Any anthology of poetry that takes part of its title from the great revolutionary poet Shelley’s cry of anger and call to arms in response to the Peterloo Massacre, The Mask of Anarchy, and reprints the poem in full, is going to be worth reading.
Add to this the works of Milton, Blake, Brecht and Langston Hughes (to name but a few) and it becomes an even more attractive proposition.
Okri’s stated aim in putting the volume together is also compelling — to make poetry, both old and new, once again an aid to the oppressed and provide inspiration for those who are fighting back and who speak truth to power.
He dispels the myth that political poetry is an anathema to “real” poetry — arguing, “If in this anthology you hear the thunder of politics first we have failed. You ought to first hear the music of poetry. It is the poetry which makes the political element powerful, never the other way around.”
He writes that “a wind of recidivism is sweeping across the world. Everywhere there is felt to be a hunger for a new dimension in public life that can tell us the truth about what is happening” and poetry can play a crucial role in that search for truth and justice. His own recent poem “Grenfell Tower, June 2017” is an eloquent decrying of the rich and powerful.
And of course much of what is included is inspiring to read. Who has not been moved when confronted by the beauty of Blake’s Jerusalem: “I will not cease from Mental Fight,/ Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand…”? Who, that has despaired at the brutality of a system that seeks to crush our spirits, would not inwardly smile at Brecht’s “In Dark Times — for Walter Benjamin”? “In dark times,/ Will there also be singing?/ Yes, there will also be singing./ About the dark times.”
And yet there is something missing in the volume, or some things that feel out of place. This is not a case of suggesting that Okri made a bad selection for the volume. That would be churlish in the extreme; we all have our favourites. Take Shakespeare, who indeed can be radical and inspiring. Think of Timon of Athens or Lear on justice.
However, I find the inclusion of St Crispin’s Day, which is a wonderful piece of prose, a little off cue. While Henry’s “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile…” can be read as a call for equality of all men, it can also be read as an early version of “we are all in it together”. Which, indeed, the common soldier Peter states as such in the play.
And while Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, who both feature here, were indeed voicing a radical desire for a better world, the exclusion of Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron points to something different in a volume that seeks to give voice to “a new generation”.
It ends up being too polite and safe a volume. There is no contemporary anger in it to match Shelley’s Mask, no burning commitment of Blake’s Jerusalem. And yet such anger exists: think of the verse of Lowkey — it has not a single entry of rap! The volume sets out high goals but fails to achieve them because of these exclusions.