Poetry is undergoing its second great, global revolution, self-transforming from a dominantly textual art form into a dominantly digital and performance one. The first revolution, during which poetry mutated from a wholly oral art into a dominantly textual one, began around 4,500 years ago in the courts of the ancient tyrants of the Middle East. Textual poetry then emerged as a byproduct of the invention of writing, itself developed to enhance the practice of accounting. From the off poetry, politics, economics, ideology, and social power are inseparably intertwined.
This first revolution took aeons to complete, during which the ‘civilisation’ birthed in the fertile crescents, founded on accumulation, mystification, and domination spread like a slow cancer across the globe, assisted as much by the weapons of writing and accountancy as by the might of conquering arms. Yet the oral foundation of poetry remained and remains strong, if very patchily so, in unconquered parts of the world, and among subaltern artistic milieus in the heartlands of empire—e.g. the beats, the black arts movement—and is now rising again as part of the multimedia revolution in poetry.
The twenty-first century, multi-medium poetry revolution is taking place in the space of decades and it is much needed. By the close of the twentieth century poetry in its text-only incarnation had brought the art into extremely marginal territory, and very close to complete disappearance, save as a state- subsidised heritage format. Dana Gioia recognised this in a 1991 essay for The Atlantic Monthly, ‘Can Poetry Matter?’, writing that poetry was ‘no longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialised occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group.’
Gioia notes that page-poetry is only kept alive by a complex network of state subvention; it is on life support, in other words. Page-poetry has had to pay a high price for its dependency on the neo-liberal politicians who, by and large, have run the State in the English speaking world since the 1970s. Far from revivifying page-poetry, state-regulation has tended to aggravate its morbid symptoms of public irrelevance and in-group confinement. Long-term state subvention of a select number of publishers, administrator-poets, and literary quangos has given rise to a poetry bureaucracy which wields control over nearly all available channels of state funding and mainstream publishing and broadcasting and which will generally give in to the temptation this produces to advance their own narrow sectional interests within the artform, at the expense of new forms and their new audiences. Only the political influence of sectional interests within poetry can explain why virtually all state funding and institutional support in the English-speaking world goes to page-poetry, when the majority of the publicly accessible work of new and emerging practitioners and of voluntary public engagement with poetry now clearly takes place in digital and performance mediums.
That state-entwined networks overseeing and regulating poetry have, aside from occasional tokenistic or face-saving gestures, set about ignoring the digital and performance revolution is perhaps the best piece of circumstantial evidence for it. For it is in the nature of revolutions that they take place outside of and in contradiction to the institutions and networks with a vested interest in the continuation of the old ways of doing things. Thus, with few exceptions, the revolution of poetry has also been a revolution of autonomy, of proving that twenty-first century poets require neither the support nor the regulation of the state, nor the patronage of vested interests within the literary world to make original and impactful work that reaches a wide audience. Digital and performance mediums have therefore offered a much needed path of independence from the neo-liberal state and state-regulated arts bureacracy to many poets.
This independence then is partly a matter of inclination, and partly born of necessity. Lack of official recognition and support of mediums such as performance and film poetry forces poets working in these mediums to rely on their own and community resources. Given the vast institutional imbalance in favour of page-poetry, it is remarkable how much public engagement with poetry is now dominated by the unfunded digital and performance mediums. Lack of official interest in, and therefore statistics on, new poetry mediums make their popularity difficult to assess with clinical accuracy. However, it is obvious that the live poetry event is now far more engaging to and popular with the poetry public than the poetry book is or perhaps has ever been.
According to a state-funded Irish publisher I recently raised this issue with, most of the poetry collections now sold go to libraries, collectors, and family and friends of the authors. In other words there is no readership for the average poetry collection worth talking about. This is not to argue that poetry collections should not be funded, but that they should be funded on an honest and proportional basis, as the heritage medium within the overall art form. It would also be part of a clear-thinking, artist-centred, audience-expanding funding strategy to offer training and support to all poets who wish to learn how to work in these contemporary mediums.
While book sales are in the ditch, attendances at live poetry events, of which there are now dozens per week to choose from in Ireland alone, are increasing at a high rate. Lingo 2015, run by volunteers on a shoestring, with a minimum of public funding, attracted 1500 paying poetry supporters. This makes Lingo, in its second year, with no paid director or staff, easily the largest poetry festival in Ireland. Performance poetry has also very quickly become the main way young people participate in poetry. Stephen Murray’s Youthspeaks programme, to mention just one of several thriving independent school’s programmes, has in eight years visited upwards of 400 secondary schools—half the total—and enabled thousands of young people to make poetry—again without any institutional support or valorisation.
Figures for public engagement become even more encouraging at the level of the poetry film, a medium whose rise is allied to that of performance poetry, and often involving the same practitioners, but which has distinct aesthetic challenges and audience potential. Even the simplest of recording technologies, accessible and usable to anyone with a bare minimum of computer skills can enable a contemporary poet to reach a potential audience of millions through YouTube. The number of poets that have reached four- and even five-figure audiences for their work on sites like YouTube and vimeo runs into the thousands.
Although Dana Gioia remains broadly correct in his ominous assessment of the increasing marginality of the text-only poem and poet, he couldn’t have been more wrong about poetry considered as a whole.
These new and enlarged aesthetic and audience possibilities are perhaps most exciting to those of us who write politically—like Bertolt Brecht did, or Milton, or Neruda, or Adrienne Rich, or countless other canonical figures in the past. In fact the new situation seems to have been made for the political or, if you wish, public poet. It is not just that the potential audience for public poetry has increased hugely as a direct result of the new media poetics, but that this new audience is politically conscious and hungry for well-made and topical work in a way that has not occurred for many decades. Social movements such as the anti-water charges and the Repeal the 8th movements in Ireland, which have analogues in many countries across the world, are creating a new and transformed public appetite for socially engaged art of all sorts. It’s a multimedia audience to which both the old text-only packaging of poetry and the largely quietest content of that poetry over the past few decades is irrelevant. This global audience reconfiguration—a shift to political engagement at the same time as a migration towards digital and live consumption of socially-engaged art—explains why the space in performance and video poetry is taken up so much by political poetry and poets.
Poetry, perhaps the most mutable and adaptable of all the art forms, has always been political and the range of ways it can be political has mutated constantly through time and is mutating again today—under pressure from and in response to political and technological change. So far as we know, the very first written down poems were written by temple priests on the orders of tyrants, with the purpose of glorifying the tyrant and elucidating the cosmic justification for his tyranny. The lyric, born among the Greek city states, developed as part of competitions between blind lyre-strummers as to who could most effusively praise the ruling members of their own city-state. The foundational documents of ‘western civilisation’, that Gandhian joke, are, alongside the Bible, the two epic poems of Homer, and one by his Roman Imperialist imitator Virgil. From the earliest days of the Roman Republic, up to the present day in private schools and universities, the ruling elites throughout Europe and in its many conquered lands have learnt the ‘values’ of the glory of war, the passivity and inferiority of women, the dispensability of the poor and the working masses, the justification of absolutism and aristocracy, the inferiority of non-white races and the justification for conquering them above all from the epic poetry in which these values were first inscribed and beautified for the purpose of reproduction by future generations.
Poets have tended to write politically in three different, often complementary ways. To begin with there is a long tradition of counter-amnesiac poetry, that is poems memorialising instances of injustice or struggle which otherwise might be wilfully forgotten by the dominant culture—a canonical example worth much study is John Milton’s ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont’. Connie Roberts’s recent Arlen House collection Little Witness redresses a shameful lacunae in Irish poetry with its focus on the experiences of working-class children abandoned to clerical institutions. Elsewhere, award-winning Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai offers many striking and courageous contemporary examples of counter-amnesiac poetry, such as this:
The mark of Cain won’t sprout
from a soldier who shoots
at the head of a child
on a knoll by the fence
around a refugee camp—
for beneath his helmet,
his head is made of cardboard.
On the other hand,
the officer has read The Rebel;
his head is enlightened,
and so he does not believe
in the mark of Cain.
He’s spent time in museums,
and when he aims
his rifle at a boy
as an ambassador of Culture,
he updates and recycles
and Guernica. (translated by Peter Cole)
The second kind of political poem, and poetics, is one which elaborates a set of countercultural values in opposition to those held by the powerful. Such poetries, if they develop in tandem with a mass counter-cultural movement can provide strong points of coherence and identity formation for the social movements as a whole. The High-Romantic movement in poetry was based entirely on such a project—the French Revolution created the Romantic movement and its ideals inspired the best of them until well into the 19th century, just as their poetry inspired masses of activists and social reformers and continues to do so. The history of poetry is replete with such examples of mutual feedback between social movements and poetic trends. The poets of 1916, although less impressive artistically than the Romantics, also obviously fall into this category.
Thirdly is the style of political poem most absent from mainstream discourse in Ireland, and most prevalent outside it. This I will call the interventionist poem. The interventionist poem addresses in a more or less confrontational manner a current political issue involving a just conflict between the weak and the powerful. The interventionist poem clearly takes the side of the oppressed and encourages them to continue to struggle. The interventionist poem puts the writer of the poem at the same or worse risk of backlash as others involved in a struggle. Interventionist poems are provocations, not invitations to contemplate. They are not prayers, but rallying calls. Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab’ and ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ might be English poetry’s two great interventionist poems. Both are responses to mass persecution, and both were underground bestsellers, in pirated copies, among the politically restless and relentlessly persecuted English working classes in the 1810s.
Perhaps the clearest and most resounding example of an interventionist poem in recent times is that written by the much imprisoned 82-year-old Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm while he was fighting in the battle of Tahrir Square in 2011. The poem has gone around the world a thousand times since, inspiring many people to join the struggle for freedom, wherever they are:
The brave ones are brave
The cowards are cowards
Come down with the brave
Together to the Square
The master of the broad range of political poetry—the counter-amnesiac poem; the poem of countercultural values, and the poem of intervention—in the twentieth century was Bertolt Brecht, someone who we can be sure would be working primarily in digital and performance media were he around today. In cases, he wrote poems which combined all three main elements of political poetry to produce works of monumental stature and ever-echoing resonance:
Questions for worker who reads
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished, W
ho raised it up so many times?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions. (translated by Michael Hamburger)
In his 1935 essay ‘Telling The Truth: Five Difficulties’, written while in exile from the Nazis who had removed his citizenship, Brecht wrote his most important contribution to the theory of interventionist poetry:
Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognise it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons. These are formidable problems for writers living under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.
Thankfully, we have no shortage of poets outside the quietist establishment who have courage, keenness, and skill in relation to speaking truth to power about injustice and oppression. What is perhaps somewhat lacking is the judgement and the cunning—the German word for which connotes cleverness, craftiness, and ability. Both craft and craftiness are necessary to connect interventionist poems with the relevant audience so they can be heard and reacted to by as many people as possible.
The activities of several contemporary interventionist poets will provide examples of the range of possibilities available. Hollie McNish, the English performance poet, made a lo-fi, no-budget film of herself reciting her anti-racist poem ‘Mathematics’ which has now been seen by close to two million people and can justly claim to have had a positive political impact on a crucial issue for working class people in Britain. It cost nothing to make, no forms were filled, no permission was asked for or given.
Besides the explosion in live poetry events and audience numbers, more and more poets—Stephen Murphy and Sarah Clancy are just two of the best known—are beginning to perform work by invitation at political demonstrations. Both Murphy and Clancy have performed in front of tens of thousands at anti-water charges demos. The opening lines of Clancy’s ‘Look How Our Leaders Tremble When They See Us Together’ can be construed as a comment on orthodox ‘leadership’ in poetry, as well as in politics:
Our leaders would like to inform us
that they are fine with protest in fact they really respect us
so long as we follow their rules and do it
without any disruption of business, (preferably at home
in our own bedrooms where no one can see us,
and without any unnecessary shouting
that might upset the neighbours) they’re fine with it then,
so they are.
A third example of a successful interventionist is Kevin Higgins. Higgins is Ireland’s most accomplished political poet and satirist. Not despite this, but because of it, he gets few invitations to read at Irish literary festivals and fewer still to appear on radio or in mainstream newspapers. Yet he is likely the most widely read living poet in Ireland, precisely because he has concentrated with an admirably Brechtian craftiness on building an audience for his skilfully-written, provocative, topical poems in a wide range of non-literary digital publications in Ireland and the UK. On The Bogman’s Cannon, for example, the alt.culture website I help to edit, poems by Higgins, who is our satirist-in-residence, have been read close to ten thousand times in an eight month period. Given that The Bogmans Cannon is only one of a dozen or so well read extra-literary websites Higgins publishes in on an almost weekly basis, his annual readership may well stretch into six figures—a fantasy figure for the page-poets who are so often falsely and unthinkingly represented in mainstream cultural media as being the major public figures in contemporary Irish poetry.
As in Brecht’s time then, a spiraling crisis of capitalism and imperialism has raised political consciousness worldwide and created mass movements attempting to address the front-line symptoms of the crisis. In the most optimistically Brechtian of scenarios these mass movements will evolve, through many ups and downs, into a global revolutionary wave. They will be the vigorously evolving audience for a Brechtian poetics of intervention for the foreseeable future. They can realistically be addressed only through the range of dynamic and daringly contemporary methods—although spoken word is more accurately described as a revived method—some of which I have exampled above.
The task facing interventionist poets is not simply one of writing poems, but of finding ways for these poems to reach the audiences for which they are intended and whose interests they are written in and best serve. We owe it to our art, our audience, and ourselves to use every available medium. Naturally, there is no funding (and certainly no corporate brand prizes!) in Ireland for making subversive poetry films, for managing online interventionist publications, or for establishing sustainable countercultural performance spaces. We should of course campaign for such funding—it is our democratic right to be afforded a proportion of available public funding which reflects the public engagement and taste for our work. And it is blazingly obvious that funding models for poetry have to change if they are to become a support rather than a hindrance to the twenty-first century poet. What we don’t need however is a new bureaucracy—any funding supports for new media poetries need to be democratically and transparently administered and not merely middle-managed by a chosen few who go on to propagate a new orthodoxy with themselves at the helm. In any case, don’t hold your breath for official backing for radical cultural forms of any kind. Our state’s chronic institutional inertia, resulting from a hundred years of right-wing and occasionally centrist government, i.e. government by vested interest elites and their excrescent bureaucracies, is likely to continue for some time to come in much of the arts as it does in just about every other field of Irish public life.
To be sure of making their mark then, the interventionist poet must forgo any reliance on support from within the ranks of the bureaucratic quietist establishment, from the state, or from the neo-liberal academy. Thankfully, mutual aid between interventionist poets, together with support from within the mass movements their work addresses, can and does do away completely with the need for establishment backing of any kind. Working together, with the shared goal of speaking the passionate truths of our time to the broadest possible layers of the population, we can and will be part of turning the world upside down, and so right-way-up, again.