POETRY AND FASCISM
Dave Coates v. Toby Martinez de las Rivas
Rob A. Mackenzie
I STUDIED THEOLOGY AT NEW COLLEGE, Edinburgh University, back in the late eighties. One of the most interesting courses was Theology, Ideology and Culture, taught by the late Alistair Kee, which examined Liberation Theology, along with Black, Feminist and the U.S. New Right movements. That course taught me how to cross-examine texts purporting to contain truth, to be suspicious of liberalism and indeed of any ideology optimistic about changing communal human behaviour, and to question orthodoxies, particularly those handed down by the powerful and patriarchal. It also showed me both the necessity and the incipient pitfalls of ideological criticism.
Dave Coates is a poetry critic based in Edinburgh. His research into (lack of) diversity in UK poetry publications has had tangible and valuable results, especially in the recruitment and mentoring of BAME poetry reviewers. I wouldn’t say I know Dave all that well, but we chat at literary events every so often. Sometimes, I think he writes very good criticism. Toby Martinez de las Rivas (‘Martinez’ from now on) is a poet with two collections published by Faber, Terror and Black Sun. He lives in Spain and had previously worked for seven years with a project supporting refugees and asylum seekers in London. I met him briefly after a reading in Edinburgh and then, more recently, over cappuccino in an Edinburgh café, where I subjected him to intense interrogation for about ninety minutes.
I have been following a few Facebook and Twitter conversations regarding both a blog article Coates wrote about Martinez and a later poem (From ‘Titan / All Is Still’) Martinez had published in Poetry magazine in November 2018. These conversations have not been especially uplifting. In fact, it’s like watching footage of delegates at the Tory Party conference singing their hearts out to Blake’s ʻJerusalemʼ, obviously with no idea that the poem/song means something very different to what they think it means. They are mouthing words but appear to have difficulty in processing that words convey information. When presented with material that contradicts or at least questions their position, many social media users ignore it and argue as if it didn’t exist.
During a Twitter discussion on Martinez’s ‘elegy for the young hitler’ (of which more later), the American writer Jess Row said that anyone writing a poem with that title ‘is by definition a fascist or an apologist for fascism, which is the same thing. This ends debate about the other merits of his work.’ If Row presented such thin arguments to literary or academic magazine editors, I doubt he’d get many commissions. It is impossible to know anything about a person’s views or character from a poem’s title. A poem with that title could be a satire, the word ‘elegy’ could be sarcastic, and it could even be lamenting a teenager’s fall into the grip of fascist ideology. Row is an intelligent, articulate, award-winning writer, as were most people who contributed to discussions on Martinez and his work, but I got the impression that few had read the work and few appeared to have checked the sources and selective quotations used to criticise it. People made potentially libellous accusations without anything like the rigour and research they would have applied had they been writing serious articles for independent publication. If we simply write that off by saying ‘That’s Twitter for you!’, I would contend we have serious questions to ask ourselves about our personal and intellectual integrity.
Coates’s article claims that Martinez is pushing fascist ideology through his poetry. That’s a serious accusation, one which could threaten to destroy the poet’s reputation and livelihood. It is certainly libellous if it’s untrue. One Facebook commenter said that Coates’s article was quite mild really, no big deal. It might feel like a big deal if you are Martinez. Some people would have contacted their lawyers.
Coates initially bases his case on an interview given by Martinez with the Los Angeles Review of Books. A reader of his poetry, Martinez suggests, ‘might detect positions that are, perhaps, monarchist, Unionist, and Anglican’ and Coates points out that a submission to crown, religious authority and state doesn’t reflect the position of Jesus Christ. Coates is assuming that Martinez has an active Christian faith and is interested in following Jesus as a disciple. Otherwise, why would that matter?
However, I saw Martinez read in November 2017 at the Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh, organised by Edinburgh Napier’s Centre for Literature and Writing. The bookshop is small, but it was packed, mainly full of Napier University creative writing students. Martinez gave a reading, mainly from the then-unpublished Black Sun, and answered questions. He made it clear that he does not have a religious faith. His Anglicanism wasn’t that of a ‘card carrying Christian’ or someone of fierce piety. He was agnostic as regards belief in God, but the symbols, ideas, tropes, metaphors and narratives of the Bible clearly have a magnetic fascination for him. ‘God’ is a kind of abstraction. An assumption of faith is the first of many assumptions Coates makes in the course of his article (and many people in Facebook comments sections also made it). This assumption is nevertheless more understandable than those to come.
Coates suggests that Martinez evokes Blake’s vision of a rural idyll as a precursor to or allegory of heaven. He quotes Martinez, who is discoursing on his own ‘black sun’ symbol: ‘I can only conclude, from the text, that it means many things. In one poem it is a symbol of vengeance rising over London.’
Coates claims that Martinez’s problem with London is its diversity. Martinez, he says, wants to go back to a purer past, a past in which England is entirely white (even though it never was) and indeed, this ‘vision of his homeland is built around a vast fiction that centres white bodies and erases all else’. The trouble with this analysis is that Martinez never says that his problem with London is its racial diversity. Coates has simply inserted that idea. Martinez also never suggests that his Blakean rural vision ‘centres white bodies and erases all else’. These are ideas that Coates has inserted, not anything that exists in Martinez’s interview or indeed in Blake.
Another useful concept in theological criticism is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis is drawing out what the text is saying, always with reference to its context and the author’s intention, as far as you can discover it. Eisegesis is when you impose your own interpretation or imagination onto a text. It’s not wrong in itself and can even be illuminating, but it ought to be plainly acknowledged. Ideological criticism is a valuable tool alongside exegesis, because it can uncover attitudes, values and biases which exist within a text, including those between the lines. When these attitudes have a background in white, patriarchal or autocratic power, new readings can emerge which unmask traditional narratives and promulgate alternative viewpoints. However, when ideological criticism works alongside eisegesis, the critic is no longer really analysing the text, but a new version of it s/he has imagined. There is no point in a critic uncovering biases in an article when the critic has placed them there. It’s like a rogue police officer planting drugs in the boot of a car to make an arrest.
Ideological criticism demands close attention, careful listening and well-researched contextual awareness. It ought not to wilfully twist a text until it says what a critic wants it to say. Critical reinterpretation entails drawing out, not adding in. I find one authority for this approach in Dave Coates himself: ‘there’s a world of difference between a critic imposing their needs and wishes on a text, and a critic listening to the text’s needs and wishes. Which seems obvious, but the former is still very popular, and basically useless.’ (Dave Coates, Twitter, 22 June 2018.)
Nothing I read in Black Sun gave me an impression of ‘nakedly fascist ideology’ (Coates). No one else had detected it either until Coates published his article, when a small chorus of Twitterati wanted to get in on the act. Someone linked to a Wikipedia page that depicted a black sun as a fascist symbol. It was astonishing how easily and quickly people were convinced that Martinez now had no leg to stand on. They didn’t appear to notice that the jagged Nazi symbol, carved into the floor of Himmler’s castle in 1936, looked entirely different to the eclipsed sun that appears regularly in both of Martinez’s books. But, more seriously, they didn’t appear to know that the black sun image goes back far further than the twentieth century. Nerval used it as a symbol of depression and melancholia. A. B. Jackson, reviewing Terror in the Poetry Review, links the image to ‘the alchemical Sol Niger or black sun, a spiritual dark hour before the dawn’ (Volume 104, No 3, Autumn 2014). But it goes back further than that. It is found in Judeo-Christian apocalyptic writing, such as Revelation 6: 12— ‘The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair’. Just before the death of Jesus on the cross, we read, ‘there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst’ (Luke 23: 44–45). It’s also in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament e.g. Joel 2: 31—‘The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.’ Should Christians and Jews give up their own imagery just because fringe Nazi groups have appropriated the words ‘black sun’? Should we let them take whatever they want? That seems ludicrous to me. Images of apocalypse and judgement, and of the crucifixion, are ubiquitous in Martinez’s Black Sun collection. It could be that biblical illiteracy is a major reason for a collective inability to locate the most likely origin of an eclipse symbol used by a poet whose obsession with apocalyptic Christian imagery is apparent on page after page. I asked Martinez if he was aware of the Nazi appropriation of the black sun. He told me he had not been until after his first book had been published and he’d written several poems for his second. He decided to ignore it, presuming no one would ever think for a second that he was referencing it.
Martinez’s attack on the metropolis, the black sun hanging in judgement over London, is partly an attack on what he perceives as a liberal orthodoxy in universities and other cultural institutions, and also an attack on privileged, well-educated poets who have never known real hardship or worked with people living on the edge, who write on political issues but couch everything in irony, sarcasm and an apparent determination for obfuscation to avoid saying anything serious. I am not really guessing. I know this because that’s pretty much what he said at the reading event in the Lighthouse. Over my cappuccino-fueled interrogation, I asked Martinez about London. Martinez told me that his anger at the city had nothing to do with diversity, which he had no problem with. Rather, he was living in Newcastle at the time of writing, and got a sense of how London sucks resources, funding, opportunities, power, decision-making etc into itself at the expense of everywhere else in the country. Whether you agree with that or not, Coates’s depiction of Martinez’s black sun as a negative image of judgement on the city’s diversity is reductive and eisegetical. Coates breaks off his quotation from Martinez at that point of dark vengeance, missing out Martinez’s continuation. This tactic immediately ignites my suspicions. The full quotation provides vital context:
In one poem it is a symbol of vengeance rising over London, in another it is
a far more hopeful symbol: a temporary eclipse before the body is renewed.
In another it stands in for time like a fire burning a widening circle through grass,
in yet another like the water at the bottom of a well,as a symbol for history.
So, it’s the kind of symbol that is exciting for poets because it can be used in diverse ways and one notion can be played against another. It is an unstable symbol and trying to reduce it to one fixed meaning, as Coates does, isn’t accurate criticism. But even less accurate is Coates’s contention that Martinez’s vision could only be brought about by violence: ‘cultural cleansing, mass deportation, genocide, the return of the strong body of the imperial State’.
Again, the trouble is that the vision of a white, pure, autocratic paradise-England that really existed, isn’t actually a vision Martinez puts forward at all, let alone mass killing. All of this is in Coates’s head, and I begin to wonder what it is doing in there. It’s as if, in a rush to publish his article before the Forward Prize award ceremony in September 2018 (Black Sun was shortlisted for Best Collection), Coates failed to do the most basic research into Martinez and his work, and preferred to work with unconfirmed assumptions rather than facts, despite the seriousness of the charges he was bringing. Coates continually quotes Martinez out of context:
All of which—as much as I love Spain—has only served to intensify a
kind of longing in me for an England that I remember and love intensely,
but to which I have no real recourse now. So if that vision is overdone,
there are good reasons for it.
At this point, Martinez is talking about post-Brexit England, and why his Blakean idyll symbol is so prevalent. His Italian ex-wife doesn’t want to go back to live in the UK (and wouldn’t be welcome, she feels, due to current racist, anti-European sentiment) and Martinez doesn’t want to be split from his children in a post-Brexit world. He can’t return or, at least, return would make things very difficult. Coates makes Martinez out to be a white supremacist who longs for an England free of foreigners. ‘The fiction that such a pure nation ever existed is necessary to justify his thinking’, Coates says, even though Martinez nowhere suggests this kind of England had ever existed. Martinez is in fact saying the opposite of what Coates is saying he is saying. Martinez is against Brexit, is for the free movement of people within the EU, and that is clearly the context of his remarks.
Coates goes on to discuss lack of substance in Martinez’s criticism of ‘radical poetry’, as detailed in a PN Review article (May–June 2014). He demands Martinez define all his terms in a way which might make sense if it were a 300-page academic textbook, but no sense at all for an article in a journal for a general literary readership. Coates actually says as much, with what sounds like irony: ‘you, and most certainly subscribers to PN Review, probably know exactly who he’s talking about’. Yes, you are right, Mr Coates! He is talking about J. H. Prynne, Keston Sutherland and others in the ‘Cambridge School’. Martinez feels that many of those associated with it are churning out an orthodoxy, which keeps to the rules of ‘radical’, ‘innovative’ poetry—both in its methods and political stance—and is therefore no longer radical. That’s why he argues that ‘perhaps the truly radical now would be to see a deep political shift from the left to the right, or the substitution of a committed neo--Georgian ruralism for a (de)constructivist urbanism in the halls of innovative poetics.’ Coates understands Martinez as saying that ‘Because contemporary poetry is in thrall to Marx, it follows that the only solution is to make it fascist.’ But Martinez never uses the word ‘fascist’. His argument is simply that, as there’s nothing radical in writing to the current ‘radical’ blueprint, you have to do something radically different to be radical, and that could mean a shift to a renewed form of rural Georgian, conservative poetics. I don’t particularly care for what Martinez is saying here. I don’t want a shift to the right and feel that he is being deliberately silly, but he is advocating fascism only in Coates’s head. I also reckon that Martinez’s tongue is at least partly in-cheek. It is a provocation as opposed to a manifesto.
Coates eventually gets round to analysing a poem by Martinez, a poem/lullaby about his baby daughter. It’s set in Lullington Church, one of the tiniest churches in England. It’s snowing and the baby will wake in a world with everything metaphorically erased:
Until she wakes and finds herself alone,
you are her rock, Lord. Lord, you are stone.
Lully, Lulley, Lully, Lulley.
God may be a rock to cling to while she dreams, but not when she wakes. The poet wants to lullaby her to sleep to alleviate the silence and emptiness, the stone temple that houses God in absentia. It is a comfortless vision, but Coates interprets the erasure as a vision of paradise, swaddled in the presence of God, ‘divinely provided and protected from history’. It is a very careless reading, most unlike a normal, meticulous Coates review, and feels slapdash and inattentive. I get the impression Coates decided that Martinez was a fascist and then decided to read everything as if that were the case, as opposed to reading the poems and interviews and coming to a conclusion based on the evidence before him. Only the second approach, in my view, is legitimate for criticism.
Confirmation bias is a tendency to favour information that confirms existing beliefs or ideas. It shows why two politicians of opposing ideologies can read the same article on the state of the economy and then both claim that it supports their respective views. They will skim over facts which don’t accord with their opinions and give extra weight to those which do. ‘What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact’ (Warren Buffet). This, I think, may explain what is happening in the course of Coates’s argument. Anything that undermines it is omitted from quotation, re-evaluated or spun out of context until it falls into line. But, more than that, confirmation bias asks important questions of all of us, especially when we debate matters on social media and want, naturally enough, to avoid alienating people with whose views we usually feel sympathetic. What evidence do we brush off, reinterpret or distort to achieve this?
Coates senses an allusion in ‘At Lullington Church/To My Daughter’ to the falcon from Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’. The falcon in Martinez’s poem must be a Yeatsian falcon, according to Coates. I am not convinced. Coates’s interpretation of Yeats’s poem is revisionist. He says it is a ‘poem written by a high- church Protestant with dreams of pure nationhood ruled by aristocracy, who also gravely feared the unclean, unholy masses “slouching toward Bethlehem”.’ Yeats certainly had some bizarre and esoteric thoughts, but I doubt this interpretation of ‘The Second Coming’ was one of them. Yeats published the poem in 1920, so just after the end of World War One, just after the Russian Revolution, and a period that marked an intensification of British oppression in Ireland. Turbulent times! The beast ‘slouching towards Bethlehem’ comes from apocalyptic literature, from both Christian and Judaic traditions. Most people interpret Yeats’s beast as what often comes in times of chaos—sinister, violent forces inexorably (that ‘slouching’) taking advantage of confusion. ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ We can see it happening today in the rise of the ultra-right-wing in Europe and North America. It happened during the Holocaust and in the Soviet Union. Apparently, its first stanza was the most quoted poem-extract on social media after Trump’s presidential victory in the USA. Again, Coates makes a reductive interpretation. He takes an image which is wide-ranging, complex and calculated to remain so in a wide variety of historical situations, and fastens it down. Both the Nazis and the Stalinists feared modernism and demanded of all the arts that they should produce work that was simple, decoded, with no room for error or inquiry. Yeats’s beast shouldn’t be so tamed.
Coates adds a postscript to his blog post: ‘it has come to my attention that Martinez de las Rivas wrote and published a poem called “elegy for the young hitler”. That feels relevant.’ Does it? Geoffrey Hill wrote a poem called ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’. Barry MacSweeney wrote a sequence called ‘Postcards from Hitler’. Does any mention of Hitler lead to suspicion of fascism? I thought Martinez’s elegy wasn’t much good, nowhere near his usual standard, but an elegy for a fascist dictator’s teenagehood doesn’t strike me as a necessarily fascist enterprise. The poem references August Kubizek, a close friend of Hitler’s when both were teenagers from 1904–08, and who wrote a book called The Young Hitler I Knew. Martinez attempts to paint a picture of the young Hitler, whose eyes are described as both ʻvacuousʼ and ʻluminousʼ. He is faintly praised, perhaps also faintly damned, as a ʻlesser demonʼ and ʻsuperb copyistʼ who has, as Kubizek notes (as part of the poem), ʻrevulsion at the naked selfʼ. The question Martinez wants to leave in our minds is how this shy, unremarkable boy became a genocidal dictator, but the poem doesn’t achieve this. It’s too oblique, ambivalent and ultimately flimsy to have that kind of effect, a misguided effort at reflection beyond his capabilities. Poet-critic Stephanie Burt asked on Twitter whether it might have been written by an ʻirresponsible would-be edgelordʼ, which might just touch on something deep within Martinez’s subconscious motivations at the time he wrote it, but it doesn’t read as a covert manifesto for fascism.
Coates’s final comments attempt to deflect criticism before it happens, a defensive statement designed to repel all disagreement—‘There will almost certainly be people who read this essay and see nothing but conspiracy theory and speculation, rather than a series of red flags, the visible residue of a totalising ideology’. I don’t see conspiracy theory at all. I do see a huge amount of speculation, which I have outlined above. I do see quotations taken out of context, which always makes me suspicious. I do see the insertion of material (‘white nation’) never mentioned, or even hinted at, by Toby Martinez de las Rivas. I do see highly dubious and probably rushed analysis of poems and an ignorance of the theological ideas that underpin much of the poetry.
Ideological criticism is a useful tool for overturning lazy assumptions. Liberation theology reread the Bible through the experience of communities in South American shanty towns, and added a sprinkling of Karl Marx and Paolo Freire. It was a revelation and predictably the powers-that-be tried both to clamp down on it and to incorporate diluted versions into the mainstream. At its best, it drew out what was already in a text, usually something radical and table-turning, that had been rendered invisible by orthodox methodology. Poetry criticism, at its best, does the same thing. What it shouldn’t do (and some liberation theologians fell into this trap) is distort a text for ideological ends. Just as we are told the Sabbath is made for humanity and not humanity for the Sabbath, good criticism exists for the poem, but the poem does not exist to feed whatever conclusion the critic already has in mind.