Andy Croft gave an invigorating talk with this title at the Wordsworth Study Centre in Grasmere the other day. Brandishing a copy of Red Sky at Night, the anthology of British radical verse which he edited with Adrian Mitchell in 2003, he spoke about general issues of poetry and politics, and read a selection of fine poems from the collection, of which the highlight was surely Adrian Mitchell’s own ‘Victor Hara of Chile’, about an Argentinian radical musician tortured and murdered by Fascists in the Pinochet coup.
The spectrum of radical poetry is wide and complex, and it would have required more time than Croft had in his talk to fully unravel socialist verse, Marxist verse, anti-Fascist verse, working-class verse, anarchist verse, and so on. Yet it left me uneasy that he was so dismissive of modernism in his quest for a lucidly communicative political poetry. Agreed, some modernisms can be wilfully difficult, not to mention politically suspect; but left-wing writers will surely need all those modernistic techniques of disorientation, alienation, defamiliarisation – which indeed go to an admirable political home in the work of Bertolt Brecht.
In the wake of the talk I turned up a copy of the 1970 Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, edited by Alan Bold, which takes the entire world’s left-wing poetry as its field, so that Brecht, Aragon, Mayakovsky, Hikmet, Ritsos, Neruda and even Mao Tse-Tung all feature prominently. Yet for all that, Bold’s collection, like Croft’s, features some of William Morris’s verse in its early pages (and even has a Walter Crane design for its front cover too); and I certainly feel that Morris’s ‘All for the Cause’ is still a rousing socialist poem.
In the space available here all one can do is record a few other personal favourites. I’ve always found W.H. Auden’s elegy for the left-wing Expressionist dramatist Ernst Toller deeply moving; Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Second Hymn to Lenin’ is an intense work too; and Tony Harrison’s ‘V’ is perhaps the poem of English working-class experience in our own time. Brecht’s masterpiece ‘To those who come after’ is also a long-time favourite, and not just because I’m the proud owner of a German audiobook which features Brecht himself reading it. ‘Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten’, the poem begins, times politically darker than Morris himself ever knew, certainly. But the modest consolation that ‘without me, the rulers would have sat more securely’ is perhaps one which any adequate socialist poem might in the end tentatively offer itself.