Poetry Protest

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Transcript of Poetry Protest

What's poetry's role in protest politics?

Should poets be leading the charge in rousing metres, or reflecting thoughtfully on the sidelines?

Leading poet ... Allen Ginsberg (centre, in stars and stripes hat) at the front of anti-Vietnam demonstration in 1966. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Adam O'RiordanWednesday 15 December 201017.02GMTLast modified on Tuesday 3 June 201415.31BST

Last week's images of mounted policemen charging the protesters around Parliament Square evoked multiple memories: the poll tax riots in John Major's 90s; the angry young of Brixton and Toxteth in Thatcher's 80s; even, for the historically minded, the Peterloo massacre in 1819, where magistrates sent in cavalry to disperse a crowd of over 60,000 who had gathered to protest for political reform.

Shortly after the massacre, in which several were killed and several hundred injured, Thomas Love Peacock wrote of it to his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley in Italy. Shelley was so moved by Peacock's description of the events that he responded by penningThe Masque of Anarchy, a poem that advocates both radical social action and non-violent resistance: "Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many they are few".

At times of upheaval and unrest, is poetry's role to fan the flames or cool tempers? Down the centuries it has proved remarkably effective at both. Against a background of civil unrest in 1970s America, Gil Scott-Heron told the world "you will not be able to stay home, brother". In his searing, satirical masterpiece "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" on the album Small Talk at 125th and Lennox. Scott-Heron offers a line in tightly-wrought comic surrealism; "The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary." But it is as much his delivery, his voice impassioned but not quite righteous, that electrifies the poem.

Scott-Heron's influence is evident in a generation of young British spoken word poets and performers who have emerged with a political agenda.Scroobius Pip(the name is taken from an Edward Lear poem "The Scroobious Pip went out one day / When the grass was green, and the sky was grey") recently offered a corrective against the commercialism of his peers with "Thou Shalt Always Kill". Coupling Generation Y's fascination with cultural ephemera with a strain of political invective reminiscent of alternative comedy in the 1980s, he demands; "Thou shalt not judge a book by its cover./ Thou shalt not judge Lethal Weapon by Danny Glover. / Thou shalt not buy Coca-Cola products. / Thou shalt not buy Nestl products."

But is protest poetry the preserve of the spoken word poet? In the 1970s, American poetRichard Wilbur, symbol of all things urbane and learned, offered "To the Student Strikers", urging reflection and calm during the Vietnam war. In "A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr Johnson", he suggests that Thomas Jefferson "would have wept to see small nations dread / The imposition of our cattle-brand, / With public truth at home mistold or banned, / And in whose term no army's blood was shed." However, Wilbur cautions that when "poets begin preaching to the choir, it takes the adventure and variety out of the poetry."

So is this poetry's role: to approach unrest and upheaval slant, and not head-on? And has poetry on the page been more effective in documenting the aftermath of great events? Both the lateKen Smithand Sean O'Brien have documented the intellectual legacy of post-industrial and rural communities recovering their identities after decades of decline. Ken Smith, son of a farm labourer, produced a poetry imbued with a melancholy sense of those like his father who,as O'Brien noted in Smith's obituary, had "left / not a mark, not a footprint".

It's a theme Sean O'Brien has taken up in own his work. The title poem of his collection Cousin Coat (which he describes as "an invisible coat I eventually discovered I'd been wearing all my life") invokes the legacy of these ideas. As the poem closes he asks the coat to "Be with me when they cauterize the facts / Be with me at the bottom of the page / Insisting on what history exacts / Be memory, conscience, will and rage."

We can take draw solace from the fact that both our historically strong and newly evolving poetic traditions performance or page, pastoral or post-industrial will be there to remind and inspire us, to offer solace or make us think a little more deeply about what has just taken place. As the dust settles on last week's events it is perhaps time to heed Shelley's advice from almost two centuries ago; "Stand ye calm and resolute, / Like a forest close and mute, / With folded arms and looks which are / Weapons of unvanquished war."

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/dec/15/poetry-protest-politics (assessed may 7 2015)

Poetry and Politics

[In 1929 Marcus Graham compiled and edited An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry, a collection of modern and earlier verse composed by poets from twenty countries who championed freedom.Ridge served on the book's Publication Committee and contributed "Reveille."Poets and critics Lucia Trent and Ralph Cheyney wrote a lengthy introduction which is actually a version of leftist aesthetics.Careful readers of the following excerpts can extract the features of a poetry and a poet that Trent and Cheyney believe can reshape the modern world.]

Lucia Trent and Ralph CheyneyExcerpts from the Introduction toAn Anthology of Revolutionary PoetryIIThe world is tumbling about our ears.The old order has collapsed."The World War brought to an end the illusionment of bourgeois idealism."We stand among falling dbris.America is becoming or has become industrialized.Individualism of the pioneers has fallen away before standardization.The trust has risen and capitalism expanded.Youth is more aware and articulate. Women are less willing to be dominated by men.Labor is slowly but unmistakably reaching the realization that to it belong all things and the resolve that it shall possess them.No economic, industrial, social and cultural system can endure long which is based on the fact now true of the United States: that two per cent of the population, conservatively speaking, own seventy-one per cent of the wealth, while more than sixty per cent of the people own but twenty per cent of this world's goods.No system can go on long which denies a job to one out of every nine working men.Five million unemployed is a host which may light the spark of revolution.The creation of some valid order of values is the most fascinating and imperative task the intellect faces today.The creation of values in the emotional realm is the primary function of poetry.Chaos gives birth to a dancing star only if we breathe into it that visible, audible fragrance of passion which is poetry.The world will be new-born only with the spread of that consciousness which is creation, and poets are the pioneers of consciousness.They, therefore, are naturally among the leaders in the development of class-consciousness.Life is faith.Without faith there can be no poetry, and without poetry no civilization.But intelligent faith can come only after complete, hard-boiled disillusionment with the supernatural and with bourgeois idealism.Poetry and propaganda are two sides of the same shield.Without passion there can be no poetry, and all who feel strongly burn with a zeal to have others share their feeling.True poets are also propagandists, even though their propaganda may be simply for the love of life and the life of love.A poem is a rune, spell, incantation, evocation.Poetry throws open mental windows and doors, pushes back horizons, reveals a new heaven and leads us back to Mother Earth with a fresh vision of how to regain Eden.What we see often, we do not see at all, a fact which blinds us to the evils of the present industrial and social system.The statement of Simonides, "Literature is spoken painting," should stand beside Madame De Stael's "Architecture is frozen music."Poets clear our eyes and sharpen our ears.Poetry serves civilization and helps usher in a happier world as no other human activity can.For the very essence of poetry isSYMPATHY.[The ancient Greek poet Simonides wrote elegies honoring slain warriors, and the French writer and critic de Stael introduced romanticism to France.]

There is no other art which can emphasize more concretely and more beautifully the spiritual values of human life."We cannot live by bread alone" is a trite phrase, but one which contains a generous measure of truth.Too many today lack bread itself.Savages and civilized men are alike in their blind groping for an explanation of the hidden sources of the universe.Authentic poetry gives utterance to the eternal adventuring in search of spiritual truths and the Promised Land, long prophesied but to be realized only through the uprising of united workers.The poets who rebel against the smug, superficial materialism of the age in this imperialistic nation and contribute thought as well as words are in the main pessimistic.Their poems are question-marks.They face frustration and see the hole in the universe.Not seeing the hope of a new, true civilization that is rising in the East, notably Russia and India, their eyes are fixed on the downfall of the Western World and they despair.Their world is staggering like a drunken man, toppling like a shot deer.For most of them are of the bourgeoisie, and they feel, even if they do not see, that their class is decaying and disappearing.The collapse of a class is foretold in the disruption of its ideals and arts, though their echoes may ring through the ages.Much that is gracious and lovely endures from the times of feudalism, but aristocracy succumbed to plutocracy and