Poetry is the Language of Politics, SRL foreword no 21 by Alex Marsh

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times

We have recently witnessed a rise in the amount of poetry used by politicians in the leftist movement, especially British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn. In recent speeches he has taken to quoting Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s The Masque of Anarchy- 1832, most notably the passage- “Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number! Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!

At the Durham Miners Gala, the incredible celebration of trade-unionism and working class culture in Britain, he quoted the breathtaking Full Moon At Tierz- Before The Storming Of Huesca.  This poem was written by John Cornford, a communist who was martyred as a member of the Spanish Republic, fighting against fascists in the 1930’s. The poem is said to show how “a hesitant and solitary being wills himself, in a kind of prayer to an absent Marxian deity. It is a rallying call for change, a radical and incredibly powerful one which Corbyn has chosen…

Time present is a cataract whose force
Breaks down the banks even at its source
And history forming in our hands
Not plasticine but roaring sands,
Yet we must swing it to its final course.
(2nd verse)

The language itself is violent and maps out what he wants from his movement, through using these poetic texts, Corbyn doesn’t have to mask anything through politispeak or spin. By taking and learning from older struggles and texts, he is looking to the future and galvanising us with its message.

This is why Corbyn is using poetry; because the poetry of protest and of the oppressed is the voice of the oppressed. It is clear and cutting. Verity Spott, the great radical British poet, has written about this on the blog Two Torn Halves. Spott discusses the numb ‘Britishness’ of our protests on the left, how our default is to go for witty banners and puns, the meaningless chants of ‘Hey Ho! Theresa May has to go!”, when we are faced with the violence of this Conservative government. When people with disabilities are being murdered by cuts to the National Health Service, is this form of language enough? Who are we scaring with this? Which exploited group of society are hearing or reading this and knowing the movement is behind them fully? When language is what we have, we have to make sure it has force behind it.

In this respect we can look to Corbyn. He is not alienating anyone with this language; the poems are shouted back to him as he recites them. People respond to them because they spark excitement and ring through the sludge of political discourse. As Spott argues: they meet violence with violence. The Labour manifesto ran with the motto “For the many, not the few” this election. The section of Shelley Corbyn recites ends with “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”. It is the same message of hope and progress but written 200 years before. In the Labour movement, all politics stem from emotions of anger, kindness and love, and nothing riles up these emotions  better than poetry. To coincide with a Labour front bench which actually resembles politicians who might stand for these things, I would argue now is the time for poetry to slink further into mainstream political discourse.

Issue no 21 will go live at 11am, BST on Sunday 30 July. It will feature fiction by:

Craig Burnett
A. Muia

Daniel Soliz
Erin Swan
Jade Wallace

poetry by:

Sarah Rupp
Xe M. Sánchez
Kim-Anh Schreiber

and non-fiction by:

Jeremy Klemin