Monday, October 24, 2016

Poetry, Left and Right

Recently, my contributor copy of the New Boots and Pantisocracies anthology plopped through my letter-box. It is a good-looking book, with many startling poems by some of the best contemporary British poets, engaging in sometimes angry, sometimes oblique fashion with the outcome of the 2015 general election; an election which, as we all know, has had untold ramifications, setting the country on the path to Brexit.
Sheenagh Pugh has quite rightly raised the question of the apparent political homogeneity of the work offered here, and of that submitted to the original (and ongoing) blog that gave the anthology its name. As W.N. Herbert says in his introduction, it is (or has become) an avowedly left-wing project; and, indeed, is published by Smokestack Books, who specialise in publishing work in that tradition. That in itself is not a problem for the book, of course, but Pugh and others have worried why such consensus reigns in the world of poetry; or, at least, appears to.
Public Writer, Jean Jacques de Boissieu, 1790, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In one discussion I noticed on-line, a poet who is not included in the anthology, and who clearly doesn't share its political leanings, has argued that this left consensus among poets is a reason why poetry is alienated from a public he considers to be made up of a majority of conservatives. On a number of levels, this seems rather tenuous. Plenty of contemporary poetry, even by those who are part of this alleged left-liberal cabal, is not overtly political, or is perhaps at most vaguely humanistic. There are plenty of other reasons why people are not interested in poetry, which have nothing to do with its ideological content. Nevertheless, this does leave us with the slightly embarrassing question of why there is so little political diversity to be found, not just in the New Boots anthology, but in contemporary British poetry more widely.
The problem, I think, has to do with the nature of the contemporary politics more than with contemporary poetics. Quite simply, the dominant political ideology of our time makes the adoption of what we might call a conservative position in poetry a vexed undertaking. Our on-line commentator, who finds it problematic that poets don't represent the views of the alleged majority, is wrong-headed in a number of respects, not the least of which is to assume that voting preferences actually tally with the views that voters hold on particular issues (that link is not as strong as commonly imagined). Yet the chief misconception here is to assume that it is the function of art to reflect back to 'the majority' what it already (thinks it) thinks. This is a dubious assumption, even leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of other social institutions already doing this job quite efficiently. There is ultimately something authoritarian about it, as if the only thought that should be expressed is the kind that everyone can agree on and that will trouble nobody.
The point about poetry, or art in general, is that it is not affirmative of the status quo. This does not mean that it cannot affirm something (the beauty of nature, the value of human relationships, etc.), but it does so in a context in which those things it affirms are not to be taken for granted or are fragile and threatened. Poetry is a response to a world that is not as it should be (when was the world ever as it should be?) and is a corrective to those who peddle the notion that everything is in its right place. This certainly leaves room for conservative or right-wing writers (understood here as a very broad category), as the likes of Eliot, Pound, Benn, Hamsun, Celine, Nietzsche, Waugh, or, today, Houellebecq demonstrate (I'm not going to draw any conclusions here about my inability to name an example of a female writer. This is probably my ignorance. For reasons that will become clear, I don't think Ayn Rand really fits). However, what links these writers is their relationship to progress, or what their contemporaries consider as such. The writer of the right, or the conservative writer, is the writer railing against what everybody else consider to be the great advances of their time. All of those things the left tends to think are inherently progressive (technology, democracy, cosmopolitanism, equality, materialism, humanism, etc.) are held up to scrutiny by the literary right, which looks back to the values of a world (very possibly of their own retrospective construction) that is being bulldozed by a new form of society that they abhor. The left's relationship to progress is perhaps more straightforward: They think progress is a good thing, just not the kind of progress we are getting now. Their writing is against a variety of progress, not against progress itself.
In the prevailing ideological climate, the position of the left-liberal poet is clearly easier to negotiate. If we restrict our view to the UK for the moment, we are currently witnessing the dominance of an ideology that calls itself conservative or invokes the position of conservatism, as in the case of UKIP and its demand to 'get our country back'. However, this 'conservatism' is an ideological smoke-screen for a brand of neo-liberalism that worships the 'creative destruction' brought about by increasingly restless flows of global capital and rejects any impediment to such flows as they tear down borders, uproot ways of life and trash the global environment. This is not a conservative project, but a revolutionary one, yoked to a notion of progress that has increasingly lost sight of the needs of individuals and communities in favour of the needs of corporations and their shareholders. Frankly, conservatives should be in up in arms about it. This would, surely, be a position from which to write, but one looks in vain for British poets who can take up this tradition. Where they do exist, they seem to fall into the trap of endless attacks on the 'liberal intelligentsia'. Not that that this intelligentsia doesn't deserve and need critical scrutiny, but at the moment this seems to me to be largely an excuse for not addressing the real nub of the problem, which is the nature of the contemporary capitalist system, from a conservative standpoint.
Conservative writers of the twentieth century recognised that the society that capitalism had created was the target of their critique – they just formulated a different kind of critique to that proposed by the left. The fact that conservative writers, if they exist outside the pages of the opinion columns in the tabloid press, fail to rise to recognise this today, must surely be due to the ideological confusion that has been brought about by the importation of neo-liberal ideology into British politics. Free-marketers have found no ruse more effective for selling their project than to drape it in the colours of reactionary cultural conservatism. While UKIP and the Conservative Party strive for a society of the market, dreaming of a future UK as a kind of new Singapore off the European coast, they promise the electorate that such a society will return them to a culturally homogeneous, insular world of national sovereignty, when exactly the opposite is the case. For truly successful conservative writers to emerge, I would argue, this is what they would have to write against, not just against the 'left-liberal elite', which is (let's face it) by far the lesser threat to the things conservatives (in the true sense of the term) hold dear. That we do not have such writers is an impoverishment, even if I would have to spend a lot of my time radically disagreeing with them about almost everything.

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