HOW can poets contribute to the debates taking place around this general election?
At the moment, it is hard enough for anyone to be heard above the white noise of cliche, point-scoring, dodgy statistics and overacting.
On the whole, politicians do not read poetry and most poets do not trust politicians. Most poems are less memorable than a soundbite and more demanding than a party political broadcast. Not many poems have ever changed anyone’s opinion and, outside the prize-giving circuit, no-one is interested in what poets have to say.
Yet poetry is still a contested space, one of the many ways in which competing common-senses can be articulated, reinforced and challenged.
A poem can bear witness, clarify ideas and articulate an emotional line of march.
As the political process increasingly narrows to a series of cosmetic choices within the neoliberal consensus, poets can ask wider questions and assert the importance of values that go beyond electoralism, economism and dreams of office.
Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford began editing Scotia Nova: Poems for the Early Days of a Better Nation (Luath Press, £7.99) before last year’s Scottish referendum. Some of these poems argue for independence, others against it. But all of the 38 poets in the book clearly share the idea that “a better Scotland is possible,” that democracy and socialism are indivisible and that both are required if Scotland is to change for the better.
As David Betteridge argues in Citizens’ Song: “We are the loom, the shuttle, and the cloth,/ the thread, the needle,/and the tailor’s care;/we are the wearer’s nakedness,/and the garments that are ours to wear.”
This is a confident and upbeat collection, drawing on a shared history and language — the book’s subtitle is taken from Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark — invoking the ghosts of Hugh MacDiarmid, Margo MacDonald, Naomi Mitchison, Rabbie Burns and Lenin.
It is also a book full of wonderful individual poems and worth buying just for the contributions by Angus Calder, Gerda Stevenson, Angus Reid, Colin Donati, Alistair Findlay and Rab Wilson.
There are two poems in Gaelic by Aonghas MacNeacail and one by the the Syrian-born Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, for whom Scotland “opened her heart like a threshing floor/for the wheat of my poems… and with all her splendour she paves a path of hope for me,/for all strangers.”
Donald Adamson writes about his hopes for “oor bairns/and oor bairns’ bairns,/blatterin doon the was o prejudice,/openin thir minds, airms, herts,/tae brithers, sisters, kent or unkent, aa.”
For Barry Fowler, “the ballot box’s democratic lathe” can fashion a future that will “gie awbody the right t’equality/instead o’ wars, injustice, wanton greed,/no restin till we see aw nuclear missiles/replaced wi nature’s bombs, bricht pollen seed/blawn frae the flowery croons o’ glorious thistles.”
The idea behind Campaign in Poetry: The Emma Press Anthology of Political Poems (£7.50) is to “challenge voter apathy and engage with the state of democracy in the UK” and to “make a case for greater empathy across society and for politics conducted on a human level.”
Editors Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright have collected work by 18 poets, mostly young — only five have previously published books — including some good poems by Kayo Chingonyi, Richard O’Brien and Rachel Long. Anna Kisby and Elizabeth Barrett provide small utopias, while Rosie Miles’s Cuts is an effective piece of satirical exaggeration.
There are poems about powerlessness by Ellie Danak and James Trevelyan and several about political alienation, notably Holly Hopkins’s The General Election in which two bees canvass at her door: “up close they were surprisingly tall/with blow-dried furs/and cheaply printed leaflets./Their mandibles were distracting.”
By far the most successful poems in the book are Clare Pollard’s Hamelin and Luke Kennard’s Poor Door, two poems whose ambiguous use of “we” and “our” slyly challenges the reader to take sides.
But, on the whole, this is a curiously unpolitical book. It effectively articulates some of the reasons why young people don’t vote, rather than making a compelling case for being involved in the political process.
Despite the title, it feels like an anthology of disengagement, rather than a book of commitment.
Steve Pottinger’s fourth collection more bees bigger bonnets (Ignite Books, £8) is a strong and timely mix of rant and ridicule, condemnation and comedy. There is a long funny poem in which Edward Snowden stays in Pottinger’s back bedroom and strong attacks on media hypocrisy —“you’ll never see a nipple on Facebook” — injustice — Hillsborough, Lampedusa, Palestine, Stephen Lawrence — and the Tory tabloids: “Just keep blaming the Bongo Bongos.”
Pottinger is best when he lets his utopian imagination run riot, as in The girl next door, The day we elected and No-one likes an angry poet.
In the brilliant You ask me where I want to live, my love, he imagines a world where the Daily Mail believes that “the benefit system/is the mark of a society/not afraid to offer help to those in need” and “kids learn about poverty and homelessness/in history books,” where:
“politicians start speeches on british values/by saying they spent yesterday watching the grace/and beauty of swallows hunting over summer meadows/and they lost themselves in it for hours/and the speech never got written/and sod it, it was worth it/and what is this nationalistic flag-weaving bullshit anyway?/and when we vote for them they say no thanks/they’d rather be watching the swallows/and why don’t we crack on with sorting things out ourselves...”