The Poet and the Existing State of Things
PublishedDecember 3, 2015 CategoryArts Social Action

The Poet and the Existing State of Things

Between May and December 2012, and under the generic sub-heading ‘Poetry Matters’, we published a series of blogs aimed at sparking some response, across the contemporary poetry community, to its alleged detachment from the unprecedented real issues of social, political and economic degeneration all around us.

Could it be something to do with poetry’s widespread relocation to the university campus and ubiquitous ‘creative writing schools‘? This was one hypothesis I had discussed with my American poet friend and collaborator Dana Gioia (“On The Silence of the Poets” September 2012) quoting his chastening conclusion for the US (in Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Graywolf Press.1992):

“In social terms the identification of poet with teacher is now complete. The first question one poet asks another upon being introduced is ‘where do you teach?’. The problem is not that poets teach. The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It’s just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform to institutional ones…”

There can be little doubt that this relocation is well advanced in the UK – but is it a key factor in contemporary poetry’s relative detachment? Or could it be a ‘class’ thing? Hadrian Garrard, director of Create, an arts organisation, commenting on a recent research collaboration with Goldsmiths, University of London on the provenance of people in the UK’s contemporary arts, considered that “the UK is in danger of returning to a pre-1950’s era when the arts were considered to be largely the preserve of the rich”. Arts audiences, too, according to the Warwick commission, are predominantly white and middle class.

I had first asked “Where have all the poets gone?” in May 2012; and was happy, in September that year, to welcome Carol Ann Duffy’s promising Olympics bid to earn her laureate’s ‘butt of sack’ with “Translating the British, 2012”. There seemed some promise for our cause in her…

“We’ve had our pockets picked,
The soft, white hands of bankers,
bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver;
we want it back…”

Sadly, the seismic implications of the 2008 financial melt-down and inauguration of the Age of Austerity seemed not yet to have gained entry to most other ‘creative-writing’ poetry agendas.

In the meantime, however, we returned to the theme with the much more significant poetic event of Tony Harrison’s magnificent first reading, on BBC Radio Four, of the unexpurgated text of his 1980’s poem ‘V’.

“Who Owns The Language?” (March 2013)

This was a much-needed ‘master class’ in what an involved and responsive poetry can make of the social and political realities around us. I hoped they were all listening out there on the campuses.

It was also a reminder that, with the clear exceptions of Tony Harrison himself, and Seamus Heaney, there were few other obvious contemporary ‘poet’ candidates to join the wider, socially vital, ranks of the so-called ‘public intellectuals’ – men and women distinguished in their own field of expertise but acknowledged to have the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside it. This deficit was cruelly deepened by the death of Seamus Healey, later in 2013.

“Seamus Heaney: Poet of Spade and Pen” (September 2013)

These reminders are simply the baseline for more recent events. Since August 2014 we have focused primarily on the two dominant issues in the socio-economic and political worlds which we might expect to exercise our arts communities widely and, in particular, our more engaged poets. These issues were, and remain, the count-down on climate change and the widening inequalities of earnings and opportunity. Both, though in widely different ways, threaten the well-being of ourselves and our open societies. And on both, it has been theatre which has so far made the more significant running, as its particular idiom and mode might suggest. We have reported on some of its stimulating initiatives.

“Theatre in Action and the Moral Limits of Markets” (Nov 28, 2014)

“Royal Court Theatre Takes On Climate Change” (Nov 13, 2014)

It was the high profile media build up to the December ‘Climate Summit’ (now convened in Paris) which at last kick-started some more noticeable reaction from a number of poets, for which one main initiative was The Guardian’s longer-running ‘Leave It In the Ground ’campaign. Alan Rusbridger its late editor turned Oxford College Head, persuaded Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, to ‘curate’ a sequence of twenty poems broadly on the climate change theme by twenty invited writers – serialised during May by the Guardian newspaper.

This was a great, if late, initiative and many thanks are due to both The Guardian and Duffy. The series evoked some highly sensitive pieces, with Alice Oswald’s ‘Vertigo’ outstanding; but the process of late-stage ‘commissioning’, from a fairly predictable group of celebrity writers, seemed to emphasise the low spontaneity of take up of the issue and the predominantly internalised, passively nostalgic treatments mainly evoked.

Of the ones that might stir hearts towards action on the way to the Climate Summit, David Sargeant’s ‘A Language of Change‘ had a more proactive ring to it, helped by his wisely chosen preliminary quote, unequivocally ‘fixing’ the political context of his theme…

…as late capitalism writhed in its internal decision concerning whether to destroy Earth’s biosphere or change its rules…‘ Kim Stanley Robinson

We’re sat by the ocean and this
could be a love poem; but that lullaby murderer
refuses each name I give it
and the icebergs seep into our sandwiches,
translated by carbon magic. And even this might be
to say too much. But the muse of poetry
has told me to be more clear – and don’t,
s/he said, for the love of God, please, screw things up.…

Welcome stirrings but still far to go if we are not to ‘screw things up‘ – not only to reverse the desecration of our planet and the grotesque inequalities splintering our societies ; but now – yet again – the doleful dash of our governments towards unwinnable wars and others’ deaths.

So what a booster to have the crystal clear poetic voice of a youthful, 18 year-old Shelley suddenly restored to us in the shape of his radical 1811 “Poetical Essay on The Existing State of Things” a pamphlet poem now digitised and available via the Bodleian website. His state of things, 200 years ago, seems not dissimilar to ours; but the poetic voice, confident and polemical, smacks of felt passion and concern. On the iniquities of war, the cruel ravages of empire, the need to abolish obscene inequalities of wealth – here was a great poet who minced no words as he observed the real world around him, showed no fear of speaking out.

He asks if “rank corruption” should “pass unheeded by“; mourns the Asian (Syrian?) who “his wife, his child, sees sternly torn away; and the political advisers (the lobbyist aficionados of our Government’s ‘revolving doors’?)…

Ye cold advisers of yet colder kings,
To whose fell breast no passion virtue brings,
Who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang,
Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang…

And this poet of anger and compassion was also a poet of necessary action:

Yet this alone were vain; freedom requires
A torch more bright to light its fading fires;
Man must assert his native rights, must say
We take from monarch’s hand the granted sway…

I think I know where he would have been today – on Climate Change, Inequality and our Government’s eagerness to drop more bombs on Syria…. Quite a good poet too, don’t you think?

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