The Penguin Book of Socialist Poetry, edited by Alan Bold
in 1970 was one of the first and most important anthologies I owned,
and I knew it very well, and held ≠ and
still hold ≠ it very dear. The mixture of solid British socialist poetry
and post-war Eastern Europeans such as Holub, Herbert, Milosz and Enzenberger,
had a huge influence on me, politically and poetically. (It also led to a
slightly obsessive search for Penguin Modern Poets collections which continues
to this day.)
There hasnít been another major Ďsurveyí anthology of British Socialist Poetry
until this one, and clearly the times have not exactly encouraged such things.
The last 30 years have seen a steady decline in the fortunes of the left,
although the heart and soul have known peaks and troughs in opposition and
power. So Adrian Mitchell and Andy Croft are to be congratulated on this
impressive achievement. As are Five Leaves Press, for their commitment to
a difficult and expensive project. (I know a number of other, bigger, presses
associated with poetry and politics passed on it as too difficult to sell.)
They have done a magnificent job.
This book, like all socialists, knows that it finds itself in a world after
the dream has gone, but remains stubbornly bent on its visions. Given that
we must keep on keeping on, it is by necessity a less hopeful book than the
Bold anthology. A 19 year old picking this up second hand, as I did that
book, might well conclude the fight was not worth it, would perhaps feel
that too much of the book remains slightly ignorant of the ways and means
and manners of 21st capital, globalisation, commodification and comfort all
thrown in. (The covers themselves give the game away: Boldís has a visionary
May Day march of thousands of workers entitled ĎThe Triumph of Socialismí, Red
Sky at Night has a haunting woodcut by Clifford Harper
of an industrial townscape, empty except for a man reading a book, and a
woman and child across the road. The change of mood could not be clearer.)
Before I talk more about the poetry anthologised here, I should confess that
the book makes me enormously proud, as Iím in it, 20 years after buying that
Penguin anthology, but also slightly sad. I come in as the book turns to
the bitter sweet ≠ or increasingly just bitter ≠ New Labour years ≠ indeed
my poem gives that section itís title ≠ Ďsuch small victoriesí. Itís a poem
of defeat in victory, of small family consolations in struggle, and one Iím
proud of, but it does embody a less than visionary socialism. Itís far from
Itís certainly not William Blake, thatís for sure, with whom the anthology
starts. Now the uptight heretic in me has sometimes thought Blake too much
of a hippie to be truly convincing ≠ all those uninhibited desires and all
that nudity would have spoilt Jerusalem for me, much as I admire many of
his poems and aphorisms. But anyone with a love of Adrian Mitchell can see
the link, and Andy Croft has written nothing but Songs of Experience for
years, so Blake is a fitting start, and to some extent the key note. Blake
combines the plaint and the vision that can be found in the rest of the book,
in varying proportions as we move from the Victorian era through to the Blairite
21st century, following the twists and turns of the road to Jerusalem.
The editors are an intriguing partnership ≠ both committed to politics and
poetry as a means of speaking directly to people, entertaining and moving
them along the way. The book reflects Croftís love for and knowledge of now
obscure poets of the left from the 30ís to the 50ís. His work excavating
Randall Swingler for literary history is reflected here, and there are thrilling
poems by Jack Lindsay and Naomi Mitchison which will be new to most readers.
Mitchellís position as one of the founding fathers of performance poetry
brings different flavours to the debate ≠ from Liz Lochhead to Mr Social
Control. The book works splendidly as a conference meeting of many, many
The poetry in this book is generally of the highest standard, with one or
two exceptions where the editors have stretched a little too far to be inclusive.
It includes work by some of the poets people will turn to for a poetic history
of the escape from the 20th Century. It is a shame, however, that in trying
to include as wide a range of poets as possible, the editors have limited
such major poets as Tony Harrison, Douglas Dunn and Sean OíBrien to a couple
of poems. Iíd have gladly given them my two pages. (Well, actually, no, I
would have been totally gutted, but you get my point!)
In what sense is this poetry socialist, some might ask. The sentiments may
or may not be ≠ there are some examples where really we seem to just be being
told the story of struggle ≠ but is the poetry in itself? Well, for the main,
yes. The best poems here question current authority and the pointless way
our society has inflicted pain on people, and continues to do through globalisation.
It seeks to reach out and speak as an act of solidarity, as an act of compassion.
It wants to be understood. (There is little experimentation in Mitchell and
Croft's version of socialist poetry.) It seeks to communicate rather than
express. It is more interested in questions than answers.
Which may be the weakness that constantly undermines the whole enterprise
of building a better society, and which might take us back to Blake again.
As a snotty young punk, I always blamed Thatcherism on the fact that when
the generation of 1968 had a choice between taking charge and getting stoned,
they chose the latter, they chose to be Blake rather than Vaclav Havel. I
hope some snotty young person finds this book and hates my poem and wants
to start a fight with a big victory in mind. La Lutta Continua, as the saying
unfortunately still goes.