Well, I didn’t see that coming. What are we to make of the news that Jeremy Corbyn and Len McLuskey are launching a poetry collection?
First, the facts. On 15 June, The Guardian reported that Jeremy Corbyn and Len McLuskey – the dynamic duo – were to publish “an ‘accessible’ poetry collection” on 14 November. The collection, entitled Poetry For The Many, will feature poems chosen by Maxine Peake, Russell Brand, Michael Rosen, political strategist Karie Murphy, as well as actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, film director Ken Loach, comedian Francesca Martinez and journalist Gary Younge.
The one poet mentioned, mysteriously way down the billing, is Michael Rosen. For those not familiar, Rosen is the author of the brilliant We’re Going On a Bear Hunt, who, as well as being a giant of the poetry world, has long been a big fan of Corbyn.
The anthology is to be published by OR Books, a New York-based publisher of left-wing books. They’ve already published one by Len McLuskey and others in their catalogue include Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party After Jeremy Corbyn … you get the picture.
Each features glowing endorsements from people like Ken Loach and Alexei Sayle. By curious coincidence, Poetry For The Many includes poems selected by Ken Loach and Alexei Sayle.
Blank verse (so far at least)
All proceeds from the book, the website states, will go to the Peace & Justice Project, whose Twitter handle is @Corbyn_Project1 and describes itself as “A pro-Corbyn socialist account. Follow if you believe in socialism”. It currently has 75.5k followers.
Corbyn and McLuskey’s rationale is that the collection will help people to “embrace poetry and shake off any notion that it is not something to be read, written, or appreciated by working-class people”.
Quite how this might be achieved by putting out a small run anthology containing bits of Shakespeare and poems chosen by their famous mates who, Michael Rosen aside, have never performed, published or expressed much public interest in poetry before, is hard to fathom.
What this poet thinks of it is difficult to say. As for quality, this is impossible to judge at the moment, as only the front cover appears to exist. As for the notion that poetry needs Jezza and Len to save it from elitism, this, for me is more problematic.
It’s been a popular trope for years that poetry needs saving from privileged white males producing obscure verse no-one likes except a tiny bubble from similar backgrounds and interests. A BBC4 documentary a few years ago pushed this line, a Guardian article in 2009 discussed this same notion, and in the poetry world this debate is seemingly still the stuff of life and no bad thing too, when you think about it.
The pale stale male poets are still out there, droning on, to be sure. Many’s the time I’ve attended events where I’ve drifted off during such recitations and realised I’ve been looking at reflections of clouds on the windscreens in the car park for ten minutes or more before remembering I’ve not taken in a word the poet has uttered.
I once spent an evening not really taking in what a certain very highly rated bloke was saying until the point where I realised that a young lad, (who’d made his apologies and left 45 minutes previously), had lost his bearings and failed to turn right into the exit but left into an alcove and been so embarrassed that he’d loitered there until the end of the evening surviving only on the twiglets and nibbles.
My all-time personal fave is at one event where someone appeared via the web (pre-Covid) and during their reading it became apparent that they were lip-syncing to a cassette recording of their own voice. This lent the proceedings a surreal air which, between stifled giggles, begged the question as to their motive. There were only eight of us in the room.
That said, I’ve drifted off in similar fashion at events where VERY ANGRY people shouted things at me with which I already agreed for what seemed like an eternity.
All of this, of course, is good. As Alan Bennett once said about art galleries, you’re not supposed to like it all.
Usually, when this poetry-needs-saving-from-itself-and-I’m-just-the-chap-to-do-it notion appears, it’s either a sign that (a) the person saying it doesn’t really know their poetry, otherwise they’d know people have been saying this forever, or (b) that they’re trying to sell you something.
In this case, however, that’s not my main objection. Come one, come all, I say. One more book of poetry certainly can’t do any harm, unless Lawrence Fox writes it.
If people really were interested in bringing accessible poetry to the masses, the form most likely to do this over the centuries has been the oral tradition. In any town there is invariably an open-mic poetry night of some sort where people come and express themselves and listen to accessible poetry on a regular basis, without needing well-meaning patrician interventions from famous people keen to enhance their brand and profile.
Granted, they might have to listen to the odd person repeatedly rhyming lots of words with rose and emphasising the zzzz sound seven more repeatedly until they end up just making buzzing noises, but hey! I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
So, to me, the notion that the noble savages of the working class need people of status to guide them into a cultural wonderland seems patronising at best. It also suggests that Jeremy Corbyn’s tales of long evenings with him and Len quoting verse at each other buys into exactly the stereotype they claim to be challenging, as well as showing ignorance of the reality of the poetry scene in the UK today.