A close reading of Lord Alan Sugar’s poem about Jeremy Corbyn

Some practical criticism.

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Jeremy Corbyn, a bit of a scruff

Asked what he could do to come over less rough

His fashion advisers worked on a new look

And a fifty quid Matalan suit’s all it took

This is an interesting place to begin. The poem is clearly intended to be a satirical broadside against a Labour leader that Lord Sugar, who quit the party in May 2015 over its drift to the left, believes to be both anti-business and anti-Semitic.

But the line “a bit of a scruff” sounds almost affectionate – Sugar may, inadvertently, have highlighted the unpolished quality that some voters find so compelling about Corbyn.

What’s more, while there are legitimate criticisms of the Labour leader, “his suit looks cheap” is really not one of them. And when a wealthy businessman mocks a politician for the cheapness of his suits, it feels a lot like mocking people who have less money than he does. Already, our sympathy is against the narrator.

Worse is to come.

Jeremy Corbyn, a stud of a man

A playboy was he with his lover Diane

She’d get into bed wearing only her blusher

And lie back with Jezza just thinking of Russia

This feels like an allusion to the classic Guido Fawkes tweet, in which he posted a picture of himself alone in bed with a cardboard cut-out of Diane Abbott – apparently under the impression that this made her look bad.

Many things about this stanza do not make sense. Why the poet should have interest in, let alone knowledge of, the Labour leader’s sexual prowess. Why he believes discussion of a 30 year old relationship between two politicians should have any place in public life. Why someone’s views on international relations, or any other policy issue for that matter, would drive what they think about in bed (“just thinking of Russia”). Does Sugar spend moments of carnality fantasising about tax rates?

At any rate: this is a deeply unpleasant and misogynistic stanza. Once again, our unreliable narrator has attempted to attack Jeremy Corbyn, but has, in the process, inadvertantly told us more about himself.

(Incidentally, the use of the word “just” is a sign that the line was running short, while the words “was” and “he” have clearly been reversed to maintain rhythm – so this seems like a good moment to talk about metre.

This poem has between 10 and 12 syllables a line, and more often than not they seem to come in groups of three. The problem is that the stress is sometimes at the beginning of those three – a dactyl – and sometimes at the end - an anapaest.

And so, I’m having some difficulty identifying what metre this poem is meant to be written in. But since I spent many hours between the ages of 13 and 21 trying to get to grips with poetic metre, and since this is the first and presumably last time I will have the chance to put this learning to professional use, I’ll be damned if I’m going to write about a poem without even attempting to address this stuff.

Anyway.)

Jeremy Corbyn, on Royals not keen

You won’t find him singing to God Save The Queen

No Cenotaph bowing for this bitter man

If elected he’d call for a monarchy ban

Some interesting capitalisation going on here: “Royals”, “Cenotaph”. The message is that Sugar, unlike Corbyn, has the proper respect.

The first two lines of this stanza are, to be fair, accurate: Corbyn is not a royalist, and he doesn’t like singing the national anthem. Fair comment.

But then things go off the rails. What evidence is there that he’s “bitter”? Many British people have republican sympathies – it’s a minority position, but not a freakishly unusual one. Why would this correlate with bitterness? As for the “monarchy ban”, Corbyn made clear during last year’s election campaign that, whatever his own views, any government he led would not attempt any such radical review of the British constitution.

I’m also not convinced that “ban” is the right verb for what you do with monarchies – “Overthrow”? “Remove”? But, to be fair, those wouldn’t rhyme.

Jeremy Corbyn, says many a critic

Is a dangerous fool who is anti-Semitic

He often says “I’m not a Jew-hating man”

“I’m just a big Hamas and Hezbollah fan”

This is, one suspects, what first led the poet to put pen to paper. The last few weeks have seen much discussion of Corbyn’s views of and reputation within the Jewish community. Lord Sugar, of Jewish heritage himself, has as personal a stake in this debate as anyone.

I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of that debate: this isn’t the place, and I’m just too tired. But I will make two observations.

1) The last line of this stanza breaks metre more jarringly than any other line of the poem. This could be a clever way of communicating Sugar’s genuine rage on this issue. Or it could be because it’s completely impossible to say the words “Hamas and Hezbollah” in dactyls (and/or anapaests).

2) Even though the result would be a clusterfuck for all concerned, I now really want the Labour party to release a statement from Corbyn headed, “I’m not a Jew-hating man”.

Only two stanzas left. Come on, we can do this.

Jeremy Corbyn, an Arsenal man

Supporting the team with his Islington clan

He cheers the left winger when he goes along

And ‘Come on you Reds’ is his favourite song

This is weak sauce, after all that’s gone before. It lacks the ironic undercutting of the first two stanzas or the genuine rage of the fourth. All it tells us is that Corbyn is a left-wing politician who supports a football team that plays in red. That’s it. (Alan Sugar, incidentally, supports Spurs.)

It’s not bad – sorry, I’ll rephrase: it’s not any worse than the rest of the poem. But Sugar really should have moved it up the running order. At this point, a truly great work would be building to a conclusion, not fizzling out.

Jeremy Corbyn, a yesterday man

The worst Labour leader since records began

Though his party is coughing and spluttering and dying

Old Jeremy Corbyn’s red flag is still flying

London Underground used to have a series of posters which used poems to teach people about tube etiquette: move down the carriage, give up your seat to the old and infirm, and so on.

Those posters really bugged me – because not only did the poems never quite scan properly, they were also really easy to fix. I’d stare at them, mentally rewriting them so they communicated exactly the same message without jarring extra syllables.

This stanza has the same problem. There’s no such thing as “a yesterday man”: there’s a phrase which makes the same point and this isn’t it. And that third line has far, far too many syllables.

I make no comment on the contents, but from a purely metric standpoint, here’s what it should be:

Jeremy Corbyn is yesterday’s man

The worst party leader since records began

Though Labour is coughing and splutters and dies

Old Jeremy Corbyn’s red flag still flies.

Oh hang on, I’m missing a syllable.

Hmm. This poetry lark’s harder than it looks.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.