Neil Young, co-founder of The Poets’ Republic, introduces Issue 5
Let’s hear it for Roger McGough – a sure contender for the title of World’s Greatest Living Scouser (despite that OBE ). Two years ago, when judge of the Bridport Prize, he took a potshot at poets’ lack of political engagement. Given that, even then, the circumstances in this Disunited Kingdom were fraught, to say the least, it was a timely intervention – a call to quit navel-gazing, get your Shelley cats on, and start lobbing linguistic hand-grenades at the temples of power. “Politics did not engage our poets,” Roger opined. “No voices crying out against poverty and injustice, migration and global warming. Our politicians can sleep soundly in their beds, the poets are not assembling in the street outside.”
The revolution will not be versified.
His comments were notable because they were so off-script for a poetry competition judge. But he was echoing what many of us thought, (even though we doubt the prospect of poets assembling in the street outside would cause our rulers to cower under their quilts). Why weren’t more poets trying to find a language for the severities of our times? Was poetry so self-selective that it would ever be saturated by bourgeois preoccupations? Or was he generalising from the particular?
McGough knows his stuff. The Mersey Sound poets were selling books in the 60s and 70s as if they’d reinvented rock ‘n’ roll. He was one of a clutch of mostly working-class poets who flashed a two-fingered salute at a clique who ordered the great, the good or unfit-for-public-consumption of British and Irish poetry as if they’d been selected by gene-pool for the roles. For those high priests – Blake Morrison, Andrew Motion and Craig Raine, most obviously – McGough and ilk were not to be acknowledged; hence, they were excluded from those anthologies that were supposed to be generation-defining.
Who now would give more than loose change at a car boot sale for those volumes? Looking back, what is striking too is the omission, or disregard, of women poets. Were they all in prolonged hibernation? Or – with a few freakish exceptions – was the writing of poetry only a worthy pursuit for the good chaps of the literary circuit? That’s a culture war well known to poets such as Magi Gibson (whose latest book, Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks, is reviewed on Page 22). Cultural chauvinism was the norm – not that it’s vanished into history yet. Those old senators, and acolytes, still clog the arteries of arts media and publishing. Their influence on emerging poets remains as pervasive as it is stultifying.
McGough’s exhortation might well be extended to those poets. If poetry cannot find words to fit the times, when there are riots outside the window and our social and political spheres are collapsing, what is its value beyond the cul-de-sac of its own reading circle? Who is it attempting – or not attempting – to reach? With rabid Toryism on a wrecking spree at home, while a child-man tweet-farts ‘policy’ from the Oval Office, it’s not as if we’re short of raw material. Echoes of the 1930s are not hard to find. The nuclear unthinkable is being thought about. The imperative to speak out never diminishes, though it feels insistent now, as if to detach onself would be to retreat to private consolations as the clamour outside grows louder. Who better than poets to capture the language that others grope towards?
From our wee dugout in north-east Scotland, we see evidence of that universality. Look no further than the mini-anthologies, Poets Speak, published by the Beatlik Press in the USA in response to the Trump presidency. Here’s an example of what small, independent publishers – free of the commercial straitjacket – do best. They are the poetry rapid reaction force, part of the political current that is made visible in news images, or fires debate from our TV screens to the office and factory floor. Look to these pages too: from Conor Kelly’s debunking of gung-ho grandiosity on Page 4 to Alison Dunne’s smart use of metaphor to deride money-muscle in Bull on Page 7. Read our review of Antony Owen’s The Nagasaki Elder on Page 21 – what a book for our times!
All of this might be described as politicised poetry. It doesn’t try to beat us up with its message, or adopt voguish postures. It bends our ‘craft or sullen craft’ to generous purpose. It’s what we would describe as public-spirited poetry in that it reflects the anxieties and passions of the highly-charged political atmosphere we all inhabit, whether we recognise that or not.
Maybe that’s what was lacking in the tidied pile of Bridport contenders passed to Roger McGough (or had the sifters over-done their work?); or was the fault inherent in the competition, or competitions? We’re hardly alone in championing a poetry that speaks communally – see our friends at Prole, and The Interpreter’s House, and a few more – so we suspect a lot depends on where you direct your gaze. With that in mind, we’ll be sending the prospective World’s Greatest Living Scouser a complimentary copy of Issue 5, with our thanks . . . as we try to overlook that very un-Republican OBE.