One place Poetry Review et al could look for some of the grittiest, edgiest and stylistically divergent contemporary ‘political poetry’ is the Middlesbrough-based imprint of ‘poetry that is radical, socialist, and unfashionable’ (a telling trope in itself regards the apolitical nature of the mainstream for at least two decades now), Smokestack Books. Under the energetic eagle-eye of poet Andy Croft, Smokestack continues to publish some of the most topically muscular poetry in the UK, from a wide variety of authors with a wide variety of styles and approaches, but all of whom have in common one fundamental purpose: to challenge establishments: more specifically, all human establishments, whether social, political, economic, cultural, artistic, literary – even question the need for them at all; and, to paraphrase Croft from a rousing polemical speech he made at a recent Poetry Library event, which I also took part in: to put the ‘anger’ back into contemporary poetry (an echo there, though on a diametrically opposite political level, to Eliot’s doctrine of ‘adversarial’ verse). Smokestack, in one sense, is rather like the more radically recalcitrant, raw-edged and feistier cousin of Northumberland’s Bloodaxe; but Smokestack errs more on the side of ideological candour, egalitarianism, formal musicality, and polemic, and tilts at several removes from the former imprint’s more populist tendencies. Smokestack stands for anything but complacency, and thus has been crucial in a period which up until now has been tipped too much towards it; politically, culturally, artistically, literarily. And in our growingly radicalised times – a once seemingly implacable neoliberalism having been sharply jump-started out of its moral slumber by the stark reality that capitalism has finally proven to be time-limited (as many of us argued long before the banking crisis) – in the microcosm of the poetry scene, outlets such as Smokestack – as well as Hearing Eye, Red Squirrel, Red Poets, The Penniless Press, Outsider Poets, Rack Press, Sixties Press, Waterloo Press and other progressive publishers – are never more relevant.
This fresh crop of reviews of some new (or recent) politically engaged poetry titles is not comprised entirely of Smokestacks, but also touches on collections from two other outward-looking imprints, one of which is US-based. But first, to the Smokestacks.
N.S. To W.H.
Letter to Auden by N.S. Thompson
I first encountered the poetry of N.S. Thompson when I accepted a polemical poem of his in dextrous quatrains for Emergency Verse (unsurprisingly, another political publication unnoticed by PR...); around the time of that anthology’s launch, Thompson had just published his slightly belated – though by no means out-of-time – homage to that prolific and versatile talent of mid-twentieth century dialectical poetry, W.H. Auden; in particular, to his iconic 1936 long poem Letter to Lord Byron: Thompson’s own Letter to Auden.
Thompson’s address to the late doyen of Thirties’ political verse – whose famous walnut-shell visage, in a graphic stamp relief, adorns the book’s cover – acts in a similar way to the Auden poem it takes its title from: it serves as a form of cross-correspondence in verse intended to psychically update the posthumous poet on the reliably dispiriting social, political and cultural developments during the forty-odd years since his passing in a still relatively politically civilised 1973.
This charmingly nostalgic conceit symbiotically replicates the same rime royal stanza scheme of its Byronic progenitor. Judging by the blurb referring to Thompson’s long poem being penned seventy years on from Letter to Lord Byron, it was probably written around 2006, roughly the same period that another contemporary, John O’Donoghue, published his own Auden-pastiche – also in rime royal – Letter to Lord Rochester, one of the Waterloo Press Sampler pamphlets. But whereas O’Donoghue bypassed Auden himself, bar in the implicit titular and prosodic signatures, and addressed instead the Restoration rake Rochester, Thompson’s poem, as its title suggests, returns the compliment Auden once paid to the club-foot ghost of Byron. There is no greater homage to a poet of the past than for a poet of the present to symbolically reopen communication through a shared expressive medium, especially through the same prosodic means – which in this case, as with all rhyme, also serves a mnemonic function – and Thompson is sufficiently skilled a craftsman to succeed in such an undertaking.
Those who have read Thompson’s excellent debut volume The Home Front (Festival Books, 1997) will know from the stylistic and topical range of that meticulously crafted collection, with its winning blend of beguiling imagery, warm nostalgia, formalistic discipline, subtle erudition and intelligent readability, that this is a poet eminently suited to the prospect of authentically reciprocating Auden’s Byron. Thompson does not disappoint in this, and manages to sustain his mini-epic with engagingly witty, topically polemical and enjoyably conversational touches which never seem overborne by the regimentation of form, but instead seem more buoyed and exhilarated by the challenge – the adrenalin of craftsmanship, of a poet clearly enjoying the process of his composition, comes through as each rime royal rolls into the next, and carries the reader along.
Thompson’s is a slightly masochistic wit, hair-shirted, and in that sense very English, as he muses affectionately on Auden’s somewhat contradictory nature: ‘I see there is a kind of fun/ In being flippant as you flagellate’. Then we get caustic stanzas, such as the one below in which Thompson digs at the tokenistic and – ironically given some of Auden’s own journalistic tendencies – supplemental tributes to the poet on his fairly underwhelmingly observed anniversary:
Oh, yes, your anniversary's been news
(Up to a point): pundits and critics tried
To formulate you in as many views
As have accumulated since you died.
I hope you will forgive them if they lied,
There is delight in hagiography
Despite the blots in your biography.
Contemporary polemic, particularly regards twenty-first century ‘muscularly liberal’ foreign interventionism, seeps in as if to give Auden the worst news first:
So first, you want the good news or the bad?
There's global warming, climate havoc, war
From Dafur to the suburbs of Baghdad
Inevitably, Thompson decides to break the news of the sudden fall of the Soviet Union to Auden who, along with Oxford peers such as Stephen Spender, in the Thirties, flirted with communist ethics (and also volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, Auden, rather implausibly, as an ambulance driver); and there’s a sharp reprimand for the opportunistic western powers’ capitalisation of such seismic events:
Yes, with the Eastern Bloc as driving force
In '89 came Communism's end,
(The Soviets reluctantly, of course)
But Velvet Revolutions set the trend
And party leaders reaped the dividend.
Thompson then comments on the subsequent emergence of Russian-style mock-democracy, or ‘demockracy’ as one might call it, in a manner which seems chillingly relevant to current times of Arab Springs shaming British Autumns:
A president who seldom delegates,
Would never put dissenters down a mine,
But manages to make them all incline
In his direction, calling 'democratic'
What unambiguously is autocratic.
Metaphor is employed robustly in relation to the Chinese economic boom and its new brand of McCommunism:
The Dragon may be green
With dollars, but there's little landscape seen:
In Northern Provinces, it's touch and go
Where coal dust carpets Shanxi's Gerzhuotou.
True that many topical aspects to the content of Thompson’s poetry letter will no doubt make depressing reading for the spirit-Auden, but at least last century’s most iconic (though mostly expatriate) British ‘state poet’ can rest assured that his poetic legacy is still being celebrated in such respectful, politically astute and craftsmanly hands as N.S. Thompson’s. Perhaps one day a future poet will return the compliment with an equally engrossing Letter to N.S. Thompson?
A Rose Louped Oot - Poetry and Song Celebrating the UCS Work-in
edited and introduced by David Betteridge
Never a press to court commercial dictates of the verse markets (such as they are), Smokestack’s list is occasionally punctuated by themed anthologies, and 2011 brings us the quite specific though far-reaching A Rose Loupt Out – Poetry and Song Celebrating the UCS Work-In (edited by David Betteridge), which commemorates a compelling political incident unsurprisingly inspiring a welter of timely verse in response. In the early 1970s (so during the Ted Heath Tory government) as the Glasgow and Clydebank shipyards faced closure under the then-Tory government – headed by Ted Heath – who refused to invest in ‘lame-duck’ industries, a group of communist shop stewards led by the spirited Jimmy Reid organised a ‘working occupation of the yards’ – and that is quite a distinctive thing when one thinks on it: not a sit-in but a work-in. This industrial action soon went national, and resulted in 80,000 people marching to Glasgow Green in support, as well as some benefit concerts and even a £1,000 donation from John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The poem and song commemorations – a mix of those composed during the work-in and later – of this dispute comprise naturally mainly Scottish writers, including Alistair Findlay, Jackie Kay, Edwin Morgan, and Betteridge himself, alongside scores of others of notable contribution. Many of the pieces included are protest songs and spirited ones at that; unequivocally this is a socialist anthology, and in some cases, communist in a little known but distinctly English sense (think the Diggers of the 1650s, the International Brigade conscripts of the 1930s Spanish Civil War, the Militant Tendency of the 1980s, for some markers of this lineage).
The anthology is beautifully illustrated throughout with drawings, satirical cartoons, woodcuttings, photographs and even song-sheet presentations; it also contains some fascinating commentaries and an extensive and blisteringly erudite Introduction and Notes on Contributors by Betteridge, which provide an exhaustive and intriguing contextualisation to the dispute and its subsequently inspired ‘movement’ in protest verse. Betteridge clearly knows his British socialist literary history, as indicated, for instance, by a passage citing the strike of the stone-masons known as the ‘Obstinate Refusers’ in William Morris’s News from Nowhere. An exhaustive and tantalising reading list of various left-wing polemical titles is included within his comprehensive Introduction, which makes for an impressive read. There is also a fascinating elucidation of the title of the book, which comes from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’:
There, in a passage about the General Strike of 1926, the poet (or his persona in a ditch) describes seeing a symbolic rose ‘come loupin’ oot’ …
Clearly this project has been a true labour of love for Betteridge. As it has indeed for many of its contributors: an equally informative and passionate ‘Notes on Songs and Songmakers’ by Ewan McVicar shows equally heartfelt erudition:
New songs of the Folk Song movement were set in the shipyards. And early entrant, in the late 1930s, was Ewan MacColl’s rewrite of a Peninsular War ballad of fallen Scots soldier ‘Jamie Foyers’, in which Foyers lays down his tools and goes from ‘the shipyard that stands on the Clyde’ to fight and die in the Spanish Civil War.
Ewan MacColl was also of course the key collaborator in the now iconic BBC Radio Ballads series of voice-and-song collages that were produced by Charles Parker and scored by Peggy Seeger; a series of these unique ‘radio ballads’ were broadcast and released on record between 1957 and 1964; fortunately my local library stocks them all and I’ve listened to most of them before and they are a truly distinct and inspiring set of socio-political audio documents.
It’s difficult to single out any contributions as more significant than others in what is an initiative and publication intrinsically cultivated from an un-egoistic literary egalitarianism, but some of the pieces which caught my eye on first reading include Scots Makar Edwin Morgan’s ‘V’ from his Glasgow Sonnets, Alistair Findlay’s ‘The Industrial Relations Act, 1971 (Repealed 1974)’ and ‘Clyde-built: the UCS’ which proffers this revelatory internecine description of a certain notorious charlatan-militant of Eighties’ Liverpool:
This Goldsmith College Rastafarian smart-arse
Starts giving out how Reid etcetera have sold out
The working-class, the Revolution, and thus
A furious disputation arose. Next time I saw him,
He was leader of Liverpool Council, Derek Hatton.
Chrys Salt’s witty ‘He Wouldn’t Want an Elegy’, includes:
and as for poetry
he’d want it plain
he’d want it plan and simple
and as outspoken as the rain
he wouldn’t want it dressed up
in a party frock of words
with lots of frilly metaphors
he’d want it to be heard
(one for all those obscurantists out there…?); Brian Whittingham’s ‘The Titan Crane’ is one of the more haunting and descriptive poems, as this excerpt testifies:
Outside they wander round the jib-deck
looking at the remnants of the end of the slipways
still poking their toes into the Clyde
where the great liners each made
an introductory bow to Snodgrass field.
the wives see a barren panorama
of rubble and nothingness.
The brothers see ghosts of sprouting hulls
traversed by workers like boiler-suited aunts,
and they hear a shrill horn piercing the air
and the clatter of thousands of steel-capped boots
worn by spectres stampeding towards the gates.
Evocative stuff. George McEwan’s ‘Ballad for Upper Clyde’ is a highly skilful ballad composed in a Glaswegian patois reminiscent of Hugh MaDiarmid’s Scots-inflected verse:
Ach Peggy lass, ach Peggy, pit mah workin boots away
An’ don’t lay oot mah biler suit for ah’ll no’ work the day.
The hammers they are silent, the welds are getting caul’
An’ ower aw the shipyards ye can hear the silence fall.
Nae mair the mighty ships o’ steel will sail out faur an’ wide.
They’ve sent the Liquidator in tae murder Upper Clyde.
Appropriately I’ll end on an excerpt from editor David Betteridge’s figuratively lingering poem ‘Jaggily’:
Friend, your brambles thorns are sharp
As sharp. Whoever thinks to pick the fruit –
Your drawing makes the point –
Will run the risk of hurt.
As well as thorns, and leaves,
Your penwork’s densities of black on white
Convey the thickened stems of older growth
In stark, dark contrast to the new.
Stiff now, and hard to push aside,
They give the tendrils of fresh green
A palisade of strength,
And skyward pathways to pursue.
Not only is A Rose Louped Oot a hugely varied and enjoyable book of poetry, but it is also one of invaluable historical importance in the cause of working-class culture and literature and so another real feather in the cap for Smokestack.
Alan Morrison © 2011
Alan Morrison on
A Stack of Smokestacks [part one]
Letter to Auden by N.S. Thompson;
A Rose Louped Oot - Poetry and Song
Celebrating the UCS Work-in
edited and introduced by David Betteridge