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Ross Wilson

‘What the First World War brought home to everybody, to conservatives and revolutionaries alike, is the extent to which collective forces could overwhelm the individual and overrule his choices, just when the liberty of the individual seemed more secure than ever[...] In England, America, Germany, France, Russia, Italy and Spain the avant-garde movements disintegrated under the pressure of political ideologies, in many cases before their actual suppression by totalitarian governments.’


Michael Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry


Freedom is an easily spoken word

But facts are stubborn things.


’John Cornford, ‘Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca—


THE SOCIOLOGIST ERVING GOFFMAN thought people organise and make sense of their experience through a frame, the frame of a political ideology, psychological theory or religious doctrine. From my mid-teens I’ve framed the world through literature. As a result my worldview has never been as clear-cut as an ideological frame; if anything my frame tends to complicate the picture when things become too certain, or when certain pictures are presented as truth. For me, poetry, as well as being something to enjoy for the sheer pleasure of word-sounds and the connections it makes between one thing and another, can also be a vehicle for exploring the social and the political. I say ‘can be,’ careful to avoid the word ‘should’ often used by those who feel poetry must be this or that; such poets, I would suggest, if we are to extend the poetry-as-vehicle metaphor, are drunk at the wheel. Ideology can be intoxicating.


Rupert John Cornford was a young English poet and communist who died in combat at the age of 21 as a volunteer in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Named after Rupert Brooke, another idealistic poet who had been a friend of Cornford’s parents and who also died in his twenties in an earlier war (ironically, ‘the war to end all wars’), Cornford would drop the ‘Rupert’ from his name, perhaps because he didn’t like it, though it’s easy to imagine him wanting to avoid any link to Brooke’s patriotism. Cornford was fighting for a different future than Brooke. He wrote:


The intersecting lines that cross both ways,

Time future, has no image in space,

Crooked as the road that we must tread,

Straight as our bullets fly ahead.

We are the future. The last fight let us face.


These lines are from his poem, ‘Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca’, written shortly before the poet was killed in action. Re-reading the poem for this essay, I was reminded by the words ‘intersecting lines’ of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The line separating good and evil passes [...] through all human hearts.’ Cornford had been dead for more than a decade by the time Solzhenitsyn found himself an enemy of the state composing poems in his head to take his mind off ‘what was being done with my body,’ as he describes it in The Gulag Archipelago. Only a few years earlier, Solzhenitsyn, like Cornford, had been fighting on the side of a communist future. In 2018 the same old ideological battle-lines are being drawn while the lines of poets continue to intersect (though the word ‘intersect’ also draws new lines between us, if we think of intersectionality, a theory about how discrimination works based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities and so forth.) In our part of the world, for the time being at least, the bullets in our battles tend to be words. Of course, some ideologically minded people believe words to be violent (advocates of identity politics are in favour of no-platforming public speakers who don’t toe their ideological line, for example). But it’s safe to say most of us would rather be shot down in some unpleasant flyting than shot down gun-fighting.


Contemporary criticism can be like border control; a book might start bleeping when scanned by an ideologically motivated critic ‘triggered’ by ‘impure’ attitudes or opinions, like a machine programmed to alarm at certain things, then amplify outrage via social media such as Twitter and Facebook. When criticism becomes a form of surveillance, poetry can become cowed and constrained through fear of reprisal at saying the ‘wrong’ thing. Such ideological criticism seems to be increasingly accepted today. One of my favourite twentieth-century poets, however, is Louis MacNeice, perhaps the most sceptical thinker of a 1930s generation of British poets who largely indulged ideology. Many poets writing now would do well to heed MacNeice’s warnings of ‘massproduced neat thoughts’ and ‘theory vendors’ in his poem, ‘Turf Stacks’. MacNeice briefly met John Cornford when he gave the younger poet a lift in his car. Cornford, according to MacNeice, was ‘clever’ and ‘bristling with statistics’, ‘but for him the conception of a career was completely drowned in the Cause.’ When MacNeice picked him up, Cornford was heading for Birmingham to stand trial for causing a disruption distributing communist pamphlets. MacNeice writes in his autobiography The Strings Are False:  ‘John Cornford was the first inspiring communist I had met; he was the first who combined an unselfish devotion to his faith with a really first-class intelligence.’ MacNeice was so impressed by Cornford that he wrote to Anthony Blunt (before Blunt was revealed as a communist spy): ‘This Cornford boy [...] is the one chap of the whole damn lot of you who is going to be a great man. There is still hope for the human race.’ Coming from MacNeice, this is high praise. Elsewhere, he is scathing about Peter Pans reading Marx and is very funny mocking the likes of Stephen Spender:


Take the case of Stephen Spender who was now living in a chic apartment

with a colour scheme out of Vogue, a huge vulcanite writing-desk

and over the fireplace an abstract picture by Wyndham Lewis.

Very comfortable and elegant but not quite big enough for Stephen;

his enormous craggy apostolic flaring face seemed liable to burst the walls.


Later, MacNeice gives an account of Spender’s play, Trial of a Judge, where, according to MacNeice, Spender’s attempt to show the weakness of liberalism and the strength of communism was ‘sabotaged by S’s unconscious integrity.’ The Comrades were not impressed by Spender’s script straying from the Party line. ‘After that,’ MacNeice writes, ‘S. gradually fell away from the Party; he had not been born for dogma.’


In 1930, just a few years before Spender fell away from communism, another poet and playwright, Joe Corrie, was invited to Leipzig to see a German production of his play about the 1926 General Strike, In Time O’ Strife. Unlike MacNeice and Spender, both of whom graduated from Oxford, Joe Corrie graduated from the Fife coalfields. In Leipzig, he was met by the translator of his play, a man in his mid-thirties, a professional pianist who, after losing his right hand during the First World War, turned to translation to earn a living. After Corrie returned home to Scotland, the two continued a correspondence. Corrie later wrote:


Then he told me that the Leipzig Communists, of whom he was one,

had decided to support the Nazis as part of the tactics to defeat

the Social Democrats, certain that they would defeat Hitler when

the opportunity arose.


And that ended our correspondence.


I find it incredibly sad that two friends brought together through writing and who kept in touch through writing, despite the language barrier, should terminate their friendship due to a misguided tactical vote rather than any badness or evil intent; they were, after all, both anti-Nazi. There is also a sharp contrast here between Spender writing behind his vulcanite writing desk (like some barricade shielding his ideas from reality) and Corrie writing between shifts down the pit in the wee village of Cardenden in West Fife. In a short biographical piece, Joe Corrie describes his childhood as being ‘marred by poverty’ in a time when there was ‘no financial aid from the state.’ He was kept off school to ‘shaw turnips at three ha’ pence a hundred yards.[...] There were no free books in those days and books couldn’t be bought when there was no money at home.’


The Fife coalfields of the 1920s and ’30s were a hotbed for militant communism, but for me it’s the humanity grounded in community that shines through Corrie’s best work, not some fanatical evangelical agitprop or gazing into some misty-eyed future utopia. In Corrie there is something of Patrick Kavanagh’s sonnet, ‘Epic’, the local minor poet writing about the lives of miners in his regional dialect. For all his limitations, Corrie wrote some fine poems from guts that knew real hunger rather than an intellectual hunger for progressive ideas. There is a visceral quality to his best work. If Spender was a ‘pylon poet’ whose ideas crackled in lines above the heads of the People, Corrie’s voice is that of a poet living among them. That in itself doesn’t, of course, make for great poetry, but it does make for an art brought down to earth.


As grim as life must have been for British workers in the 1920s and ’30s their suffering doesn’t compare to what the East Europeans were subjected to in the same decades, and even more so in the forties, when the smaller less powerful countries, such as Poland, were caught in an ideological vice: Nazis squeezing from the right, communists from the left.


In 1969, Czeslaw Miłosz, a great survivor of those ideological conflicts, walked across Berkeley campus wearing a gas mask. At this time, Miłosz was less well known for his poetry and more for his treatise on communism, The Captive Mind, a book that had already alienated him in Paris before he arrived in America. For some, like Susan Sontag, sickened by McCarthysm, Miłosz could be dismissed as a reactionary force, lauded as he was by the right, though Sontag would later revise her opinion. The professor crossing campus that day amid clouds of tear gas and helicopters whopping through the air was trying to understand his hippie students despite his reservations regarding their ignorance of the revolutionary movements they romanticized. Concerned about escalating violence erupting into civil war, Miłosz earned his students’ respect when he called them ‘the spoilt children of the bourgeoisie’ for blocking an entrance. They quickly got out of his way.


Around the same time, Miłosz’s younger compatriot, Zbigniew Herbert, was invited to America. Herbert wrote:


[...] the majority of young people in the West who dabble in film, art, or literature,

loudly declare they are on the side of the ‘Left’— variously understood, or rather, read.

And I often wonder why the work that results from this essentially noble stance

is intellectually immature, as if the proclamation of humanist ideals led the artist

into the realm of banality [...] There is something arbitrary about the idea

that the spirit by its very nature—to use a sociopolitical term—stands on 

the ‘left,’ and that therefore it is inherently connected to the ideals

of freedom, progress, humanism. This is a prejudice that has been toppled 

many times by now.


Today these comments would be enough to qualify Herbert as a fascist to some people. Ironically, Herbert fought the Nazis as part of the Polish underground resistance during World War Two. During the war, Herbert was also a member of the anti-communist Home Army. As a result he was more or less unemployable in postwar communist Poland and, at one point, in 1946, was reduced to selling his own blood in order to survive. Herbert would ‘write for the drawer’ rather than muzzle his voice or straitjacket his talent with the social-realist demands of the communist regime. He also wrote mythological essays such as ‘Triptolemos’ in which the eponymous hero believes he represents ‘a progressive force in humankind’ and offers the world a vision of paradise: ‘How could the peace-loving Triptolemos, utter child that he was, imagine that the peasants would develop a taste for warfare [...]’. Herbert knew from experience as well as erudition how complexity can be masked by ideology: ‘My concern,’ he stated, ‘is to oppose the tyranny of dichotomies chopping up complicated human reality[...]’


Ideology is ambidextrous, using propaganda like a knife to chop up complicated reality with whatever hand its servants require. ‘Fake news’, from the right or the left, can slice and dice complexity easier than ever before. Poetry can confront or collude with this. ‘Freedom is an easily spoken word / But facts are stubborn things’, John Cornford wrote in ‘Full Moon at Tierz’. Today, ‘Fascist’ and ‘Nazi’ are not only easily spoken words but often over-used and ill-used words. Take Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychologist and social media sensation, compared to Hitler by a university professor, despite Peterson having lectured and written on the dangers of far-right ideology. More than once I’ve heard the 1990s sitcom Friends

compared to Nazism by an educated generation raised on a History channel obsessed with the Third Reich. At a time when the far right really is on the rise in Brazil, Hungary and closer to home, reality is often reduced to a silly cartoon fight between the Goodies and the Baddies while real violence is often confused with ‘violent’ (translation: offensive) words. I was once told ‘you must be stupid if you don’t think words are violent’ during a heated online debate about punching Nazis (or those suspected of being Nazis).


When white supremacist Richard Spencer was punched for talking in the street in January 2017 some left-wing radicals celebrated the act and openly advocated violence towards those they perceived to be Fascists. Many, however, were talking out of theory rather than experience. One writer went so far as to say the punch was a thing of ‘kinetic beauty.’ As an amateur boxer I wasn’t taught to punch the target but through it; in other words, I was trained to aim about a foot on the other side of my opponent’s face and punch through their head with the full weight of my body transferred through my fist. Looked at from a practical point of view rather than from an abstract or emotive angle there is nothing beautiful about sucker-punching someone. Of course, those defending such brutality don’t see themselves as hitting a person but a Nazi (ironically, an old Nazi trick: dehumanizing the enemy). A further irony is in how such behaviour would normally be judged as ‘toxic masculinity’, by the very people championing violence, when it suits them: when they feel (or think) someone needs silenced by force. Violence, at a distance, can be glamorous, especially to young men, as Stephen Parker illustrated in his biography Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life:


In 1930 Brecht had endorsed the necessity of violence against the bourgeois

individual in the Leninist revolution. He had seen the consequences and

recoiled. From now on, Brecht’s work contains a markedly humanist dimension,

in the specific sense of an appeal to mankind’s innate goodness, which he

asserts in opposition to deepening barbarism.


Brecht is a good example of the pen being mightier than the sword, or the fist, on this occasion. As is the Czech poet Miroslav Holub. It has been said Holub was once summoned to the censor’s office because many members of the Communist Party Central Committee happened to be short and were rather displeased about a line in one of his poems where Holub writes about ‘a crowd of dwarves applauding in the king’s palace.’ For a long period Holub wasn’t able to publish in his own country, but risked publishing abroad. In the following excerpt from his poem, ‘Punch’s Dream’, Holub reminds us of the importance of the individual voice, the ‘little voice’ determined to ‘say my piece,’ the little voice of Punch:


[...] before the puppeteer know’s what’s happening

I’ll speak in my own voice,

you know,

my own voice,

out of my own head, for the first and the last time,

because afterwards they’ll put me back in the box,

wrapped in tissue paper.

I’ll say what I’ve wanted to say

for a whole eternity of wood,


I’ll say it, no matter how ridiculous

my little voice may sound,

how embarrassingly squeaky,

I’ll say the most important, the most crucial thing,

I’ll speak my piece...


‘Punch’s Dream’ reminds me of Brecht’s poem ‘Burial of the Agitator in a Zinc Coffin’. While Punch’s voice is silenced by putting him in a box, Punch is still able to slip out and say his piece. In Brecht’s poem, Punch’s equivalent, the agitator, is literally in pieces, so the voice of authority is left to tell us about him and why he met his fate in the zinc coffin:


Here, in this zinc coffin,

Lies a dead man,

Or else his leg and his head,

Or still less of him,

Or nothing at all since he was

An agitator. [...] 

What lies in the zinc coffin

Has agitated in favor of many things:

For eating-your-fill

For a roof-over-your-head

For feeding-your-children

For holding-out-for-the-last-penny

And for solidarity with all

The oppressed who are like you [...]


‘And thinking’ was another reason the agitator ended up in the zinc coffin. Brecht is, of course, writing about the Nazis here but could just as easily have been writing about trouble-makers elsewhere getting themselves into difficulty by thinking for themselves, like Osip Mandelstam signing his own death warrant by doing what poets do: making connections, comparing one thing to another; in his case, comparing Stalin’s moustache to a cockroach. Brecht, the great anti-Nazi poet, could be pretty sharp on what became of the communist dream too, as in his poem ‘The Solution’ where, after an uprising, leaflets are distributed ‘Stating that the people/Had forfeited the confidence of the government’. A suggestion for a possible solution is for ‘the government/To dissolve the people/And elect another?’


In his play Life of Galileo, Brecht wanted to draw attention to ‘present-day reactionary authorities of a totally unecclesiastical kind.’ Political ideologues often detest religion and yet they frequently share with it a fanaticism, evangelism and Puritanism that together resemble a secular religion dismissive of heaven in the clouds but obsessed with heaven on earth. In The Captive Mind, Miłosz called communism the ‘New Faith’: ‘Poetry as we have known it can be defined as the individual temperament refracted through social convention. The poetry of the New Faith can, on the contrary, be defined as social convention refracted through the individual temperament.’


Pablo Neruda was a convert to the New Faith when he wrote an elegy for Stalin. Here we have the authentic voice of a poet not so much buried in a box as distorted by an ideological voice-box:


We must learn from Stalin

his sincere intensity

his concrete clarity....

The light has not vanished.

The fire has not disappeared,

There is only the growth of

Light, bread, fire and hope

In Stalin’s invincible time!...

In recent years the dove, 

Peace, the wandering persecuted rose,

Found herself on his shoulders

And Stalin, the giant,

Carried her at the heights of his forehead....


Neruda’s ‘there is only the growth of light’ translates to me as ‘there is only the spread of disease’. Visit a hospital today and you will see signs with pictures of hands studded with acronyms and words like MRSA, C-DIF, FLU, DIARRHOEA, and so on. You could replace those bugs with ideologies. In Raskolnikov’s dream, in the epilogue to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, everyone is possessed by ideas like demons; everyone thinks they alone are right. In Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, the plague was not just a pestilence but a metaphor for the Nazi occupation and the Red plague sweeping Europe. Camus fought the Nazi virus with words and ideas through his resistance paper Combat and would later oppose the communist party he’d been a member of as a young man when news of the gulags began to seep through the Iron Curtain. Camus’ appeal for moderation saw him ostracized by the Parisian left-wing intelligentsia of his day who were willing to sweep certain facts under the carpet in order to support communism in the cold war; to criticize communism was seen as a defence of capitalism, and vice versa. Around the same time, in Scotland, Sorley Maclean, obsessed with ‘the idea of the conquest of the whole of Europe by Nazi-Fascism’ initially dismissed criticism of communism as anti-Soviet propaganda but was later disgusted by the Russians’ involvement during the Polish insurrection, leading him to abandon his long poem, ‘The Cuillin’.


It’s one thing to embrace an ideology when young only to reject it when you find out it’s not what you thought it was. It is another thing entirely to continue to embrace lies (or distortions) when you know that’s what they are. I find it easier to sympathise with oppressed workers in Britain in the 1930s who saw Stalin as a saviour than with a poet like Neruda who must have known the truth by 1953 when he wrote his elegy. Of course, many will say I’m confusing Stalinism with communism. Certainly their belief that the real thing hasn’t been tried yet can be said to be more of a dream than a lie.


It will come as a surprise to some readers that I’m a poet with a radical leftwing publisher. Why would someone who has written poetry about social injustice spend so much time writing an essay largely critical of left-wing ideology? ‘Cruelty has a human heart’, Blake wrote; not Cruelty has a Tory heart, or a Fascist heart. That knowledge didn’t stop Blake from writing about the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the industrial revolution. MacNeice, for all his scepticism towards communism, also wrote some wonderful lines criticising capitalism. Neither forfeited their individuality for the sake of a group or bowed to the pressures of tribal thinking: they looked inwards as well as out into the world. In The Captive Mind, Miłosz warns about the dangers of oversimplifying and gives examples of great writers who wrote out of political conviction as a good thing. However, he also makes a distinction between their non-conformity and the conformity of a particular contemporary Polish writer: ‘They acted in opposition to their environment; he, writing, listened for the applause of his Party comrades.’ That ‘applause’ could be translated into Facebook ‘likes’ in today’s world, where online virtue signalling can make a writer popular regardless of what he or she actually thinks beneath the socially acceptable mask of the club rules abided by.


In discussing poets of the first half of the last century in his book, The Truth of Poetry, Michael Hamburger points out: ‘there has a been a tendency towards extreme political views, more often conservative or reactionary than progressive.’ The opposite could be said to be true today. That is not to say many good things have not come from left-wing ideology. The voices of women, people of colour, gay writers and other minority groups are now heard more often than ever before in poetry. This is an indisputably great thing. My issue isn’t with any of that, but with how those voices can be subsumed by ideology and how the left can become the new right in its desire to silence other voices, police what poetry should be, and corral individuals into groups.


In a way it’s fitting John Cornford was named after Rupert Brooke. For all their differences they shared a romanticism and helped glamourise a cause through their poetry. In Cornford’s sad love poem ‘To Margot Heinemann’ he mentions ‘the shadow that chills my view.’ Reading that line I was reminded of Jung’s concept of the shadow, the darker aspect of a personality, and again of the line Solzhenitsyn warns divides all our hearts. In Cornford’s four-stanza poem, from which I quote the first two stanzas, the beating heart is balanced by the thinking head; there is humanity, intelligence, and the developing skills of a talented poet who would not reach maturity:


To Margot Heinemann


Heart of the heartless world,

Dear heart, the thought of you

Is the pain at my side,

The shadow that chills my view.


The wind rises in the evening,

Reminds that autumn’s near.

I am afraid to lose you,

I am afraid of my fear.


You can be scared of your own shadow, as the old cliché has it. Shadow boxing is a method boxers use to perfect their technique: the boxer stands before a mirror with his reflection imitating an opponent, providing him with not so much a target for his aggression as an image of where he is going wrong. This is the opposite of vanity: the boxer is not posing or admiring himself or virtue signalling: he is looking for his own faults. Shadow-writing, or shadow-thinking, in this sense can be a necessary glance beyond the ideological mask or frame in which we view the world.


In the allegory of Plato’s Cave prisoners chained to a wall confuse shadows for reality. When one breaks free of his chains and exits the cave he sees how things really are. Returning to tell those still captive that the shadows are only a projection of the real thing, he is killed for telling the truth. Plato, the author of this parable, thought poets should be banished from the republic as he felt they corrupted the youth. Socrates, whose memory Plato used as a mouthpiece for his ideas, was executed for just that: corrupting the youth with ideas. ‘There is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,’ Plato wrote. 2,400 years later Joseph Brodsky, to give one example, had his citizenship revoked and was exiled from his own country for being a ‘parasite.’ The powerful (or those seeking to control others through ideology) don’t like to hear individual voices. Yet those voices of poets have survived for thousands of years, echoing down the centuries, reflecting our common humanity and illuminating the shadows that darken our step.


NB: The preponderance of white male poets in this essay is largely due to the history of the times I’ve covered and the limitations of my own reading (so far) of mainly British and European poetry of the last century. Wisława Symborska happens to be my favourite Polish poet; but her work seemed less relevant to the context of this essay’s themes than that of Miłosz and Herbert.

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