Keeping poetry outside the comfort zone

A poem is an active, not a contemplative, entity - it should channel disobedience

I have been a vegan and pacifist for over 25 years, an anarchist for 30 years and a poet since I was a small child. Over a lifetime of writing, these four factors have interwoven into an "activist poetics" in which I practice "linguistic disobedience" in the hope of bringing about positive social, ethical and political change. "Linguistic disobedience" is pushing language to work both in unexpected ways and outside the expected poetic modes of the officially sanctioned.

Is there such a thing as "officially sanctioned" verse? Yes, there is. It's poetry that passes through newspapers, schools, bookshops and even the net, without causing discomfort in the reader and publisher, student or teacher; without prompting questions about the problems of the environment in which we read, and the poem was created.

"Linguistic disobedience" might be achieved in many ways: by speaking out of turn, by disrupting syntax and "meaning", and by offering comparisons between disparate things. It might be a case of the poem acting as "witness", a recording of what's normally "unseen", ignored or denied. It can be subtle -- using allusion and slight shifts from convention -- and it can be volatile -- from agitprop to rants.

An activist ecological poem might offer a glimpse of deep natural beauty that is nonetheless necessarily "disrupted" by the highly disturbing reality of species loss, deforestation or, say, the ecological implications of buying the latest flat-screen television technology. That beauty exists at all in a damaged world is to be celebrated, but our appreciation of it comes so often at a cost that we don't always register. We must be conscious of its vulnerability.

I am trying to write a poetry of cause and effect, of the interconnectedness of things, of awareness that our actions have consequences. I have spent a life enjoying the sublimity of a golden wheatcrop on the verge of harvest -- the smell is intoxicating and the play of light and shadow as a breeze ripples across the full ears of wheat gives the illusion of being at sea. Because of this, many of my inland Australian images are evocations of the ocean. And the dry air, coupled with massive skies, enhances the image. But the reality of such farming is horrifying.

Whether it's York gum and jam tree habitat around where we live, or salmon gum further east, or any other flora and fauna-rich ecologies, so much was cleared on a vast scale to make room for crops grown in heavily chemically-fertilised poor-quality soil. The run-off into river systems (when there's adequate rain -- vegetation loss has reduced rainfall even further) means nitrogen build-up, which is toxic to river-life.

Then there's the scourge of salinity (ironically, the salt can be quite beautiful in itself, though it means death for most plants), spreading because the natural water pumps -- trees -- are no longer there, and the salt is leached to the surface. The poisons used in farm-monocultures, and the loss of native wildlife, are constants. But the irony that such appreciations of beauty carry for me, as part of a colonising culture, is that each vast wheat paddock means the dispossession of the indigenous people (the Nyungar, Yamatji and Wongi) from whom the 'wheatbelt' land was stolen.

My primary focus has been the ecological, writing out of the Western Australian wheatbelt about specific land degradation and damaging farming practices, but in the context of ecological concerns that are international (I coined a term, "international regionalism" -- opening international lines of communication while respecting and valuing the local) and especially in the context of dispossession of indigenous peoples and their loss of rights "over" land. I have lived for many years in the US and UK, as well as in rural Western Australia, and have created a comparative poetics that, while concentrating on the local, tries to bring into play experience (and witness) in other geographies.

I try not to write poems of propaganda (though I have written 'rants'!), but ones whose subject matter and language will draw the reader into considering "issues" without being instructed what to think. Readers are a poem's creators in so many ways, and use the signs as they will. But employing language in unexpected and "disobedient" ways can jar readers into different modes of consideration, to reflect not only on the themes but on what poetry actually means.

I have used poetry in many protests, sometimes effectively, other times not. I once literally (if temporarily) stopped bulldozers knocking down bushland for a development while reading out poems... I have long used poems to highlight animal rights issues, and wrote poems during the many anti-nuclear campaigns that took place in the port of Fremantle during the Reagan era.

Poems can express "extreme feelings" and still work against violence; this is what most appeals to me about the medium. In recent years, I have been using poems in campaigning against the death sentence around the world.

Wordsworth wrote of "emotion recollected in tranquillity". While admiring and understanding him, I've tried to create my poems in situ, outside tranquillity, in the location of the damage that's being done (by land-clearers, rally organisers, the military, miners etc). A poem is an active, not a contemplative, entity for me, and the writing process not merely a retrospective consideration.

I often call on childhood experience of being on the farm, or staying in mining towns with my father, but never intending nostalgia. Memory belongs to the "now", and the poet has a responsibility to link the two, to bring positive change and confront the damages done.

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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