James Scully  





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.

       Take, for example, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrockby T. S. Eliot, which expresses brilliantly the anxiety of the petty bourgeois individual (and by implication the poet) in the early twentieth century, in a society riven with class conflict. Or take Easter 1916, where W B Yeats attempts to romanticize and mythologize a republican, socialist-let rebellion against English colonial rule, by characterizing the uprising as a “terrible beauty”. He is expressing the anxieties of the Anglo-Irish ruling class, caught between a measure of support for Irish nationalism, and a half-recognition of progressive politics, yet terrified by the thought of social revolution. And he is doing it very, very well.

       Such poems can be appreciated by anyone, even though our political orientation as communists will always lead us, as writers and readers, to adopt a strategic perspective, a cultural policy if you like, which prefers artistic practices that align themselves with our political project in one way or another, and which eschews individualism, elitism, and pointless obscurity.


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.

       There are thus not many poets who can claim a consistent commitment to the ‘communist poetic’. And fewer still who have been active in revolutionary politics. The American poet James Scully is however one such. Before reading the collection of Scully’s poetry under review, I had barely heard of him, had read hardly any of his poetry, and the littler I had read I hadn’t really understood. Frankly, I prejudged him, assuming he was part of the dominant strand in modern American poetry, which is apolitical, even anti-political, and which he skewers nicely in the poem with which I started this column.

       It took time, too, for the current collection to sink in and detonate its meanings, like a depth charge. Even now, as I write the third and final version of this column, I am seeing new things in some of his poems. I would therefore like to present some from the collection, primed with a few brief comments in the hope that they help you ‘see’ the poems a bit quicker than I did.

Miguel Enriquez Espinoza.JPG

Miguel Enriquez Espinosa a founder of the Chilean political party and former left-wing guerrilla organization Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR)

Biographical details

James Scully was born in 1937 in Connecticut , to a working class family. In the 1960s he was involved in the anti-war movement in the USA . In the 70s he moved to Chile , arriving weeks after the CIA-backed coup that brought a Pinochet-led military junta to power. Scully worked with the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) and wrote quietly hair-raising poems about the Chilean experience, like this:


Now Sing


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.


Victor Jara

                       sin guitarra

who'd held out with bloody stumps

                                      and sung


       Notice the effective use of line-endings--enjambment, as it is technically called. They work to produce a jagged, unsettling effect, making the reader confront the dreadful reality depicted. They are mimetic of political conflict, challenge and struggle, used to explode a language in danger of being manipulated to conceal true meaning or to gloss over suffering, and to reveal and expose revolutionary truth. This is a characteristic strength of his poetry, as you can also see from the opening poem, and from the ones which follow.  

       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 USA in the 80s and 90s. But he continued to write, and the collection under review covers all of his writing from 1967 to 2011.  

       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.

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