Monday, April 13, 2015
In Answer to the Question, Whether I Have Anything to Say on Water Charges in Ireland
I am against the water charges in Ireland. Good for anyone who doesn’t fancy paying them. I haven’t written any poems on this subject because it doesn’t spark my imagination. I don’t live in Ireland and can’t name more than one or two serving Irish government ministers. I can’t force into existence a poem that doesn’t want to be born. I’m sure this represents a political cop-out on my part, but not one I have any real will to put right. If I did fancy mounting a case for my defence I could point to some poems I’ve written inspired by the Scottish independence referendum which contain a fair deal of bile directed at the No campaign, Scottish Labour, etc. I say ‘If’, because I resist any impulse to defend my writing on political grounds. I would consider my politics as well to the left of the Guardian but yes, I am the kind of leftist who expresses his Marxism more by reading Adorno on Schoenberg than by going on demonstrations. Just now I find myself wanting to write poems, not about contemporary politics at all but mediaeval Orkney and Olivier Messiaen’s organ music. I think poetry is, at base, an indefensible art: it is inherently irresponsible and should not have to apologise for this fact. My understanding of art has been comprehensively shaped by Marxist theory, but I follow Marx in his belief that the development of art and the development of society are not the same thing: parallel, overlapping, quarrelsomely divergent, mutually-shadowing perhaps, but not the same thing.
Art is a sphere of freedom and possibility. It offers freedom *to* and freedom *from*: I am free to write about political subjects that move me, but also free from any compulsion to write on prescribed topics, on the immediate, on today’s headlines. I can experience the reality of art as easily, and perhaps more easily, by writing about the middle ages than by writing about water charges in Ireland. But that’s just me. I place no one else under my personal prescriptions. Many poets have chosen the ‘freedom from’ model, and not just poets normally thought of as writing at an oblique angle to the politics of their day. There are no Emily Dickinson poems directly about slavery and abolitionism, despite her living through the Civil War. But equally James Clarence Mangan lived through the famine of the 1840s, writing as the figurehead of nationalist Young Ireland, and look at his poems: all that anger and despair channelled into bizarre games with fake translations and personae. Why? Was this a failure of political nerve? Why couldn’t he just say it out straight? Because, for me, this is what happens when art and politics collide. The outcome cannot be predicted or prescribed. If it could, it wouldn’t be art.
But take more politically plain-speaking poets, if these examples seem evasive. Try reading Neruda, Brecht or MacDiarmid ‘straight’ as political poets defending the indefensible, which they frequently did, and you get a terrible, just terrible Stalinist mess. (And that’s just the left: as for Eliot or Pound…) Enjoying their work doesn’t require neutering their politics, but seeing the cages of politics, tyranny, and ideology for what they are, and art for what it is too, rattling its chains in the corner. I love Brecht’s poetry, but when I read him I see art and politics rub against each other more in the style of a car-crash than a mating dance, and a car-crash that numbers him among its victims as much as anyone else. It’s still exhilarating though, and my enthusiasm for both him and leftist politics emerges from the experience unscathed. I think a useful test for anyone interested in poetry and politics is to choose a writer whose politics you find repellent and ask yourself why, nevertheless, their poetry is so good. A certain Irish poet celebrating his 150th anniversary this year does the trick nicely, I find. No social democrat he (‘What’s equality? Muck in the yard.’) ‘Heart-mysteries there’, as he also said. A better world is certainly possible, and better poetry too. On which note, I propose to adjourn for a rereading of Adorno’s ‘Reconciliation Under Duress’.