“You don’t have to be a poet, but a citizen you must be.”
This line is from ‘The Poet and the Citizen’ by Nikolai Nekrasov, written in 1856. The poem is a response to Pushkin’s ‘The Poet and the Crowd’ and written two decades after Pushkin’s death in 1837.
There is still much discussion about political poetry, can poetry be political?, can poetry change anything?
Ranting poetry was frequently political, and this continues on with Poetry on the Picket Line. I also think that who the audience for poetry is can often be political. Several poets who’ve done Poetry on the Picket Line gigs have asked should the poems they read be political? My response is that standing on a picket line to read poems is political in itself. The poems can be funny, romantic, whimsical… but it’s where you are reading them and to whom that is the political act.
There is plenty of working class poetry on this blog; from Chartists, to Black Panthers, prisoners, Ranters and Dub Poets. It’s interesting that Ranters and Dub Poets have been labelled separately in recent years whilst in the 80s it wasn’t a given distinction. We were all poets who read together, struggled together, and supported each other. One thing I personally got from poets like LKJ and Michael Smith was that if a poem in Caribbean voice could say so much and hit so hard; so could one in a Cockney, Manchester, Yorkshire one. The politics was in a working class person writing, and reading, to and for a working class audience.
The words are important, and poetry galvanises us as well as shares our voice, but actions are more important. I’ve never been one to knock on the doors of the Academy for acceptance. We’ve never been overlooked, we’re outside because that is where they want us. It’s telling to see so many poets looking to the literary establishment rather than building their own.
Linton Kwesi Johnson started writing poetry in formal English, he then switched to his own Jamaican voice. He says that one of his inspirations for doing this was Marcus Garvey who promoted people doing things for themselves. Burning Spear was a big fan too.
There are plenty of young poets doing solid work as poets and people, but given the amount of ‘woke’ young people at slams and poetry readings, and pouring forth on the interwebs, it’s a puzzle that the country, and the US too – it’s where most of Slam’s politics come from – has steadily got worse.
Lest this ends on a depressing tone, I’ll stay true to my own ‘Down with miserablism’ beliefs: to all the young ‘uns doing the do and fighting the fight – keep on keeping on. Forward ever, backward never.