By Zoe Maggs
Subedited by Catherine de Guise
For the early part of the twentieth century, poetry was difficult to understand for the majority of readers in Britain. Writers such as T.S Eliot had taken their high-culture seats, pumping out what we now term ‘modernist’ poetry; writing only to be enjoyed by the educated few, not intended for the lower classes. Without an extensive knowledge of Greek myths and classics, a degree from a prestigious university, or the ability to Google unfamiliar phrases within an instant, poetry was, on the whole, inaccessible.
In light of the atrocities of the First World War, a group of creatives now known as the ‘thirties poets’ bandied together in a deliberate attempt to move away from such elitism in literature. Using poetry as a means of advocating a welfare state and a socialist Britain, these artists brought political poetry to the common man’s living room for the first time.
In ‘Bagpipe Music’ (1937), Louis MacNeice took his chance to forsake the rate of unemployment: ‘It’s no go the Government grants, it’s no go the elections/ Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension’, the speaker rants. Meanwhile, John Betjeman’s ‘Slough’ (1937) gleefully invited bombs to fall on the the town of Slough, to obliterate ‘that man with double chin/ Who’ll always cheat and always win’, demonstrating a clear disapproval of inequality and capitalism.
So what about now, in the current climate after the US election and in the second term of Tory Britain? Have the thirties poets made a lasting impact? Harry Giles complains that ‘printed poetry itself has become culturally marginal and impossibly unprofitable’; it seems that the digital revolution has taken over, and in some respects, the younger generation’s interest in poetry seems to be moving more toward spoken word performances, with channels such as Button Poetry now available on YouTube, offering an audience of over ten million, in the case of Neil Hilborn.
However, before we look back at the thirties poets as a bygone project impossible for us to achieve, it is also important to recognise that organised attempts to publish political poetry are still being made. The Alliance of Radical Booksellers have created a new book prize, the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing, in order to attract such works. Poems for Jeremy Corbyn was published this year – an anthology featuring fifty contributors and delving into themes such as war, climate change, and growing inequality.
Tony Harrison, often considered one of Britain’s best poets, also continues to poke and prod at high-culture – just as the thirties poets did – inverting the modernists’ serious involvement with the classics while discussing issues of class in many of his poems. Written in a similar vein, Shane Levene’s ‘The Unknown Poets of Crazy Town’ also mocks the literary elite for discussing ‘medieval literature’ while keeping themselves comfortably removed from the realities of today’s societal problems.
Across the pond, American poets are also creating political ripples. Poets such as Lacy Roop and Dorothy Allison eschew the canon and its classics entirely. Focussing on contemporary issues within sexuality, gender, and in Allison’s case, class, the style of these poets are in keeping with the gutsy and rebellious lines of the thirties creatives. Roop and Allison aren’t afraid to use harsh and vulgar language to convey their message; ‘bastard’, ‘white trash’, ‘cuntsucker’ are in common usage.
While these contemporary poets are certainly not afraid to get stuck in when discussing difficult issues, we aren’t quite seeing the same deliberate attempts as those made by the thirties poets in terms of advocating specific solutions to societal problems. Perhaps this is where the world wide web steps in. With a growing online readership, and a large viewership for spoken-word, these poets can spark debates on important political issues on the global stage.