Thursday, 25 October 2018

The Poet of Comrades: Walt Whitman in the 1880s

What would it mean to have a poet of socialism for our time?  I suppose there was a moment in the 1980s, with the publication of V and the ensuing controversy around the film version of it, when it felt as though Tony Harrison would occupy that position.  Yet that marvellous poem, though it does so much – rewriting Thomas Gray’s Elegy, anatomising contemporary northern working-class culture, evoking the Miners’ Strike and excoriating Thatcherism – in the end lacks a positive vision of socialism.  For all its transgressive sociological and linguistic explorations, it seems ultimately to retreat into the epiphanic time of domestic sexual love and the unthinkable, non-human perspectives of geological transformation.  Collective action is the missing term between the two.

For the early British socialist movement, however, as Kirsten Harris’s fine talk yesterday at the Working Class Movement Museum in Manchester showed, there was indeed such a poet, though he was American rather than British, and certainly never declared himself a socialist.  Whitman’s work was pervasive in the buoyant early days of the movement: published both in newspaper columns and complete editions, set to music by Edward Carpenter, read out aloud in Labour Church services, recommended in socialist reading lists.  For the ethical socialists of the north in particular, socialism needed the spiritual foundations that Whitman’s evolutionary optimism was seen to provide, though his own key political term was ‘democracy’, which could of course have a range of meanings.  A discourse of youth, health, physical vigour, manual labour and same-sex comradeship found abundant resources in Whitman’s verse, which was as exuberantly revolutionary in form and rhythm as it was in content.

That 1880s sense that socialism must forge a new culture as well as conduct its usual economic and political arguments and activism remains crucial, though the poetic optimism we need, after the political calamities of the twentieth century, will be an altogether steelier and more nuanced one than Whitman’s own.  What an adequate political poetry for our own moment might look like, what kind of Jamesonian ‘cognitive mapping’ it might be expected to do, in both form and content, is an inquiry which the William Morris Society, with the ‘Chants for Socialists’ and ‘Pilgrims of Hope’ among its own resources, should be peculiarly well-equipped to explore.


Tony Pinkney said...

For an earlier reflection on contemporary political poetry, see my 25 May 2017 post on Merryn Williams's 'Poems for Jeremy Corbyn' collection:

Kotick said...

Thanks for the report on the talk, Tony. George Bernard Shaw gives us Morris's own response to Whitman: "He demurred to the classification of Whitman as a poet on technical grounds: his stuff might have all sorts of merits, but it was not verse: anybody could write like that if they had anything to say" (Introduction to 'William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist', volume 2, p.xxxiii). May Morris had probably been pressing him to read it!