Adrian Slatcher Online

Adrian Slatcher writes poetry, fiction and criticism, and lives in Manchester.

Political Poetry

A while back, I remember a Michael Mackmin editorial in the Rialto where he wondered where the political poets and poems of the day were. Around the time of the Iraq war, a number of poets contributed poems to quickly assembled collections, but, though poetry may have won the argument, it lost the decision.

It seems that we are at another moment, domestically and internationally, where writer’s who ignore what’s going on in the world can almost be accused of a dereliction of duty. Yet political writing is never easy, and often mistaken. At the same time, I’ve always thought that the majority of my writing is political, if only because I do write about the contemporary world.

Unable to get down to London for the TUC “anti-cuts” march today, I watched the unrelated anarchist protestors in Piccadilly causing havoc, and was minded yet again, how difficult it is to write political poetry when even the messages and slogans of a particular march on a particular day can become confused. Few poets have understood much about economics, and fewer still have written about it – and when one did, Ezra Pound, the consequences for him were pretty disastrous.

Yet I’m politically engaged – both with what’s happening in the Middle East during this “democracy spring” and by the appallingly ideologues who are now in power in the UK.

A political poem is another matter. During the second Gulf war I wrote a couple of poems. One took an old form to look at both sides of the argument and was called “A Dialogue between a pacifist and a warmonger” but it was the less explicit one that was perhaps the better poem….

We Cannot Leave Our Beds

We cannot leave our beds
There are no readers
We cannot leave our beds
There are no teachers
We must not leave our beds
There are no listeners
We must not leave our beds
There are no whispers
We cannot leave our beds
There are no reasons
We cannot leave our beds
There are no seasons
We will not leave our beds
There are no dangers
We will not leave our beds
There are only strangers.

Is this even about the war? It was written before the invasion, but it was imbued with the fear of the times, and therefore is perhaps more effective than a more explicit poem. I’m reminded that the coupling between the “war on terror” and the neocon escapade in Iraq were explicit at the time. Fear was the most effective weapon in the neocon armoury.

When terror came to the UK in 2005, that explicit link was cemented, in that it was homegrown Jihadists who committed the terrible deeds in London. I wrote about it, but from a position of incomprehension. For where Iraq was a suicide state, the average life here in the UK was surely nowhere near as intolerable. It seemed that the bombers certainty was itself a misstep, some kind of accident.

Was the sequence unknown?

Was the sequence unknown?
Had they, perhaps, missed a turning?
Did they, in fact, know something else?
Or did another get there first –
Long after the incident.
With their civilian shoes and laundered notes
And a taste for Allah; yet human
With the sense and feeling of us all?

It sometimes seems the private days are here again.
That our innocence is misplaced,
Found in lost luggage, when the crime’s long gone.
“Yes, he lived here, But I never knew him.”
Our global village, a lawless west
With flowers amassed to mark the spot.

And life goes on. The build up of expected days
Where nothing as strange as love or death might happen.
You would think you’d sense approaching tragedy
Or thrills.

unhooking her bra in a terror zone,
for the first time,

Better, much better than nothing.
For we step too easily into loneliness,
And tread in the seeds of our hate.

A 3rd poem, written in 2007, went even further away from my own perspective in the form of a letter as if written to a newspaper complaining about the coverage of the war in Iraq.

News Values

Dear Sirs,
The coverage you gave to the wounded baby
Was all out of proportion.
Are you saying that wars have no casualties?
And that a young life matters more than an old?
Next time could you please provide some balance,
Perhaps a wounded grandmother who’d led a hard life,
Or even a child that had died of natural causes.
Our brave men and women fight what’s right
And deserve better than this liberal hand-wringing!
On Friday – the night of the massacre –
I counted 27 references to the Arab dead
And not one mention of the lives saved
Or a full list of the city’s mortuaries that night.
You will find that our massacre was not so bad
Compared with road deaths that night in Delhi,
And the number of suicides in American jails
Would have given you a run for your money.
Yet not a mention! I would go so far to say
That the night of the massacre was a relatively
Quiet night – even in Baghdad.
Wasn’t a curfew imposed at an early stage
Saving many more lives than those killed?
And would I be right in thinking,
That with the latest Bond out on pirate DVD
Even the most angry insurgents
Would have had a night in with a movie and Pizza?

Yours Faithfully,
A Reader.

Of the three poems, this is the one that I think is most successful – and indeed it was published. Political poems need to be to some extent current, but when a war lasts years as it did in Iraq, there’s surely time to be less than immediately responsive. Yet, for a poem to have an effect (and its effect can surely only be on its readers, not any further afield), it needs to be published – and prominently – at the time.

When I was putting the poems together for “Playing Solitaire for Money” this was briefly in the mix, but felt a little out of place. There is politics in the collection, particularly in the longest poem “Frontier” which ranges over a lot of subjects before concluding:

“The Afghanistani voter, his finger blue with indelible ink,
Clipped as a warning by those dark age demons of the Taliban.”

…but this is the first mention of Afghanistan in a poem that ranges over linguistic, personal and political frontiers. The poem ends here, I think, because of the need to end a wide-ranging poem in a physical present.

There isn’t a particular poetry of the Blair years – but there is a poetic clatter that history may well note, and particularly the outrage of the poetry community against the war in Iraq. When Hughes became laureate, there was a lot of talk at the time that uniquely, the two most famous poets of the day (Hughes and Larkin) were both in some ways “conservative.” Yet this seems reductive. Motion and Duffy seem to me to wear their politics on their sleeves far more than Hughes ever did; perhaps as new Labour poets betrayed?

I’ve tried to write about Blair, but the chimerical nature of his presidential-style reign hasn’t lent itself to poetry. Unlike Thatcher, who has been mythologised through portrayal, Blair has remained a little out of the reach of art, only touched on through impersonation, (such as Micheal Sheen’s portrayal in “The Queen,” or Robert Harris’s Blair-like P.M. in “The Ghost”). Modern politics, though often compared to a soap opera, is anything but – the very public scrutiny of the figures themselves, at odds with the technocratic nature of what lies behind closed doors. You may as well try and write a poem about a boardroom at a multinational.

For poetry to have a genuine engagement with the political, it has to be aware of what political means in the current age. That surely has to be about how we as citizens (and I use that word tentatively) engage with the politics of the age. In the instant fulfilment of Twitter and other online tools, political debates become heated, then overheated, then over before a poet can have time for a first draft.

Meeting C.K. Williams in Norwich in 2008 at a symposium looking at environmental change, he opined that all poems should be about climate change these days. Yet the poet is not a rhetorician, and when he recently read from his new collection, the themes were as broad as ever. If there is a laureate of climate change then surely he or she should come from a drowning Bangladesh rather than from the onlooking west?

The problems, and possible solutions, for “issue” poetry can probably be shown by looking at a final poem of mine. “The Nuclear Option” was written in 2006. What a strange time to write a poem about nuclear catastrophe, you might think? But I’d just read Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices of Chernobyl” and it had affected me greatly. I’ve changed a couple of lines that dated the poem (a reference to Blair and Brown) or took away from the main argument, but otherwise it seems to stand up. The title is ironic of course, for “the nuclear option” is used in business and elsewhere to mean making a choice from which there is no returning. I grew up during the eighties, and the imagery and iconography is one that most people of my age would recognise. Perhaps “shock and awe” and the “war on terror” will have a similar resonance for a younger generation. The “problem” of writing about this is how to do so as non-specialist. Here, the solution was to extract from the Alexievich book.

The Nuclear Option

I trust in God above.
I trust in my democratically elected leaders.
I trust in scientists.
I trust in the nuclear industry
As far as I can throw
A radiated rod
Before it takes off my face.

I am a reader of Chernobyl stories.
Like this one:
In 2002, Dmytro Hroddzynskyy said
The concrete sarcophagus
Placed over the remains of the damaged reactor
Was failing;
That 24%
Of babies born near Chernobyl have birth defects.

I recall that the nuclear industry
Has a record on truth
As dodgy as any dossier.
That any numbers can be made to add up
If the variables are variable enough.
That nothing costs like unknown costs
Of things that cost forever.

That our War on Terror
Makes nuclear power a risk
Waiting to happen.
If Osama’s sick, deluded September soldiers
Had nose-dived into
Sizewell B
We’d all be green as muppets.

Like most political poems, this one has designs on the reader. The tools I use are humour (in the title and that final stanza) and quotation (in the 2nd stanza).

Politics remains an uneasy bedfellow for the modern poet – yet I’m not sure poetry can quite survive without it. A poem can be a slogan or it can articulate a complex, even a contradictory idea; and we need both slogans and complexities. Perhaps our post-romantic identification with the “lyric” is not best suited to describing a complex world, and other forms, Pound’s Cantos, the long lines of “Howl” or C.K. Williams, or the long poem (like Tony Harrison’s “V”) are more useful. As much as its difficult to find the correct tone and form for a political poem, it’s also important that they are placed in the correct situation. An anthology of poetry “against” anything is fraught with difficulties, and is likely to be appealing to an audience whose mind is already made up; yet a single poem in a magazine or a collection can appear awkward, even juvenile. Yet I’ve always believed that political poetry is a possibility, even a necessity, and recent events convince me that this is now truer than ever.

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This entry was posted on March 27, 2011 by in Blog, Poetry and tagged , , , , , , , .
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