The poetry of austerity

A response to the cuts in verse.

Art, relatively speaking, is slow. Representation needs time to mirror real events, and little work has emerged so far in reaction to the coalition government's austerity programme since it took power last June. There was the so-so Theatre Uncut initiative earlier this year, but over the last couple of months another project has emerged out of the unlikely world of innovative poetry to deal with the cuts.

Poet Sam Riviere, winner in 2007 of an Eric Gregory Award and author of a pamphlet in the Faber New Poets series published last year, has been working on a web-published sequence of poems entitled "81 Austerities". It consists of 9 sets of 9 poems each, published on a weekly basis from 12 May. In Riviere's words, "The brief is to publish a passive/aggressive response to the 'austerity measures' implemented by the Coalition government in the UK in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis. The collection aims to apply such 'cuts' to poetry itself, experiencing this deprivation primarily on the levels of sentiment, structure, and subject matter."

Riviere trained at the Norwich School of Art and Design, and the conceptual, process-oriented character of art education leaves its mark in the work. Each section incorporates photographic materials, and includes a number of visual poems and the use of innovative typography; the Tumblr version includes a number of video-poems assembled from scavenged footage, photographs and collages. The sequence was written systematically, following 8 different and intertwining themes. The overall tone takes its cues from the drollery and deadpan neutrality of internet discourse, the new-bureaucratic language of advertising and PR, the monologues of the bored and perpetually dissatisfied. It follows on from the high-velocity, obscurely logical language of Tom Raworth, the Language poets and the British poets who followed in their wake.

In Riviere's poetry, austerity figures as a revocation of generosity, a violence done to form, a grain to the surface of language that resists easy comprehension. As he writes in "Cuts":

very soon the things we cherish most
will likely be taken from us the wine
from our cellars our silk gowns and opium
but tell me what do you expect Chung Ling Soo
much ridiculed conjurer of the court and last
of the dynasty of brooms to do about it?

The poems, when written as monologues, present difficulties for the usual forms of biographical or dramatic reading. They denaturalise and call attention to, the language that they hoover up from the wider culture - an important gesture when the cuts are justified by the government and media by the neutering and abuse of language into doublespeak. The publishing strategy of "81 Austerities" - publication for free online, although a number of the poems have appeared also in literary journals - presents an obverse to the subject matter: a potlatch, an assurance, when everything is being cut, that some activities free of the suffocating logic of exchange are still possible.

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"Samphire": a poem by Alison Brackenbury

"Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light. . . ."

My grandmother could cook it, for
she grew up by that dangerous shore
where the sea skulked without a wall

where I have seen it, tough as grass,
where silent men with rods trooped past
its salty ranks, without a glance.

Lear’s gatherer hangs perilously.
Why? So much is closed to me.
Did Shakespeare ever hear the sea?

Once, said my father, far inland,
from friend or stall, one clutch was found,
steamed, in my grandmother’s great pan.

Once, a smooth leaflet from a shop
claimed they could “source it”, but they stocked
bunched, peppered cress – Another gap.

Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light,
stalks I will never taste, could make
tenderly dark, my coast’s sly snake,
salt on my tongue, before I wake.

Alison Brackenbury is an award-winning poet. Her ninth collection, Skies, will be published by Carcanet in March

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle