Red Sky at Night: Socialist Poetry
edited by Adrian Mitchell and Andy Croft, pub. Five Leaves Press. 304pp. ISBN: 0-907123-49-X. £9.99
Given the fragmentation of the British Left in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's assault and the Labour Party's renunciation of Socialist principles (some would say, of all principles), this book is a timely reminder of the ideas and ideals of the Socialist movement. It reminds us that those ideas have been espoused, at some time or other, by some of our best poets, and by some not normally associated with them. The ‘Penguin Book of Socialist Poetry’ is long out of print, so this should be a welcome publication, and indeed there is much to commend in it. But the book also raises uncomfortable questions, in particular about the failure of the British Left to accommodate intellectual and artistic movements.
After a short preface by Adrian Mitchell, and a downbeat introduction by Andy Croft, we are presented with 300 pages and 153 poems by 117 poets. Despite the title, it is actually an anthology of British socialist poetry. A pre-requisite of Socialism is industrialisation, and it therefore seems reasonable, despite egalitarian movements dating back to Wat Tyler and Peasant's Revolt, to begin with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. We start with the Blake, Shelley, William Morris, John Clare and others. This seems a reasonable choice, but in a book spread as thinly as this, can’t help but appear as a mere nod to these figures (14 pages out of 300). And no Burns, at least as socialist as Charles Dickens (also included), and a much better poet. Blake is held up as the paragon. In his preface, Mitchell says ‘no one is more modern or revolutionary than William Blake’. Of course Blake can be moulded to fit any shape, from the religious visionary of Kathleen Raine, to the Jacobin insurrectionist of E.P. Thompson. The choice of his two poems here is symptomatic; an extract from ‘The Four Zoas’ which could be interpreted in numerous ways, and ‘London’ from Songs of Experience. But Blake also wrote about that eighteenth century symbol of revolution ‘The Tyger’, and the poem of that title has been read by many critics as a response to the atrocities in France. From the lack of any questioning approach to socialist ideas in the rest of the volume, it is clear that talk of ‘fearful symmetries’ is too self-critical for this anthology.
The bulk of the poetry here is twentieth century, starting with the poets of World War I. These provide a reminder of the strength of revolutionary sentiment in Britain at that time, which is little-acknowledged, and the poets included here are representative and well-known.
It's good to see little-known figures like Joe Corrie and F.C. Boden, and especially to see women poets of the 1930s like Naomi Mitchison and Nancy Cunard. D.H. Lawrence is represented by two ballads, a form he wielded effectively as social commentary, but which is somewhat overdone in the rest of the book. Auden's entry is 'Musée des Beaux Arts'. This seems an odd choice, although it could be seen as a comment on political action versus apathy. Auden, of course, has written much more directly political work than this, but could never do so without his tongue in his cheek, or without the language running away with him, as in 'Spain' (which he famously repudiated). Both these approaches fit ill with the earnest tone of this anthology. C.Day Lewis gets two entries for Auden’s one, both pale imitations of Auden's early style, but which strike the right didactic and idealistic note.
As usual, the closer we get to the present, the more contentious the choices become. A whole swathe of British poetry is missing, presumed dead. No Bill Griffiths, Richard Caddel, or Geraldine Monk (all socialist, all artistically adventurous). Instead, we have the banalities of Tony Harrison and the stifling conservatism of Sean O’Brien. But there is some excellent work: a poem from Michael Rosen is representative; his ‘Fighters for Life’ is in the tradition of impassioned re-telling of history in direct plain speech. There are other good poems of this type by people like John Lucas, Alan Dent and others, which are fine in themselves, but in bulk require the leavening of other idioms and styles.
In fact, there is very little in this book that is not expressed in language that is close to everyday usage. There is also little that is intellectually challenging or disturbing. The assumption perhaps, is that poetry must reach as many people as possible. But the argument that demanding poetry cannot also be popular is questionable. Latin Americans like Paz and Neruda were hugely popular in their own countries, despite making few concessions to the ordinary reader. We saw a similar phenomenon in this country during World War II. In an essay on W.S. Graham, Peter Riley has pointed out that Dylan Thomas and poets associated with him and the Apocalyptic movement, enjoyed a huge reading public; yet, as Riley has said, a glance at Thomas’s early poetry shows it to be a demanding read, as well as being far removed from everyday speech. George Barker’s entry, the only poem of this type included, is strikingly different to the general tone.
So it seems that British poets writing 'socialist' poetry feel the need to simplify. In his introduction, Andy Croft cites a long list of socialist poets of various nationalities. Many of these poets produced very different work to most of that found in this anthology. Poets like Pablo Neruda, André Breton, Tristan Tzara and others allied revolutionary politics with innovative poetic practice, constantly attempting to break barriers, both linguistic and conceptual. Why has this not happened in Britain? Arguably, it has, but you would never know it from this anthology, which enshrines the long-standing mistrust of intellectuals and artists, that is not so much British socialist, as simply British. Adrian Mitchell himself is a prime example of this, and according to some critics, is a major contributor to the problem.
Mitchell made a splash at the 1965 Albert Hall reading with a poem about the Vietnam War, upstaging the headline act, Allen Ginsberg. The technique of that poem, and its presentation has been used and re-used by Mitchell in a formulaic fashion ever since. The critic Andrew Duncan, in a perceptive essay on Mitchell, published on his website, puts it succinctly:
'How is it that someone avowing revolutionary principles should have gone on repeating the same formulas so carefully for the 27 years included in his Collected Poems (For Beauty Douglas, subtitled 1953-79)? ...the long wait, throughout For Beauty Douglas, for some kind of historical shift or autocritique, is a parable of the long queuing-up for the demise of capitalism and advent of a new society.'
Duncan's description of Mitchell's poetry might apply to much of the socialist poetry in this anthology:
'..his own poetry is regressive; it slips back into an explanation of the world, and into poetic devices, which are palpably infantile and nostalgic.'
As a result, the view of socialism presented here is of a movement which had its heyday in the industrial past, and is nostalgically associated with that past. It’s interesting that there is no mention of contemporary movements, like environmentalism, or the anti-globalisation campaign.
Indeed, Duncan believes that the model of Mitchell as a left-wing poet led many other poets on the left to avoid explicit politics altogether. While this is perhaps an overstatement, it remains true that there is a whole body of work by people who could be described as socialist, but who use a very different approach to that of most of the work on show here. There is no poetry here of the type produced by, say, Geraldine Monk, with its emphasis on performance and typography, or Bill Griffiths which is rooted in working class culture and tradition expressed in modernist techniques such as collage and disjunction. There is no reason why either should not be in an anthology of socialist poetry. Were they both too intellectual, or simply too radical in their practice to merit inclusion? Neither would be out of place in the list of international poets cited by Croft in his introduction, and the approaches of both of them are necessary if the socialist movement is to formulate a broad and inclusive response to the new world order promoted by its adversaries; one which incorporates flexibility and openness to new ideas.
Peter Riley, 'W.S. Graham: First and Last', Aquarius Issue no. 25/26, 2002.
Andrew Duncan, ‘Adrian Mitchell’, Supplement to Angel Exhaust no. 13, published on http://www.pinko.org/58.html
Alan Bold (ed.), ‘The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse’, (1970)
Copyright © Alan Baker, 2005. A version of this review was first published in ‘Staple’ magazine.