A poem from the 1969 Corgi anthology Doves For The 70s
Rats run, unheeding, through the court
or stop to drink
from scum-topped, stinking pools
that make the place a bog.
A dog rakes, mindless, in the waste
from dustbin dropped
and scatters a he goes
a swarm of buzzing flies.
And overall, a smell, a stench
of dump, disease, decay.
The crumbling walls,
the shattered panes,
the filth, the muck.
And, in the midst of this
a child plays, heedless and content,
that this is right, or kind, or just.
Sentenced to ten years solitary confinement in Stalin’s purges Evgenia S. Ginzburg’s book Into The Whirlwind is about the survival of the human spirit. She makes many references to how poetry affected the lives of those imprisoned.
According to the rules displayed on the wall, books were allowed at the rate of two every ten days. But throughout the first month the library remained closed for stock-taking, so I had sixteen hours a day to fill in as I saw fit. I tried to establish some sort of routine to stop myself from going mad. The important thing was not to forget how to talk. The warders were trained to silence and spoke only about half a dozen words a day – reveille, washroom, hot water, exercise, bread…
I tried to do gymnastics before breakfast. The flap-window clicked open:
I tried laying down after dinner. Another click:
“That’s forbidden except from lights-out to reveille.”
So what remained? Nothing but poetry – my own and other people’s. And so I paced my five steps up and five steps down, composing:
Between these walls of stone
All roads are just as short:
By any count this cell
Is never more than three by five.
No good without a pencil! Clearly, I wasn’t a born poet.
After dinner was my time for Pushkin. I gave myself a lecture about him, then repeated all I could remember oof his poems. My memory, cut off from all impressions from outside, unfolded like a chrysalis transformed into a butterfly. Wonderful!
Many of the New Variety acts, there were always poets on the bill, supporting the GLC which was fighting to remain after Thatcher decided the best way to shatter it’s left wing influence was to abolish. The NME, 24 March, 1985 reviews.
A cartoon drawn by Phill Jupitus from the Red Wedge Comedy Tour programme, 1986.
Evgenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was a Bolshevik and one of the countless victims of Stalin’s purges. Between 1937 and 1955 she was in prison and labour camps. Her book Krutoy Marshrut about her experiences was published in Russian, but in Italy, in 1967. An English translation Into The Whirlwind was published by Penguin in 1968.
Many times in the book Ginzburg talks about poetry helped her, and the other inmates, get through. She also wrote poetry herself.
Here after final receiving her sentence, and expecting to be shot, she has been given ten years maximum solitary confinement.
I intended to stay alive. Just to spite them… Keep alive… Keep alive… Grit your teeth… Grit your teeth…
As I repeated these words to myself, they brought back the memory of Pasternak’s poem ‘Lieutenant Schmidt’:
The indictment stretches, mile on mile.
Pit-shafts mark the highway to Nerchinsk.
Grit your teeth! Whatever else, no tears!
So this is penal servitude! What bliss!
Suddenly the meaning of the poem overwhelmed me. Such moments are the test of poetry, and one’s heart fills with love and gratitude. How could Pasternak have known this, living in his ‘melancholy Moscow flat’, how could he have known that I would feel exactly this? I remembered other lines: ‘The rest were drunk with space, and spring, and penal servitude…’
If only he could know how much his poem helped me to endure, and to make sense of prison, of my sentence, of the murderers with frozen-fish eyes.
Evgenia S Ginzburg
Another from the 1969 Corgi anthology Doves For The 70s edited by Peter Robins. Unfortunately for hippy types that make up much of the book it turned out there were precious few doves in the 70s and the decade belonged firmly to the thugs.
School began it.
There he felt
the tongue’s salt ash
raising its welt
on a child’s heart.
Ten years ruled
by violence left him
nor did he fail
the blow of the
That hand his hand
round the cosh curled.
What rules the classroom
rock the world.
The magnificent Willi Beckett. The man’s ashes were pressed into vinyl records: now that’s class. He’s reviewed live by Seething Wells in he NME, 19 January, 1985.