Back in 1979 the Hammersmith Poetry Festival had a pretty good bill. The NME, 25 August, 1979 tells us about it.
The first anthology from Apples and Snakes gets a review in Jamming!, number 21, October, 1984. Funnily enough it’s an anthology that at times when Salena Godden and I are drunk we get the book of the shelf and play “Where are they now?”
Also reviewed are books by Adrian Mitchell and an anthology of West Indian poetry edited by James Berry. There’re a few poems from readers too.
A look at the role of the Poet Laureate from Marxism Today, 4 July, 1984. Michelene Warner was writing shortly after the death of encumbant Sir John Betjeman, she’s a bit off as to her tips as Ted Hughes, who she described as being ‘deeply murky’ and ‘too steamy for the royal guardian of Parnassus’ got the job. She also thinks that ‘no woman has ever held the post, nor indeed will’ whilst things have moved on and we have Carol Anne Duffy as Laureate at present, and one who’s making good use of the position.
LAURELS AND HARDY POETS
Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate since 1972, died on May 19,1984. The newspapers and other media have been full of tributes to his popularity as a poet, a mild man, living simply in Cornwall, keen on lawns and cricket and the calm values of suburbia in his poetry. A man, also, who took an active role in the preservation of Victorian and other buildings of genuine architectural interest. An Anglican, Godfearing, and presumably sufficiently monarch-loving man. The tributes skate lightly over the sub-doggerel he produced in the line of royal duty; and they also don’t bother to mention the convention of the British gentleman’s sexist leering at women which were so integral to his Sunday afternoon poetry. It is absolutely true that he caught at a very powerful part of the middle-brow British imagination, and his popularity in sales terms (a quarter of a million books even before the Royal appointment) testifies to the mass of that imagination.
The many tributes that have appeared, and no doubt will continue to appear, show just respect to one of the Grand Old Men of British poetry, for of course male is exactly what they are. Despite the fact that the names of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were whispered around the nineteenth century as possibles for the Laureateship, no woman has ever held the post, nor indeed will. And anyway, if it is really the anachronism it appears to be, with no real state function in its own right, and certainly with no significant relationship to the rest of poetry scene, whether a man or a woman holds the post is entirely irrelevant.
The only minimal virtue the post has is the media attention it draws upon the two occasions of the appointing and the death of the Laureate. At those times a scattering of other establishment poetic names hit the press, a few more books by the already successful poets are sold, the bookmakers get their books out, bets are laid, words are exchanged between Buck House and the Arts Council, and there is a new appointee.
The current favourite is Philip Larkin, and by all that’s logical he should get it. Despite his more bleak outlook — he lacks the jolly hockey-sticks legacy of Betjeman’s upper-middle-class background — he carries the flag of lace-curtain suburbia high, along with a suitably repressed British sexuality. Others — such as the deeply murky Ted Hughes, and the barrack-room ribaldry of civvie street Gavin Ewart — are altogether a bit too steamy for the royal guardian of Parnassus.
Candidates who have not even appeared on the list of possibles are worth mentioning only to indicate where the taboos fall. If, for example, we wanted an articulate, moving and also sardonic satirist, it is Roger Woddis we should be after; but he is altogether too (sshh) political (I mean left-wing) to be acceptable. Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke, the two giants who have emerged through the 1970s as rhythmic and socially critical wordsmiths, both brilliant performers, both showing a streetwise verbal richness in their different ways that is highly original — well, too crude, too rude, too clever. In the very olden days satirists and political
commentators were acceptable to a degree: Ben Jonson, though not strictly speaking Poet Laureate, was certainly paid to write masques, and the first official Poet Laureate was John Dryden.
Any genuine political poetry was made tacitly impossible by the Poet Laureate who has the worst reputation: the nineteenth-century Alfred Austin, whose first public act of loyalty was to write the most appalling clip-clop doggerel in praise of the abortive raid in the Transvaal, led by Dr Jameson against the Boers. Austin’s crime was not the badness of the poem, but the fact that he expressed what was probably the real jingoism of the government of the day, who were acutely embarrassed by the Raid — not by the fact that it had happened, but by the fact that it had failed. Queen and government were right behind Cecil Rhodes and his expansion in Africa, and it was the humiliating failure that made Austin’s jingoism so embarrassing.
More important than the Laureateship itself is the state today of the art of which he (sic) is thought to be the head. Despite the recent small rumble of cabaret poetry, Betjeman’s period has been marked by an actual decline in resources for poetry. In the late 60s and early 70s there were many small poetry presses, and a great variety of material being published. Through a mixture of exhaustion, increased costs and withdrawal of subsidy, many of these have disappeared. Magazines which used to appear regularly now only appear very occasionally. The establishment of poets in residence is under threat because of the cuts. The major publishing houses cut back on poetry publishing in the mid-late 70s, and have a long way to go before they can return to some of the variety of a decade ago. The result is that the poetry ‘establishment’ is again — as it was in the mid-60s — in the hands of a small number of literary gentlemen, most of whom fetishise lack of feeling and lack of commitment to anything more than small and cautionary experience.
It is not just a matter of more money for poetry — though that would always be nice. It is also something to do with the way poetry is simultaneously revered as the highest of the arts, and treated as its Cinderella, by the literary establishment. In left-wing journalism poetry is feared or dismissed as bourgeois individualism and
discounted by radical publishers as ‘not selling’; and meanwhile all good radicals and true scribble away their closet poetry — or their closet novels.
The extraordinary thing is that poets keep emerging and poetry continues to be written. The fact that it will never die as a literary form which speaks from and to the most intimate of personal/political feeling, and the fact that it is through poetry that the meanings in language and imagery are flexed and tested, should not mean that we should not be concerned about the material ways in which poetry is distributed and encouraged. And the dazzle of the Laureate’s crown will not make any difference at all to this.
Suprisingly things aren’t much different today, despite the interweb, Roundhouse Poetry Collective, and grime. The situation for radical poetry is discussed in this Marxism Today article from February, 1984.
A Spotlight feature, The Trouble With Poetry
There is a prevalent view in white culture of the poet as droopy decadent self-indulgent aesthete shrinking from political change and hiding from the real world to pen banal or unintelligible laments about eternal truths. Poetry is set up in opposition to politics; people working in politics think poetry has nothing to do with them.
The romantic image of the absinthe swilling velvet-cloaked garret-dwelling outsider separates the poet as hero and prophet from ordinary people. It also conceals the fact that most poets are poor and enjoy their poverty no more than other deprived persons. And this romantic view, while to some extent feminising the poet (so that some skinhead poets I know need to reassure their audiences that you can
remain a Real Man despite scribbling rhyming couplets), completely denies the existence of women poets, who may also be mothers hard at work in, and perhaps also outside, the home.
Poetry was once an oral art practised in public. Lullabies, ballads, riddles, curses and chants were shaped and passed on by ordinary women and men as well as by professionals. Though poetry has become, since the fourteenth century, increasingly associated with books written and read by the literate elite, the oral tradition has continued boldly on, in this country flowering anew since the war to produce a rich variety of poets.
Marxist theory speaks of man controlling nature, has no concepts to deal with gender and sexual difference, and tacitly accepts the idea of woman as part of nature to be controlled and exploited for man’s ends: literally hundreds of women break into poetry to demonstrate that by accepting we have bodies and are part of nature, we create culture and press for change. Poets like Alison Fell, Judith Kazantzis, Michelene Wandor, Janet Dube, Stef Pixner, Gillian Allnutt and Berta Freistadt perform their work in pubs, clubs, cafes, meetings and bookshops across the country.
A similar upsurge of black poets has occurred. The experience of oppression in this country backed up by whites’ attempts to deny it has led black poets to mine the riches of Caribbean culture and mix proud angry words with music to testify to their need and determination to survive racism and celebrate a history whites would rather forget. Lynton Kwesi Johnson, now internationally known through his live appearances and his albums, recently completed a successful national tour with Manchester bard John Cooper Clarke, thus proving that black and white can cooperate. He is just one among many: John Agard, Grace Nichols, James Berry, Keith Jefferson, to name but a few.
Some white working-class poets go so far as to declare that poetry is dead and long live rant. The Ranters, drawn from north and south, include Attila the Stockbroker, Joolz, Seething Wells, Little Brother, Little Dave; they draw on the tradition of scurrilous ballads in rhyme and, like the other groups, produce their own fanzines and magazines.
I emphasise that the lists of names above are short owing to the constraints of space, and apologise to all the poets whose names I have omitted. The current poetry revival challenges elitism: any selection of poets is invidious, and in this case is based on my experience as a white feminist.
The public role of the new generation of radical poets is, oddly enough, aided by the current recession. As theatre companies close for lack of funds and grants, so the actors involved have re-formed into variety acts performing at the many cabarets which have sprung up across London and other large cities and which offer a cheap night out: beer and music, mime, comedy, poetry and backchat.
This is very different from the hushed churchly atmosphere associated with traditional poetry readings where the emphasis remains on the written text read from rather than performed in a mixed-media entertainment setting. Instead of welcoming the diversity of choice now available, which reflects our multi-cultural society, some establishment poets ignore it. The recently published Penguin anthology Contemporary British Poetry, for example, caused a furore by concentrating solely on the work of a small elite group of poets (all white and mostly male) and omitting all the poets discussed above. And there are still plenty of critics happy to disdain as tainted or corrupt poetry that is in any way connected to politics, to dismiss feminist poets as shrill hysterics, and to patronise working-class and black poets as occasionally interesting minority inhabitants of a peripheral zoo.
These new poets are frightening, subversive and dangerous. Radical poetry heals the splits our culture inflicts as necessary (common-sense) wounds between intellect and body, man and woman, mother and
revolutionary, conscious and unconscious, theory and ideology. Radical poetry tries to speak what has been unspeakable: working-class , black and female experience. The Left is not always comfortable with this. Nor am I: other poets give me disturbing, shifting images which don’t correspond to my yearnings for simple socialist-feminist heroism. Radical poetry allows the unconscious back in. Labelling it as irrational, opposing it to scientific theory doesn’t make it go away. Poetry makes us laugh or shudder or weep or desire when perhaps we’d rather fantasise controlling the world through a political language which is almost never playful and inventive. The Right understands the power of the unconscious and exploits it in rituals and ideology, utilises the energy of repressed yearnings and conflicts. If we on the Left want to unblock more of our creative energy for change, we need to let poetry (a way of thinking, of understanding, of being) back into our politics.
Fairly typical benefit gig reviewed in the NME, 21 May, 1983. The fabulous Dolly Mixture, ranting’s own Benjamin Zephaniah, the lovely Damned, and more.
Damned, Dolly Mixture, Benjamin Zephaniah, A Popular History of Signs
Such a strange assortment could only mean a benefit gig. Artists For Animals was the cause, and a well filled Greyhound (how apt) gawped at The Animals Film on video during lulls in the action. Mildly surreal, but there was much to enjoy.
A Popular History Of Signs hail from North London, but this trio’s spiritual home is located even closer to the Pole. APHOS play atmospheric yet dramatically charged music of a style usually associated with Yorkshire and the North West. The gang Of Four’s agit-prop is welded to the Factory sound, but APHOS transcend their evident influences to resonantly addictive effect.
Benjamin Zephaniah has allowed himself to be adopted as a token by righteous whites hungry for the sound of suffering in Babylon. Feted by the first few rows of upturned, all-whte faces at events like tonight’s, he’s selling himself short, not least artistically. His poetic rhythms are strong and lilting, hence lending themselves naturally to a song. Linton Kwesi Johnson realised his potential by switching from band to maestro – remember the power of ‘Sonny’s Lettah’? Benjamin Zephaniah should be doing the same with ‘Margaret Thatcher’.
Captain Sensible officiated throughout, and with earnest bashfulness demonstrated his commitment to animal rights by reading out some of his poetry on the subject. William Blake he ain’t. Then reverting to his more familiar self, he introduced his protegees Dolly Mixture, who immediately warmed up a hitherto low-key affair.
Rachel and Debsie are singing very well these days, and though Hester’s drums lack finesse, their all-round performance sparkled with enthusiasm. With their polka-dot party dresses and eagerness to please, Dolly Mixture are quaintly and ingenuously English, and their ’60s teenbeat-style set drew me even further back to childhood’s untroubled fun.
Finally The Damned came on to play ‘Smash It Up’, a latterday ‘Hokey Cokey’ reminding us that although they’re pretty dodgy elsewhere, they’ve always been a good pub act.