From Sounds, June 28th, 1986
Michelene Wandor’s article on the Poet Laureateship sets of a pre-facebook flame war, though obviously a much slower paced one. Firstly from Marxism Today, August, 1984.
THE THING ITSELF
Michelene Wandor expresses the attitude of MT when she writes (MT July 84): “In left-wing journalism poetry is feared or dismissed as bourgeois individualism and discounted by radical publishers as ‘not selling’.” Her articles are the closest thing to poetry it prints. With few outlets for ‘political’ poetry in the UK, radical journals frequently declare their commitment to it as a resource for the Left, yet only publish prose. This country’s tradition of political verse stretches back past Milton, yet left-wing journalists direct our attention to those writers who achived success through and after Punk. That many of these have revived some of the most banal poetic forms recieves no comment.
Many poets show ‘streetwise verbal richness’ (Adrian Mitchell, Roy Fisher, Tom Pickard, Geraldine Monk, Barry MacSweeny, Duncan Bush) but are interested in more than streetsense. These and other writers are attempting to deconstruct the realities of capitalism with language, and to construct new modes of thought and relationship which will hasten the material advance of Socialism. Yet, Mitchell excepted, no interest is shown in their work by those ostensibly devoted to all forms of radicalism.
What of the radicalisation of language?
If poetry is a valid tool for the Left, why do those who could facilitate its publication reject it ‘because it takes up too much space’? Space is given to those poets popular among London’s radical chic: is success therefore the definitive measure of value? Success in a publishing system obsessed with profitability, despite ‘radical’ publishing. That poetry should be subject to constraints applied to no other form of language: that it be as selfexplanatory as a cartoon and as lucrative as a pop-song; shows an immaturity in the perception of poetry that magazines like MT should attempt to change by publishing not articles about poetry but the thing itself.
The following month in Marxism Today, September, 1984, Ranter Dino the Frog champions the Doc Martened poets.
Comrade Jafrate’s alleged taste in poetry certainly contradicts his desire to hear ‘streetwise’ oriented poetry (MT Aug 84). I assume by streetwise he means ‘by the working class, for the working class’, yet how many of these people does he see at poetry events?
The truth is that these events are poorly attended, the reason being that, as Adrian Mitchell said: ‘Most people ignore poetry because poetry ignores people’.
I am one of the punk/post-punk poets (though I’d rather be called a Ranter) he dismisses as being a revivalist of banalism. If I, and others such as Swift Nick, Attila The Stockbroker, Little Brother,
Seething Wells and Peter Campbell, are reviving banalism, then so be it, but we’re getting across to a big audience and attracting many people who never imagined they’d ever like poetry. We exist because of our fellow human beings, not in spite of them. We’re not in the business of dumping the listener in a verbal maze in mid-performance (and we are essentially live performers) and aurally torturing them as is the usual practice of the ME generation poets, but kicking poetry off its hallowed pedestal and taking it back to the people, spreading the word of unity and having a good laugh at the same time.
MT readers can learn more by sending 40p and a sae to Tirane Thrash, 161 Spencers Croft, Harlow, Essex.
Dino the Frog,
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.
From the NME, 17 December, 1983
Little Brother has subtly distanced himself from the ranters. To be fair more a stand-up comic-poet – but even so it stinks of first rat off the ship. Kiss and kill, it’s a tough business. Rant is still alive. Check out Ferenc Aszmann. Forget ugly, hollow Attila.
Little Brother is sharp, funny, hard, still a menace to the Young Fascists. There’s enough outright surrealism, drugs and children’s TV, Murdoch’s crusade etc, to draw you in for the stinging blows. The trouble is the perennial one of preaching to the middle-class “intellectually” converted. In 1984 Little Brother must invade the sensibilities of the masses, and the logical starting point is a young rock audience.
Being so insular and comfortable, the average CAST/New variety audience walks out when the band (ie something loud) comes on. For once they were right.