Poets Delight

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(275)

Review of 'Red Sky at Night', eds. Andy Croft and Adrian Mitchell, Five Leaves £9.99

Socialist poetry: two words to conjure images of earnest but artless efforts by would-be Woody Guthries. But this is a collection to dispel such prejudices, with two centuries worth of poems ranging from the melancholy to the inspirational, the whimsical to the sharply satirical.

This is an impressively broad collection, which Andy Croft tells us aims to be 'representative and suggestive, rather than comprehensive'. His co-editor Adrian Mitchell, who describes himself as 'a socialist-anarchist-pacifist-Blakeist-revolutionary', is evidently trying to fulfil a similar role with a remarkably heterogeneous range of political influences.

The collection starts with William Blake, whose ability to resonate with a modern audience is attested to by the use of his second poem featured here, 'London', by the Verve as the basis for their song 'History'. Via Shelley, Dickens and William Morris we soon arrive at the First World War. One of the main themes running through the book is the horror of war. But unlike some collections it leads many of the poets to invoke resistance. Jonathon Denwood, for instance, wrote in December 1914, 'For whom and what is this foul slaughter done?/Tell us, ye rulers mighty in your seats - /And then shall people rising 'gainst their cheats/Drive you from senate, camp, and mart, and throne'.

'Red Sky at Night' really gives a taste of the inspiration of workers fighting back - from WN Ewer's promise that 'Our God-damned English gentlemen,/Shall find out what we are' to Andrew Salkey's comment that 'Giants can be surprised' in his injunction to 'Remember Haiti, Cuba, Vietnam'. The latter poem refers to 'our third of the world', and a number of the contributions show similar illusions in various state capitalist regimes. But that doesn't necessarily translate into dreary 'socialist realist' verse. Although William Soutar's 'To Karl Marx' only needs a whiff of incense to complete his most inappropriate of paeans, others, like Peter Blackman, in 'My Song is for all men', combines the appalling phrase 'Highest above all let me praise Marx Lenin and Stalin' with a truly beautiful celebration of internationalism and solidarity. Hamish Henderson, in the 'Ballad of the Taxi Driver's Cap', is either being very facetious or very misguided when his ditty proclaims 'your uncle Joe's a worker/and a very decent chap/because he smokes a pipe and wears/a taxi driver's cap'. Either way, the effect is memorable.

The book is full of such unexpected wit and satire. Bob Dixon, for instance, describes how he's burnt all his political books, got rid of his tools in case they're mistaken for weapons, made sure there are no Cubans or US citizens in his house (and put the cat out just in case), and wonders if the US will still invade it. Another favourite example is Osbert Sitwell's sardonic attack on the Amritsar massacre, whose ridiculous logic is like a John Bird and John Fortune sketch:

'A good General
Can usually
Kill most of the people
Who laugh at him,
Either on his own side,
Or which is more difficult
On the other side.
The best General
Is the one
Who kills the most people;
Therefore, the best General
Is the one
At whom
The greatest number of people/Laugh.'

I suspect Bertolt Brecht may also have been influenced by Sitwell's style. Unfortunately, this is one of many questions left unanswered by the absence of any biographical sketches to accompany the poems. Given the consensus among socialists about the need to contextualise art in order to understand it, this is a shame. Still, if it prompts readers to seek out more work by some excellent poets, this collection has served its purpose.