Poetics and Politics: Notes on “Poets for Corbyn,” a Berfrois e-Chapbook

This MachineIs poetry a sturdy platform for political action? Aren’t poets the ones following rabbits down holes? Jumping into ponds to hug moons? Talking blather and twittering sentiments to one another across an inky night? Politicians often twist tongues, glossolalia filling their cheeks, but what they speak is not usually considered poetry.

Poets for Corbyn,” another e-chapbook from Berfrois, features 21 poems by 20 poets, edited by Russell Bennetts. The poems are unified by their support for Jeremy Corbyn (1949), a member of the UK parliament and of the Labour Party, and currently standing to be Labour’s Leader. US readers might be accurate in aligning Corbyn with their own Bernie Sanders.

Mixing poetics and politics reminds me of the note Woody Guthrie taped to his guitar in 1943: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” If music and culture critic Greil Marcus is right, and the guitar is not a machine and it does not kill fascists, then poetry is not a fit medium for political activism. But why does Marcus take Woody’s note so literally? Guthrie knew the difference between figurative and literal language, but he also knew that even the white lettered on red background STOP sign is an argument, even if only occasionally a driver passes through it with some disagreement.

Maybe one of the most politically effective signifying messages in “Poets for Corbyn” is Nick Telfer’s “For the Love of God.” A concrete poem, it evokes a rally chant where we hear the single slogan “No Blair” shouted repeatedly, 21 times in a black and white grid: noblair; no noblesse – shares of rights and duties are equal.

That Woody labeled his guitar a machine is more than a nod to labor and unions. Woody was a machinist, manufacturing messages in song – in song because song is what people (as in The People) hear and respond to and remember. And song is poetry. Poetry stirs pathos, and it’s pathos that gets politicians elected, pathos that goes to war, pathos that sacrifices, pathos that bangs the drum slowly and paddles the boat and joins the march and walks down the line.

How do the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” sound? What forms are employed? What characteristics of poetry are in evidence? Are the poems difficult to understand (i.e. modern or postmodern and such)? Are the poems all polemical?

Some of the poems might be considered polemical. From Michael Rosen’s “For Jeremy Corbyn”:

“celebrating an economic system
that was developed and finessed
with the use of child labour around 1810
…they tell us that socialism is outdated.”

Some of the poems sound traditional, employing stanzas with rhyme, as in Michael Schmidt’s “Until I Built the Wall,” a kind of ballad narrative:

“Until I built the wall they did not find me
Sweet anarchy! tending quietly
To wild birds or picking the blackberry.”

Some of the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are clear and concise, but with irony spreading like tattoos, as in Helen Ivory’s “Doll Hospital at the Top of the Hill”:

“Take her to the doll hospital;
restring the limbs with slipknots
fill the skull with lint
clean out the craze lines on her face
and paint on a 1940s smile.”

Some of the poems are painfully forthright. Reminding me of the ruined hopes of George McGovern’s 1972 US Presidential campaign, is Andy Jackson’s “Unelectable”:

“I represent the things you want but cannot say,
the ideology of why the hell not; socialism redux,
neither new nor old, not clean or compromised
but human to its heart, and that could be enough.”

Of course, in 1972, the human heart was not enough. Will it ever be enough? A heart needs a voice, as illustrated in Nicholas Murray’s “J. C.”:

“Corbyn’s no knight in shining vest,
or bright Messiah from the West
(he’d say)
but someone who has found a way to voice
a fractured country’s need for choice,
to say we’ll make another kind of noise:
No way!

That “No way!” is a call for solidarity, expanded upon in Erik Kennedy’s (long-titled) “Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators”:

“and if in your entire life
you’ve had
no-one to identify with
who wasn’t first and last
a danger to the good
through well-meaning compromise,

if you can agree to this,
resignedly but definitely,
you might be a socialist.”

The austerity buzzword is taken down by Becky Cherriman’s “Austerity”:

“Hear it scutter
along the guttering of offices
in the bins behind Waitrose,
the thorned bushes at the playground’s edge –
a language devised by the high-born
to parch the lips of those with less.”

In place of austerity, Josephine Corcoran suggests a “Coat” of hope:

“A woman filled with the gladness of living
refused to be suspicious of hope….
Deep inside the coat,
the woman held on to the goodness of people.”

And of opposing viewpoints, the kind that lead to divorce? From Erin Belieu’s “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in An Election Year”:

“And that’s what you call the realpolitik in action
when it comes to divorce, wherein the rubber hits
the ‘blended’ family’s road. But since I’m not…
…and I’m thinking
maybe I got it right this time…
…the obstinate and beautiful mystery
that every soul ends up being to every other.”

The poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are unified by their call for solidarity in support of a purposeful cause. For that call to be successful, the politics must not be subsumed by the poetics. There is tension here, no doubt. Woody’s machined message was made to defy backstabbing political machinations. At the same time, real machines made real weapons used in a real war, and a military industrial complex prevailed. But Woody knew that, even as Marcus does. “What did you learn in school today?” Tom Paxton sang.

Over at Berfrois, readers may download for free an electronic copy of “Poets for Corbyn.” There are several covers readers may choose from; I liked the one with the blue bicycle.

“Poets for Corbyn”, edited by Russell Bennetts, Pendant Publishing, London, UK, 2015. ISBN 978-09928034-5-2. V2.0. 34 pages, with poems by Tom Pickard, Michael Rosen, Pascale Petit, Ian Birchall, Michael Schmidt, Marion McCready, Nick Telfer, Rory Waterman, Helen Ivory, Iain Galbraith, Andy Jackson, Nicholas Murray, Alec Finlay, Erik Kennedy, Ian Pindar, Becky Cherriman, Josephine Corcoran, Natalie Chin, Ernest Schonfield, and Erin Belieu. Covers by Evan Johnston @evn_johnston.

Elvis and Materfamilias

Grand old Elf Neon
stage tree DRESSED
Magic Emperor Emoticon
lights Mama’s Marquee

your voluptuous folding body
hips popping, elbowed guitar
(blink blunk, blink blonk)
Bassoon to the womb stone kneels

MOTHER wants your cape
for her icebox pinup board
She has sent her leprechauns
to fetch it

Virtual Ennui
quivers vibrating
in toe whisked
spiraling vortex

What strained violin
caused Mom’s mutiny?
the viscous quality of your:

That’s alright, Momma!
that’s alright for you.
This blue moon of Shively
falls your early dew.

Vi Veri Universum Vivus Vici
the five wheeled wheelbarrow
Pop pushed out West
across the Mississippi
slid down the Panhandle
purple sage sky desert
the second see saw
Pa our Pacific mystery

Virago drinks a glass
of vinegar vitamins
we all go
energy enfeebled
a family vigilante
coming
to get you
Extremely low frequency
villainous vocal vital
static energy Vulcan
fire in
a       void.

Fire in the void!
Fire in the void!
Fire in the void!

Boom!

Elvis has left
the Building.
On the way home
Momma sings:

That’s alright, Elvis
That’s alright for you.

Hep Cats and Restless Nights of Dog Days

“Settings” – a Poem by Eleanor Rigby

“I was mislaid,”
Eleanor Rigby said,
“Amused
at my own voice.”

She sat and sat and sat,
but instead of growing tired,
wrote:
“This poem I write
is for Me only.
Signed,
Miss Understanding.”

She didn’t know
all alone poems
find a reader
sitting,
darning & clicking,
long through the night.

Eleanor Rigby
thought she was writing
only for you.

When suddenly, strings
opened up the sky,
a quartet of likes,
and an aeolian
comment
trilled and thrilled
the air.

Packsaddle Off

what is this sound sprinkling glow
yellow doilies weaving thru blue
fescue glass chandelier worm atrium
air city surf gas soup & jazz salad

sitting under dwarf apple waiting,
waiting, wanting nothing save
green this wait as Thoreau’s
Wangle Dangle backyard rhetoric

drinking can of Okanagan
Spring: “natural, simple, & pure”
pale ale & all bronze
gone Henry’s lawn

this dog’s lair
cut once a year
then go to seed
rampant & wild
tainted ear

so much depends upon so little
take this green garden wagon
for example
go on, take it, really take it
grab the handle and pull
you’ll see the wagon is full
of ripe red tomatoes
kids’ toys
bucket of finished garlic
bowl of basil & cilantro
some zinnias to dry inside

there’s no one in that pink
ceramic bird house hanging
from the golden rain
tree imagine living
there your nest
waiting for your mate
come home yr turn
go to store & supper

you call the kids
Caw! Caw!
& they call back
Not Yet! Not Yet!
Summer! Summer!

a cloud like a clown down
pillow on clean blue sheet
perhaps it will drop a load
somewhere near soon &
sweep weep sleep deep

A Fourth of a Poem

Grand Ave Beach

All around us,
the plants whisper
in dry brittle voices,
“water us, water us.”

Sotto voce,
there is no water,
and what falls is not wet
or gentle,

but drops of chthonic fireworks,
urban, rural, coastal infernos.
The plants dig and pray to Hades,
and cooler there

than here in this air.

Notes on Youssef Rakha’s “The Crocodiles”

  1. Instead of page numbers, “The Crocodiles,” a novel by the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, is marked by 405 numbered, block paragraphs, the whole symmetrically framed by references to Allen Ginsberg, the US Beat poet, to his “The Lion for Real,” signed “Paris, March, 1958.”
  1. Opening Rakha’s book, one finds a hand drawn map labeled “The Crocodiles’ Cairo,” which includes a drawing of the head of a lion, which might somewhat resemble, in caricature, the photo portrait of Youssef Rakha that appears on the inside back cover of the book, at least the seemingly ironic smile of both suggests they know something one or the other or the reader may not.
  1. Napoleon’s March to Moscow, 1812: Description. Lineal novel. Variables. How to tell the story? What happened along the way, and back? They were marching through snow, in below freezing temperatures, and you want to know the exact temperature at daily geographical interval locations? Body counts alone won’t tell the story. How to present data and information? Multivariate analysis in a single photograph. How to revision history? On the way back, there were no ramparts, just fields of snow and a sea of time. Napoleon may well have dreamed of warmer days, when he lived in Egypt, of unlocking a language, and of a code that would provide protection for all against the cold. A wise leader rules with allowances, and instead of burning books, gets everyone reading.
  1. In Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life,” Michael Hardt sets out in a rowboat in a privileged pond to argue the meaning of revolution. What does it mean to make revolution? What is the relationship between freezing temperatures, direction, and a line of march that grows thinner with each step each man takes? “Carte Figurative.” Data flow, “one ruling elite replaced with another” (Hardt), credits and discredits following, merits and demerits, kudos and kicks upside the head. Note: Hardt rows backwards – he can’t see where he’s going – at one point “…running aground, shipwrecked.” Figurative language, the hyperbole of revolution.
  1. “Carte Figurative.” Figurative language. Not to be taken literally. And don’t confuse Minard the author (cartographer) with Napoleon the character. Regression analysis becomes necessary. What is the relationship between the author and the narrator? Perhaps none, except that one sees what the other does not. Irony. “The Crocodiles” is a figurative map of multiple variables that attempts a regression analysis to explain past events and predict future probabilities. Note that Rakha is also journalist and photographer; each paragraph of the novel may be taken as a still photograph, a variable, part of a portfolio.
  1. “On the Road” with Kerouac (para. 248) and Bonaparte. My kingdom for a 1949 Pontiac Chieftain. Interactive notes: what was the cost of a 1949 Hudson new using the value of today’s poem to that of a muscle car driven by a youthful single male in 1964? Sal knew to take a southern route on his winter trip: The novel as map of a trip.
  1. Custom as costume. Napoleon as grammarian, his Code a multivariate blending of revolution, revelation, and reform. The novel as procedure that everyone can follow, the interaction of nouns with verbs. Custom as vernacular, empire as formal attire. Due process as drug.
  1. The Beatnik as attitude, beatitude. Jazz as revolution, the novel of improvisation. Notes out of context. Bonaparte’s men dropping (like) seeds (para. 256). Napoleon as lion.
  1. At times, reading “The Crocodiles” is like watching a foreign film with subtitles, because while all the common characteristics of the novel are included (plot; narration; characters – major, minor, dynamic, static, protagonist, antagonist, foil; dialog – though sparse, and blended with the prose, the paragraphs all block formatted; setting – places, times, seasons, dwellings, streets; diction that creates style; irony, satire, and sarcasm), something strange appears, and that strangeness is what the Crocodiles’ group calls poetry: “self-sufficiency…desire…intention” (para. 316).
  1. Like Minard’s “Carte Figurative” of Napoleon’s march to and from Russia (1812-1813), Rakha’s “The Crocodiles” is a figurative coming of age graphic that plots multiple comings and ages (decades, variables) packed into a single view.
  1. The juxtapositions of disparate subjects and actions (of real Lions with Visions of Lions; of Beats with Crocodiles; of poetry with prose; of people with bridges – para. 80) connote something new, new views: the flower children having dropped their petals now sticks of thorns (“just ask the nearest hippie,” Scalia).
  1. Transparency does not necessarily lead to transcendence. Neither honor nor shame stand alone as values, but they are the crossroads at which people gossip, tell stories, barter and eat and drink.
  1. Affinities, themes, motifs: the Beats, poetry, revolution, change, maturation, growth, body, sex, predicament, society, margins (paragraphing, units of composition, sentences), ambiguity, protest, independence, exploitation, reflection, writing, file, premature, people, obstacles, brain, chemicals, women, work, matrix, publishing, poverty and ignorance, position in group, generations (lost, beat, hippie, next), translation, drugs (real and imagined), neighbors, values, wants, needs, humor, music, violence, aggression, excuses, decadence, pop culture, misinformation, criticism, destruction, suicide, sacrifice, counter-culture, lion (cat), crocodile, logic, argument, howl, pain, Ginsberg (Howl and Moloch), dissolution, analysis, invasiveness, love, ambition, relationships, disdain, synchronicity, human nature, signifiers.
  1. There is something too of the noir to “The Crocodiles,” a mystery, with the narrator, “Gear Knob,” whose nickname suggests some 1950’s hard-boiled detective story character, assuming the role of the detective as corrective if not moral force. But noir is cartoon. Or “The Crocodiles” might have been a graphic novel. Instead, it is a poetic novel that breaks with genre convention and creates formal purpose and revisions value, what people want.

“The Crocodiles,” by Youssef Rakha, 2013. English translation 2014 by Robin Moger, Seven Stories Press, New York, November 2014.