Poetry and Politics and Truth, a response to Tom Dunn


Rather than respond to your recent comments re the above in the comments threads, I thought I’d attempt a more considered response here. It also gives me the opportunity to review the last stated Bebrowed position on this knotty conundrum. I consider myself to be deeply political, most of my adult life has been spent in various forms of what many would think of as ‘extreme’ political activity and I was a member of the CPGB (Gramscian/Marxism Today faction) for about five years until it disbanded even though I have never considered myself to be a Marxist. I also have a lifelong passion for poetry and have held the view that the two don’t mix in that I wouldn’t turn to a poem for ideological ‘positions’ just as I wouldn’t hope to find poetics in political activity. I also feel that there’s too much of the political in politics and too much poetry in poetry.

I really struggle with the fact that many poems are written about political problems that will have absolutely no influence whatsoever on those problems regardless of the stance that those poets take. I’m also deeply suspicious of poets that pick ‘easy’ targets and will shortly give some examples of these.

None of the above is helped by the annoying fact that most of the best poems currently being written do commit most of the above crimes. In my ideal world all poets would be working out the implications of what Levinas described as ‘the sadness of self-interest’ together with Foucault’s view that the primary struggle is with the fascist that lurks within each of us. I also accept that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon so I’m left with these vaguely marxian poets who are producing brilliant poems but dismal politics.

And then there’s Geoffrey Hill who has described himself as a ‘hierarchical Tory’ and whose work is a really fascinatingly incongruous mix of knee-jerk polemic and quite thoughtful analysis- but only when applied to events before 1670.

You say that there’s no space for God in this material yet there’s certainly a lot of God in Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and I think I could make a case for God in later Prynne. My own view is that poets are much better with theology than they are with politics and that the best God poems are those that express doubt rather than conviction (R S Thomas, Paul Celan, George Herbert). I’m also of the view that it is entirely possible to get pleasure from poems a standpoint that I find politically and morally repellent- Book V of the Faerie Queen and most of Pound’s Cantos spring to mind.

There is some work that is politically sophisticated and strategically correct and is being undertaken at the conceptualist end of the spectrum by Vanessa Place and Caroline Bergvall both of which make me feel more than a degree of what we used to call solidarity.

There’s also a younger group of poets who are in the process of recasting the personal and the political – I quote from some of these below.

With regard to Truth, I’m one of those intellectually flabby relativists that manage to be loathed by Richard Dawkins and the current pope in equal measure but there are Cambridge poets who are concerned primarily with truthful poetry and with a concern for authenticity but this usually coloured by dialectical processes and an interest in contradiction. My only excuse is Richard Rorty’s view that we should concentrate on that which is useful without too much regard for truth-value because doing things the other way round does get us into all kinds of trouble.

Incidentally, I really don’t want Bourdieu to be correct but he is- you don’t need to be a committed leftist to be persuaded. The escape from the iron cage is inevitably subjective but my money’s on Place, Bergvall, Neil Pattison, Johnny Liron and Jonty Tiplady- each of these for very different reasons (see below).

The Desire problem.

Bear with me but this does seem to get to the core of the poetry/politics problem. In 2010 Keston Sutherland began circulating ‘The Odes to T61LP’ which is the bravest sequence that I think I’ve ever read because it deals in an honest an open way with sexual identity and desire and childhood sexuality and confronts every single aspect of the British male persona. Timothy Thornton is an extraordinarily talented younger poet who is dealing with desire in a uniquely lyrical way.

I am and will remain critical of Sutherland’s Marxist certainty but (and this is the problem) I don’t know of anyone else with this degree of talent and critical insight.

The Polemic problem.

Poets, even Milton, are bad at polemic and shouldn’t do it. In fact, it is the repeated attempts to do this adequately that makes me most annoyed about things Cambridge/Brighton. I’ve been re-looking at some recent examples for this piece and they just make me unaccountably cross. Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’ doesn’t make me cross but it’s still an ‘easy’ target, isn’t it?

The Streak~~Willing~~Artesian~~Entourage exception.

I’ll vote for this being the best political work of the last twenty years precisely because it refuses to simplify, take sides or otherwise pontificate and it is wonderfully austere. I also think it is politically important because it confronts some fundamentals that have been ignored by all shades of the political spectrum.


I’ve attempted to put together a number of quotes to do with politics. This selection is based on my own reading and is entirely subjective but it does at least provide a bit of a map for further discussion / debate. I’ll do something similar with both God and Truth at a later stage

This is from ‘Statement of Facts’ by Vanessa Place-

Counts 10, 11, 12 and 14: Jane Doe #3: Marion J.

Marion J. was living alone in a house on Colorado Street Long Beach on July 31, 1998; around 1:30 or 2:00 a.m., she returned home with a friend from Ralphs. The friend left without coming inside the house, and when Marion J. went in, she noticed her five cats were under the bed and her back door was open. She closed and locked the door, and took a shower. Her friend called around 2:15 or 2:30 to let Marion J. know she’d arrived home safely; Marion J., who had been
laying on her bed waiting for the call, then fell asleep. (RT 866-868) She woke about 3:15 a.m. because someone’s hand was around her throat. The person took Marion J.’s glasses and told her if she screamed, he’d snap her neck. Marion J. said she wouldn’t scream, the man pulled her nightgown over her head and told her to open her legs, she did, and he put his penis in her vagina. The man then took his penis out of Marion J., lifted her leg and reinserted his penis. Next, the man turned Marion J. over and put his penis in her vagina a third time while pulling her hair back. Marion J. was bleeding; the man got a towel from the bathroom, wiped her, laid on the bed, and told Marion J. to get on top of him because it would be easier for her to “control it.” Marion J. did, and the man’s penis again went into her vagina. (RT 868-870, 875)

And so is this-

On Marion J.’s mixed breast swab sample, there are six peaks (11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17) at D-8; Fedor’s handwritten notes indicate two of the peaks (11, 15) are possible stutter. (Defense Exhibit Y; RT 1570- 1571) Stutter is a PCR artifact, and does not represent actual DNA in the sample. Fedor wrote “possible” because those peaks could be
DNA, but did not report them as because he did not think they were reliably present, i.e., he thought they were stutter rather than additional DNA. His conclusion was based on the position of the alleles, and their shorter peaks; another analyst could conclude they were real. The Identifiler software has a Kazam macro which is to filter out stutter based on the manufacturer’s research; the macro did not identify 11 and 15 as stutter. Fedor did not know what the stutter limit is for D-8; there is no fixed laboratory standard. The Identifiler user manual indicates the limit at D-8 is 8.2 percent. (RT 1571-1575, 1577-1578, 1593-1594) Similarly, at D-21, the computer recognized an allele,
meaning there was an allele present of at least 150 RFU intensity. (RT 1579-1580)

This is from Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Fried Tale (London Zoo)’-

Dame Justice no longer worries unduly. She no longer gives a smiling sod about the moral attributes or social benefits of equitable share-out of wealth; or land; or health; or education or how to work out well-being for the mostest; or the bestest ways of valuing people’s skills or establishing fair and durable structures; or thinking long-term; or facilitating technological access; or revisiting the rules of international exchange; or the balance of import/export; or the value of local trade; or determining the boundaries between life and death; or between breathing and unbreathing; or feeling and unfeeling; or animate and inanimate; or how to get out of the deep labyrinthine social moral spiritual physiological bankrupcy engineered by the brutal omnipathological so-called transnational traficking bloodsuck oilsprung hyperdfunded plunderterprrize. Sgot to be said she can be pretty longwinded. Speaks in subsections.

1a. Must fall. 1b. Should fall. 2a. Could Fall. 3a. Will Fall.

This is from Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’-

Be housed, clutched, inert. Receive, that wave earthed
in keratin
Dark’s cuticle
then fastening dark hand, recede. Conductive, slow
strings waist, a focus vantage stills, in weaning light

that houses break. Elaborately plaited fingers
crack on a shell in the breech. By coastal
rolling, granules secure and justified, flowingly
the solvencies peak and burn in type ; infant salts
the branches feebly ripening, banded. Spines
unfold as, movable, suns inlet solutions of landscape,
savouring limit so warmly that to a fixed wing
you fled over

This is from Jonny Liron’s ‘6.XII’-

                language and theories de cauterize
and un captivate the attention of a
child bent fixed hell for leather of
fucking like a pretend dog, this should
be what you stand for, not the press
or forgetting.

This is the end of Jonty Tiplady’s ‘Superanus’-

Nice to wonder about with you,
nice to stay fat,
nice never truly to be a polygraph.

Worth it that the woods be sovereign
what matters is that any of it
happened at all,
the children a little fucked (concept to pop to sex) up
and Formby in Albania like Big Bird to Catanou
did quite well with that toaster.

Around now climate change arrives.

Having just re-read the above, I worry that this selection might appear too wilfully oblique and insufficiently specific but I am trying to honestly highlight those things that make ‘sense’ to me and I really am far too old to worry about the niceties of correctness or the rigours of a party line.


9 responses to “Poetry and Politics and Truth, a response to Tom Dunn

  1. Thank you for such a long-considered and thought-provoking reply. I too have some experience of far Left politics, as something of an outsider, but now hold elected office as a Conservative. To me, politics is a day-trade and all political positioning is corrupt – in the sense of being partly false, but always in an affected state of denial. But that’s the nature of the trade. What disppointed me in the Left was simply that I found them less likeable because they tended either to be innocent of their shabbiness and dishonesty, or because they supposed that there was some form of politics that might step beyond this, and out of the frame. Reading Heidegger provided me with some intellectual backing to suppose that there could be no such possibility. In which case why waste time system-building? The concept of the political, in an everyday sense, that is not foreign to me is that which one encounters everywhere outside the “Western” world, and which Western political activists seem to have little sense of. Political dissent in the UK takes place within fuzzily defined boundaries of tolerance, and the dissident is always already co-opted. But the alternative is to have no concept of politics by consent, but to class off the political as the realm of liars and thieves and for people of conscience to have nothing to do with it. “Not in my name” say the anti-war posters, and I don’t believe that most Iraqis, for example, could have anything more than an abstract understanding of the political concept underlying the slogan, even assuming any of them were to bother. When one’s tired of politics, one puts on one’s saffron robes and heads up into the mountains.

    I thought Refuse Collection was just dreadful, a rubbish heap of hysterical denunciation. The fact that, although I opposed the Iraq war, I know Iraqis who supported it, worked in Iraq after “liberation” and sustained life-long injuries in terrorist explosions, and still supported the war – well, it doesn’t change my mind, but I expect a poem to have a more complicated attitude than my own.

    I agree very much with your third paragraph. Slavoj Zizek complained in one of his books that mass games, say, were sneered at as “proto-Fascist”, even though it was the Nazis who had co-opted the aesthetics and politics of mass communal activity for their own twisted purposes. More likely, I thought to myself gloomily, everything is proto-Fascist?

    I question why I don’t find the Cantos or FQ V morally repellent. Are they just too old and dead? Am I just myopically focussing on “the inner truth and greatness” bit and not on the squalid surroundings?

    Your quotes I found equally impressive, but I had different reservations with regard to each. Actually, I like Neil Pattison’s work (the small amount I’ve seen) unreservedly, but if you’ll forgive the glibness – that’s my reservation. I find it narrows in my mind down to my own familiar experiences, and makes me feel sealed-in.

    Surely it was Norman Wisdom who was popular in Albania. But why not Formby too? And does he mean Cotonou?

  2. “An unwed mother, lost in a snowstorm””

    I don’t know about you, but whenever I order something from a small Cambridge poetry press it arrives with extraordinary promptness. It always gives me an impression of political discipline and personal efficiency, along with a sense of earnest gregariousness and a desire to satisfy each and every sincere enquirer. Kazoo Dreamboats is disconcertingly large, hard to disguise. I have to say that something about it immediately got me interested. I understand that the kazoo may have been one of those instruments or musical techniques brought over from Africa by the slave trade, and seems to have been popularised in the Southern States of the US, but obviously popular musicology abounds with false etymologies and unlikely legends. Dreamboat is a 1952 comedy about an American academic, an Eng Lit professor, who suddenly finds himself spotlit by the media and made an object of social mockery by the revelation that he was “Dreamboat” the movie star in a previous life. Watching this clip, pretending that Clifton Webb was Prynne, I fell about laughing. I still think it’s funny, and that laughter was a way of breaking through my trepidation and intellectual deference (an artful avoidance strategy that Prynne’s work seems to invite as another trap for the reader).

    There are some serious points from the above – suggestions for ways of reading. Firstly, Prynne denies that his work is difficult, or hermetically personal. Perhaps there’s too much talk about etymology, secondary meanings and recourse to the OED, at least on first approach. It implies that there is an intellectual argument to be uncovered, a process of learning in stages, which a deeper knowledge of the grammar and history of language would uncover. Tangentially, I found McHugh’s key to Finnegans Wake so disappointing when I was getting to grips with that book. I realised that the etymological origin of, say, half a page of mangled Albanian had no relevance that I could see to the book’s purpose. Why Albania? Why these words in particular? For Joyce, it seemed to be no more than a handy compositional method, which shed only a glancing light on the meaning of the work. Acrylic tips are a means of disguising the fingernails. I imagine Prynne, long-nailed like an Aztec priest or Jose Mojica Marins, choreographing the decent into information hell as a lurid, theatrical spectacle. A kazoo distorts and disguises the voice in an up-front and vulgar way. A dreamboat is always remote like a matinee idol, but no more remote than a matinee idol – slightly corny and not a real star performer. I’m not sure if Prynne’s liking for slightly, but distinctly, dated expressions – “dreamboat”, “motor car”, “stuff it”– provides a deliberate retro patina, or if it’s just old age. Kazoo and dreamboat go together because, well, it always seems to me that the matinee stars of the 30s, 40s and 50s were less conscious of their dignity than stars are now. I may be completely wrong, but cross-dressing, blacking up, acting-ungainly, silly voices – it’s part of what I associate with the some of the old family-friendly classics.

    How much of Prynne is the sort of cultural parody meant to make us laugh? Why is it so hard to laugh? Perhaps because one feels on one’s toes all the time and subject to continual brain-ache.

    Why yellow inside pages? Egg, obviously, and perhaps recalling the Chinese cliche of yellow silk. It’s bold, deep, almost gold, like the colour of spider-silk cloth. I am guessing, from an internet search, that one of the Jinling Patriots must be Tao Xingzhi, who studied in the US and returned to China as an educationalist and social reformer, a “non-Party Bolshevik”. The educational ideal may help explain the reference cues, a typically Prynnean mix of the stuff we’re likely to have read at some point and the stuff no one in England apart from Prynne is likely to have read. But I would imagine that the most disparate materials crossed his desk as a librarian, and made it hard not to gather togther widely dispersed knowledge fields.


    From the first line we seem to be in prophetic, lamentationary mode: I expect to see sinners revealed, burning apocalyptically. The fair field full of folk and the charged vacuum field – only Prynne could bring them together. I suspect the plainest passages in Prynne may be the most specious, and I think it is being quoted not for what it says but as a comment on the social role that such speech plays: “continuous jostlings”, “arise spontaneously” etc. And logically enough the next quoted passage is from Mao, who reads his philosophy into and out from scientific examples.

  3. Prynne’s work is only discomforting, I’m coming to realise, in the way that our experience in the commodified world is, and for the most part, we feel OK there. It feels a little perverse to find it rebarbative. So thank you for the recommendation, and I’ll continue plugging away at this poem in the coming days. I’ve at least got as far as the cover, without even mentioning the car.

  4. After more reading just now, I’m feeling more and more that the quoted passages are representing the structures of calculation and scientistic interference from which, the poem seems to say, we can only escape as smoke or compressed between rock layers. I’m pausing particularly just now at page 11, which I’m supposing contains the Berg lecture, with the amusing following line “by whatever means in retrospect”, linking the attempted depersonalisation and mathematisation of music (notoriously specious) with the language of ?particle physics. Then moving to consider the capacity for beings which are understood as forces & particles to express emotions or be held morally accountable – which thought makes me notice the “count” in “accounting”. And the way in which expressions of denial of self are unavoidably expressed by a self, a self that always grabs the bags and runs in moments of “hazard”. And on page 12 we laugh it all off with comparisons, the chicken in a basket (a Vietnamese prostitute apparently) and the Brent crude. Why “Brent” crude? Is the point just to get me to find out what it is precisely? That may be part of it, but the first place to look generally seems to be the (political) world outside.

  5. Oversensitively, maybe, I’m noticing glints of moralism: “folly” and “cowardice” – “Funded in borrowed fun/by cowardice”. How funded? By not wanting to notice the APR? By preferring buy off the electorate with debt-friendly interest rates? It may be disastrous on a personal level, but not to my mind the product of individual moral flaw, in either case. But perhaps Prynne is saying precisely that – it’s so far difficult to tell.

  6. Btw, you’ve sold me on Streak Willing too, which I’ll get once I’ve done more work on Kazoo. It had spoken to me very much in excerpt. On rhetoric – yes indeed, and I’d say that vituperation is a characteristic and unhealthy indulgence on the part of many intellectual Marxists. I’m now reading page 9 and the fable of depletion to zero – or “target zero”, which implies that deliberate environmental destruction, which ends up destroying everything, is a pre-loaded function of the accumulation-project. That figures.

  7. I’m still reading the damn thing. Looking at pgs. 13 & 14. A risk for the reader with this poetry is that it almost invites us to naturalise it with our ingrained assumptions, and expose our own conceptual limitations in the process. And I suspect that this may be one of the traps his work routinely sets. Following the argument in the second paragraph, we seem to move from (bio)chemical manipulations, through some object of ideological scorn to a mess of complicated doctoring like a tangle of infusion lines. Warfarin is hardly the treatment for a stab wound. From there, all amidst the language of borders and conflict, to environmental destruction and corporate corruption to the sunlit divided city. What seems to connect it all, aside from alienation and confusion, is the idea of human interactions and inventions both reflecting the violence of their originators and visiting it back upon them. “Where placed cannot be defended” I guess meaning both ‘defensible’ and ‘justifiable’, “wills” and “walls” double-locking the way to resolution, unless we place our hope in the green spray of high degree, whereupon after a quick pause the language sure enough reverts to that of robotic continuance. The result for me looks like a seething entanglement of human and non-human interactions, viewed as the same kind of processes – “partition” for example – not in, say, a social Darwinist sense, but because our understanding of material processes emerges as a reflection of our own needs, drives and affections. And of course, through scientific ideologies that reinforces and justifies the needs that gave birth to them. Or is that just what I thought already?

  8. “The thing about food is, someone else might get it, then what”. A line which, in its foul pessimism, end para 2 on pg 26 (can’t help but look to the end), reminds me of Christopher Ricks’ article about Donne, in which he presents Donne’s cheap closing jokes as his way of mean-mindedly spitting on the radiance he has previously invoked and (presumably) fucked. Of course beauty is easy to summon up with words like “sidereal”, which may also be Prynne’s point. And so to bed.

    • Tom,

      This is excellent, I love your exhilarating blow-by-blow account but will need some time to respond, once I’ve worked out where to begin. As for me, I fell asleep in the early hours trying to work out how to read the ‘I saw’ trope given that I’ve decided that the ‘self-removal’ imperative isn’t being transgressed… pleased that you’ve decided to look at ‘Streak~~Willing’- it’s wonderful.


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