Article: David Wheatley

Between ‘Helpless Right’ and ‘Forced Pow’r’:
The Political Poem Today

As someone who ran away from Cambridge to enlist in the dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, repeatedly fell off his horse, and finally won a discharge on the grounds of insanity, Samuel Taylor Coleridge still has a military record that most contemporary poets could only dream of. Rarely, these days, is a war poet a serving soldier or veteran, but if ever there was a decade in which Britain’s poets were placed on a war footing it was the 1790s. Decades before he became Shelley’s ‘old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King’, George III was already a tyrant, his paranoia fuelled by legions of government spies. In the early 1790s, the young Coleridge was still in the first bloom of radicalism, casting himself as a prophet of the coming democratic age and hatching schemes for a Pantisocratic utopian community in the United States. Of all the exhibits of his literary Jacobinism during these years, few are as incendiary as ‘Fire, Famine, and Slaughter’, a ‘war Eclogue’ published in 1798. The three witches of its title meet on a ‘desolate tract’ to do the bidding of an unnamed master, though by way of a hint ‘Letters four do form his name’.1 Though Coleridge’s target is unmistakable (William Pitt), there were compelling reasons for writerly circumspection. When the radicals Thelwell, Tooke and Hardy were tried for treason in 1794, their crimes included the ‘imagining’ of the king’s death. To imagine, in this sense, already encompassed the step from thought to action, and it was on this understanding that ‘Fire, Famine and Slaughter’ could have been construed as a treasonable intervention, as Coleridge must have known.

Coleridge’s radicalism was not to last, and reminders of his younger self often caused him embarrassment in gouty middle age. When he reprinted ‘Fire, Famine and Slaughter’ in 1817 he chose to undercut it with an ‘Apologetic Preface’, effectively neutering its politics. In a striking volte-face, Coleridge now argues that its imaginative status acquits the poem of any treasonable intent:

Could it be supposed, though for a moment, that the author seriously wished what he had thus wildly imagined, even the attempt to palliate an inhumanity so monstrous would be an insult to the hearers. But it seemed to me worthy of consideration, whether the mood of mind, and the general state of sensations, in which a Poet produces such vivid and fantastic images, is likely to co-exist, or is even compatible with, that gloomy and deliberate ferocity which a serious wish to realize them would pre-suppose.2

The answer is no: ‘Fire, Famine, and Slaughter’ cannot be treasonable because no path now leads from poetry and the imagination to political action. It took just under twenty years for Coleridge’s day-star of liberty to decline into the evening star of quietism, but many poets then and now would rather be the young Coleridge facing the dock than accept immunity from prosecution at the price paid by the Coleridge of 1817. A whiff of danger is a powerful opiate to our sense of perspective: ‘Poetry Is a Destructive Force’ we tell ourselves: ‘It can kill a man’.3 George Steiner has long argued that the murderousness of Stalin’s Soviet Union towards its writers is, in its way, a tribute to the power of poetry; preferable even, perhaps, to the indifference with which the work of Mandelstam or Akhmatova would have been greeted in the West. Steiner, one notes, has conducted his campaigns against the vacuity of liberal democracy from the distinctly un-Soviet environs of Cambridge, Geneva and Harvard; the opinions of Mandelstam or Akhmatova on the desirability of the Gulag over relocation to Brooklyn or San Francisco have not been recorded. King Phalaris of Sicily kept a golden bull in which he burned his victims alive, with reeds placed in the sculpture’s nostrils to turn their cries to music. We have always moral strength enough to endure the sufferings of others, especially when they sing as melodiously as a persecuted Russian poet.

The opinionated man is the ignorant man, opinionated Yeats. A poem and its occasion exist in a relationship of creative tension: ‘Anything, however small, may make a poem; nothing, however great, is certain to’, wrote Edward Thomas.4 The poem and its political occasion may want or demand entirely different things, a conflict of wills that underwrites most of the courtly tradition: to call Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’ insincere is to miss the point in the most obvious way. For one of the greatest political poems in English, it is quite a challenge to say exactly what the politics of the ‘Ode’ are. Marvell was a royalist, then a parliamentarian, but manages to turn a crucial section of the poem into a heartfelt (and high-risk) paean to Charles I. In a world familiar with the rhetoric of the divine right of kings, Marvell praises Charles’ restraint in failing to call on the gods to ‘vindicate his helpless Right’, while the victorious Cromwell consolidates his ‘forced Pow’r’. The principle of kingship remains vested in Charles, while his worldly power has been usurped and ‘forc’d’ by Cromwell, who is now vulnerable to anyone else who fancies usurping and ‘forcing’ his power in turn. To descend from the airy fables of divinely entitled monarchs to the world of power politics is disillusioning and terrifying, and cannot help but induce nostalgia for the enchantments of the ancien régime. If this turns the poem towards monarchist reaction, it does so by swapping explanation or analysis for mythology – by turning us away from politics itself, in other words, but in a profoundly political way. The emotional power of one of the greatest pieces of political prose in English, Edmund Burke’s description in Reflections on the Revolution in France of Marie Antoinette fleeing the mob in Versailles in her nightdress, works in much the same way, quivering with horror at the sovereign body being laid violent hands on by the mob, when its proper element (and implicitly that of power itself) is darkness and concealment. ‘Never allow yourself to become too familiar with holy things’, Wittgenstein told Rush Rhees.5 Marvell and Burke’s acts of veiling contrive to communicate more than they let on, in their counter-revolutionary way, whereas today’s political poem runs the risk of equating maximal frankness with maximal efficacy; but as I hope to suggest, the gap between the assertion of ‘helpless right’ and the assault on ‘forced power’ is not as easily bridged as that.

Marvell’s political poems, then, read as though passing coded messages to their audience – a not so far-fetched comparison when one remembers that Marvell was also an undercover member, in the 1670s, of an anti-Catholic Dutch fifth-column, operating as ‘Mr Thomas’. In ‘Tom May’s Death’ he considers his poetic duty in dangerous times, when a more outspoken style is called for. No less than Marvell, May (1594/5–1650) knew the pliancy of principle in changeable circumstances, having switched sides (to the Parliamentarians) in the 1640s, perhaps in a fit of pique at being passed over for the laureateship. Marvell writes:

When the sword glitters o’er the judge’s head,
And fear the coward churchman silenced,
Then is the poet’s time, ’tis then he draws,
And single fights forsaken Virtue’s cause.
He, when the wheel of empire, whirleth back,
And though the world’s disjointed axle crack,
Sings still of ancient rights and better times,
Seeks wretched good, arraigns successful crimes.6

‘Single’ the poet may fight, but not necessarily in a single cause. The dead man shared the turncoat’s bond with Marvell, but the elegy damns him as a malicious poetaster, someone who has played the game of political advancement and failed. Depending on the occasion, then, not to mention the powerfulness of his opponent, Marvell could speak out when he wanted to, but when the political poem prefers an elliptical style there will be no shortage of people willing to spell out its message on the writer’s behalf. Then as now, its readers form the crucially determining context of a poem’s politics. If the ‘Ode’ was the favourite it was of the New Critics, the cause might lie with the poem’s irreducibility to anything as vulgar as a political position; mid-century styles of reading, it might be argued, were happier pondering whether a conceit exhibited the fourth or fifth type of ambiguity than making value judgement on, say, the rights and wrongs of Cromwell’s Irish campaign (‘And now the Irish are asham’d /To see themselves in one Year tamed…’). But this is to sell both close-reading and politics short. Marvell’s politics test the question of the sayable, of what can and cannot be uttered in public. The ‘Ode’ dates from the years of Marvell’s lobbying for political advancement, a campaign that ended with his becoming Cromwell’s Latin Secretary in 1657, after which, as his editor notes: ‘Political commitment coincided with the end of Marvell’s greatest political achievements.’7 This sense of ‘commitment’ grossly contravenes the contemporary understanding of the committed writer: Marvell was politically committed, contracted, obliged, and followed these commitments where they took him: away from directly political poetry.

A successful poem will offer the reader many different levels on which to respond, but that of mere opinionation may lure the unsuspecting reader away from the poem’s deeper rifts of meaning, or give the illusion of reading in the absence of any real engagement. Many poets ask to be taken on their own terms, constructing whole personae to this end, while secretly defying the reader to see them awry, in an entirely different light. Consciously, late Yeats speaks to us of the decline of the Anglo-Irish elite; unconsciously, he identifies with a ruling class at the moment of its demise the better to stamp his lonely ruminations with the glamour of historical tragedy. Consciously, the Sunday-driver imperialist Philip Larkin emits howls of protest at the doing down of Old Blighty; unconsciously, he knows that the England of ‘Going, Going’ had departed long before the ‘cast of crooks and tarts’ ever got their hands on it, and has assigned it objective correlative status of a far more private grievance (the ‘violence /A long way back’ of ‘Love Again’).8

This is not to condemn either of these writers: on the contrary, it is the unconscious script they follow, and not what they put in their letters to the editor (or Kingsley Amis), that gives them their political fascination. But critics are fond of promoting writers’ opinionation to statements of guiding artistic principle, whether it be to make a post-colonial nationalist of James Joyce on the strength of his youthful hack journalism, or to taint the author of Harmonium as a fascist fellow-traveller (Wallace Stevens was so rattled by the attacks on him in the 1920s that he wrote easily his worst long poem, ‘Owl’s Clover’ in reply, suggesting he ought to have followed the Duke of Wellington’s practice of never apologising and never explaining). Stevens was indeed a Mussolini supporter, writing to Ronald Lane Latimer that ‘the Italians have as much right to take Ethiopia from the coons as the coons had to take it from the boa-constrictors’, a statement that as much explains or negates ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ as Frank Lloyd Wright urinating against it would explain or negate the Guggenheim Museum.9

Underlying my argument so far has been the assumption that it is not, in itself, a feat of artistic merit to strike a political pose: to plead otherwise is a category error, the alibi of a writer for whom the wait for art to deliver visible justice, trying at the best of times, has become intolerable, but who would rather wallow in bad faith than admit defeat. But this is not a call to admit that defeat. When Robert Duncan upbraided Denise Levertov for her agit-prop response to the Vietnam War, he did not do so from a position of flinty aloofness; his politics, demonstrably on the left, are best characterised as anarchist-libertarian. If I say ‘I bet you five pounds’, I thereby bet you five pounds and complete the action (even if I fail to pay you afterwards), but if I say ‘I sentence the Israeli actions to universal condemnation’ I have done no such thing. Duncan did not sense that worldly authority in himself and resented being asked to exercise it by others. Shelley pronounced poets unacknowledged legislators, Auden suggested the term more correctly belonged to secret policemen, and Geoffrey Hill insists that ‘poets are not legislators unless they happen to be so employed’.10 The difference between ‘I bet you …’ and ‘I sentence …’ hinges on their performative or illocutionary dimension, and to Hill the tragedy of Pound’s fascism stemmed from his misunderstanding of these speech categories:

In How to Do Things With Words Austin writes that ‘a verdictive is a judicial act as distinct from legislative or executive acts, which are both exercitives’. Pound’s error was to confuse the two, to fancy that poets’ judicial sentences are, in mysterious actuality, legislative or executive acts.11

There are many variants on the boundary between ‘verdictive’ and ‘exercitive’, and our capacity to pass from one to the other. Satire, for instance, divides into two the basic categories of meliorist and fatalist. The former believes that to expose a vice is to root it out, while the latter believes the human condition is essentially unsusceptible to improvement. Voltaire and Paul Durcan belong in the former category, Jonathan Swift and Peter Reading in the latter. The contemporary phenomenon of anti-war poetry, if not exactly satire, offers a revealing test case. Responding to the poetry of child author Minou Drouet in the 1950s, Jean Cocteau suggested that ‘Tous les enfants ont du génie sauf Minou Drouet’ (all children have genius except Minou Drouet), and it is tempting to apply the same inside-out approach to poetry: all poetry is political today except political poetry. A stray reference to poppies in Michael Longley conjures the First World War; a poem about mint by Seamus Heaney is patently about Republican prisoners and the peace process; whereas a poem about Afghanistan by Tony Harrison, we notice instead, is about strained and unconvincing connections, artistic bad faith, and only then, somewhere down the line, a faraway war.

There is, first of all, the problem of entitlement to speak. A combat veteran such as Brian Turner, author of Here, Bullet, is a rare exception in contemporary poetry (though I would suggest that his finest poems tend to be those which do not mention the war directly), and while distant wars fought by strangers have always inspired poets, the problem of this distance must at least be squarely faced. As Tim Kendall has noted, ‘It is partly the failure to notice difficulties in the artistic exploitation of violence which makes the bulk of contemporary anti-war poetry seem sentimental and morally dubious.’12 When Mary O’Malley declares that she addresses us across ‘the staked thighs /Of the unsaved women of El Salvador’,13 only the most naive reader will mistake this for solidarity with the wretched of the earth: it is moral narcissism of the rankest stripe. This need not be a disaster: Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’, after all, is a portrait of the same condition. The question is one of intentionality or, failing that, of characterisation; but where Hill’s narcissist is devastatingly drawn, O’Malley’s is a ham-fisted job, unless the whole poem is read as merely sarcastic (it seems to me anything but).

There is the question of representation, and the limits thereof. Harold Pinter’s artless doggerel on the Iraq war (‘Hallelujah! /It works. /We blew the shit out of them’)14 might be defended for lifting the veil of literary decorum on the true horrors of war, but this would be a double travesty: first, of every writer who ever has used literary form meaningfully (Isaac Rosenberg, Keith Douglas?) to convey the reality of war, and second, for the entirely fatuous basis of its claims to shock us out of our complacency (we also read the newspapers, Harold Pinter). Even as iconoclasm, his poetry fails abjectly. Before burning his guitar, Jimi Hendrix had the decency to play a few tunes on it, and as political satire his ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ leaves Pinter standing. Pinter’s poems are satire conceived as one-downmanship, an attempt to be even stupider than the thing being satirised. As Adorno said of Bertolt Brecht, ‘Many of his phrases could be parroted by his mortal enemy’,15 Pinter’s mortal enemy being perhaps Craig Brown, whose effortless parodies of Pinter for Private Eye are at least self-consciously amusing.

Just as Geoffrey Hill’s ‘September Song’ comes precariously close to being a poem which finds the dilemma of a poem about the holocaust more engrossing than the holocaust itself, Kent Johnson’s poetry on the Iraq war goes straight past outrage at the war to revulsion at our capacity to convert horrifying subject matter into poetic opportunity. ‘Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, or: ‘Get the Hood Back On’’ appears to parody a young American poet drafting an absurd and horrifying biographical note: ‘I’m an American poet, twentyish, early to mid-thirtyish, fortyish to seventyish, I’ve had poems on the Poets Against the War website (…)’, before jumping to the money shot: ‘I want you to take this self-righteous poem, soak it in this bedpan of crude oil, and shove it down your pleading, screaming throat.’16 It ‘appears’ to parody a young poet in the sense that Johnson pushes his collision of voices and registers to the point of gibberish: he lays bare the contradictions and hypocrisies of our attempts to empathise across the geopolitical divide, but only an individual in the grip of something like psychosis would externalise these contradictions quite as graphically as this poem. Johnson’s monologues embody the truth behind the joke about a situation that is ‘catastrophic but not serious’: the war is a moral atrocity, but one we normalise through the very medium of our anti-war poetry, as young writers contributing to the ‘Poets Against the War website’. But the pessimism need not stop there: Johnson flays blinkered narcissism, but are his outraged guffaws any guarantee of the moral high ground? The very question threatens to plunge us into the vortex of moral narcissism he lampoons, but doubts persist as to the real targets of his satire. His laughter, and our laughter at his laughter, cannot shake its nervous, uneasy quality.

The model of the political poem I have outlined here is heavily dependent on impurity, complicity and compromise, but there is at all times an alternative that keeps its hands ethically clean. As an example of the model I have in mind here, George Oppen, wrote in his daybook:

And the poem, what does the poem refer to?

Is it perhaps abominable
In a time of atrocity
To write poems

Could one not stop 17

Oppen’s Discrete Series, a powerful depiction of the Depression-era US, appeared in 1934, after which he did not publish another volume until 1962. Oppen became a political writer in the simplest sense of swapping writing for political action. As a road map from theory to practice, if such is what we expect of political poetry, this is unimpeachable, though Oppen would later renege on his defection to write some of the great political poems of the 60s, such as his great sequence on the Second World War, ‘On Being Numerous’. While Oppen’s revulsion from the language of propaganda ensured that, Communist Party member though he was, he would not become an American Pablo Neruda or Hugh MacDiarmid, leaving a trail of political folly in his wake, the refusal to countenance what Adorno called ‘the fallacy of mere assertion’18 (the belief that repeating a political fantasy often enough will make it true) should not be mistaken for a retreat from politics per se. In his essays on Kafka and Beckett, Adorno intuits glimpses of political messianism behind those writers’ seemingly ahistorical surfaces, insisting that ‘The name of history may not be spoken since what would truly be history, the other, has not yet begun.’19 Adorno memorably did battle with Bertolt Brecht and György Lukács over the possibility of engaged art in the era of socialist realism, Lukács having accused him of taking up residency in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ of aesthetic defeatism. As ever, Adorno is adept at presenting what looks like an impasse as the only remaining form of resistance: ‘This is not a time for political art, but politics has migrated into autonomous art, and nowhere more so than where it seems to be politically dead.’20 Such is the familiar terminus of a certain strand of despairing highbrow Marxism, with only the poems of Paul Celan and Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw between us and the nightmare of late capitalism, but one witticism at least of Brecht’s worth quoting back to Adorno was the playwright’s insistence that we prefer the bad new things to the good old ones. Startling and unnerving as some of the political poetry produced under the star of Adornian modernism is, such as Keston Sutherland’s Neocosis, that particular shock of the new has receded sufficiently for us to see this as merely one available style among many. And as a moment’s consideration ought to remind us, the list of powerful, moving contemporary political poems is by no means a negligible one: Douglas Oliver’s Penniless Politics remains one of the best long poems of the 90s; some of the poems from Michael Hofmann’s Acrimony, (‘Campaign Fever’ for one) come as close to state-of-the-nation poems as anything produced in the long mental concussion of Thatcher/Major’s Britain; long gone, I assume, are the days in which Medbh McGuckian’s poetry would be excluded from an anthology of poems on the Northern Irish Troubles, a subject on which Captain Lavender has no less to say than Quoof or Fivemiletown; Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s ‘Translation: For the Reburial of the Magdalenes’ is one of the most effective acts of memorialising an Irish poet has yet performed on the traumatic legacy of institutional abuse by the Catholic Church; Justin Quinn’s Fuselage brilliantly anatomises the Czech Republic in its transition from the Soviet bloc to McDonald’s and the free market; Peter Reading’s terminal-seeming utterances still cough up their gobbets of bile with delicious scatter-gun misanthropy; and somewhere in the mass of recent Geoffrey Hill (perhaps in Speech! Speech!) lies the true late portrait of Hill’s radical Tory vision. These are deep, engaged and enduring political poems.

It is not for love of love poetry that love poets write, Robert Graves said, and politics too is a subject that will typically be thrust on poets, rather than sought out, pitched into the imagination like King Billy’s ‘bomb balls’ in Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’. Only the hardest of hearts amid the horror of war will fail to respond, and only the softest of heads flatter themselves that theirs is the help for which the helpless cry out, or that they, spokesmen of the tribe, are uniquely mandated to provide it. That way lies only artistic vanity and self-delusion. In ‘On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam’ Hayden Carruth imagines a war poetry ebulliently convinced of its adequacy to every awful occasion. He boasts of the Vietnam poem he has already written, and the poem for Algeria, and for Korea, and on and on, though: ‘not one breath /was restored /to one //shattered throat /mans womans or childs /not one not //one’. He is not without one satisfied audience member, however:

death went on and on
never looking aside

except now and then
with a furtive half-smile

to make sure I was noticing.21

When the political poem finds its ‘helpless right’ abetting the ultimate ‘forced pow’r’ of death itself, its moral authority has been seriously compromised. Yet between imagining and succumbing to this condition (to circle back to Coleridge and his regicidal fantasies) lies a world of difference, and Carruth’s fine poem addresses us with full and compelling authority. Even to spell out that difference, to a reader who failed to grasp it, would be to risk crushing all that makes the poem so recognisably true. Of both successful and unsuccessful political poem alike, for crucially different reasons, we can exclaim, like the sadistic director figure in Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe, ‘There’s our catastrophe. In the bag.’22


‘Fire, Famine, and Slaughter’, in Coleridge, The Complete Poems (ed. William Keach, London: Penguin, 1997), p. 223.
Coleridge, ‘Apologetic Preface’, in Poetical and Dramatic Works, vol. 2 (Boston: Little Brown, 1861), p. 275. For a classic account of all these topics, cf. John Barrell, Imagining the King’s Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793–1796 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000).
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1955), p. 192.
Edward Thomas, Maurice Maeterlinck (Methuen, 1911), p. 28.
Rush Rhees, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981), p. 136.
Andrew Marvell, Complete Poetry (ed. George de F. Lord, London: Dent, 1984), p. 265. Though traditionally ascribed to Marvell, the poem is of doubtful authorship.
‘Introduction’ to Andrew Marvell, Complete Poetry, pp. xi–xii.
Philip Larkin, ‘Going, Going’, ‘Love Again’, in Anthony Thwaite (ed.), Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), pp. 189-90, 215.
Holly Stevens (ed.), Letters of Wallace Stevens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 270.
Geoffrey Hill, ‘Our Word is Our Bond’, in Kenneth Haynes (ed.), Collected Critical Writings (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008), p. 169.
Geoffrey Hill, ‘Our Word is Our Bond’, ed. cit., p. 169.
Tim Kendall, Modern English War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006), p. 242.
Mary O’Malley, ‘Credo’, in The Boning Hall (Manchester: Carcanet, 2002), p. 59.
Harold Pinter, ‘American Football’, in Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948–2005 (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 260.
Adorno, ‘Commitment’, in Ernst Bloch et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1980), p. 182. For more on Pinter and anti-war poetry cf. my ‘‘Dichtung und Wahrheit’: Contemporary War and the Non-combatant Poet’, in Tim Kendall (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of British & Irish War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007, pp. 653–66).
Kent Johnson, Homage to the Last Avant-Garde (Exeter: Shearsman, 2008), p. 122.
George Oppen, Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers (ed. Stephen Cope, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 184.
Theodor Adorno, ‘Reconciliation Under Duress’, in Aesthetics and Politics (ed. cit.) p. 162.
Adorno, ‘Notes on Kafka’, in Prisms (trs Samuel and Shierry Weber, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983), p. 258.
Adorno, ‘Commitment’, in Aesthetics and Politics (ed. cit.), p. 194.
Hayden Carruth, ‘On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam’, in Matthew Hollis and Paul Keegan (eds), 101 Poems Against War (London: Faber and Faber), pp. 12-3.
Samuel Beckett, ‘Catastrophe’, in Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Shorter Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), p. 147.


First published in Edinburgh Review 135.


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