The Silent Poetry of Brexit
With every vote in the House of Commons which adds new steps to the dance of death which is Brexit, the need for either primal scream therapy or a loud, protracted rebel yell becomes ever more apparent, unbearable, necessary and distant. In Scotland, up to and during the campaigns for a Scottish Parliament and all through the run up to the independence referendum in 2014, the people looked to their writers, especially their poets, to articulate their desires and to fuel their dreams. Indeed it was the writers, above all other political or arts practitioners, that kept the dream of representative democracy and autonomy alive and active in the public mind. Since the EU referendum of 2016 and the emergence of the snarling two-headed cynocephali of Brexit what have we heard from our poets? Not a lot.
So what has changed? Well, a lot of the writers who were active in the devolution and independence campaigns of the recent past are older. Some are disillusioned. Some are dead. The new generation of poets coming through have a different relationship with the public and with technology, its value, what it is for and how to use it than, for example, the generation of William McIlvanney. They also, as far as I can see, have a different concept of what the function of the writer is in a place like Scotland and a more relaxed and concurrently disengaged attitude to what exactly constitutes a nation in the first place, if they ever consider it at all. Then there is the relationship technology has to the language the new young writers use, cast as it often is within the limitations of twitter-speak and media-savvy argot. This is not a criticism, just an observation. Every writer in every epoch is both constrained and liberated by the language they use so there is nothing especially new in all of this. Language comes from the history of our human desires and achievements, it moves through the perennial now of the moment, our conflicts and resolutions, changing as it does so and moves off, inevitably, into the future and our imagination. Whether you are wrestling with an ink block in the 15th century or a 5G phone in the 21st as a poet your relationship with language is the same. Your obligation to its furtherance is the same. Your facility to enhance its beauty and add to its stock is the same. The dialectical juggling act of subject and object is the same. The writers relationship with language remains constant because the observational nature of the literary arts remains constant. Our use of language is our societal report. It is not a codicil, but central to the subject observed.
So why do I feel that the shambling beast of Brexit has rendered our poets dumb? Can we all be so gobsmacked at the sheer bone headed stupidity of what is happening now in 2019 that an entire cohort of Scotland’s poets have been traumatised into silence? Or could it be that the literary establishment of the state has been rather clever in what they have been up to in the past twenty years and have drawn the radical, dissenting voices of Scotland’s snarling bardic legion deep into the enemy camp? Let us face it: advocating for an independent Scotland from morn to gloaming doesn’t pay the rent.
Prizes, fellowships, residencies, bursaries and all the tardy gamut of baubles and awards – this, it could be argued, is what ruins writers, what draws them in. These are the siren songs of the British State. It creates an atmosphere of competition and rivalry and keeps the literary lions tame. Categories, genders, fads movements, trends, profiles, celebrity and all the formal tangential picnics consumerism demands contemporary writers indulge in in order to be heard kills off their radical edge at the click of a mouse. Add to this the proliferation of “creative writing” degrees, of all sorts, which are a feature of almost all universities, and which churn out writers who have “expectations” and a business and marketing plan, but are shorn of the thirst for revolution, then one can see how the dismal process of poetic emasculation goes on. This would explain, if anything can, why – as the Brexit charabanc drags us into what Brecht called “the dark times”, as liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism falls apart – the poets are silent. In Scotland it is palpable, like the stillness after a heavy fall of snow.
It is not romantic (is it?) to reiterate that in the 1990’s, in the run up to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, it was the writers who kept the dream of Scottish self-determination alive in the public mind. All throughout the 2014 campaign for Scottish independence, culminating in the referendum of September, on stages, in community centres and village halls and other public spaces, poets read their hymns to the aspiration of Yes from Wick to Wigton, to large audiences who drank them down in order to sustain their fire. I was involved in a lot of that, mostly in the Highlands and Islands, so I remember it well. 2014 is the only time I have had a play at the Edinburgh Festival more or less sold out for its entire run before the first performance. So is it unfair, unhelpful, to compare then to now? Is it just a given that absolutely everything now, including poetry, has been commodified? Here again we must look at technology and embrace, as best we can, the contradictions.
Things change and the old get left behind. That is just one of the rough facts of existence. Experience teaches that it is almost impossible for the generation born after 1950 to keep up technologically, even emotionally (never mind socially), with those born after 2000. Even those with the biggest hearts and the most open minds get trampled into the pixelated dust of the constant digital stampede. It takes a brave sixty-something year old to say that this is not all bad. Even if you think it is all happening in a parallel universe. Even if what passes for evidence counters everything you believe. Am I just looking in the wrong places for poems to reassure me that the world is not about to end? It would appear so.
According to Andre Breedt, of the UK book sales monitor Nielson BookScan, there is a passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials which is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018. Is this just the youth equivalent of the “Great British Bake-off” or “The Great British Sewing Bee” TV programmes, that indicate that in times of social stress the best thing to do is to return to the 1940’s? Seemingly not. Statistics from Nielsen BookScan show that poetry book sales grew by just over 12% last year, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m on 2017. Two-thirds of buyers were younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year.
Andre Breedt said that sales were booming because in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty,” he said. This is where digital technology comes into its own because Andre Breedt added that the form’s brevity also meant it could be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.
“Social media and technology have made poetry much easier to access and pass along, magnifying its impact. To me, it’s no coincidence that poetry as a form is being used to critically discuss events like Grenfell, the Manchester bombing and Brexit as well. It’s being repurposed as this really dynamic and vital form that can capture, in a very condensed way, the turbulent nature of contemporary society – and give us the space to struggle with our desire to understand and negotiate a lot of what is going on at the moment. Poetry as a form can capture the immediate responses of people to divisive and controversial current events. It questions who has the authority to put their narrative forward, when it is written by people who don’t otherwise hold this power. Writing poetry and sharing it in this context is a radical event, an act of resistance to encourage other people to come round to your perspective. The one great advantage we have now is the speed at which we can share new work.”
Such optimism and positivity is humbling. As we struggle in Scotland to organise our future freedom, which will emerge (I have no doubt) from the wreckage of Brexit and the result of the inevitable second referendum on independence, or however we achieve independence, is the dull unmemorable language of politicians we are constantly being subjected to being recycled and made joyously anew by our poets, our new young poets? For we cannot be content with the forgettable utterances of delusional Tories or even managerialist Scottish Nationalists. This is not the music of the moment that we need. We must cultivate a hunger for a more memorable, lyrical language of liberation. You may not be all that impressed with the utterances of contemporary poetry and you may be even less than impressed by its aesthetics, or you may even be exasperated at the laborious attempts to harness half formed feelings which have not yet grown into thoughts, but we must demand that our poets give us the poems we need to move forward beyond expressiveness, and we must be optimistic that they can and will.
As Bertolt Brecht put it in “Poetry and Context” (1940),
“Poetry is never mere expression. The absorption of a poem is an operation of the same order as seeing and hearing, i.e. something a great deal less passive. Writing poetry has to be viewed as a human activity, a social function of a wholly contradictory and alterable kind, conditioned by history and in turn conditioning it. It is the difference between ‘mirroring’ and ‘holding up a mirror’.”
History in the main is made up, despite the big events, from seemingly ephemeral moments which are usually deeply local. These are the contradictions and alterations Brecht was alluding to. In an interview with the University of Colorado, just after his seminal anthology “Radical Renfrew” was published in 1990, the late great Tom Leonard said,
“The structural institutions, the competition for grades, prizes or scholarships by students writing essays on literature for examiners, is all opposed to the very nature of what literature actually is. Such practice turns the living dialogue between writer and reader into a thing, a commodity to be offered in return for a bill of exchange, the certificate or ‘mark’. But no caste has the right to possess bills of exchange on the dialogue between one human being and another.”
One cannot help but think that the flowering of poetry in the cybersphere is just another “commodity to be offered in return for a bill of exchange”? Let us not forget where we are and where we, as a people and a polity, are drifting towards, which is a needless unknown, courtesy of the Tory Party and the currently feckless Labour Party. So where is the poetry which challenges the right-wing coup that is Brexit? Where are the Scottish poets who are attempting to lance the suppurating boil which is the neo-liberal elite? Where are the poems which celebrate the Welfare State and protect workers rights, which warn us about trashing human rights and the natural world? Where are the sublime verses which show up the famine road which is the British No Deal exit from the European Union and which leads to martial law? Am I demanding too much of our poets? I cannot afford to believe that I am for I cannot bear the silence.
©George Gunn 2019
George Gunn’s “After The Rain: New and Selected Poems” is available from Kennedy & Boyd, ISBN 978-1-84921-171-0- 9000