JIMMY REID & THE COWARDICE OF CONTEMPORARY POETRY
I would give all the poetry of Carol Duffy and Simon Armitage for Jimmy Reid’s 1972 speech on becoming Rector of Glasgow University. Why ? Because it has more poetry. To judge poetry as matter of technical skill, of course, would deny that affirmation. But poetry in the widest sense is what makes Reid’s speech memorable. Its defining quality is courage. It faces down our economic arrangements and declares our society unfit for human dignity. It asserts alienation and dehumanization as the modern ills. It refuses to compromise. By comparison, contemporary poetry is bloodless, conformist and pusillanimous.
Reid was writing out of passion. He believed every word he spoke and he was seeking to persuade in the interests of change. There is not an ounce of self-interest, of calculation of personal gain in the speech. On the contrary, he said:
“Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.”
The ideology that commands society today says the opposite: so long as I’m doing well, everyone and everything else can rot. This is not the ideology of bankers, chief executives, property speculators, commodity brokers, drug dealers, pop stars, footballers and entertainers; it is that of the people you would expect to be sickened by it and to fight hardest against it: intellectuals, thinkers, editors, novelists, poets, dramatists, critics. Which supposedly “leading” British poet since the convenient date of 1979 has produced a body of work at whose core is a poetic opposition to injustice? Which poet has made injustice an obvious theme or thread ? Which poet has evolved a language and a form which stands full square against alienation and dehumanization? None of the “leading” poets as far as I can tell. On the contrary, what we’ve had is ladishness, poetry as the new “rock music” (what’s the difference between rock music and pop music?) , poetry as a dark art, look-at-me-ism, communing with trees; a radical shift in the poetic culture to adjustment to the existing order. Reid again:
“It is my sincere contention that anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else.”
This is partly grim, Glaswegian humour but it echoes Martin Luther King’s remark that “the salvation of the world lies with the maladjusted”. Our leading poets are well-adjusted . They know how to network, keep their noses clean, make the right friends ( and usually the wrong enemies), find their way to fellowships, residences, professorships. They are fully signed up members of the Establishment at a time when the Establishment is founded on what Christopher Lasch called “the revolt of the elites”. Just as our democratic politics has been hollowed out so the people vote and the politicians and the rich do what they like (including dipping their hands in the till while lecturing the rest of us from their high horse) so our literature has become a shell, a show, a circus, a spectacle, a careerist merry-go-round, a birthday party of prizes and plaudits for a few good boys and girls who refuse to upset the apple cart. In the same way that the high-minded critique of our economic and social arrangements has been replaced by a pervasive concentration on technical economic details, so no-one talks of alienation or dehumanization any more just of GDP and mark-to-mark and budget deficits and interest rates as if the effect of these things on real people means nothing (as of course it doesn’t to the rich), so in poetry we focus on technical matters, replace serious criticism with back cover hype and refuse to accept, that like everything else, literature isn’t simply a show of technical virtuosity but a moral enterprise. In 1972 Reid could say, in all seriousness:
“Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision-making by the people for the people.”
Would you hear that today from any contender for the leadership of the Labour Party or from any bidder for the Labour nomination for Mayor of London ? On the contrary, Ken Livingstone condemns strikes and gives after-dinner speeches at £5,000 a time and would-be Labour leaders are at pains not to spook the City horses.
The poetry of Reid’s speech lies in its courage, its vision, its willingness to think beyond constraining circumstances. Contemporary poetry is frozen by the fear that crept over our society after 1979. What is the essence of that fear ? It is the anxiety that if you aren’t “one of us” you will be left out, dismissed, refused, belittled. Less than ten years after Reid’s speech, so well-received across the world, it became impossible to talk in such terms without the risk of losing all influence. Those who think poetry is exempt from political machinations should read Alan Filreis’s Counter-Revolution of The Word: The Attack Conservative on Modern Poetry 1945-1960. The hardly accidental rise of poetry as the new pop music was the decline of poetry as a serious engagement with modern reality. Poets entertain, run workshops, do signings and bank the money, but they don’t speak truth to power and because they self-censor over that their work rings like a cracked bell.
Modern poetry has become respectable. It has left bohemia behind and not just the physical milieu of low-cost accommodation, modest income, cheap pubs and cafes, which has disappeared anyway, but much more crucially, bohemia as a locale of the mind; that place apart where the go-getting and manipulation of the calculating “rat race” Reid dismissed is resisted. If poetry has become the new pop music, the poets are its stars and they expect the rewards and the life-style. Some of them are millionaires, but those whose earnings are much more modest nevertheless expect to be feted and lauded, to land the plum readings, to be at least paid for everything they do. Poetry has moved to the suburbs and the poets watch the world from behind their net curtains.
Or they retreat to the countryside.
Writing about alienated folk in the inner cities, about their poverty and despair, about the terrible coursing of culture the have endured, about the loss of their articulate leaders, men and women like Jimmy Reid, is not simply too difficult, it’s the short road to being ignored. Better write about trees etc, woods etc, weeds etc. And this with the pretence that to do so is to defend the environment against the depredations of our economic system. No, a sentimentalization of country life is exactly what the ruling ideology likes. It upholds its disdain for urban life and for the masses who inhabit the towns and cities. It is snobbery and in what way is snobbery any less disgraceful than racism ?
I throw down the challenge: find me a poem by one of our “leading” poets as defined by the journalists, the commentators, the editors, the competitions, the lit fests, which speaks with the authentic passion of Reid’s address against the terrible facts of our divided and disorientated society. Find me one poem by one of them which is as full of vision, of hope, of resistance. Find me one which speaks with the same voice of courage.
Reid ended his speech with a quotation from Burns:
“The golden age, we’ll then revive,
Embarrassing isn’t it ? Our poetry has lost its capacity to hope against hope because our poets have become careerists. You can see them at a lit fest near you soon, but they won’t rise to the level of Jimmy Reid.