Is there such a genre as ‘political poetry’?
I don’t know. Tony Harrison, maybe. Sometimes Adrian Mitchell. Although there is a sense, I think, in which politics strikes to the roots of everything. We’re all governed, in some sense or other. And sometimes the words of government and the words of poetry meet. Especially when a poem reaches to the troubling heart of government gone wrong.
This is true of some of the poems in Jonty Driver’s Citizen of Elsewhere. Born and educated in South Africa, Jonty’s opposition to apartheid and suspected membership of the African Resistance Movement led to exile from his homeland for many years. He wrote a biography of Patrick Duncan, the political thinker and activist. Duncan is in these poems, and so is the principle of facing up to death and worse than death:
Blood eats blood, but how
We do not know.
Justice too is slow.
There are such things done by men to men
We can hardly bear to hear them again.
High above London he lies,
Never doubtful now. His eyes
Do not pretend
Disease will end—
Where sun has flaked and knived colonial hills,
Death is a drought of blood that only kills.
And yet, every single last
Loss must burst from its past—
Like dying. So,
He died; and so
Remember Patrick Duncan, who to the end
Faced the faceless dark as a friend.
Jonty Driver is a lyrical writer. His phrases and cadences sing; and the effect is uplifting as well as scary. In the face of human history, fearfulness is right. One of the poems, ‘Much-Afraid’s Song’, delicately touches on this. ‘Much-Afraid’ is Mr Dispondency’s daughter in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Remember her—“tongue a little bit tied, hesitant maid”? But by the end of the poem, the first person voice speaks for the poet too:
Since I’m still for much of the time afraid,
I shall sing some words no one can hear;
The river will swallow them up—and me:
It’s the only way I can free me from fear.
It struck me as curious that I should be publishing both Jonty Driver and Tom Vaughan (not his real name) at the same time, because Tom, too, is ‘political’. Recently retired from a senior post in what we used to call the Foreign Office (now the FCO), he has been writing for a long time. There was a novel once, and there have been poems throughout—mainly formal, and wry and often witty—sometimes published in HQ Quarterly. He has intelligent fun in verse. But there’s more to it than that.
In 2010, there was a Sampler of Tom’s work (sold out now) which included ‘The Mower’, a poem I put on a card because I liked (and continue to like) it so much:
I cut the grass again today.
It took three hours, but now I know
that man was made his lawn to mow.
It’s smooth enough to play croquet.
The shorn blades smell of long ago.
I cut the grass again today.
I’m basking in the afterglow.
I sit and sip a beer, although
under my feet it starts to grow.
You can easily see the playfulness in that poem but there’s an edge too. And that edge is honed and sharpened in Envoy. There is political comment here, yes. There’s lightness, and there’s pain. I have never before worked with a poet who worked in person with Tony Blair and put him in a poem!
For most people in the UK, military entanglements happen on the other side of the world. We know there are diplomats involved but not who they are. Easy to forget they have hearts and minds and feelings, when all is buried by officialdom and negotiation and intelligence and other abstract nouns.
But they do.
Appropriate’s a lovely word—
it doesn’t mean a thing.
So useful when we need a text
Appropriate measures may be used . . .
appropriate forces sent.
Appropriately you’ll never know
exactly what we meant
when unforeseen—of course—events
raise the question why
inappropriately innocent people