Doing politics with poetry

Robert Archambeau kicked off a debate in the first issue of the excellent Cambridge Review by attempting to analyse what he sees as the political strategy of Jeremy Prynne and his advocates. Predictably, the debate got quite rancorous quite quickly but it did get me to thinking about the relationship between politics and poetry.

I’ve been politically active since I was sixteen and have participated in all the activities that are traditionally thought of as radical practice. I’ve been on demos, written subversive leaflets, created havoc in supermarkets, stood on picket lines, had my phone tapped and a few unsolicited visits from Special Branch. I’ve also fed stories to the national media. I was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain for five until it disbanded itself.  I always thought that if I was doing enough to merit the covert attention  of the state then I was somehow ‘winning’.  I now see this as hopelessly naive.

However, because I’ve always understood politics in terms of the above activities, I tend to compartmentalise my efforts at poetry at some remove from my politics. Reading a number of French writers has convinced me that doing politics against an inherently violent state has to be a bit more subtle, so I have another blog sponsored by the state whose function is to explain what the state’s social policy actually means and the ideas behind it to our customers who tend to be elderly and have long-term health problems.

The blog is read by 200 people a day and every month I send out a digest to 35,000 customers. The response from these is overwhelmingly positive because they are in a language that people can readily understand rather than the elitist jargon of the state. I am able to do this because money generated by our e-commerce site is sufficient to fund it.

Turning to the Prynne tactic, I don’t think that it is at all elitist or Messianic nor am I bothered that the poems don’t reach many people. One of the problems, as Archambeau acknowledges, of putting stuff in the public domain is that it gets appropriated and used in inappropriate ways. The other issue is that you can’t really have a body of work that is about destroying the current dominant discourses and then enter that work into that arena. Publishing work via a small outfit like Barque Press does at least ensure that your readers will be those who are sufficiently interested to find you. Even this doesn’t guarantee against appropriation, the web contains several different interpretations of  ‘To Pollen’ for example. As for not giving interviews, how exactly do you explain the nature of the work in easy soundbites?

I was one of those who bought the 1st Bloodaxe edition and decided that it was too obscure for me- and I like ‘difficult’ poetry. I only returned to Prynne after I’d worked through the poetry of Geoffrey Hill and decided that Prynne might provide an equally enjoyable challenge.

The political Prynne I have taken issue with, describing his criticisms of money markets and fiscal policy as ‘quaint’. His more recent work on the role of American imperialism in the Middle East is ideologically laudable but aimed at another easy target.  Even my parents know that American Imperialism and the money markets are bad things, almost everyone is against torture so writing poems,  no matter how brilliant, runs the real danger of confirming existent middle class beliefs.

I am however much more impressed by Prynne’s work on Ulster precisely because it isn’t easy. The CPGB worked for years to develop a cogent analysis of  the Troubles and failed because the dimensions are many and varied and because the sight of members of the working class intent on killing each other was deeply troubling to class warriors. Reading “Streak, Willing…” has inspired (yes, inspired) me to return to a long-standing work on Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday based on witness statements to the Inquiry and material from the Cain archive. I read an early draft of one section at an open mic the other night and was gratified by the response in that it made people remember those events and perhaps encouraged them to think about them in a different way.

There’s also a difference between doing politics and doing ideology. Politics involves active and deliberate engagement with the world and usually involves the difficult art of compromise. Doing ideology is a much more passive and analytical activity, producing critiques and indicating possible ways forward. I would argue that Prynne does ideology far more than he does politics (with the exception of ‘Refuse Collection’) and is therefore not really interested in rousing his readers to the barricades.

With regard to appropriation, it’s always struck me as odd that both Foucault and Derrida complained long and loud about the many misinterpretations of their work, as if they felt that their own theories shouldn’t apply to them. Hill, in his own way, and Celan write political poetry and both have complained about being misinterpreted and misrepresented so the problem is not confined to Prynne and his response should be respected as a tactic rather than as an elitist or Messianic position.

The quietist strategy has a long and noble tradition and is based on two main strands. The first is that the world is an incredibly complex place and it is very difficult to ensure that your work will be disseminated in the way that you wish and the second is that by entering the public arena you become part of the thing that you are analysing. I call this one aspect of the ‘St Francis Position’ because its more often used by those with a strong faith. There’s nothing wrong with it so long as your expectations are fairly minimal.

There’s another line of thought that says that there are many different ways to do politics and many different ways to do poetry and we should celebrate the fact that this diversity exists rather than indulge in mutual mudslinging. Our political and creative lives should be spent improvising and trying out ways that work for us and we should respect each other for that. I hate with a vengeance most of what is produced by the mainstream and despair of the stuff that is churned out by creative writing courses but I respect those practitioners for at least trying to make a contribution. I don’t agree with Prynne’s politics and I find Hill’s hierarchical Toryism absurd but both get my respect for the contribution that they make to the discourse.

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One response to “Doing politics with poetry

  1. Pingback: Sean Bonney and the political poem | Bebrowed’s Blog

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