William Blake's real heritage?

Piers Hugill reviews Andy Croft and Adrian Mitchell (eds), 'Red sky at night: socialist poetry', Five Leaves Publications, 2003, pp304, £9.99

Reading Red sky at night, the reader’s first impression is one of nostalgia for a tradition now lost. As with the contemporary left in Britain generally, there is a feeling that socialism is somehow a thing of the past, an inexplicably enduring British tradition - like morris dancing or warm beer - that is now more of an anachronistic historical vestige than a vital and contemporary struggle for human freedom

As Andy Croft states in his introduction, the basic premise of this anthology is that it is British. This marks a change from previous English-language collections of radical and socialist writing, such as the Penguin book of socialist verse, or The Chatto book of dissent, in that these others represented an internationalist tradition, in the fullest sense of the term. Croft remarks: “We have only included poets from the Irish Republic, the Commonwealth and elsewhere if they wrote their most significant work while living in Britain.”

This highlights both the strength and weakness of this anthology. On the one hand Red sky at night is a much-needed collection, demonstrating the vital and ongoing role of socialist and radical thought in the development of 20th century British poetry, but this concentration on Britishness also marks it with a pervading sense of despair and, ultimately, a peculiarly insular parochialism. This parochialism manifests itself in the choice of tradition from which the editors choose the poetry in their collection. Despite some notable exceptions, such as the contribution from Roy Fisher, there is a noticeable lack of representation from avant gardist or even late modernist British poetry. And while Linton Kwesi Johnson and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze are welcome contributors, the absence of Kamau Brathwaite, for example, is inexplicable, even if he only remained in the UK for a short period.

While Brathwaite’s relatively short spell in the UK is perhaps an excusable ground for his absence, far less understandable is the omission of any of Bob Cobbing’s work, for example - or Eric Mottram, Alaric Sumner, Ric Caddell and Barry MacSweeney, for that matter. If any poet of the 20th century was a living embodiment of the radical, revolutionary spirit of William Blake, it was Cobbing. His manic and energetic sound pieces and the eclectic interpretations of his own abstract graphic works were similarly inspired by a radical puritan upbringing - in his case with the Plymouth Brethren. What was important about Blake was not only the content of his work, but the fact that he was prepared to radically rethink the whole basis of English poetry, and language - in sound, form and even its production in the medium of books. This is a tradition sadly missing from Red sky at night, and indeed most other anthologies of recent British poetry.

What remains is a lingering ‘academic’ British poetic tradition, which has never managed to throw off the 19th century and even now reluctantly, if at all, admits the advances and experiments made in continental poetics since the turn of the last century. While futurism, Dada, the surrealist enterprise, lettrism and so on are even now taken as aberrations by mainstream British poets, other traditions in poetry have moved far ahead in rethinking poetry and literature’s relation to language and power or gender and race, and have developed correspondingly new ways of dealing with these issues in both the form and content of their work.

Part of the little-England chauvinism evident in the choice of verse in Red sky at night is a result of this British reluctance to engage with these radicalisations of language per se, and with foreign-language traditions in particular. Post-war American poetry, for example, has fared much better. The Black Mountain poets (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and others), the New York school (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, etc) and more recently the ‘L-a-n-g-u-a-g-e’ group (Charles Bernstein, Steve MacCaffery, Ron Silliman, to name a few of the most important exponents) have each in turn literally revolutionised American poetic language, and are far more ‘visible’ elements in the life of American letters. Their UK equivalents (Cobbing et al), on the other hand, have been marginalised to the point of disappearance. This is the real tragedy of British letters, and British poetry, which remains far behind both the continent and our English-speaking cousins across the Atlantic and elsewhere.

And what is true of the avant garde engagement with language is also true of feminist poetry in the UK (and to a lesser extent ‘post-colonial’ writing, for want of a better term). To cite Carol Ann Duffy as the leading light of British feminist or women’s poetry is quite simply laughable. Liz Lochead is not much of a better bet. One only has to mention the names of Caroline Bergvall, Maggie O’Sullivan, Geraldine Monk, Rachel Blau DuPlessis or Hazel Smith to find infinitely more radical women’s voices, whose contribution to the advancement of our understanding of both poetic practice and women’s role in the production of language, gender and power relations - essential elements for any genuinely socialist poetics - is of a completely different order of magnitude. These names, however, are virtually unknown to the British poetry-reading public: an unhappy situation, as well as being symptomatic of the situation of the left in Britain.

While Red sky at night is nevertheless an enjoyable read, and represents a certain strand of socialist and revolutionary poetry very well, in the last analysis it does not do what its editors want it to, which is to trace the real heritage of William Blake, the most complete British poetic, and political, revolutionary. As Adrian Mitchell says, “Nobody is more modern or more revolutionary than William Blake.” True, but his living inheritors have been systematically removed from the bourgeois academy’s accepted cannon of literary history. So, instead of Bob Cobbing and Sean Bonney, we get Cecil Day Lewis and Sean O’Brien.

Mainstream British poetry of whatever stripe has become staid and tired, and has refused to keep up with its sister traditions in the USA, Canada or Australia. In no small part this is due to a continued national chauvinism and little-England amateurism on the part of its ‘old left’ practitioners, even where they attempt to sound the most radical. A continual harking back to the English ‘tradition’, when those who made it (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton - to name but three of the most obvious) were all unimaginably innovative in their time. There is something utterly out of place and lost in Tony Harrison’s rhyming couplets that can never convince me of their authenticity. And Mr Social Control could just as easily have written his ‘light verse’ ditties in the 18th century as the beginning of the 21st.

These examples of ‘late’ socialist poetry are only one more manifestation of the lack of either genuine internationalism or a willingness to take on truly ‘big’ ideas in art and writing. A lack in British (and perhaps more specifically English) letters that continues to damage our cultural life, as well as our common ability to imagine and represent a different and better future for all humanity.

For more on the tradition of radical and avant garde poetry in English see: