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Poetry for the Many: ed. Jeremy Corbyn, Len McCluskey

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A would-be prime minister who confessed to liking – and writing - poetry? Was that why the ‘Red Wall’ working-class voters turned so decisively against him at the 2019 election, and gave Boris Johnson such a thumping majority? Maybe, maybe not. After all, Johnson was partial to the odd limerick himself.  

The title of this anthology, curated by poetry lovers Jeremy Corbyn and his old union pal Len McCluskey, refers to that famous Shelley line, “Ye are many – they are few!”, written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre, that the Labour party has pinned its colours to so often in the past, and even populist rightwing politician Suella Braverman has tried ham-fistedly to appropriate in more recent times.

The first poem in the anthology shows that JC is not afraid to take on the poetry establishment. Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ has long been scorned by the powers that be, and the word ‘daffodils’ often appears on spurious lists of ‘banned’ poetry words. Yet I have personal reasons for sympathising with his choice – my father could still recite it by heart in the last throes of his dementia – and there is a famous Gillian Clarke poem on the subject, too.

Similarly, Len McCluskey is not embarrassed about selecting Kipling’s ‘If –’ as a favourite, even though he concedes that the poet of imperialism “was born in India in the days of the Raj and was, by all accounts, a misogynist and racist. His views on Ireland were outrageous.”

Although most of the poems were selected for the anthology by Corbyn and McCluskey, other figures were invited to contribute their favourites, including Maxine Peake, Michael Rosen, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Alexei Sayle, and Ken Loach.   

Poets that appear in Poetry for the Many include Christina Rossetti, Roger McGough, Shelley (of course), Langston Hughes, William Blake, Dylan Thomas, Derek Walcott, Oscar Wilde, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Adrian Mitchell, Stevie Smith, Robert Burns, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, to name more than a few.

And Jeremy Corbyn himself. Some may accuse him of vanity at such self-inclusion, but I for one have been keen to see an example of his work, ever since he confessed to writing poetry during the Labour leadership election in 2015. ‘Calais in Winter’, the final poem in the anthology, was written on a train home after a trip to visit refugee camps in northern France, is heartfelt and would evoke warm applause at open-mic poetry nights - which is all most of us poets can ever hope for.

Corbyn’s foreword to the selection is titled ‘There’s a Poet in All of Us’, which has long been Write Out Loud’s credo. He says: “Nobody should ever be afraid of sharing their poetry. It doesn’t need to rhyme or scan. It can be just an expression of thoughts that may at first appear as random but, when written down on paper or screen, can become more coherent and take on a deeper meaning.”  

McCluskey talks of being introduced to poetry during the cultural ferment that was Liverpool in the 1960s, and goes on to say: “One thing I know is that the beauty of language expressed through rhyme or other forms of verse has given me enormous joy. I always take a poetry book with me on holiday. At home I can often be found in a corner sitting quietly with a poetry book. It’s food for the soul.”

This anthology has already garnered a sneering review by Don Paterson in the right-wing Spectator magazine, publishers of Johnson’s limerick. But I found myself moved at reading those forewords, particularly Len McCluskey’s. Two men long demonised by the media, standing up and proclaiming the power of poetry - for the many, not just a chosen few.      


Poetry for the Many, ed. Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey, OR Books, £11.99




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Stephen Gospage

Sun 14th Apr 2024 17:42

I have never been JC's greatest fan (a lifelong social democrat, I'm afraid) but this seems a very worthy venture, even if he should be careful of including his own poem alongside the likes of Robert Frost and Stevie Smith.

A sneering review in the Spectator - no such thing as bad publicity, I suppose. Certainly not there!

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