communist review · spring 2012 · page 33
The Legislators of the World
However, at the other end of the spectrum, the
original, collectively-rooted voice of poetry breaks through in protest, in
accusation, in anger at the way true and free human development is cramped by
capitalism. The perspectives, themes, tones and technique of this kind of
poetry and literary criticism are alive to history, to materialism, to social
responsibilities and political imperatives. These writers believe, like
Shelley, that “the most unfailing herald, companion, or follower of the
awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or
institution is poetry” and, in that famous phrase, that “poets are the
unacknowledged legislators of the world”.
That doesn’t mean to say, of course, that all socialist poetry is good. We have all read attempts at political poetry that may be intellectually correct, but which have little literary value: no interesting original images, little sense of rhythm or rhyme, no depth or resonance, differing little from discursive prose. And we have all read good poems written from a non-socialist perspective.
Class and Class Struggle
Modern poets are sprinkled all along this ‘spectrum of engagement’. And individual poets do of course write the occasional political poem. The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, is notably willing to write about current events from
a broadly left perspective. Some poets move along the spectrum in the course of their writing career, as Auden, Spender, and MacNeice in the 1930s moved away from their commitment to communism. Or the way the contemporary poet Simon Armitage has currently forsaken engaged, realist writing about modern working class life, to rewriting mediaeval courtly lyrics. Let’s hope he comes back to Planet Earth before he becomes the next Poet Laureate.
Miguel Enriquez Espinosa a founder of the Chilean political party and former left-wing guerrilla organization Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR)
James Scully was born in 1937 in
NOW sing: the guards howling
beat him with obscenities.
But he did.
His legend is
He was singing
when they shot him.
Even for them, it was too much
they killed him,
they couldn't kill him enough.
who'd held out with bloody stumps
Unsurprisingly, the combination of powerful
political poetry and intense activism made it difficult for Scully to get
published in many mainstream poetry journals in the
Here is a poem taken from the collection about 9/11. In it, Scully references Hokusai’s well-known print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. The image of the overpowering wave works both to intensify the horror of the attack, but also to create an avenging, redemptive element to the interpretation of the events.