Thursday 25 May 2017

Poems for Jeremy Corbyn

One of the tasks which Morris’s political commitments and writing enjoin upon us is to work out what an effective socialist poetry for our own time would look like.  Morris himself offers a range of possibilities from ‘All for the Cause’ and ‘Socialists at Play’ to the developed narrative of ‘The Pilgrims of Hope’ – none of which can be very easily taken over as direct models 130 years later.  However, Merryn Williams’s welcome collection of Poems for Jeremy Corbyn (Shoestring Press, 2016) does provide an opportunity to assess what works and what doesn’t in this field; and the current general election campaign, which is going to be a major test of Corbyn and Corbynism, is a good moment to think about this.

‘What works’ is, however, itself a notion which needs unpacking, since there are, surely, various levels of effectivity for political poetry – different genres of it which will be attempting different kinds of thing.  Thus there is a mode of what I’m inclined to term ‘political doggerel’, of energetic versifying which make its necessary political points – often satiric and comic, but sometimes tragic – in locally effective ways which have no particular aesthetic depth or merit.  Such, in this collection, are the various satires of rightwing Labour MPs or the Tory press, and, in bleaker mode, some of the poems about refugees or the suicide of a benefits claimant.  But at moments even the satiric mode can become more accomplished and expansive, as with Nicholas Murray’s ‘J.C.’

Then there are more searching modes of political poetry, also well represented in this slim volume.  How does one praise a leftwing leader without lapsing into pious hagiography?  Diane Coffey’s ‘The Socialist’ is perhaps just a tad too worthy in its salute to Corbyn,  Merryn Williams’s own ‘Poem for Jeremy Corbyn’ is in contrast more muted and indirect, and Paul Groves’s ‘At the Marquis of Granby’ effectively gives us an encounter with Corbyn which also factors thoughtfully  into itself this issue of stance towards the leader.  Or how does one situate pressing current struggles in longer historical perspectives?  Some of the poems here locate us simply, though effectively enough, in the past, as with Alan Brownjohn’s ‘A Scream in 1890’, which takes us back to the working-class experiences of Morris’s own lifetime.   Closer to our own time, Simon Curtis’s ‘In the Scillies’ is a fine reflection on the Labour politics of the Wilson government, though, as it also acknowledges, it does get a little too caught up in ‘elegaic tropes’, in what we have come to call ‘leftwing melancholy’. 

Finally, how does one express hope without ignoring the grim realities of the contemporary world situation?  Mark Haworth-Booth’s ‘The Anthropocene’ is a strong evocation of the ecological dimension of the current crisis, but so exhaustive is its grim synopsis that it perhaps evaporates rather than stimulates hope, while, on the other side of the argument as it were, the explicit evocations of hope in this collection – ‘hope of a nation lay in only one man’s fight’, ‘but really it’s all/about hope’, and so on – strike me more as willed affirmations than as convincingly embodied in the verse.  So it is clearly the case that Merryn Williams has made a most admirable gathering of Corbyn-inspired verse, which gives us much both to enjoy and to argue about.

Thursday 11 May 2017

Balder Dead at Dover

Morris didn’t think much of Matthew Arnold, as I’ve tried to show in my William Morris in Oxford (pp.122-6), but the one work of Arnold’s to which he might have warmed is the narrative poem 'Balder Dead', which deals with the Norse mythological material that meant so much to Morris himself.  ‘So on the floor lay Balder dead’, Arnold’s poem begins; for Odin’s favourite son has been pierced through the breast by a stick of mistletoe thrown by the blind God Hoder, who has been tricked into doing so by ‘Lok the Accuser’ – Balder being magically invulnerable to all conventional weapons.  Even today, Arnold’s Norse epic makes a compelling read.

But can it be used as a guide to Arnold’s poetry more generally, as a Key to All Mythologies which might produce an overall Norse, or you might even say Morrisian, reading of Arnold.  Well, perhaps; I’m encouraged in this interpretive project by the curious appearance of that ‘fallen Runic stone’ in ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’.  Could we come up with Runic readings of other major Arnold poems?

Let’s try ‘Dover Beach’, arguably Arnold’s finest poem, certainly a definitive Victorian lyric, giving eloquent expression through its seascape-meditation to the mid-century crisis of religious faith.  But may there not, in fact, be a Norse archetype behind this poem’s dignified classical allusions to Sophocles and Thucydides?  ‘Come to the window, sweet is the night air!’ says the poet; but this could just as well be the voice of Hoder speaking to Frea in ‘his mother’s house,/Fensaler, whose lit windows look to sea’, and just a few lines later Hoder will indeed be tramping ‘back along the beach to Asgard’.  The Sea of Faith gloomily withdraws, we might suggest, because Hoder has just unwittingly killed Balder, brightest of all the Gods; and the ‘darkling plain … Where ignorant armies clash by night’, with which ‘Dover Beach’ so memorably concludes, may also be an apocalyptic vision of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, which so eerily haunts ‘Balder Dead’ throughout. 

So part of the emotional depth of Arnold’s great lyric may be due to the resonances of Norse mythological material underlying its surface realism of detail.  If such a hermeneutic could be plausibly extended to other texts, then we might end up with a Matthew Arnold that even that self-declared ‘Man of the North’, William Morris, could be happy with.