Friday, May 13

It's Poetry and Politics (again)

Review by Gareth Twose

(£10.95 & £9.95 respectively, from Shearsman Books)

I read John Seed’s "Pictures From Mayhew" during the first weeks of the most dispiriting and offensive General Election I could remember, a PR person’s wet dream, an election entirely without political content; not so much issue‑lite as issue-free. Seed’s book, based on Henry Mayhew’s journalistic exposé of poverty in nineteenth century London, arrived through the letter box at the same time as a bunch of party political manifestoes, but was the only writing I read that contained any real politics, any idealism. It actually had something important to say about the nature of free-market capitalism and human nature. As Pound said, literature is news that stays news.

What Seed has done is edited and re-packaged some of Mayhew’s writings published in "The Morning Chronicle" newspaper and his book "London Labour and the London Poor" between 1849 and 1852. He’s filleted the pieces, stripping out Mayhew’s own voice, in order to foreground the actual voices of a huge range of London’s working people, including costermongers, ballad sellers, coal heavers, sweepers, thieves, prostitutes, bird sellers, seamstresses and slop sellers, sewermen and soldiers. These selected first-person accounts of working lives and conditions, which appear in much more extended form in the Mayhew pieces, have been lineated and organised into stanzas, and re-presented as a kind of street poetry. The result is a vivid and timely portrait of the sort of urban underclass that our society in 2005 is so anxious to render invisible. For many of the people in "Pictures From Mayhew", hitting rock bottom would be a step up. For many of these people, by a cruel irony, their poverty is the only commodity they have left to ‘sell’:

I’ve done the shivering dodge too gone out
in the cold weather half naked one man
can’t get off shivering now Shaking Jemmy went
on with his shivering so long he couldn’t
help it at last he shivered like a jelly
like a calf’s foot with the ague on
the hottest day in summer it’s a good
dodge in tidy inclement seasons it’s not so
good a lurk by two bob a day
as it once was it’s a single-handed job
if one man shivers less than another he
shows it isn’t so cold as the good
shiverer makes it out then it’s no go


I’ve stood
up to the ankles in snow
till after midnight &
till I’ve wished I was
snow myself & could melt &
have an end

The non-standard and uneducated dialect used here is both lively and deeply poetic in places and confers a real sense of authenticity. The lineation in the second section, which greatly slows the reading pace, adds to the poignancy.
The dialect becomes a vehicle for a devastating political critique of Victorian society without at any point talking politics. One speaker who hustles a living searching sewers for discarded coins inadvertently pictures a society rotting in the middle of its own self-created waste:

The evacuations of the human body
is not only wasted into the Thames but the tide
washes it back again

the water we use is

we drink a solution of our own
        dead dogs
offal from slaughter houses
the entrails of animals
pavement dirt stable dung night soil
bodies of murdered men

The image from "Pictures From Mayhew" has an apocalyptic and prophetic power. It can be read as indirectly offering a shaming indictment of New Labour’s so-called environmental policies, the green light it’s given to new roads that only serve to generate new traffic, the all too willing compliance with plans to double air traffic by 2050, the same air traffic which represents the biggest single cause of global warming. Societal failure to look after the environment remains unchanged.

"Pictures From Mayhew" is also full of humour. It tells of a world in which the rich and poor literally inhabit different planets. Cross-class contact is rare and when it occurs, the result is often baffled incomprehension. One speaker comments on the table manners of the upper classes:

People that’s quality that’s
my notion on it
that hasn’t neither to
yarn their dinner nor
to cook it but
just open their mouths
& eat it
can’t dirty their hands so
at dinner as to
have glasses to wash
’em in arterards but
there’s queer ways everywhere

The irony of this is nicely observed by Seed. The speaker looks upon the eating habits of his social superiors with an anthropological critical detachment.

"Pictures From Mayhew", then, represents a rather wonderful kind of ‘found’ poetry, teeming with life, noise and colour. As such, it contrasts starkly with Seed’s "New and Collected Poems", with which is has been jointly published, and about which I have rather more mixed feelings. Seed’s poetry here, as Pictures from Mayhew, is very influenced by the Objectivists, Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Oppen, Carlos Williams et al. But where "Pictures from Mayhew" teems with noise, life and colour, some of "New and Collected Poems" is poetry with the humanity and social context hoovered out of it, and is conspicuously humourless. Whatever else it is, it is Serious.

Part of the problem here is with the Objectivist Method, or what I understand to be the Objectivist method. The Objectivists were thirties poets who took Imagism by the scruff of the neck and made it leaner, meaner, fitter. I like to think of the Objectivists as the Dexy’s Midnight Runners of poetry. They were the mark II Dexy’s, the Celtic Soul Brothers who sang "Pure, let’s make this pure." Two aspects of the Objectivist technique are relevant here. As Michael Davidson explains in his introduction to Oppen’s "New Collected Poems", the use of fragments is a governing principle of composition in Objectivist poetry because it reveals totality to be a lie. Oppen famously in his 1934 volume Discrete Series composed poems which consisted of interlinked fragments, fragments which were separate but related. The model for this technique is a mathematical series in which each term is derived from the preceding term by a rule. Another aspect of the technique of Objectivists was the attention paid to "the little words" (Oppen), grammatical function words like 'to' and 'the'. Zukofsky, in his essay "An Objective", admired "the isolation of each noun so that in itself, it is an image". Objectivists wanted to show the thingness of things.

When this Method works in Seed’s poetry, it genuinely allows the reader to see things in a new way. Witness After Time, one of seven poems that form a discrete series, from the collection Spaces In:

in the night the night
wind     voices
        in the small street

"…the absolute projection of an object
of the origin of which no account can
be given with the result that the space
between projection and thing projected
is dark and void…"

            footsteps fade

The reader is led by the unorthodox lay-out and radical enjambment in interesting and surprising directions. The first line radically enjambs with the second line: the line‑break occurs in the middle of the noun phrase the night wind. But if read as a self-contained whole, the first line in the night the night triggers an image of night as containing different depths of night. The spacing gives exaggerated emphasis to individual words, the 'little words' Oppen was on about. The syntactic ambiguity created by the absence of punctuation, the line-breaks and lay-out is productive and suggestive. What I particularly liked about the poem was the clash of registers: the scientific techno-jargon of the prose quotation clashes with the much more lyrical and poetic surrounding language. But the two languages can also be seen as complementing each other; they talk to each other. For me, the poem can be seen as a meditation on history, the way in which streets are filled with the voices of the historical dead, the unknown footsteps. And it can be seen as a meditation on the creative process. Both history and poetry involve working with the gap between image and object, between the thing and the projection of the thing.

However, this poem is linked with six others. The next one in the series is the following:

Not speaking we
Stare out     linked
To a matrix a kind of
Each instant the point
Where we are
Shared     if it is possible
Keeps the mind
Off blank walls the open door
In twilight the path winding
Back     the way we came

My problem with this is: I’m not sure what it adds to the last poem, which said it all so much more succinctly. The use of words like ‘a matrix’ adds a whiff of portentousness, if not pretentiousness. I started to sense not radical innovation, but brow-furrowing earnestness. This poetry is not exactly light on its feet.

Similarly, a poem like "New Year’s Eve, 1989. Driving South" is heavily freighted with ideological significance. Carrying echoes of both Donne’s "Nocturnall Upon St Lucies Day" and "Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward", the poem is all too clearly some sort of indictment of Thatcherism, a weighing up of the "The decade’s/Deep midnight":

Toppling over the horizon
Behind us blueish
Whatever’s the opposite
Of a construction site
Distributed North

What were we meant
To feel if not political
Hate?   and failure…

Poverty lies and despair

For me, there’s a really awkward gear change at the start of the second stanza here, symptomatic of a straining for significance. The self-conscious moralising doesn’t arise naturally from what precedes it and has a bolted-on quality. It’s just not very subtle. The shortness of the lines, far from adding intensity, creates bathos. That said, the poem explores some interesting ideas. Witness, from later in the same poem:

Where do the dreaming kids
In the back seat come from speaking
Or not speaking
What kind of English
History can I tell them?

Migrants     intently we
Study the map for ideas

The speaker is problematizing the idea of Englishness and suggesting that we are all migrants, which is, of course, historically accurate. It’s just that the language here is not very interesting. The abstract noun History and the reference to English (the language) makes it look, well, abstract. The earnest I’m-giving-a-seminar tone is increased by the reference to his kids in the back seat of the car in the third person. The dreaming kids, they are just there to illustrate a general point. The abstraction can make the poetry look cold and rather academic.

I’ve got nothing against poetry being difficult or dealing with complex ideas; it’s a question of how you do it. In "Pictures from Mayhew", the politics is all the more powerful for being so understated. There, more often than not the Method works for Seed rather than against him.

© Gareth Twose, 2005

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