes for the poet. If, however, this feeling of urgency can be put aside, a quite different evaluation of the trend of contemporary poetry may be made. Negatively, it can be said that from this social standpoint the best of the younger poets almost never sin by commission. Whilst positively, it is plain that the only characteristic that unites them is the fact that no two of them have much in common: they are committed to quite personal explorations. If this is escape, it is affirmation too.

Collected Poems by W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan, 1958, 18/-.)
E. E. Cummings: Selected Poems 1923-1958. (Faber and Faber, 1958, 18/-.)
Randall Jarrell: Selected Poems. (Faber and Faber, 1958, 15/-.)
Edwin Muir: Collected Poems 1921-1958. (Faber and Faber, 1960, 25/-.)
D. J. Enright: Bread Rather Than Blossoms. (Seeker and Warburg, 1956, 10/6.)
Ted Hughes: Lupercal. (Faber and Faber, 1960, 12/6d.)
Donald Davie’s ‘Too Late For Satire’ is in the anthology New Lines edited by Robert Conquest. (Macmillan, 1956, 12/6d.)

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Orgreave

The Battle of Orgreave became a turning point in the miners’ strike. The whole country knew that the might of the state was bearing down on the striking mine workers and their families and that a new vision of Britain was being forced by ranks of police and a state that acted in the interests of the wealthy rather than the country as a whole.
This poem comes from Against All Odds which was a book of poems brought ot by the NUM and sold by miners’ support groups to raise funds.

Orgreave
Monday 18th June 1984

We will remember Orgreave and the Summer of ’84,
The daily convoys of lorries and
The close packed rows of helmets,
Tight and shielded,
Pushed hard against the massing ranks of pickets –
Bare chested in the early morning sun
‘We support you evermore’, they chanted,
Fervant, euphoric.
Arthur, standing his ground,
Pouring strength of will and body into the gathering force,
With them, of them, for them.
The blue ranks parting like the Red Sea,
To let the cavalry through,
Hooves, truncheon and baton
Against bone and flesh.

Miners have always known the price of coal –
Paid most often underground:
But this time they poured out their blood
Among the elderflowers and wild roses
On a dusty road outside the cokeworks,
In the fight to save jobs and a way of life.
And their anger ripped apart stone walls and concrete posts,
With bare hands –
A people’s defence against trained antagonism,
The rush of pounding hooves, and flailing baton blows.
We will remember weeks of struggle
In the summer of the long strike.
It has its place in history.

Barbara Brookes

Bootboy Blues

An angry skinhead girl castigates the NF in Sounds, 1 November, 1980.

In 1969 being a skinhead meant coming together as a firm – everyone was out for the music and to enjoy themselves, and so they did. But nowadays all skinheads do is ruck and allow themselves to be exploited. They are not in it for the music. How can they be, if they’re on National Front marches every other week (as it is claimed)? They are wallies who do not know what they are doing. They never will. They are ruining it for all us real skins who know what we’re doing.
Reggae music is black man music, it’s sung by blacks, danced to by blacks (and skins). So why the hell do we find skins going on NF marches? It doesn’t make sense.
Tell me all you cretins, what would happen if the NF did come into power? Do you think you’d still be roaming about the streets shouting sieg heil? No way, you’re joking. You would all be in the bloody army – but maybe that’s where half of you ought to be right now, it might teach you a bit of discipline. Do you also think that if the NF came into power that you’d be off to clubs every night, dancing and singing to music? No, under the NF there would be no music. Nothing decent anyway.
So try thinking things out for once. Reggae is skinhead music and always has been – you’ve got to be a complete idiot to hate the musicians who bring you excellent music and call yourselves skins at the same time. Maybe that’s why I’ve decided to turn straight – I’ve finally realised that I no longer believe in what skinheads currently stand for. Being a skin today brands you as an NF supporter, and I’m sick of it.
I hope that one day skinheads will make a come back in the 1969 way.

Sharon Agius, London N11

Seething Wells Aggro!

Steven ‘Seething’ Wells in the Guardian 8 January 2008
Get in the Ring: Axl Rose challenged specific journalists to a fight.

“Steven Wells!”
I look up. There on the tube station platform is a fat bloke. I smile and wave. He points to the U2 album he’s holding.
“Wanker!” he shouts, shaking his pudgy fist.
Writing anything even vaguely critical about certain bands is like firing a rocket launcher into a rainforest canopy packed with psychotic howler monkeys. Today’s snarky album review might be tomorrow’s hamster cage lining for most readers, but for a deranged minority of artists and fans, every bad review is cut out with blunt scissors, underlined in green ink and pasted into a chicken feather-festooned voodoo curse shrine.
I have been threatened both in print and in person by Henry Rollins and was savagely pushed in the back at a gig by a furious Sci-Fi Steve out of Bis. Or it might have been Disco John – he ran too fast for me to tell. Whatever, I thought my street fighting days were over. I was wrong.
Just before Christmas I received an email from a distraught Morrissey fan called Morrissey the 23rd. He challenged me to a fight over articles I’d written. I asked him to send me a picture. He called me a pervert and then said he didn’t really want a fight because he was dead weedy and rubbish at fighting.
Thus reassured I made plans to book a gym in 23rd’s native Scotland where, a year hence (to give us both time to train and get fit) we can have a go at each other in three rounds of tediously inept but properly refereed celeb/non-entity boxing – in the manner pioneered by Ricky Gervais and Grant Bovey.
In the 18th century, gentlemen regularly shot and stabbed one another in formal duels. In modern times artists and fans have tended to resort to the somewhat less honourable method of sneaking up on journalists and hitting them.
Kudos must be given, therefore, to the man described as “the world’s worst film director”, Uwe Boll, who in 2006 invited a bunch of his most savage online critics to a public boxing match where, much to their horrified surprise, he proceeded to thrash the living daylights out of them.
More typical, however, is the somewhat less classy direct approach – like that adopted by Kevin Rowland who waited outside the offices of Melody Maker to thump writer Barry McIlheney in the face.
The most beaten-up hack ever must surely be the “great palsied mantis” of rock journalism, Nick Kent – a man who looks so much like Keith Richards that he makes Keith Richards look like the Queen Mum.
In 1977 Kent was chain-whipped by then Sex Pistols fan Sid Vicious and had a knife waved in his face by Jah Wobble. And that was just for starters.
“After the aforementioned knife-chain Sid incident,” writes Kent in his book The Dark Stuff, “I became an ongoing victim of mindless punk brutality. I was stabbed repeatedly in an open field close to King’s Cross by four youths clearly overwhelmed by the liberating force of punk rock and their ardent desire to ape anything Sid did. Another time I was attacked in the toilets of the fabled Roxy by a guy with a knife. I can distinctly remember staggering out of that privy with a great gash in my coat sleeve wondering to myself: Did Greil Marcus find himself in such life-or-death situations when out reviewing Randy Newman?”
Punk was also the heyday of artiste-on-critic aggro. Paul Weller regularly asked journalists for satisfaction (but allegedly failed to turn up to a boxing match against Stuart Baillie in Belfast). The NME’s Gavin Martin was challenged twice by Siouxie Sioux – once in print – “when my boot meets Gavin Martin’s face” – and once in person. “Being a gentleman I was unable to accept,” says Martin, who was also threatened by JJ Burnell of the Stranglers, “because my brain stunk”.
The Stranglers are probably the most hack-bashing band in rock history. They threatened and attacked several young journalists in the late 1970s (acts of pure cowardice given Burnell’s black belt in karate) and gaffa-taped the trouserless French journalist Philippe Manoeuvre to the Eiffel Tower.
Rap has also seen its share of journalist beatings. Journalist Cheo H Coker was punched in the face by a member of Wu Tang Clan who objected to a cartoon that ran near one of Coker’s articles. A fortnight later Masta Killa phoned up to apologise, having presumably worked out in the meantime that they’d chinned the wrong man.
Perhaps the most threatened music journalist of all time is former NME writer Johnny Cigarettes. Lily Alan’s dad threatened to “break his legs” for calling him “a Rada yob”. A member of the band Fretblanket had to be physically restrained when Cigarettes walked in the room. And at the Man Utd vs Bayern Munich European Cup final of 1999, the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft responded with similarly uncontrolled vituperation.
“I’d written a review of a Verve gig along the lines of: ‘If Richard Ashcroft walked into your local pub, you’d feel duty-bound to take a bottle to his peachy features’ ” remembers Cigarettes. “Seven years later, at the final, I spotted his then press officer, who is a friend of mine, and I said hello. He was standing next to Ashcroft who clearly had no idea who I was. A little later I heard – ‘Cigarettes!’ and I turned round to see Ashcroft attempting to scale the outer fence shouting, “I’ll fucking bottle you, you bastard!”
The very tall Cigarettes has also been threatened by Liam Gallagher – “I’ll stand on a chair and bottle him, right in his kipper!” and the band Bush who, after Cigs reviewed their album Razorblade Suitcase with the line “shit suitcase”, planned to send him a spring-loaded suitcase full of the aforementioned faecal matter.
Perhaps the strangest artist vs hack attack came at a gig in Newport when “the one who looked like Thelma off the Liver Birds” from Huggy Bear gave a black eye to Carlton B Morgan, writer of the NME cartoon strip Great Pop Things.
Morgan and cartoonist Jon Langford had been unsettling the Hugs by shouting “Less structure in the music” and “You’re better than Sting”.
“Then they started ranting about men in the audience wanking on to female audience members’ backs,” says Langford, “and tried to get all the women to stand down the front while all the blokes had to go to the back. Carlton shouted “I am a transvestite, where do I stand?” then his bass player Miss Sass shouted “Show us your tits” and it all went bonkers. I think the surreal heckling really got to them.”
Some artists have restricted their hack bashing to their lyrics. Boy George wrote “You’re so Wilde” about our own Jon Wilde. The Stereophonics bitched about the press in Mr Writer (“I’d like to shoot you all”; and Nick Cave wrote the graphic and somewhat nauseating track Scum about NME writers Mat Snow and Antonella Black. (Cave also physically assaulted NME’s Jack Barron when asked one too many questions about drug abuse.)
And in the album track Get In the Ring, Guns N’ Roses achieved a unique treble with a lyric that a) moaned about the press, b) named specific writers and publications and c) challenged them to a fight. “And that goes for all you punks in the press / That want to start shit by printin’ lies instead of the things we said / That means you, Andy Secher at Hit Parader / Circus Magazine / Mick Wall at Kerrang! / Bob Guccione Jr at Spin / What you pissed off cuz your dad gets more pussy than you? / … / Get in the ring motherfucker / And I’ll kick your bitchy little ass / Punk”.
Alas when karate expert Bob Guccione Jr agreed to actually meet Axl Rose in the ring, the rocker was not forthcoming and no fisticuffs actually occurred.
I have no such reservations. I will fight any musician or fan, so long as they are more cowardly, smaller and less physically competent than I am. And I can get an article out of it.
For I am music journalism – hear me roar.