The Poetry of Dissent

HAROLD DRASDO teaches English at Nottingham.

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 15, 2016

TRADITIONALLY, POETRY IS A STRONGHOLD OF FREEDOM. More precisely it has been used as the vehicle for all manner of ideas, including restrictive ones. But since, at this critical moment, authority is seen limiting the lives and thoughts of men in ways previously unimaginable; and since we have the benefit of an always clearer view of history and human possibility: then it is natural to expect to find modern poetry increasingly at grips with the state or its outward signs. If, however, someone were to ask today's dissentients where to find this body of poetry it is probable that each group would recommend first to him those poets associated with it, at some time, by active participation or apparent alignment. Socialists might suggest he search the work of the Auden coterie, as it stood before the war. Anarchists might advise him to try Sir Herbert Read or Alex Comfort. A part of the unclassified resistance might refer him to Christopher Logue, Alan Sillitoe, or the West Coast writers. Unhappily, a discriminating reader would quickly see that, saving perhaps Auden, the most gifted of these poets have somehow seemed unable to use their talents to best advantage on these themes. And, in fact, it appears impossible to gather from these sources a reasonably-sized collection which is at once good poetry and forceful criticism.

On the other hand, if you start from the mainstream of recent English poetry — including some Americans who can't be overlooked — you will find attacks upon the state and comment on politics and social affairs in the most surprising places. This survey makes note of some of them without suggesting that there has been any sort of movement. Attempts to correlate 'tendencies' and styles are often ill-founded and even Orwell can be seen in uncertainty about this matter in his rather unfair essay on Yeats. This makes a useful starting point.

Yeats died in 1939 but his last poems are at least as impressive as anything he wrote and since he is generally taken to be the greatest poet of this century it seems appropriate to begin with a word in his defence. It is true that he admired the aristocracies of the past inordinately; that he dabbled in politics and made undemocratic remarks. Orwell, however, was able to find evidence of Fascist tendencies whilst admitting that it is hard to tell how serious Yeats really was about many of his assertions. The old question of the suspension of disbelief arises here in relation to the poetry at least. But, in any case, it seems only fair to draw attention to some poems which suggest a quite different attitude to political affairs. Politics, for instance, is the declaration of a man with small interest in power, a man bored by tales of intrigue and crisis. Sometimes he announces a straight contempt for the mendacity of the modern world and advocates the sort of quietism Orwell so deplored in Henry Miller — as in The Old Stone Cross.

A statesman is an easy man
He tells his lies by rote;
A journalist makes up his lies
And takes you by the throat;
So stay at home and drink your beer
And let the neighbours vote....

One can also admire his curt refusal to compromise himself in On Being Asked For A War Poem; or point to the epigrams The Great Day and Parnell as evidence of an intelligent cynicism about revolutions and governments.

Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
'Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone.'

With one exception, these poems were written during the last three years of his life.

Of the small group of poets still writing who drew attention as far back as the mid-twenties the most incisive is the American E. E. Cummings; by preference, e. e. cummings. Initially he had a reputation for obscurity but this was mainly owing to a lack of confidence in readers confronted for the first time with his typographical tricks. Most of his work is not especially difficult and though not wide in scope it often has a tender or rapturous lyricism without parallel in modern poetry. Added to this he is not afraid to say what he thinks about current affairs and says it forcefully with wit, irony and passion. To set the tone there is his definition: 'a politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man'. Some of his pieces are required reading for those interested in the political scene. No chauvinist or militarist has ever been deflated so adroitly as the one in the poem which begins 'next to of course god america i/love you'. The poem written in memory of a conscientious objector — i sing of Olaf glad and big — is a wonderful satire, urgent with anger and compassion. Cummings lashes those who think 'to differ a disease of some/conform the pinnacle of am'. And his loathing of communism is not reflected in a satisfaction with American affairs —

so rah-rah-rah democracy
let's all be as thankful as hell
and bury the statue of liberty
(because it begins to smell)

It has often been noticed that the last war produced no body of poetry like that of the Trench Poets. Certainly, there is a difference in the general tone, sometimes an actual resignation typified perhaps by Keith Douglas: 'Remember me when I am dead/and simplify me when I'm dead'. Or despair or disgust are masked by a fine irony as in Henry Reed's Naming Of Parts. But one short poem deserves attention as standing comparison with anything Orwell or Sassoon wrote: Randall Jarrell's The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner.

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Jarrell, as you see, is pessimistic about the chances of the individual today. He concludes an interesting essay on Alex Comfort by agreeing that the state is the chief enemy, but finishes —

Yet when one considers the mechanisms of contemporary states — from the advertising agencies that turn out their principles to the aircraft factories, that turn out their practice — it is hard to think of the triumph of any proletariat as more than a wistful, compensating dream: it is we who wither away, not the state.

If it were true, however, that the Second World War did not produce the sort of poetry that might have been expected, some poets have, at any rate, already turned their attention to the next: as if in recognition of the risk that after that nuclear Doomsday there may be no-one left to write or read. Edwin Muir, who is conspicuous amongst these, first became known for his translations into English of Kafka's nightmare worlds of authority and the individual; and his own poetry is pervaded by a like obsessive sense of disquiet. The poetry, which only drew full acknowledgment towards the end of his life, is not easily represented by brief quotation. It has no clear affinity with any other modern work. Its apparent flatness vanishes on hearing a sympathetic reading. During his last years Muir obviously became pre-occupied with the fear of a final holocaust and three poems use the three possible consequences of such a war. In The Day Before The Last Day, written shortly before his death in 1959 he envisages the annihilation of life — 'Mechanical parody of the Judgment Day/That does not judge but only deals damnation'; he reveals his 'imaginary picture of a stationary fear'. The Horses tells of a farming community which has survived 'the seven days war that put the world to sleep' and which is discovering that life without tractors and radios is possible after all; the people are reconciled to the uncanny silence and tranquility. After a Hypothetical War assumes, by contrast, the wreck of civilised values, an earth of miscegenation and waste. Muir treats of other aspects of modern politics too: in Nightmare Of Peace we are with the United Nations.

Even in a dream how were we there
Among the commissars of peace
And that meek humming in the air
From the assenting devotees?
Police disguised on every chair
Up on the platform. Peace was there
In hands where it would never stir.
Aloft a battle-plated dove
Throned over all in menacing love.

Several good poems which are directly, or by implication, 'anti-bomb' have appeared during the last ten years. One has found its way into a popular school anthology: The Birds by Clive Sansom — who has had another poem, Loyalties, which lists worship of the state as a betrayal of individuality. Robert Conquest and I. A. Richards have neat little attacks on nuclear weapons. From John Wain there is A Song About Major Eatherly. It is symptomatic, though, that Edith Sitwell in Three Poems Of The Atomic Age simply incorporates eye-witness accounts of the explosions into her poems in support of her own pyrotechnics: 'Then to the murdered Sun a totem pole of dust arose in memory of Man.' As if the experience were too immediate, the reports of the survivors too anguished, to warrant interference or embellishment. Indeed, the reader of such works as John Hersey's 'Hiroshima' and Robert Jungsk's 'Brighter Than A Thousand Suns' may be uncomfortably aware that the descriptions of the actual explosions first lay claim on him in the generalised manner of poetry and might even tend to inhibit somewhat the response that their context must arouse. This seduction by magnitude or sensation is something the propagandist must weigh carefully.

Of all the English poets who have made reputations since the war it might only be said of one that his work is very often the direct expression of his social conscience. This is D. J. Enright. His poetry seems at first glance rather erudite and mannered owing to the occasional and reverberatingly poetic phrases. But a good reader will quickly feel the force of Enright's work and find in it a sense of compassion and an integrity seldom shown in social contexts at present. Enright, who has travelled widely in the war-reduced countries of Europe and the Far East, might almost be called the poet of hunger. He writes about poverty, exile, starvation, prostitution, the offences of the state against the individual, the opportunism of politicians.

The only enigma that I saw
Was the plump sayings of the politicians
Against the thin faces of the poor.

The Monuments Of Hiroshima may well be the best thing yet written on that city. The mood of this poem makes one think back to such pieces as Sassoon's At The New Menin Gate. Enright has a directness and an ironic intelligence which save him from sentimentalism. He concludes —

Little of peace for them to rest in, less of them
to rest in peace:
Dust to dust a swift transition, ashes to ash
with awful ease.
Their only monument will be of other's casting —
A Tower of Peace, a Hall of Peace, a Bridge of Peace
— who might have wished for something lasting,
Like a wooden box.

Writing about hunger, in Where Charity Begins and The Short Life of Kazuo Yamamoto, he contrasts the verbal world of the politicians with the real world of the victims.

Elsewhere the great ones have their headaches, too,
As they grapple with those notable tongue-twisters
Such as Liberation and Oppression.
But they were not talking about you,
Kazuo, who found rat poison cheaper than aspirin.

His sympathy is extended to starving animals too, as in the sharp little epigram Asiatic Premises, where it becomes an indictment.

This largish whitish newish building is devoted
to the study of the Liberal Arts and the Humanities.
Under the surrounding hedges lie the minute and bloated
bodies of starved kittens. Vanity of vanities.

These poems are in no sense occasional observation or comment but begin and end in a flat and sometimes premonitory rejection of power politics.

But the politicians live in their own climate,
The cold chairs where they incubate
A future spring of plum and peach and cherry, in superb mutations.
Blossoming across the blind and ruined nations.

Complementary to this is his feeling for the individual sufferer, especially the political refugee; best exemplified in the beautiful Meeting An Egyptian At A Cocktail Party. Of course, Enright devotes himself to other, quite different themes, too: notably the arts, criticism, and impressions of place. From a social standpoint 'Bread Rather Than Blossoms' is the most interesting of his books of verse.

In conclusion, what can be said about the state of poetry today? The last decade has seen the appearance of a handful of excellent poets. Enright might be included amongst these but what of the others? — Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Burns Singer, Elizabeth Jennings, C. A. Trypanis, Donald Davie. The critic cannot ignore the astonishing absence of social comment in their work. Indeed, he might draw attention to such a poem as Davie's Too Late For Satire. Davie has the elegance, clarity, and point of the perfect satirist; and he knows this but through a lamentable fatalism declines the task —

I might have been as pitiless as Pope
But to no purpose; in a tragic age
We share the hatred but we lack the hope
By pinning follies to reform the age.
To blame is lame and satirists are late.
No knife can stick in history or the id,
No cutlass carve us from the lime of fate.

To go further, the critic might consider A Woman Unconscious, an impressive piece by Ted Hughes. Hughes visualises an atomic war which might expunge all living things — 'the toil of all our ages a loss with leaf and insect'; then he rejects his fancy as melodramatic and (by dubious extension) not conforming to the pattern of history; until, reverting to the original idea he compares the extinction of all life with the loss of consciousness, or death, of a single woman —

And though bomb be matched against bomb,
Though all mankind wince out and nothing endure —
Earth gone in an instant flare —
Did a lesser death come
Onto the white hospital bed
Where one, numb beyond her last of sense,
Closed her eyes on the world's evidence
And into pillows sunk her head.

This sort of solipsism must seem to many to be maddeningly perverse. Indeed, it would be amusing, were it not for the sense of crisis, that readers who have always insisted that poetry can ignore morality may now find themselves — oppressed by the urgent final threat of a nuclear war — impelled to prescribe attitudes and themes for the poet. If, however, this feeling of urgency can be put aside, a quite different evaluation of the trend of contemporary poetry may be made. Negatively, it can be said that from this social standpoint the best of the younger poets almost never sin by commission. Whilst positively, it is plain that the only characteristic that unites them is the fact that no two of them have much in common: they are committed to quite personal explorations. If this is escape, it is affirmation too.

Collected Poems by W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan, 1958, 18/-.)
E. E. Cummings: Selected Poems 1923-1958. (Faber and Faber, 1958, 18/-.)
Randall Jarrell: Selected Poems. (Faber and Faber, 1958, 15/-.)
Edwin Muir: Collected Poems 1921-1958. (Faber and Faber, 1960, 25/-.)
D. J. Enright: Bread Rather Than Blossoms. (Seeker and Warburg, 1956, 10/6.)
Ted Hughes: Lupercal. (Faber and Faber, 1960, 12/6d.)
Donald Davie's 'Too Late For Satire' is in the anthology New Lines edited by Robert Conquest. (Macmillan, 1956, 12/6d.)