What Poetry Means at a Time of Crisis
Poetry is in rude health. It seems laughable that a little over ten years ago there were articles announcing the “Death of Poetry” when poetry collections now are on bestseller lists and Rupi Kaur was declared ‘Writer of the Decade’ by The New Republic in 2019. While some may argue that IS the death of poetry, I have found some of the best poetry I’ve ever read in recent years. Sarah Howe, Danez Smith, Roger Robinson, Kae Tempest and Luke Kennard are some of my favourites at the forefront of poetry publishing today. But what is it that has given rise to this popularity of modern poetry where pundits were mournfully placing bouquets on its grave at the end of the 2000s?
Some have said it is to do with the rise of the ‘Influencer’ or ‘Social Media’ Poet that allows for bite size consumption, relatability and virality, all ingredients tailor made to produce poetry. Others have said it is a realigning of what we understand poetry even IS today. There is an argument, though, that it is the times themselves that have popularised this desire to give voice to the ineffable. An argument made nearly a century ago.
We live in, to say the least, tumultuous times. Even ignoring the global pandemic that has — at time of writing — killed an estimated 6.7m people, most nations seem to be struggling with internal conflict (both literally and figuratively) as well a global economy that is in free fall. After forty years of relative stasis things are changing whether we like it or not and in truly brutal fashion. For a lot of people and — significantly — even those in the wealthy nations of the world, society feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. It feels unreal as we have never seen such times. The last time such upheaval was so commonplace was in the last World War and there are few left now that remember those days who might be able to offer an ‘on the ground’ perspective for these kinds of crises. This is where poetry comes in.
Rather than getting a sense of historical precedence from dry, official documents and exacting statistics, works of art from the first half of the 20th century give us a window into how it felt to live through the crises and help us feel less alone. “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history” said Plato. And one of the best examples of this is the poetry of writer and broadcaster Louis MacNeice.
MacNeice was born in Ireland in 1907 but moved to England when he was ten, giving him a unique perspective on both nations (admitting he felt at home in neither country) but also the world conflict just gone and the conflicts to come. MacNeice was mainly known during his lifetime as a Producer for the BBC (an obituary in 1963 noted “He was formerly a poet”) but it is his poetry he is best remembered for today.
Unfairly lumped in as another “30s poet” along with Stephen Spender, Cecil-Day Lewis and superstar WH Auden, MacNeice was as active a writer throughout the Second World War and after it, penning his masterpiece and lasting insight into life in England just before the war in Autumn Journal, the surreal and haunting aspects of existence during the war in Plant and Phantom and Springboard and, in my opinion, some of the greatest and freshest dissections of life post-war with Visitations, Solstices and Burning Perch. MacNeice wrote at a time of massive social upheaval and consistently argued for poetry’s utility, even necessity, in everyday life.
“The poet is a specialist in something everyone practices” MacNeice observed. This statement alone clarifies his opinion on where poetry should sit: firmly in the every day. This does not mean, however, it cannot tackle weighty or global subjects given that these are also a feature of every day life for all of us. MacNeice’s magnum opus, the epic poem Autumn Journal, was written between August and December 1938 as he, like many others across the world at the time, was watching the events unfolding across Europe that were inexorably leading to war. Again. Autumn Journal strikes the difficult balance of depicting this contrast between the mundane and the extraordinary in the way only poetry can. In the opening section (or Canto) we hear of
“All the inherited worries, rheumatism and taxes,
And whether Stella will marry and what to do with Dick
And the passing of the Morning Post and of life’s climacteric
And the growth of vulgarity, cars that pass the gate lodge
And crowds undressing on the beach
And the hiking cockney lovers with thoughts directed
Neither to God nor Nation but each to each.”
These are the concerns of day to day people. Aspects of life that are important to them and directly affect their circumstances. No time for political settlements or border disputes in the not-actually-that-far-away nations of Europe. Soon enough, however, in Canto iii, “August is nearly over” and people return from their holidays “stamped with specks of sunshine”.
“Now the till and typewriter call the fingers,
The workman gathers his tools
For the eight-hour day but after that the solace
Of films or football pools
Or of the gossip or the cuddle, the moments of self-glory
Or self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt,
The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking
In the empty glass of stout.”
Swap the typewriter for a keyboard (and the fact you can’t smoke indoors now) and this sounds all too familiar. And then, sure enough, that every day collides with the crisis:
“But posters flapping on the railings tell the fluttered
World that Hitler speaks, that Hitler speaks
And we cannot take it in and we go to our daily
Jobs to the dull refrain of the caption ‘War’
Buzzing around us as from hidden insects
And we think ‘This must be wrong, it has happened before,
Just like this before, we must be dreaming
And we laugh it off and go round town in the evening”
The mounting dread in Autumn Journal is not only palpable to today’s reader but, now, familiar. By juxtaposing one of the darkest chapters in human history with going to the “films or football” MacNeice is not only offering a first hand account of life at the time he is using poetry to help us feel the sensation of unease “buzzing around us”. This is not a feeling we can get from news reporters asking the poor, desperate refugees fleeing the multiple war zones of today that inane question “How do you feel?”. There is a necessary distance gained by merely seeing through a screen or on a newspaper’s front page the horrors, not just of war, but poverty and inequality that currently blights so many wealthy nations today. Poetry does not offer us that safety.
MacNeice’s poem captures “the heavy panic that cramps the lungs and presses / the collar down the spine” that we all felt when it was happening to us when that first victim of Covid-19 died on home soil. MacNeice illustrates in painful detail that history was lived and breathed by many, not simply read in academic papers. Poetry makes us smell that air and feel that till beneath our fingers. MacNeice even criticised poetry that did not seek to accomplish this sense of universality.
In his somewhat dated but still incisive book Modern Poetry, he spoke of the “drab realism” of TS Eliot that, though concerned with the every day, seemed somewhat divorced from it. “Living in a large industrial city, Birmingham, I recognised that the squalor of Eliot was a romanticised squalor because treated, on the whole, rather bookishly as décor, the ‘short square fingers stuffing pipes’ were not brute romantic objects but were living fingers attached to concrete people — were even, in a sense, my fingers.” Those same fingers that tap at those typewriters or gather those tools. Our fingers. It is this understanding of what poetry can offer I see in Roger Robinson’s Portable Paradise or Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, be that forcing the reader to feel the harrowing depth of trauma brought about by the Grenfell Fire or the complexities of the generational effects of migration. But MacNeice does not see this practice of Poetry as some sort of magic or a gift allowed only to a sainted few, the analysis of the every day must come from the every man themselves.
An oft quoted passage from Modern Poetry is where MacNeice says he
“would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics [and] susceptible to physical impressions”.
As Alan Bennet quipped: “This is the poet as good chap.” It’s a badly dated manifesto that is ableist, sexist and heteronormative but it does clarify who he thought should be writing poetry (and what he thought of himself as) i.e. a normal bloke. Bear in mind that a lot of these somewhat liberal, middle-class values we take as standard for the average Guardian/Times reader and podcast listener today were not the majority in 1938. MacNeice predicted the homogenisation of this kind of thinking by more than 40 years but what he understood better than those who live by that questionable creed today, is the need for putting these values into practice.
Later in Autumn Journal MacNeice reports on a by-election in Oxford where, though he is not able to vote there, he spends the day “driving voters to the polls”.
“And what am I doing it for?
mainly for fun, partly for a half-believed-in principle, a core
Of fact in a pulp of verbiage,
Remembering that this crude and so-called obsolete
top-heavy tedious parliamentary system
Is our only ready weapon to defeat
The legions’ eagles and the lictors’ axes;
And remembering that those who by habit hate
Politics can no longer keep their private
Values unless they open the public gate
To a better political system.”
This doesn’t read like a poem that would be featured in the Guardian or the Times, it reads like an editorial featured in the Times or the Guardian, so ubiquitous has this sort of rhetoric become. But MacNeice has a more stinging criticism that wouldn’t be voiced in such polite mainstream publications today.
“So Thursday came and Oxford went to the polls
And made its coward vote and the streets resounded
To the triumphant cheers of the lost souls —
The profiteers, the dunderheads, the smarties.
And I drove back to London …
Wondering which disease
Is worse — the Status Quo or the Mere Utopia.
For from now on
Each occasion must be used, however trivial,
To rally the ranks of those whose chance will soon be gone
For even guerrilla warfare.
The nicest people in England have always been the least
Apt to solidarity or alignment
But all of them must now align against the beast
That prowls at every door and barks in every headline.”
Again MacNeice appears to be commenting on British contemporary politics not those of 1938. This whole Canto (xiv) is profound. It meditates on the crisis of apathy in society, but also shows us that No, a by-election will not “turn the stream of history” nor will poetry change any minds, but both are necessary for the continued growth and development of us as people, but — most importantly — both are for everyone.
MacNeice’s poetry was described in his obituary by fellow Faber poet Philip Larkin, as “the poetry of shop windows, traffic policemen and ice-cream soda, lawn mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting.” As I hope I have illustrated, this holds true to this day.
MacNeice found poetry in the every day and made it, not only accessible to all, but encouraged the search for that poetry in our own “every day”, wherever that might be and no matter how complex it might be. Poetry, for MacNeice, is for everyone to both read and write and it gives voice to those most silenced by the performative self-importance of political figures and the crises they help create (and profit from).
Poetry will not win wars but it helps prevent them by clarifying their futility. Poetry doesn’t create policies to protect people but it embodies the identities such acts should protect. As MacNeice observed “[The Poet] is not the loud-speaker of society, but something much more like its still, small voice. At its highest [the poet] can be its conscience, its critical faculty, its grievous instinct.” Whatever the criticisms of contemporary poetry might be, it remains that still, small voice for everyone.
In his conclusion to Modern Poetry MacNeice’s closing statement seems tailor made for today, showing us we were not the first and won’t be the last to live in such an era of instability, and that poetry will always be there, waiting for us, whenever we need it.
“When the crisis comes, poetry may for the time be degraded or even silenced, but it will reappear, as one of the chief embodiments of human dignity, when people once more have time for play and criticism.”