Poetry and the State, Series 3 No.15

By David Constantine, Helen Constantine

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In the Tunisian revolution, and then taken up on the streets in Cairo, one of the watchwords came from a poem by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi, Tunisia’s national poet, who lived no longer than Keats: ‘On the day a people truly desires to live/ Fate will side with them.’ Believing that, you might make it happen.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, as is commonly said, they thought poets so important, they shot them.
Brecht was on a Nazi blacklist because of his poem ‘Legend of the Dead Soldier’ which he wrote in 1918 whilst working in a hospital for soldiers from the front, patching them up, as he said, to send them back there pronto. The poem satirizes a Fatherland so desperate for more cannon-fodder it resorts to digging up the dead. 

On the other hand, the State might seek to eliminate you not because you write against it but because you don’t write for it. Bei Dao became a dissident poet during the Cultural Revolution by writing poetry that was personal or surreal (the State called it ‘bourgeois individualist’). Such writing becomes political by context. 

A totalitarian state must oppose poetry and wish it dead because poetry, by its most natural and irrepressible workings, demonstrates a freedom which the State itself does not have and cannot allow to its citizens. The relationship between poetry and the State must always be – because of the autonomy of the former and the unfreedom of the latter – at the very least uneasy. No state, however liberally organized, can embody the freedom that poetry must claim as its right. It is the freedom to be plural, various, to entertain and essay all possibilities of being human. All fundamentalisms loathe and fear poetry since they are necessarily reductive, they desire the annihilation of all possibilities except the one they have fixed on. 

Poetry is always an act against any mindset that reduces the person. That is why poets in the GDR or in Northern Ireland during the Troubles revolted against the expectation that they would use their poems for or against a certain politics. In the GDR the poets complained of ‘die aufgezwungenen Themen’ – subjects forced upon them; which is to say having to treat with the State whose requirement was reductive, reducing the poem’s options to being for or against.

In the United Kingdom now the State largely ignores poetry. The good it does is not quantifiable – which is to say no treasury-man could put a price on it – and it is unlikely to do much harm. If you versified something some rich man thought libellous or some fundamentalist thought blasphemous, you might get into trouble, but otherwise: rhyme what you like. 

In 1947 Brecht updated Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’, to suit the times. Perhaps every school in the United Kingdom should set that task in a workshop once a year. Or they could set the opening lines of Blake’s ‘Holy Thursday’: ‘Is this a holy thing to see,/ In a rich and fruitful land…?’ And ask the children: Looking around you, what are the unholiest things you see? Scan them and rhyme them. In the United Kingdom now there is a very great deal that poets might justly and savagely write against. We could do with something as in-the-face as ‘I met Murder on the way – / He had a mask like Castlereagh’. 

At the same time, the particular nature of our present State should also encourage a poetry that, whatever its subject, acts against by virtue of its very self, its autonomy, its plurality, its extensive and various sympathy, its value you can’t put a price on. Scarcely able to believe their good luck, the ideologues in office are surfing a wave of relative economic woe (we are still a rich and fruitful land) to undo what is left of the res publica and shove to the wall anything that can’t pay its way in our devalued pounds and pence. 

Poetry can’t and shouldn’t try to pay its way like that. Poetry defends itself best against a State hostile to humane letters by being itself. A chairman of a bank was on the radio the other day saying that of course he must pay his top men fairly – by which he meant pay them as unfairly as his competitors are paying theirs. You know where you are and where you stand when you hear language used like that. It reminds you why poetry and fiction are necessary. Seeing ever more clearly what they are like, these chairmen and their top men who run the show, people will turn to the arts for solace, encouragement and strengthening. The State engenders its own opposition, its citizens don’t want to live like that: in untruth and mercenariness. 

When John Clare was thirteen or so he borrowed a damaged copy of Thomson’s Seasons for a few hours. The opening lines of ‘Spring’ made his heart ‘twitter with joy’. He had to have a copy of his own. He persuaded his father, an agricultural labourer, to give him the necessary one shilling and sixpence, more than a day’s wages, and walked the five or six miles to a bookseller in Stamford, found the shop closed (he had forgotten it was Sunday), walked home and next day walked there again, first paying a friend one penny to mind the horses that he, Clare, should have been minding and another penny to keep quiet about it. He got to Stamford by 6.30 in the morning and sat on the step till the shop opened. The bookseller let him have Thomson sixpence cheaper. Walking home, unable to wait, Clare climbed over the wall into the Marquis of Exeter’s property, Burghley Park, and there, out of sight, he read.

Poetry doesn’t cost much nowadays, you could assemble a good collection from Oxfam for very little. Or read it on the web for free. That is a happy thought in the state we are in: for next to nothing you can be more fully human.

Most of what has been said in this Editorial will be found exemplified in practice in the extraordinary abundance of the contributions to this issue. And for more of the same – more of the same intrinsic resistance to any form of the State and any ideology that reduces the human being – visit our new website: www.mptmagazine.com It’s all there, all the words and energy you need to answer back.

David and Helen Constantine
February 2011

David Constantine

David Constantine

David Constantine was born in Salford in 1944. For thirty years he taught German at the Universities of Durham and Oxford. He...

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Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine read French and Latin at Oxford. She was Head of Languages at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, until 2000, when...

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Editorial comments

William Heath

26th Jul 2011

In my notes on Archilochus (pp.69-71) I inadvertently omiited to cite a source for the idea of the poet as "an icon to the democratic party at Athens"(p.71) and I would like to correct this oversight here by mentioning this source as Andrea Rotstein's The Idea of Iambos, (Oxfrod University Press, 2010), pp.311-317.


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