We shouldn't dismiss the power of left-wing verseby Harry Giles / August 24, 2015 / Leave a comment
What can poets really add to an ongoing political debate? It was a question I asked myself repeatedly last year when, as a Scottish poet engaged with social movements, I was flattered with requests to contribute poems to pro-Independence publications. By the time of the vote I’d lost a sense of what the point of it all was. Was I supposed a battle bard, offering lyrical encouragement to the Yes troops? Or a jester, exposing rifts in the politics and laughing at difficult questions? Or a seer, trilling about hope and the utopian imagination? This spring Laphroaig asked me to pen an advertising jingle: on camera the producer asked, “Is it important to think about Scotland?” and I made a noise like an exhausted fart.
The truth is, the years when poets had any right to the claim of being unacknowledged legislators have largely passed—if they ever existed. While hiphop’s usurpation (or reclamation for the oral tradition) of political influence goes largely unacknowledged by poetry publishing, printed poetry itself has become culturally marginal and impossibly unprofitable. So what’s the point of new anthology Poets for Corbyn?
The 20 poets who have nailed their colours to Jeremy’s beard are an enjoyable mix of known and unknown: prizewinners, judges and luminaries alongside so-called “emerging” writers and persistent outsiders. Their approaches to the question of how a poet can be “for” a politician are equally diverse: some pen propaganda, some pen reflective ballads, some repurpose angry reflections.
Tom Pickard’s Wongawongaland and Nicholas Murray’s J.C. reflect the most straightforward way to respond to the call for a poet to be political: openly partisan agitprop, condemning the unrighteous and gently lauding the solution. “Agitprop” should not be read as an insult: it takes skill, inventiveness and control to rile up the reader with the right mix of rhymes and alliterations, as well as a willingness to let loose at the necessary moment. So writes Pickard:
If he hung the hungry he’d hang the anger out, incentivise to fuck off and die or just have a jousting match of polite poetries.
Other poets reframe poems originally written for other publications.…