Last night I was at the Betsy Trotwood for the launch of Campaign in Poetry, Emma Press’ political anthology. I was pleased to have two poems included, and it was an interesting event with some blisteringly great moments – Kayo Chingonyi’s ‘Legerdemain’ and Luke Kennard’s ‘Poor Door‘ made me particularly envious. The latter is online, so do read it immediately (‘We built a stack of gambling chips in your neighbourhood…’) If I have a ‘subject’ it’s human relationships, and as I’ve moved beyond my early love poetry, more and more I want to look at wider relationships – control, fear, guilt, responsibility – which has meant I’m increasingly interested in the political.
But political poetry is a risky business. It is easily reduced to parody: the performance poet’s rant about bedroom tax (rhyming soulless with ‘control us’); the grim, slightly misogynist ‘satire’ about X Factor Culture; the middle-class poet’s plaint about diminishing songbirds to an audience of the converted.
I’ve tried all kinds of strategies to sneak politics into my work: irony, imagery, allegory, storytelling (ballads are very political, simply by presenting working class stories). Then there’s translation, which can be used to make subtle political points – I’ve just written a blog about Ezra Pound’s Cathay for the RLF, a book which spoke very interestingly about war and jingoism via ancient Chinese texts.
I’ve also let politics creep into the edges of my confessional poems. Look, Clare! Look! started from the position that being a young white person backpacking around the world makes you very privileged and very complicit with a certain global balance of power. Having a baby has been a gift, because there is so much politics swirling around the whole caboodle – it is very easy to write personal poems that are almost unavoidably about hierarchy and gender and institutions.
Still, though, I’ve attracted my share of criticism. Probably fairly, as with politics it’s very hard to judge tone. Be too subtle and irony can go unnoticed, be too explicit and readers can feel preached to. It can be difficult to get the right angle on your material. Mainly though, critics say they don’t like poetry that ‘tells them what to think’ – a statement that needs unpacking, as it has caused a dangerous allergy to assertion in much contemporary poetry (and can easily lead to a lot of poetry that seems rather smug about having nothing to say at all).
Actually, it isn’t assertions we should be afraid of. The great political poems are full of strongly felt statements:
‘Each man kills the thing he loves’
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.’
‘After the first death, there is no other.’
The difference is that these are not spooned-up truisms, intending (as propaganda does) to short-circuit thought. Rather, these assertions are so startling that they make us think. (Really, we ask – is it true we must ‘love one another or die’? Even Auden carried on asking himself this, later changing it to ‘love one another and die’ in a 1955 anthology).
A great political poem can (and even should) have a point of view – we shouldn’t be afraid to articulate our hope or anger or the injustice we witness in the world. But poetry needs to invite, or even compel, the reader to think as well- a poem should feel like the opening up of a debate not the closing down of it.
These are Brecht’s ‘dark times’, in which poets must not be silent, but should question the official language of deficit reduction and austerity and scroungers and fracking and security risks. From Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion to France’s Leviston’s Disinformation to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a lot of the most interesting books of the last year have been explicitly political, and this anthology also suggests an upswell of poets taking on the challenge. I almost felt cheerful in the Betsy last night, until I remembered about David Cameron.