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  • David Savill

Teaching: The pains of poetry and political commitment


Late in 1949, George Orwell lay dying in University College Hospital. In his superlative collection of essays and memoirs, The 30's and After, Stephen Spender recalls visiting the great writer, who told him, "despite The Labour Government, there are still far too many Rolls Royces in London".

Spender told Orwell that he had recently seen Hugh Gaitskell, who had told him how "a count was kept on the Rolls-Royces and their owners in London, that most of these belonged to foreigners, or to embassies, and that getting rid of them would not markedly improve the condition of the country."

"That may be so," Orwell said, "but there shouldn't be visible signs of one class being much better off than another. It is bad for morale."

Inequality, the politics of 'aspiration' on one-hand, and 'envy' on the other, have always troubled the Labour movement and Britain's left. Returning to Spender's book in the wake of Labour's election defeat, the reader will find a sobering, long view of the love affair British writers have had with 'the Left', and a complex picture of the relationship between literature and politics.

If you had ever met Stephen Spender, you would only be one step removed from most of the twentieth century greats. He was the first to publish a poem by WH Auden, and having died in 1995, was the longest lived of a group who became known as Britain's 'political generation' of writers — those from Woolf and Eliot, to Lawrence and Macniece, who struggled in their work with the attractions of both fascism and communism.

Spender's poetry however, has always gathered a wealth of detractors, and today, he tends to be discussed as a man who connected and described a cultural movement, rather than a poet at the heart of it. Spender's reputation may have suffered by comparison. He shared his writing years with Pablo Neruda, Auden and Eliot. He also devoted more time than any of them to journalism and memoir, attracting the criticism of solipsism, or wasted talent. To others, Spender and his generation are guilty of being the first 'champagne socialists'. Oxford boys, privately educated, afforded all the privileges of a cultural elite while decrying the system which made them.

But on all charges, politics and poetry, I think Spender deserves a good defence. To describe a writer as a champagne socialist, is no better than dismissing a politician as Eton toff, however valuable their achievements. It is playground politics.

Whatever we think of the politics of the 'political generation', its writers did get out of the playground of Oxford. In the 1930's, Spender joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and like Auden, Orwell and Hemingway, served in The Spanish Civil War. In the Second World War, Spender found himself classed as an invalid with colitis and poor eyesight, and persuaded the conscription office to reclassify him so that he could serve in the London Auxiliary Fire Service.

His essays from the civil war are clear-eyed, and practise a self awareness and honesty which was quite at odds with the business of war and its dirty propaganda. War shook the idealism of the writing left. In the essay 'Heroes in Spain', Spender criticises the concept of heroism in war,

"The final horror of war is the complete isolation of a man dying in a world whose reality is violence. The dead in wars are not heroes: they are freezing, rotten lumps of isolated insanity."

While Spender remained a supporter of Spain's 'Social Revolution', and of the war which was needed to achieve it, the writer in him could not contribute to the valorisation of that war. He saw as "wicked" the attempt "to identify the dead with the abstract ideas which have brought them to the front".

Many writers of this generation appeared to have tired of their political ideals because of the wars which were required to achieve them. Auden, who had served and written on both the Spanish and Russo-Japanese war, departed from Europe for America before the Second World War, and by 1949, Spender had left the communist party and was contributing to the infamous collection of essays in The God that Failed, a record of intellectual disillusionment with the communism.

Idealistic though they may have been, the difficulty of playing politics with art, was always something the 'political generation' recognised.

Spender recalls this problem among the poets:

"Politics, when it took over our generation, meant for us the partial abrogation of a passive, receptive, analytic poetry - attitudes present equally in the poetry of Keats and the impersonality of Eliot - in favour of a poetry of will, and the directed analytic intellect."

Commitment to an ideology was a challenge to form, and Spender acknowledges that the poets and writers who weren't as committed to a single ideology — either because they flirted with the right and left, or lacked commitment altogether — fared much better with style: "We were aware of having renounced values which we considered to be aesthetically superior, in Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence and Virginia Woolf."

There is an unsentimental, unlyrical quality to the work of both Auden and Spender in their years of greater ideological commitment, analogy replacing metaphor, analytic antithesis and synthesis replacing narrative - techniques which often seem to work against musicality, or any sense of spontaneity.

It is the poem as essay, not what many people first think of when they think of poetry, but what I turn to when giving an introductory lecture on poetry to first year students.

The provocation in this lecture, is that poetry is barely read anymore, and so doesn't really matter. If we look at the sales of poetry books against those of any other literature, it appears to be a very minority pursuit. Everyone enjoys the musicality of language, but most of my students are engaged with it through rap, and the energy which rap has given to the performance poetry scene. This can produce wonderful work. But in the first instance, I see my job as widening cultural horizons, in introducing students to what they don't know - and for the most part, what they don't know, is twentieth century poetry as a written medium.

The lecture's provocation leads to a question about what poetry is for, at which point, the general consensus among my undergraduates, demonstrates how far from politics, young people conceive poetry to be.

For most, poetry is about creating 'emotion' through 'self expression', its subject matter is most often love, and its primary creative force is 'feeling'.Undergraduates are taught in school about the pacifism of the First World War poets, but not the complex, ideological struggles in the poets of the 1930's. What I want to show them, is how versatile a form poetry can be, how wide its remit, and how in a struggle with the ideas of politics, poetry has something to offer. In this, Auden, and the poets of his generation, excel. Whatever their ideological commitment, they responded to the politics of the day:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

Auden responded quickly to Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1st 1939. His poem, September 1939, was written as events unfolded, and published in October of the same year. The point of view is personal. In this first stanza, the coming war is going to affect everyone, both those who sleep in the darkened lands, and those awake in the bright. Auden himself, had tried to escape war by moving to America, but the war would come to him.

In the second verse, Auden analyses how the world has arrived at the brink of war.

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

He puts into stanza form, the political commentary of the time; the idea that there is something deeply anti-Semitic in German culture, from Martin Luther's desire to burn down synagogues to Hitler's creation of ghettos. But even as he does so, the poet turns away from the 'scholarship', to what 'I and the public know', placing more weight on the historical role of the individual, and the story of Hitler's abusive childhood—stories that were also a part of the contemporary media conversation about events in Germany.

This was the work of a man who was maturing, both as a poet, and as a political being. He uses his form as a site of ideological, and political discussion, drawing in the contesting views of the day. What it requires of the poet, is not only an attention to his own feeling, and commitment to self expression, but an act of witness - an alertness to the intellectual and political conversation of the day. It is this that the 'political generation' have to teach us.

What the poem adds to that political conversation, is in the music of its form and the power of rhetorical compression. It is an ability to transcend the specific political moment. In the eighth stanza, Auden draws our attention to the purposes of poetry in moments of cultural and political crisis:

All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.

It is the kind of ludic writing that frustrates students, and draws completely contradictory interpretations from critics. The first part seems clear - we are sensual, romantic beings, and if we allow ourselves to romanticise history, we will come to the wrong conclusions. But who, in the poem, suggests so emphatically, that there is 'no such thing as the State'? What is implied by the colon after 'sky' - is this the 'lie of Authority', or is it Auden's point of view?

Taken in its entirety, Auden's poem clearly aligns the role of the poet, with the voice of the individual threatened by political events so great, they will extinguish him. Like Spender's refusal to romanticise the hero, it is an appeal to the significance of the individual life, against the destructive force of 'abstract ideas'. Auden's 'All I have', is a weary sigh at the pain of inadequacy the poet feels when politics takes centre stage. But at the same time, his poem, alive to its condition, makes a powerful statement about the political nature of being human.

Critics may parse meaning, but poetry is also a music, and the compression of meaning demanded to create the music in poetry doesn't readily lend itself to the clarity of purpose required of political ideology. The poem is an imperfect vessel for politic ideas, but it can express our political condition. Music, is a different kind of truth, one which the poet is, sometimes despite himself, driven to find.

In Spender's book, there is a wonderful example, told by Louis Macniece, of the writer's inability to think 'along party lines'. Spender's play, The Trial Of Judges, was written by the young communist party member to criticise what was 'weak and wrong' in liberalism, and show what was 'right and strong' in communism. But when Spender's comrades came to see the play, they were not satisfied with the actions of the liberal judge at the heart of the drama. The comrades felt their sympathies lay with him. Spender's 'unconscious integrity', Macniece suggests, wouldn't let him get away with anything less than a sympathetic character.

Spender himself recognised the inability of a good writer to reflect the simplicities of ideology over the complexities of humanity, when he wrote about the difficulty of reporting The Spanish Civil War:

"The lying was a process which one side of our nature watched developing within another. In reporting the Spanish Civil War this took the form of repressing evidence which was not favourable to the cause one was supporting...Another kind of deception in which one caught oneself out was that of developing an argument which one believed to be true and then of discovering that it had led one to a conclusion which one saw to be false."

There is another danger for a particular kind of political poet. I have found no record of what Spender thought of Ronald Reagan's use of his poem The Truly Great, to mark the anniversary of the D-Day landings in 1984. On this occasion, the elegiac tone and content, did not seem out of place.

But Auden was furious when Lyndon B Johnson stole the line "We must love one another or die" for his famous election campaign ads of 1964. Auden had the poem excised from his collected works, and it did not appear again until The English Auden, published after the poet's death. Auden reportedly told his publisher he regretted the line because it was not true. He told her, "It should have been we must love one another, and die."

Such is the danger of good rhetoric, adopted without context to political means, shorn of the poetic truth it seeks to convey.

But perhaps Auden would have been happier to know that on September 11th 2001, thousands in New York, and listening to broadcasts on an MSNBC radio programme, heard poets reading "The odour of death offends the September night."


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