Alan Morrison on
Letters to Randall Swingler
(Shoestring Press, 2017)
Last of the Gentlemen-Rankers
No one has done more than Andy Croft to salvage the long-neglected reputation of Communist poet, playwright, critic and librettist Randall Swingler (1909-67). Judging by the poem quoted at the beginning of this volume, it isn’t difficult to see why Croft has felt compelled to dedicate so much time and energy over years to excavating the literary legacy of Swingler. ‘The Cave Artist’s Prayer’ immediately snatches one’s attention in its lyrical assuredness and mesmerising depiction of primal superstition:
Keep mine enemy before mine eyes
That I may know my fear!
Map me his image on the ice-driven skies
Of winter waiting; in whatever guise
He may appear,
Aurochs or tufted bison or bellowing deer,
Keep me mine enemy beneath my hand!
Having him ever near
May tighter twist the double strand
Of mind and nature, somehow to expand
This ritual sphere
Where worship is but to kill, love only to devour.
But there was so much more to Randall Swingler than poems: his was a hugely eventful, artistically productive and deeply political life during which he was always a protagonist every bit as much as a witness and thinker, and in such respects draws comparisons with the likes of Jack Lindsay, Robert Graves and George Orwell. In a compendious Introduction, Croft packs in a biography of Swingler in three pages of sharp, economical prose.
Croft judiciously omits details of his subject’s auspicious family background and this is fair enough since Swingler was someone who challenged himself on his own terms and in a sense sabotaged the trajectory of his propitious origins. Suffice it to say his uncle and namesake Randall Davidson was Archbishop of Canterbury (1903-28) and cousin of Sir Walter Scott, and Swingler was educated at top public school, Winchester College, and then New College, Oxford.
But Swingler was an empirical Communist and set himself targets more befitting a proletarian, mentally throwing off his social advantages. This was most explicit in his gesture to refuse a commission and enter the army in the Second World War as a common private –one of Kipling’s ‘Gentlemen-Rankers’– just as Ralph Vaughan Williams had done at the outbreak of the First. No doubt in spite of himself, Swingler rose to the rank of Corporal, and distinguished himself in the Italian campaign, receiving the Military Medal for bravery.
The obscurity into which Swingler’s posthumous reputation has been thrown is all the more perplexing given his prolific contribution to the arts and letters of his times. Some of his verses were set to music by prominent composers; he wrote several plays for the Unity Theatre, including the Mass Declamation Spain; he was founder of radical imprint Fore Publications; one-time editor of New Left Review where he helped edit Nancy Cunard’s famous Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War; collaborated with composer Alan Bush on a song-cycle in honour of the 1934 Hunger March; edited, again with Bush, The Left Song Book (Left Book Club); co-wrote with W.H. Auden the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s Ballad of Heroes, marking the return of the International Brigades to London; re-launched eminent magazine Poetry and the People as Our Time; had poems performed by film star Paul Robeson in the Albert Hall; was literary editor of the Daily Worker; and published three collections of poetry, Difficult Morning (1933), The Years of Anger (1946) and The God in the Cave (1950)… amongst many other things.
But why is the striking name of Randall Swingler not better remembered? Posterity has been generous –and deservedly so– to the memories and poetries of Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, and to a slightly lesser degree Oxford-graduates Drummond Allison and Sidney Keyes –all poet-fatalities of the Second World War. Yet why has it not extended the same to one of that war’s poet-survivors? There is an unmistakable mystique that surrounds poets who die prematurely in their primes, the tantalisation of cheated future achievements, a hagiographical reverence, a mythologizing element –whereas survival and endurance gather dust and a sense of staleness. Some reputations are revived after the perverse reenergising of a body of writing triggered by a writer’s death: a renewed curiosity value towards the ‘limited edition’ of death’s imprint, akin to the antique dealer’s excitement at the extinct makers’ mark and signs of age and ‘distress’ on the object under inspection for authentication.
However, no such cultural disinterring of Swingler was forthcoming, that is, until Croft took it upon himself to do the digging. And Croft has no doubts about the importance of Swingler’s poetry: ‘His collections The Years of Anger (1946) and The God in the Cave (1950) contain arguably some of the greatest poems of the Italian campaign’. He makes no bones about the probable reasons for Swingler’s obscured legacy: his explicit Communism:
After the War, Swingler was blacklisted by the BBC. Orwell attacked him in Polemic and included him in the list of names he offered the security services in 1949. Stephen Spender vilified him in The God that Failed.
Swingler’s work was central to his times, and his life and writings should be central to any history of the period that is not disfigured by either carelessness or dishonesty.
When, a few years ago, MI5 released some of their (heavily redacted) files on Swingler I realised that I was not, after all, the only person interested in his life and writings.
So it seems that Swingler was the victim of Establishment blacklisting, alongside his one-time collaborator, Communist composer Alan Bush. That he was seemingly singled out among his Oxford poet-contemporaries W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis for a more damaging length of time by the State must be to do with a more emphatic and enduring commitment to Communism as opposed to the briefer flirtations of the aforementioned poets. (This might also explain in part the similarly obscured legacies of Communist poets Edgell Rickword (survivor of the First World War, later a friend of Swingler’s), Jack Lindsay, Christopher Caudwell and John Cornford –the latter two fatalities of the Spanish Civil War).
But now to move on from the biography to the hagiographical sequence of IV verse letters addressed directly to the ghost of Swingler, composed, of course, in ottava rima, the A/B/A/B/A/B/C/C rhyme scheme employed by W.H. Auden in his famous ‘Letter to Lord Byron’.
Croft starts in self-deprecating tone when marking out the reasons he identifies so closely with Swingler –he too is a poet and Communist, and, at the time of writing his ‘Letter I’ in the 1999 of New Labour’s ‘Third Way’ heyday, he might well have felt then that his politics –if not, too, his increasingly specialised medium for expressing them– had become pretty much obsolete:
Your disappointed English commonweal
Remaindered like your books upon my shelf,
The only place it can be really said
We co-exist – because we’re never read.
There’s more poetic self-deprecation in Letter II: ‘I’m used to corresponding with the dead/ Since most of what I write remains unread’.
The contemporary perception that poetry (‘spoken word’ not included) has become pretty much irrelevant to 21st century culture and is in some senses an obsolete art form (debatably supplanted by the popular lyric since the mid-Sixties) and at best niche is touched on in the following stanza in which Croft examines the up-and-down posthumous reputations of Swingler’s poet-peers:
These days Old Grigson’s bite has lost its savour,
And Eliot’s reputation’s been revised,
And Cecil’s down but Louis’s back in favour,
And Laurie Lee has now been televised,
While Wystan’s now regarded as a raver,
And bloody Orwell has been canonised.
Though critics’ blessings come and go the news is
Somehow still bad for those blessed by the Muses.
Croft’s candour in feeling his own work neglected during his lifetime just as Swingler’s is neglected posthumously gives this work a self-deprecating tone that paradoxically stands out amidst the solipsistic ‘personality cults’ of much contemporary poetry. Apart from an excoriating wit, there is nothing of the irony-posturing of postmodernist poetics about Croft.
Croft is one of the few outspoken critics of the contemporary poetry scene and pulls no punches in his updates for Swingler:
The poetry scene, you’ll find’s full of surprises
It’s popular (or so they like to claim),
And London’s now awash with bloody prizes,
And poets these days have to make their name
In sassy, smart, ironical disguises
(And yet somehow so many sound the same).
Accountants celebrate the verse revival
While publishers still struggle for survival.
This is a poem-polemic not only on the hopeless political state of the world but also on a postmodernist poetry mainstream’s impotent response to it. This is a period when most high profile poets aren’t so much ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Shelley) as a species of ‘shopkeepers’ (Napoleon).
And from ‘Letter II’, dated 2002:
If you’ve got nought to say, it’s not important,
As long as you can stand up or deejay it,
The lifelessness of poetry’s a portent,
It isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it;
So bold new books from Picador and Faber
Hold up a gorgeous mirror to New Labour.
In ‘Letter III’, dated 2008, Croft takes issue with armchair satire for inadvertently sanitising us –‘Thus comedy’s employed to render affable/ A politics that isn’t really laughable’– to such terrible realities as
The secret torture camps which they pretend
To justify with all the usual garble
About defending Freedom, will not end
Until, as Khrushchov put it, shrimps can whistle...
And thus: ‘You see we’ve learned to live our daily lives/ As though these daily slaughters don’t deplete us’. This sense of cultural desensitisation is picked up on again later in ‘Letter III’:
You’d really think by now we would have learned.
This global warming’s caught us on the hop,
Of course the poor have got their fingers burned,
But no-one cares, as long as we can shop...
In prosodic terms, Croft once more, in this volume, asserts his mastery of rhyme and iambic pentameter, and, combined with Northern-accented phonetic rhymes (some ingenious: ‘alas is/ classes’, ‘says/ maze’, ‘affable/ laughable’ etc.) and an occasional preoccupation with Latin and the Classics, draws obvious comparisons with Tony Harrison; though its pedigree, of course, is Audenesque. Much of the symbolism in this work is drawn from Greek mythology. Croft personifies Forties Fascism as a ‘minotaur’, which is certainly apt in the cases of occupied Greece and Francoist Spain in particular; and he juxtaposes Swingler, a khaki slayer of many fascists, with Theseus:
But having killed the monster you returned
Beneath the blackened, perjured sails of peace
To find that what you hoped the world had learned
Had been already sacrificed in Greece,...
Croft then depicts Swingler’s metaphorical tomb as being guarded by ‘painted minotaurs’, which also echoes the painted ‘Aurochs’ and ‘tufted bison’ of ‘The Cave Artist’s Prayer’ excerpted at the front of this book. Later, in ‘Letter II’, Croft’s Swingler is transmogrified from Theseus into Odysseus:
And then the wandering years of guilt and shame –
The Scylla and Charybdis of despair,
You heard the tempting Siren-song of fame,
And drank with Lotus-eaters in the bar,
A beggar in disguise who hid the name
Of anger underneath the rags of war;
If this was peace, you saw no reason why
You shouldn’t drink the wine-dark ocean dry.
The trope ‘The xenophobic dogs with many heads,/ The stone-faced gods of poverty and cold’ of course references Cerberus, while the juxtaposition of ‘dogs’ and ‘gods’, anagrams of one another, resonates. Later, in ‘Letter IV’, Croft echoes back to the imagery of cave paintings:
We crawl out of the womb toward the grave
And warm ourselves at night by hungry fires
Inside the strange and amniotic cave
Of sleep, and paint our primitive desires
Upon its walls;...
For Croft the task of exhuming the works of Swingler has indeed been a kind of poetic archaeology, and this labour of love is depicted as such again towards the end of ‘Letter IV’, dated 2016:
I’m older now than you were when you died –
Which is a somewhat bleak and chilling notion.
I was still in my thirties when I tried
To excavate your tomb.
Croft’s tendency towards verbally playful humour (e.g. ‘I only want to rearrange your ashes/ And talk to you before this lap-to…’ [-p crashes]), even punning, and contemporary and sometimes casual dialect has a softening effect on aspects of austereness and didacticism in his verses. This makes his more plaintive and ‘poetic’ moments particularly affecting –as does the ballast of the ottava rima structure:
The empty bottles and the failing heart,
This lock of long-dead hair from Geraldine,
The sense of failure you made into art...
And in the following tropes from ‘Letter IV’, dated 2016:
…The sleeping earth awakes
Beneath the sky’s restrained and muffled violence.
The dumbstruck world is suffering in silence.
So long as some sharp-suited Maecenas
Had barrowfuls of prizes to dish out.
But now the sand is slipping through the glass
For those who line the songbird’s gilded cage
With celebrations of an empty page.
But now the sand is slipping through the glass
For those who line the songbird’s gilded cage
With celebrations of an empty page.
There are many powerful couplets throughout, some of them forming accomplished aphorisms –here are some of my favourites:
And reason’s overthrown and human hopes
Rest now in shopping, prayers and horoscopes.
[And Post-diluvian economic laws]
Post-date the cheques for things we thought we owned –
And yes, the revolution’s been postponed.
The book-trade’s like the Army, more or less,
And they don’t want Lance-Corporals in the mess.
And how we cannot find the labyrinth’s gate
Unless we face the monsters we create.
The never-finished manuscript that says
That death’s the only exit from this maze.
Each morning brings more news of life’s defeats
Sewn-up in smutty-fingered winding-sheets.
They’ll need to find some tortures more discerning,
Because, you see, this lady’s not for burning.
And reproduce themselves till they surpass
The beauty of Narcissus in the glass.
It’s not my job to air-brush out your flaws
And anyway, your life’s no longer yours.
But if you hate your Life you’ll have to lump it;
We’ll talk about it at the final trumpet.
There’s intertextuality to Croft’s ruminations on the critical anticlimax to his biography of the poet, Comrade Heart: A Life of Randall Swingler (2003) –this from ‘Letter III’, dated 2008:
In short, our sales could not have been more sickly
If we’d been published first in Volapuk.
(I’m sorry if this sounds unduly prickly,
But worse than any critic’s casual violence
Is when a book’s received in chilling silence.)
And on the painstaking quest to find a publisher for it after countless rejections of the manuscript by the big imprints:
‘We don’t do minor poets,’ they explain,
If you’re neglected, you’re a minor figure,
So minor poets like you should not complain
If you’re forgot while ‘major’ poets get bigger.
You ought to see the door-stop lives that strain
Our book-shelves with their documentary rigour,...
And Croft closes the stanza on a hilarious quip:
Of those who, when alive were barely read,
Have somehow put on weight now they are dead.
That last line is echoed later in ‘Letter II’: ‘You see the poetry scene’s already heaving/ With writers who it seems are scarcely breathing’. Fortunately for all of us the book was eventually published by Manchester University Press. There is something truly surreal about verse missives lamenting publisher indifference to the biography of their deceased addressee, and certainly brings a fresh take to the spiritualist notion of ‘cross correspondence’.
I hope your death is going pretty well,
That you are thriving on the other side;
Are you knee-deep in fields of asphodel?
And have you written much since you last died?
The insertion of ‘last’ before ‘died’, presumably to keep up the pentameter, adds an amusing angle to the question asked and to Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. According to much spiritualist literature, specifically that which describes the afterlife –from a spirit communicating through a medium-amanuensis– deceased artists, musicians and writers do indeed continue to produce work or what might be called posthumous canons. Croft can’t resist milking some rhyming humour out of such a prospect in a stanza that’s almost like Sartre’s Hui Clos (No Exit) presented as metaphysical Music Hall:
Does Death contain a long-dead-poets’ corner?
Do writers have to hang out when they’re dead?
Is Hell like being locked inside a sauna
With all the writers whom you’ve never read?
Eternity must be a bloody yawner
And Death acquire a special kind of dread
If you’re obliged to share eternal splendour
Cooped up with Eric Blair and Stephen Spender.
Croft is unfailingly frank about his thwarted networkin:
I really thought the buggers would have bitten
At least the wild Fitzrovian drinking scenes,
If not the stuff you wrote with Auden/Britten,
Those war-time CEMA tours of Geraldine’s,
Your opera for the Festival of Britain,
The witchunt at the Beeb, your magazines –
Although I’m not surprised, it makes me furious
To know our literary culture’s so incurious.
The Croft-edited Selected Poems of Randall Swingler published in 2001 fared significantly better in critical terms, though not in the mind of Croft, who is unduly self-flagellating:
To date, you see, you’ve had just seven reviews,
Too few when you consider how much strife
Your life has caused us both. Though most enthused,
They said I should have used a sharper knife
When quoting from your verse. I stand accused
Of being too long-winded in your life
As well as mine! If only I’d condensed it –
That’s bollocks. We were always up against it.
One of those ‘seven reviews’ was part of a substantial feature in the London Review of Books by the late Arnold Rattenbury, a distinguished poet and critic and one-time acquaintance of Swingler’s through his work on the Communist arts monthly Our Time.
Croft criticises the disproportionately thick girths of some literary post-mortems compared to the relative slenderness of their subjects’ output and uneventfulness of their lives (at least, compared to those of Swingler, prolific in both respects):
These bloody great breeze-block biographies
Are massive as the lives they hold are slender,
Three portly Cyril Connolly’s a scandal
When there’s no room for even one slim Randall.
The rule is certain weightless poets survive
While others sink as though they’re set in lead;
After a stanza telling Swingler of the U.F.O. religion of Raëlism which teaches that humanity is a genetic experiment by ancient aliens and aims to create the first human clones, Croft then draws the following comparison:
Biography’s like cloning, you might say,
No doubt I’ve given you some bits of me,
Perhaps I’ve made too much of your dismay,
Perhaps I’ve overdone the late ennui,
Or else perhaps it works the other way
(Where else should I learn words like peccavi?)
This stanza closes on another self-deprecating couplet: ‘It’s difficult sometimes to see the line/ That separates your failures from mine’. And, again later, in ‘Letter III’:
A bulging file of intercepted post,
Remaindered like a book that no-one’s read;
The patterns of defeat we learn by heart,
Then practice, first in living, then in art.
Croft takes a covert pot shot at Swingler’s enduringly lionised contemporary, Eric Blair aka George Orwell (a parody of whom was the ghostly protagonist of Croft’s satirical long poem 1948):
You should have gone to China or to Spain,
Been photographed in Berlin, young and tanned,
Or clenched your fists in Hyde Park in the rain,
Sung Russian songs you didn’t understand
Then ripped your Party card up to complain
When History turned out not the way you planned,
To make your fortune as a renegade
Because your Revolution was betrayed.
Sometimes it seems as if allusions to Orwell are coincidental or even unconscious: ‘If you can’t write, please use the old planchette/ To let me know what’s new inside the whale’, a reference to the biblical Jonah, could also be one to Orwell’s 1940 collection of essays and criticism, Inside the Whale.
Croft ingeniously juxtaposes Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’ with the equally dubious ‘dossier’ of notable writers and cultural figures deemed ‘unsuitable’ for anti-Communist propaganda compiled by his part-namesake Eric Blair (Orwell) for the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, in 1949. In ‘Letter III’, dated 2008, Croft’s polemic on neoliberal ‘muscular interventionism’ is as muscular to match its target, and engorged with Greek mythological imagery:
Like sleepless Argus with his peacock-eyes,
Or Cerberus, the watch-dog of the Dead,
This hundred-headed Hydra never dies;
Try cutting off a head and in its stead
More poisonous heads sprout forth, like bigger lies,
And so the monstrous tongues of falsehood spread,
What Bakhtin might have called a pseudo-glossia,
Until they constitute – a dodgy dossier.
The rhyming of ‘pseudo-glossia’ with ‘dossier’ is ingenious. The succeeding stanza is continues the onslaught:
Dishonesty is now its own discourse.
By ‘pain-acquired intelligence’ they mean
Confessions under torture, which of course
Then justifies their right to ‘intervene’
With what the White House calls ‘the greatest force
For liberty the world has ever seen’.
It’s hard to say if this mendacious burble’s
More suited to Pinocchio or Goebbels.
Croft then speculates on how these new governmental powers might be strategically abused in the near-future:
No doubt the State will find that these new powers
(Six weeks’ detention without being charged)
Will come in handy fighting girls in burkas
Or striking low-paid public sector workers.
The Romans knew how well this trick succeeds.
The prospect of barbarians at the gate
Convinces the res publica it needs
The sly protection of the wolfish State,...
Croft also reminds us that even before the toxic ‘Coalition’ of austerity and its raft of punishing welfare ‘reforms’ and associated poisonous rhetoric against the unemployed, the fag-end of New Labour’s reign under ‘Tumbledown’ Brown was already sowing the seeds that the Tories would reap to a pathological excess for eight years and counting:
These days it seems our government’s at war
With those whose cause it used to once profess,
Re-branded as the undeserving poor,
A drain upon the hard-pressed NHS;...
Little did Croft know back in 2008 just how much more entrenched the new Eton generation of MPs would become only two years later:
In such an age of salivating snobbery,
Democracy now wears an Eton boater
And Freedom’s code for economic robbery.
The delicacies offered to the voter
Are either bare-arsed sleaze or bare-faced jobbery.
Equality’s a dream that gets remoter.
When talking of the have-nots and the haves
The working-class is now known as the Chavs.
It has to be one of the symptoms most indicative of New Labour’s abject failure to rid our society of social prejudices that during their time in office the revolting acronym ‘Chav’ came into common use, not only amongst the chattering metropolitan classes –even Guardianistas– but also amongst those sections of the working class that used the term too towards what might be termed the ‘non-working class’. Croft commendably has short shrift for such stigmatising:
That’s ‘Council House and Violent’ in the slang
Of columnists who earn a lot of dosh
By writing Jeremiads which harangue
All those they think require a decent wash,
Especially if they’re in a feral gang...
This struggle at the international level
Is best expressed where Chav becomes Chavista,
A movement of the poor that’s put the revel
In revolución popularista...
Swingler himself did not end up on the official version of this notorious list, however, his name had been recorded at a preliminary stage, among several others, in Orwell’s notebook. This from ‘Letter III’, dated 2008:
We now know Eric Blair was naming names,
Providing lists of Reds (including you),
An act that every would-be Squealer claims
Was justified because the lists were true...
It seems far from being a ‘minor poet’ of small consequence Swingler was during his lifetime perceived as sufficiently significant a cultural figure as to warrant monitoring by the State:
The Public Record Office down in Kew
Is opening up old files from MI5,
Including those they kept on Reds like you.
Although it seems not all your files survive,
They watched you like a monkey in a zoo
Croft still manages to milk the larky out of the State’s dark arts: ‘I half expect to find some British Stasi/ Reporting on your movements in the Khazi’. Croft can be brilliantly sardonic:
Although your pre-War files were so hush-hush
That somebody ensured they were ‘destroyed’,
The reason they developed such a crush
On you is that your betters were annoyed
Because you wrote that song with Alan Bush
About the hunger of the unemployed...
And in the succeeding stanza:
There’s several hundred entries in your file,
(Including some so secret they’re still blank).
It’s one part Keystone Cops, one part The Trial:
There’s stolen letters, statements from your bank,
The contents of your suitcases, your style
Of dress (‘unkempt’!), the pubs in which you drank,
Verbatim transcripts of your private calls,
The friends you met, the pictures on your walls.
It seems Swingler’s overseas service during the Second World War frustrated the British State as it tried to keep track of his whereabouts: ‘By Autumn ’43, they were complaining/ That they’d lost track of you, demanding bitterly/ To know what were you up to out in Italy’. The irony of such counterproductive espionage speaks for itself –but Croft scoops it up into another killer-couplet: ‘While your lot opened up the road to Rome/ They opened up new files on you back home’.
Then the ringing ingratitude and betrayal of Swingler once demobbed back home:
In post-war London (as I’m sure you guessed)
They exercised their influence to ensure
You lost that staff-job at the BBC.
Such were the costs of keeping Britain free.
When Croft’s biography of Swingler finally surfaces it’s cause for a double celebration:
I’m sure you will be gratified to know
Our book came out in time for the centenary
Of bloody Eric Bair (see more below).
His monumental Lives obscured the scenery
So thoroughly that nothing else could grow.
Like one who takes possession of a deanery
He brought with him the sanctimonious air
Precisely suited to the Age of Blair.
Coincidence of the same surname apart, the Eric-Tony ‘Blair’ juxtapositions are uncannily appropriate at times:
…This gang preserves
Their power by spinning, lies and double-think,
Requiring us to spy on one another.
This truly is the era of Big Brother.
The irony of the distinctly un-ironic reality show Big Brother reaching its peak popularity during the New Labour years is not lost on Croft:
Perhaps in such an epoch, it’s in keeping
That people now prefer the TV version,
In which some folk are filmed while they are sleeping
(Their cloistered life approaches the Cistercian).
It’s harmless fun for those who think that peeping
Is nothing but a passable diversion
From living their own lives, but it creates
A world of Peeping Toms and Keyhole Kates.
On a matter of trivia –wholly appropriate for the ultimately trivial in TV programmes– the man who responsible for Big Brother in the UK, Peter Bazalgette, is the great-great-grandson of Victorian engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette who oversaw the construction of central London’s sewer network. Sir Joseph would undoubtedly be proud to know one of his great-great-grandchildren was responsible for the television equivalent of sewerage.
There’s sometimes a surreal element to Croft’s satirical humour:
For all I know, today’s red-top furore
Before you get to hear of it in Dis
Is wrapping chips on Proxima Centauri.
Voicing a common problem for socialism and religion, the perceived boringness of ‘goodness’, Croft writes in a hagiographical trope: ‘We’re nervous in the presence of a saint;/ Utopian dreamers simply makes us snore’. (It’s churlish to point out that the last line is one of very few in which the pentameter slips up slightly, especially since Croft has put himself so slavishly through dozens on dozens of stanzas in ottava rima).
In ‘Letter II’, dated 2002, Croft depicts a fringe Left to Jeremiahs:
The left’s now down to small, confessing sects
Who still believe we’re in the Final Days;
Their chiliastic confidence reflects
Impatience with derailments and delays,
A sympathetic reflex which protects
Their fading hopes from History’s iron gaze;
So fans of Trotsky, Lenin, Mao and Blanqui
Ride backwards into History on a donkey.
‘Letter IV’ really gets into its stride when poetically impeaching the catastrophic outcome of the EU referendum (Croft being a Communist ‘Remainer’), though not without much comic effect through use of double entendre and innuendo:
What started as a comic operetta
About the ins and outs of Out and In
Has turned into a poisonous vendetta
Which only the most venomous can win.
I cannot be the only one who’s weary
Of trying to conjugate the verb brexire.
There’s a Harrisonian tilt in Croft’s grammatical and Latinate play:
Brexeo, brexis, brexit may sound cheerful,
But seems to be derived from britimere
Which means to be both British-born and fearful,
Or else brodire – hating those who vary
From low-browed Brits, who thus deserve an earful
Of tabloid-Latin cockney-scarecrow scary –
Or else the evil liberal élite.
Bramo, bramas, bramat is obsolete.
Croft’s assault on the UKIP culprits is appositely put:
It really isn’t hard to get the hang
Of what you might call basic Ukipese:
A kind of ugly patois bar-stool slang
That’s eloquent with hate for refugees,
Resentful and self-pitying harangue
Part Mr Toad and one part Thersites,
Afraid and full of hate! Who gives a toss?
And who dare say, brerubescamus nos?
Thersites is an interesting choice of reference here: inserted by Homer into The Illiad as a figure of ridicule in spite of the character actually voicing legitimate views as to the jingoism of the Greeks’ campaign against Troy –so Thersites is a counter-rhetorical device. Croft’s own rhetoric against the resurfacing of the Far Right in the Western world of 2016 is extremely effective:
To smash the world and then complain it’s broken;
The old palingenetic virus spreads,
A plague of raw stupidity and malice
From Washington to the Élyseé Palace.
Croft focuses on the politics of hate, of xenophobia, and the Right’s scapegoating of refugees and those living on the margins of society:
Perhaps there’s other ways we should describe
This atavistic fear of those in need,
The hatred of all those outside the tribe
That looks uncommonly like common greed:...
There’s a Shelleyean tone (e.g. ‘Mask of Anarchy’) to the following stanza:
Arise ye starvelings, eat your fill of hate,
The age of cant and superstition’s here,
The half-baked promises that fill your plate
With others’ crumbs will quickly disappear;...
Croft expertly vituperates the right-wing red top press –by implication, specifically the Daily Express, possibly the nastiest of them all in its remorseless campaign to stigmatise the unemployed– for its perennial duping of its mostly working-class readers, spoon-feeding them a political soup noxious with prejudice, and hypnotising them to vote against their own class interests:
In case you think I overstate the threat,
I’m writing this from Richard Desmond’s Britain,
In which The People’s Will’s a household pet
(A cross between a Pit bull and a kitten)
That wants to do its worst, videlicet,
Let off the leash when someone must be bitten;
A dog who doesn’t know his master’s tricked him,
A bully who believes that he’s the victim.
Croft’s olfactory evocation of a resurgent extreme Right, basically, of Fascism, is particularly effective:
From Golden Dawn and Jobbik to Svoboda,
Alternative für Deutschland, all the way
To Dacre’s acres there’s a noisome odour
Of something dead, the perfume of decay
And atrophy, a repetitious coda
Of ancient music that won’t go away,...
Such ideological vicissitudes certainly contain their own black comedy, though laughter is difficult, and is mostly bitter:
From Wilders to Farage they’ve fouled the age
With ignorance and bigotry and bile,
And yet there’s something of the panto-stage
About the neo-fascist reptile smile:...
Trump is poetically impeached: ‘The Donald may be madder than a hatter/ (This man would make Caligula look sane)’ –perhaps a bit hyperbolic but the point is taken. Croft looks to France with a pun: ‘And nobody dare say if, how, or when/ The pen will prove more mighty than Le Pen’.
Croft employs the metaphor of an ancient writing method where lines alternated from right to left and then left to right to illustrate the cyclical political shifts:
And try to understand how History ploughs
Boustrophedon, from left to right, once more,
And what’s left of your anti-Fascist war.
Croft’s recapitulation of the parlous state of post-austerity capitalist society and the copout of New Labour neoliberalism –or the later ‘One Nation’ centrism of Ed Miliband’s ‘Blue’ Labour– seems to hint that Croft, a lifelong Communist, is not yet convinced of the significant leftward shift under Jeremy Corbyn, or perhaps suspects he will eventually be supplanted by another pinstripe career politician:
It’s fifty years next Summer since you copped it,
Five decades now of spiralling dismay;
What’s left of what was left has been co-opted
To manage change (and increase bankers’ pay)...
What is certainly true is that sadly a large number of Labour MPs do still harbour a return to the moribund neoliberal Labour of pre-Corbyn. But Croft’s summation of the state of our nation in 2016 –and still now in 2018– is pretty much spot on, his polemic perfectly melting the complementary societal menaces of capitalist philistinism, populism, junk culture and empty prize culture:
I’m sending this from Y2K16,
A UK of know-nothing and no taste,
A twitching, brain-dead, necrotising scene
Of greed and famine, glut and pointless waste,
In which the flags of ’45 have been
Forgot so long that they have been replaced
By gauds and baubles, trinkets, tinsel, trash,
The world’s one hope reduced to dust and ash.
Croft closes in plaintive tone, albeit punctuated with an apathetic ‘Whatever’:
On which depressing note I’ll say good day;
I’m tired of this ridiculous endeavour,
I’ve other things to do, and anyway
You’ve put up with this long enough. Whatever.
Some day the freezing snows must melt away,
And Winter’s darkness cannot last forever.
But how long till the morning that will bring
The lenitive, warm promises of Spring?
So closes this accomplished book-length poem on a faintly optimistic note. Craftsmanship is the hallmark of Croft’s work, and it has been and remains his particular poetic task to communicate a Communist aesthetic in both political and literary terms in a mostly un-listening postmodernist capitalist anti-culture (quite the most dismal and spirit-defeating combination of aesthetics imaginable bar outright plutocracy and fascism). That Croft continues in this poetic crusade in spite of all the obstacles and with a defiant albeit bitter wit is remarkable and commendable.
One of the most important aspects to Croft’s poetry and his criticism too is that he grasps as Christopher Caudwell and Alan Bold did before him that the Socialist or Communist poet must encompass in their polemical scope every aspect of capitalist society, especially their own cultural sphere, which does not exist in a vacuum and is inescapably corrupted as every other sphere by corporate forces of commodification.
What Croft attacks in Letters is basically capitalist poetry: the corporately sponsored and prize-pelted poetry of the big metropolitan imprints, an approved and sanitised literary commodity deemed to pose no threat to the Establishment but to nevertheless sometimes pretend that it does and give the impression of mainstreamed alternatives when they’re anything but. Is it really credible to believe that the literary establishment of our hyper-capitalist culture would openly endorse the alternative literature of authentic dissent?
Ever-proliferating competitions are symptoms of this continuing corporatisation of poetry; and, forged in the image of the misnomer of a ‘free market’, they are not true competitions but mere PR promotions for publishing monopolies. There’s also something incredibly cheapening about pinning prizes on books of poetry, especially when, implausibly, those titles selected come from the lists of only about six or seven pass-the-parcelling presses. A poetry collection published by one of the ‘top’ two or three imprints is a passport to a poetry prize of one sort or another, and often a multiple of them. Monopolies again.
It is also highly likely that just as Communist cultural figures as Randall Swingler were occupationally blacklisted and put under covert surveillance in their day, the same is still happening today. Indeed, judging by the seemingly inexplicable neglect of so many highly accomplished contemporary left-wing political poets –too many to list but a good many of whom are on Croft’s Smokestack list– it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suspect that to some degree there is a kind of attitudinal blacklisting at work in certain darker corners of the cultural establishment and the murkier columns of its supplements. And no political term has ever incited greater Establishment alarm than ‘Communist’; therefore, any cultural figures who openly identify themselves as Communists are more likely than most to be covertly monitored or blacklisted.
The Establishment and its associated outlets and imprints have ever wielded one supreme weapon over the outspoken poet radical: the publishers’ elliptically phrased rejection letter, which mostly attempts to justify its refusal on the basis of literary merit or ‘suitability’ as a subterfuge for political censorship. For these reasons, of course, an entire species of small to medium left-wing poetry imprints have sprung up over the past couple of decades in particular specifically to address this imbalance in representation by publishing poetry openly critical of capitalism, and Croft’s Smokestack Books is prime among them. The most recent addition is Culture Matters/Manifesto Press, which via its online webzine is doing sterling work providing a platform for active contemporary Marxist cultural analysis, polemic, criticism and debate.
Such radical cultural initiatives combined with the Corbyn momentum in the Labour movement and a newly emerging 21st century English socialism, particularly among the younger generation, may in time ripen into a climate in which the oeuvres of veteran Communist poets such as Croft will be read more widely and properly appreciated much in the way that the Thirties Auden circle was. Perhaps one day someone will compose a ‘Letter to Andy Croft’ in ottava rima? Let’s hope whoever does has more promising news for him fifty years hence.
Alan Morrison © 2018