‘Is your mouth a little weak?’: Commitment, politics and poetry

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

The politically-engaged poem follows in the wake of the horrors of history, or as a literary tremor in the tidal pool of self thrust into a furious universe with no undue ceremony. Some cultural and economic theorists say all action and thought is political and thus all literature is political too. Can a poem change the course of political devolution? Can you save the world with a song, with performance poetry—‘Strange Fruit’, ‘We Shall Overcome’? Despite all evidence to the contrary, a poet likes to think it can be so, despite the cynicism of ‘All art is quite useless’.

We are the language animals, and if we end up distrusting words, nihilism follows close behind. Blake had none of these doubts. Here is a poem from Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

         The Chimney Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep. in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath.
And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death.
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy. & dance & sing.
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

This directness and simplicity, this eloquent concision, had, by the mid-twentieth century, turned into something like this:

The monopoly
Of the slave trade,
                           at this time Gibraltar
and the old bitch de Medicis died in miseria,
                ‘29, John Law obit
as you may read in San Moisé, in the pavement,
Grevitch, bug-house, in anagram: “Out of vast
a really sense of proportion
                                  and instantly.”
wanted me to type-write his name on a handkerchief.
In 1766 was beheaded, in the charming small town of Abbeville,
                Young Labarre, for reading Arouet de Voltaire,
where the stream runs close to houses.
                                 Ezra Pound The Cantos Thrones de los Cantares XCVl–ClX  C

Pound said that he would like a Chinese ideogram for sincerity on the title page of The Cantos. Is this the sincerity of fragmentation?—regarded as a virtue by the Imagists.

Pound’s style was not an option for a poet like Osip Mandelstam. Here is the poem about Stalin that got Mandelstam arrested and sent into exile. Privations and sickness followed, homelessness, then a transit camp, and death on December 27, 1938.

                    The Stalin Epigram

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another  meouws, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

                          [November 1933] Translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin

The Russians give the permanent lie to idea that poetry can not be intimately related to the life of the people without work descending to propagandising. As the Blake poem shows, this direct confrontation with political realities was nothing new in poetry. Shelley took on Liverpool’s government, after the Peterloo massacre in Manchester in 1819. Here is an excerpt from ‘The Masque of Anarchy’:

I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed the human heads to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

The emotion still leaps out across the years. You know this is not feigning, or something written to order. Almost any poet worth the name is capable of harnessing the Muse to the sudden immensities, splendours and awfulness of politics. A problem can arise when a reader is unaware of the events that gave birth to the poem. Edith Sitwell, confronted by the realities of the Second World War, suddenly lifts herself above the word games and indulgences to the hard biblical utterance of ‘Still Falls The Rain’ as the bombs fall on London. But if you don’t know what happened to London during the war the poem isn’t going to make much sense. Here is the beginning of the poem.

Still falls the Rain—
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.

Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to
   the hammer-beat
In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of impious feet

On the Tomb:
                    Still falls the Rain
In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and
   the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.

This poem is—perhaps—more a personal response to political events than a politically-engaged poem. It’s interesting to go back and look at anthologies to see how well the poems stand up to the slew of time. Jon Silkin’s Poetry of the Committed Individual published by Penguin in 1973 provides some interesting examples. Emanuel Litvinoff wasn’t letting T. S. Eliot off the hook back then either. Here is an excerpt from ‘To T. S. Eliot’:

I am not one accepted in your parish,
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page
in Sturmer, and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.
Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh
float with the order of the Vistula.
You had a sermon but it was not this.

Other poets in this anthology include Hill, Harrison, Holub, Brecht, Ungaretti, Hikmet and Tsvetaeva.

The problem in art comes when you start to look for ideological correctness. Life is messy, confused, and art reflects that. We sometimes compromise our ideals. If we say we don’t we are probably lying. And how would we behave in the situations the poets above found themselves confronted by? ‘The banality of evil’ is the omnipresent reference of our time, but, if you’ve ever met it face-to-face, perhaps evil wouldn’t seem banal at all.

The truth is that all, poets included, live in a state of contradictoriness and illogicality. But poets can be wise, sometimes. Lorenz Hart asks in the song ‘My Funny Valentine’—‘Is your figure less than Greek? / Is your mouth a little weak? / When you open it to speak, are you smart?’ Well, poets can have weak mouths and torsos less than Greek. If they can’t always be expected to be heroic, like Mandelstam or Celan, they try to understand the world in poetry, which is not an essay, not philosophy and should not be a tract. But sometimes they are smart, smarter than all the tracts and propaganda, all the journalism, all the surrounding sound and fury.

‘And The Winner Is . . .’, which follows in the tradition of the politically-engaged poem, can be read here.

Billie Holiday sings ‘Strange Fruit’ here. 2′ 33”