Making poetry in these slurred times

This may not be the most coherent piece I’ve written but it might be the most heartfelt and urgent. We’ll start with some context. It’s now April 19th 2020 and I’m living with my lover, for the first time, in Ventnor in the UK and we’re in lockdown.

I don’t know about others but I write verse in order to work out about how I feel about something. The previous blog was a poem I made in response to the current and ongoing disaster, I’ve also made a v short performance piece (see below) in response to how this thing seems to be unfolding.

The shock for me is how hard this is. It should be ideal because I use documentary material, I’m a vaguely anarcho-lefty policy wonk with specific interests in health and social care and I hover on one of the main ‘vulnerable’ groups. This should therefore be the ideal opportunity, in a spacious property overlooking the Channel, to write at least one epic of Spenserian length and probably two.

In fact, there is an argument that gently points out that we creative types have a duty to spend this time documenting the disaster and how we feel about it from the inside in, more or less, ‘real’ time. To go further, I would hold up Celan’s Todesfugue as one of the greatest poems we have that did exactly that.

I’m under no illusions, I am at best an interested amateur who writes in order to perform rather than to be read. I’ve written and had performed lengthy pieces on Bloody Sunday, Ferguson and the Newtown shootings, I’m thus not averse to dealing with challenging subjects and am drawn to the complicated.

Covid-19 has, however, from nowhere on my horizon, has scrambled any feelings and thoughts that I might have.

We’ll start with bigness. In terms of a single Whiteheadian event, this particular virus is huge. A glance at one of those fucking dashboards reveals that it is infecting and killing everywhere and our collective response is hugely passive. As I type the global economy is continuing to collapse and a return to any kind of normal is looking increasingly unlikely for any of us. From this viewpoint, the making of art in itself can appear to be trivial and poetry making then becomes even more self-indulgent and vain than normal.

I’m not suggesting that all art is of little import but that big events and themes require a degree of brilliance that few of us have. In fact the bebrowed rule is that the quality of material required increases in step with the importance of the subject matter. The most obvious examples to me are Dante on the afterlife, Milton on the Fall, David Jones on World War One and Celan on the Holocaust. There are quite a few others.

Those of us who aren’t brilliant then have to try and avoid irrelevance by saying something that might be useful to the reader by presenting a different perspective and providing a consequent moment or two of reflection..

Moving on to plenitude, this catastrophe is producing too many aspects and too much data as it scythes through us. All of the media, quality and otherwise, is feasting on this stuff and putting forth opinions on everything from the plight of those locked in with their abusers to the chemistry of enzymes and proteins. None of these very many concerns are minor issues and they will all be struggled over in the years to come.

In the face of this poetry can become:

a ranting thorn in the side of the powers that be;

a record of the disaster and its effects;

a memorialisation of the dead;

a blueprint for the future;

an interrogation of the nature of science and expertise

a personal response providing one possible way feeling about this stuff.

My problem is that I want to do all of these (except perhaps the blueprint), and they all keep crowding on to my page and all of them seem really important which results in either clever-clever rantery or a major wallow.

As well as complexity, I’m also struggling creatively with adjusting to the disaster as it reveals different aspects of itself. This weekend the British media have discovered that residents of care and nursing homes may be dying in their thousands in addition to those currently recorded. As an ex-manager of the inspection and regulation of such homes I know that these figures are readily and easily available and national collation should have begun in February at the very latest. I’m also disgusted that politicians failed to act upon the bleeding obvious fact that these homes are by far the most vulnerable part of society. I’ve ranted about this on social media this morning but now feel that I need to add this specific negligence into the creative mix.

The other problem that I have is that of sudden isolation. We’re living in a small town that,for all its many faults, has a strong sense of community and collective endeavour, these things have, literally, kept me sane over the last ten years and now going out on our daily walks reveals a blank page.

Both Megan and I want/need to talk to others face to face about the weight and complexity of what’s going on and that is the activity that is most Against The Rules. Incidentally, we now have a society that’s governed by rules rather than laws and nobody seems to have noticed.

I’ve just realised that this may have turned into an extended whinge, the kind of semi-ranting self indulgence that I’m wary of. My only excuse is that at least it’s an honest exploration of the bewilderment and angst that I feel in the gripof Covid 19.

Within Minutes, read by John Armstrong (writer) and Megan Mackney (actor)

6 responses to “Making poetry in these slurred times

  1. I copied this quote from ‘The Song of Deeds’, Neil Corcoran’s book about The Anathemata, which I have been rereading while stuck in Quarantine and on the receiving end of a lesson in powerlessness, wondering about many of the same things you’ve mentioned here:

    Neil Corcoran The Song of Deeds:
    The Anathemata manifests a pessimism informed and transformed by a resilient refusal to capitulate.
    But this resilient pessimism is the result of his sense that if man ‘at best can suffer the circumstances of his nativity and tradition’, he nevertheless ‘can, must and does’ make a song about it’. It is this joy of making a song about it, a song of deeds, that most often restrains David Jones’ work from Elegy and lament. Such joy is not vague, ‘romantic’ subjectivism but a belief that the artist partakes through his ‘making’ in that gratuitous creation that sustains the world in being.

    Or to put it another way perhaps making something beautiful in a time of breaking is an act of defiance, meaningful in itself?

  2. Hi John—well, it’s been as long time since I wrote to in defense of Robert Lowell. I too have been wondering at the relevance of producing art in such intrusive times. On one level, it all seems to be so much dust (and not the dust we are and shall return to), not worth doing—to quote from one of your favorites Philip Larkin —Get stewed. Books are a load of crap—but on another level, I ask myself what has changed? Presumably art should be exploring the limits of our existence, what makes life worth living—if anything—and what shall we do with lives: The poem is the growth of the mind of the world. The heroic to live, expressed as victory—to quote from one of mine, Wallace Stevens.
    And I ask myself since when is the substance of art a conscience choice? Acknowledge what is there and see what you can do with it.
    This is especially relevant to me because I appear to be working on a piece of whimsey. Should you be interested,
    go to
    by the way, I am living in NYC right across the street from the UN in midtown. We do our clapping at 7 o’clock,
    As we face what could be the collapse of the world economy; as we face what could be wave after wave of viral attacks; as we face poverty, destruction, more destruction, as we face ourselves begging; we just listen…
    I don’t know john, but it sounds like the sound of one hand clapping .

    Jim Kleinhenz

  3. Clark Allison

    This reads very well, yet the audio clip somehow fails to similarly engage. But of course these are different media!

  4. Progressive poetry today is virtue signaling claptrap. If you think the “weight and complexity of what’s going on” in this media-magnified crisis bears even the remotest infinitesimal resemblance to the “what happened” that haunts the poetry of Celan, you’re delusional.

    • H’mm, the obvious response is I don’t although we could argue a bit about ‘remotest infintesimal’. As I hope I’ve made clear over the last 10 years, I’m of the view that Celan’s work is the most important and accomplished work of the 20th century in any medium. I’m prepared to accept and try to make clear that what’s written here is both subjective and tenuous- my one convistion has been and is the work that Celan produced out of his many hauntings.

      • I agree with you about Celan. Perhaps we can also agree that many commentators on these times (present company excluded) could benefit from Celan’s own reticence in saying the “ethical” through this most tenuous medium we call language.

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