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Look back in anger, forward in hope: poets mix it with politics in election anthology

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The question of anger in political poetry was raised at the launch of an anthology aimed at encouraging people to vote, in one of London’s most popular poetry venues, the Betsey Trotwood pub in Farringdon Road, on Wednesday night.

Emma Wright of the Emma Press says in her introduction to Campaign in Poetry, a pamphlet-size collection of 22 political poems, that some of the work submitted was “very angry”, but often “the rhythmic, pounding rage felt underlaid with resignation – the exact opposite of what we wanted”.

I would argue – and I’m sure Wright would agree – that it’s not possible to write a political poem without being angry in some way. The question is, if that anger is controlled, can it be more effective?

For there is anger throughout the fine poems in Campaign in Poetry. And humour, too. Holly Hopkins said, in likening political canvassers to bees that disturb her Sunday lie-in in ‘The General Election’ that she asked herself: “What’s been one of the most annoying things since the last election? And then I thought – bee poems.”

Luke Kennard, for all his irony and skill, can’t quite disguise his anger at luxury apartment blocks being fitted with a service door for ordinary tenants in ‘Poor Door’: “It’s not about where you came from it’s how you’re getting in.” The rich speak in prose, the poor reply in rhyme: “we’ll try to overlook your frown / when you pass us in the hall / we’ll try to keep the music down / we know: the fucking gall.

Rosie Miles’s poem, ‘Cuts’, first appeared in Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry column in the Daily Mirror in 2010, but the newspaper messed up the formatting. It’s in Campaign in Poetry, in all its glory, including the lines:  “The Minister of Health is certain // it will also be possible to remove teeth, warts and verrucas / with can openers that have had only minimal adaptation.”

The extended and moving poem ‘Aunty’, by Rachel Long, pictured, about her efforts to bond and explore links with a Nigerian cleaner, includes these lines: “She resumes making a sea around my shoes, / leaves me an island. I stay silent, / watching her wet mop slap tiles / like an awkward tongue.”  

One of my favourite poems of the evening, although, arguably, one of the more oblique ones, was James Trevelyan’s commendable stab at analysing the banking crash in ‘Understanding the collapse of the economy’:  “greed or somewhere / between / mindless desire / and naivety it’s like / when Katie / Robbins got off / with four boys / in one night / at the Rugby Club / and I didn’t care / cos one of them / was me yeah / it’s a bit like that.” Richard O’Brien’s ‘Plea to Future Philanthropists’ is written at much greater length, but in a different way, was equally effective.  

The anger is something you can almost touch in Clare Pollard’s ‘Hamelin’: “Our high pitched whistle / has only driven them to darker places / to watch with twitching, clever faces, / tails swishing like fingers on a screen / sharing and sharing something sickening.” Does this remind you of anyone? It should.  Although the anthology is studious in its avoidance of mentioning individual parties, Jan Heritage wanted to make clear, that although she was wearing a blue dress, “I’m not Tory.”   

For someone like Dai George, from south Wales, politics is in his blood, he had to admit. And hope, too. His poem, ‘Conference Season,’ concludes: “It either matters or it doesn’t. / Friends, I say it matters. Friends, I hope / the hope I shelter in this rotting game // is hope I shan’t be called upon to lose.”

The Emma Press has secured a niche in poetry publishing with their immaculately presented pamphlets and anthologies, edited by Emma Wright and Rachel Piercey, and compiling some political poetry in time for the 2015 general election, with poems that will not become outdated after it, was a commendable idea, among other election initiatives being undertaken elsewhere in the poetry world. This particular anthology has been carefully and skilfully selected, and, as well as alerting the reader to a crop of up-and-coming and established poets, provides a state-of-the nation snapshot on the eve of a very uncertain election. 

Some might argue that one, pointed YouTube video could have a greater influence and much wider reach, perhaps. At one point Emma Wright said to the predominantly and refreshingly young poets and audience: “I hope you didn’t expect a rabble-rousing evening.”

The Betsey Trotwood happens to be an old watering hole of mine; I used to work in the building across the road for many happy years. We even held the odd union meeting there, in the same upstairs room. I must admit, I did briefly entertain the bizarre fantasy of a group of Socialist Workers Party activists rushing up the stairs, hijacking the reading, and declaring that all oblique, crafted political poetry was henceforth banned. I was just showing my age; many at the Betsey on Wednesday night may never have heard of the SWP. Thankfully, and predictably, they never showed.

Greg Freeman


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