Sunday, 28 June 2015

Political poetry: is it any good?

I have my fabulous poetic ally and Speakers’ Corner co-host, Laura Munteanu, to thank not only for the photo that accompanies this month’s blog post, but for the subject matter too. It was a Facebook discussion on, of all things, the death of Christopher Lee (a splendid man but a well-known Tory) which started a debate about whether or not ‘political’ poetry is any good. As a poet who has taken a step firmly inside the political arena myself with my second collection Satires, I suspect this is a subject I ought to have strong feelings on.

And I do – sort of.

Those who expressed their dislike of ‘political’ poetry made the valid point that often the political poem gets cheered more for its political than its poetic qualities. You stand up at a poetry slam and perform an anti-racist poem, or something about female empowerment or (to go back a blog post or two) the demerits of UKIP, and you’re going to get cheered. This is stuff that poetry audiences want to hear – hell, it’s stuff that I want to hear! But I’ve got to be honest, most of it is ephemeral. It’s intended to be ephemeral. The sincere hope of the audiences (and, I suspect, of the performers) is that one day soon society will have changed for the better and the protest poems won’t be necessary.

So it doesn’t really matter if the poetics aren’t up to the standards of Shakespeare, or the Forward Prize. If the poem makes the audience think, creates solidarity, encourages activism, and gives us all a glimpse (however brief) of a better world, the poem has done its job.

I have plenty of poems like that. Most of them are unpublished, and likely to stay that way. A few made it into Satires – but to be honest I wish I’d been able to retire these poems with the 2015 general election. Unfortunately for the poetic community (as well as our wider civic society), the election result almost certainly means these poems have at least another 5 years’ life in them.

But as a poet I’m concerned about craft, and aesthetics, and reaching a wider audience – perhaps one not directly affected by the situations I’m writing about. So can ‘political’ poems be poetically, as well as politically, pleasing? Can they – and should they – outlast the events they purport to chronicle?

I suppose it all depends what you mean by a political poem. I tend towards the opinion that everything has a political dimension. The conditions in which we grew up, the jobs we do, how we spend our leisure time (if we’re lucky enough to have leisure time), what we do with our money (if we’re lucky enough to have money), how we bring up our families, and the circumstances of our last days on earth – these are all subjects with a political as well as a personal dimension. The simple facts of whom we love, and how we express that love – surely the oldest poetic subjects of all? – have never been more politicised than they are today, with recent landmark decisions about marriage equality across the world, and an inevitable phobic backlash. About the only way you can avoid being political is by opting out of society altogether and going and sitting on a rock – and even that could be seen as a political gesture, a rejection of modernity and all that comes with it.

I certainly approached the poems in Satires with an awareness that everything is political. The love poems in the collection are set firmly in austerity Britain. I spend my working week with households at the sharp end of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, and yet who find ways of living and loving and being family, even in the teeth of benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax and the food bank. It was their lives, which seem to matter so little to the people in power, that I wanted to celebrate – just as, two and a half centuries earlier, Oliver Goldsmith celebrated the ordinary lives of the rural poor displaced by the landowners in The Deserted Village, for me the finest political poem ever written.

The love poems in Satires WEREN’T originally created as political or social comment. They were created as love poems. But that’s the great thing about poetry. What we write is so infused with our environment and life experiences that subtexts creep in unbidden. All the most well worn subjects for poets – love, childhood, the seasons – can give birth to political poems, even if the politics isn’t the original inspiration for the poem (there are probably a few political cat poems out there, though I must confess I struggle to think of any!).

So what now for the political poets? Well, we’ve no shortage of stuff to write about. In the UK another Tory axe is looming over the welfare state, the NHS, education and the justice system. Meanwhile, billions are pumped into an obsolete nuclear deterrent that’s a bigger threat to the citizens of our own country than to their supposed enemies. Worldwide, society has never been so unequal. War, exploitation of women and environmental degradation are at the forefront of every news bulletin. Poets should be commenting on such things – but how to comment in a way that means the poet’s voice is taken seriously?

There’s certainly a place for rabble rousing poetry. But as noted above, it mainly tends to get cheered by those who agree with the political sentiments. An alternative – and arguably more effective – tool for the poet is satire. Satirical poetry can even be appreciated by the intended target, if it has the right amount of wit and is sufficiently well constructed. Think of Pope, Wilde, Goldsmith (again) – or the late great Ronnie Barker.

But perhaps the poet’s most powerful weapon is the eye for the unexpected detail. Poetry which is (on the surface at least) primarily observational can often stand long after the events it is observing have passed into history. The war poetry of Wilfred Owen is a supreme example. Owen certainly rails against the establishment that sent his comrades to slaughter, but it’s not his rants that make his work so powerful. It’s the observational stuff: the gas attack likened to a drowning in the sea, the “white eyes writhing” in the corpses piled on the wagon afterwards. The message of these stark images has endured far longer than the trenches, the poppy fields, and the establishment that Owen and his contemporaries went to their deaths to defend.

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