Monday 25 June 2018

Worlds on Orwell and Writing:
1 Political Purpose

Poet as Journalist and / or Insurrectionist
George Szirtes

“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” - George Orwell, Why I Write.

In previous years I felt no impulse, as Orwell put it, “to make political writing into an art”. As a poet I would secretly have agreed with Auden’s In Memory of W B Yeats, where he says that poetry makes nothing happen but survives in the valley of its saying, a way of happening, a mouth; and would have argued that that precisely was the point of poetry, that it did not set out with a specific intention to achieve an aim, but was deeper, more various and more troubling than that: an intuitive enquiry, through language, into some kind of intuitive truth. 

And I would have backed that up with Keats’s feeling that we hated poetry that had “a palpable design on us”. Poetry was not an advertisement for our views but an exploration of the nature of things, standing at an angle to action, not a spur to it, or means of it. That which Keats called ‘negative capability’ seemed to be the whole raison d’être of poetry.. 

It wasn’t that I felt that poetry should be closeted away from the public world but that its necessary engagement with it would be on other terms: as witness, clown, or prophet. Auden himself, in the same poem, suggested what the witness role might be when he wrote:

In the nightmare of the dark 
All the dogs of Europe bark, 
And the living nations wait, 
Each sequestered in its hate…

That I understood very well. That was just the kind of Europe I was born into in 1948. It was journalism not agit-prop I liked and instinctively practised.

Hungary, my land of birth, has, like her neighbours, a nineteenth century tradition of revolutionary poetry, usually by poets very highly regarded at home and almost unknown elsewhere. Such poetry would usually go with a stirring tune like the Marsellaise and it would be as much the tune as the words that would enable the song to function as an anthem, as a kind of Liberty leading the people on the barricades. The trouble is that both sides of a conflict have anthems: for every Internationale there is a Horst Wessel song: the fierce absolutist moods they conjure have much in common.

There was an alternative way of addressing politics of course, as developed under Stalinism, either as samizdat and therefore dangerous, or couched in terms of fable, or surreal anecdote. The Penguin Modern European Poetry series of the 1970s was packed with examples of it in poets like Herbert, Holub, Bobrowski, Popa and so forth. Its excitement lay partly in its wit and sense of danger. We in Britain had next to no political pressure to say or not say such things: unlike, say Akhmatova or Mandelstam, we risked nothing. Our readership was not united by fear, poverty or other forms of repression: ever more they were disunited, free-floating political entities. 

There was class of course and regionalism, issues addressed by poets like Tony Harrison, and a lighter form of sharp but knockabout partisan politics as written and performed by Adrian Mitchell. Later we had Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson.  But all these were poets writing as representatives of class or ethnic groups. I was not of any coherent British group: the more the groups were located the more I felt a permanent refugee visitor, an outsider.

I was suspicious of most things that presented themselves as obviously and absolutely right and in relation to which one had to demonstrate that one’s heart was in the right place. Not that it was in the wrong place but that the demonstration  always seemed on the edge of a dangerous, mob-rousing falsehood.

It was, I thought, different for fiction: novels, by virtue of their interest in character, action, and setting, were bound, in one way or another, to be political. They could embody views. Not necessarily in the polemic sense that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, or Orwell’s own 1984 did but simply in that they were about action: what people did and what happened to them. Poetry was a more philosophical form, concerned less with the moral imperatives of what happens next, more with the very nature, in Auden’s terms, of happening. 


Although I would have argued this then, and still could, I feel less secure with the argument.  Too much is happening now to be secure of anything. Too much has changed. Hungary, like much of Eastern Europe, has turned against our notions of democracy. The current Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, announced his preference for what he calls “illiberal democracy” at a party summer camp some four years ago. The ‘illiberal’ part of that may be construed as simply an extreme form of social conservatism that despises qualities such as tolerance, diversity and the freedom to think and articulate one’s thoughts in public. There are echoes of this elsewhere in Europe, in Russia, Turkey, China, the USA and here too. Events move fast: the trajectory, it seems to me, is steep.

What can we, as writers, do in the face of this?  I have openly expressed views on platforms such as blogs or Facebook and have written articles in various branches of the press including The Guardian, most particularly on the reception of migrants and about Hungary, for which latter I receive foul but low-level abuse. It is low-level because I am simply not that important. But it’s worth noting that I don’t write those articles specifically as a poet. I am simply a writer who has some specialist knowledge of Hungary. Being a poet is secondary.

The poetry part of it is difficult. The trouble is that the poetry I have written on the subject, or at least that part of it which strays beyond the journalistic sense of Auden’s dogs barking in the dark, is not necessarily good poetry as I have long understood and felt it. Sometimes it is what I like to think of as a wittier kind of doggerel with pretensions to genuine satire but writing it feels as though I am weaponising that which, at best, goes unarmed and naked.

The leads me back to the tension between what Orwell called aesthetic enthusiasm and political purpose. The poem that Orwell himself provides in his essay is a lively if heavy-footed example of it.

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;
But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven,
For the hair has grown on my upper lip
And the clergy are all clean-shaven.

It’s fun but he did not persist with it. The pre-Spain Auden of 1935 was doing it far better in his Beggars Song,

"O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches
With somersaults and fireworks, the roast and the smacking kisses"

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.

Last week I was at Lumb Bank tutoring developing poets among whom was a seasoned foreign correspondent who had spent extended periods in Liberia and Rwanda reporting on the carnage there. Having come back he was turning to poetry to find a way of understanding events of which he had given factual accounts. It seemed vital for him to do so. The poetry is harrowing but formal and disciplined. It is not polemical. It is another kind of reportage as filtered through memory and the wounded imagination.

But the combatants in those wars were listening to different songs and different words, such as those sung by revolutionary maid, Jenny, in Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper.

…And hundreds will swarm ashore around noon
And will step into the shadows
And catch all those folk by their door
And bind them in chains and bring them before me
And ask: Which should we kill?
It will be midday and quiet at the harbour
And when they ask, who has to die.
People will  hear me say: All of them! The lot!
And as each head rolls, I'll whisper: Hopp-la!

And the ship with eight sails
And fifty cannons
Will sail off with me.

Alle! Hopp-la!

It is extraordinarily powerful, the power behind the polemic. Hearing it I feel ashamed and terrified and excited all at the same time. I no longer trust myself. I dread and envy Jenny.

Hopp-la! Hopp-la!

Worlds on Orwell and Writing :
1 Introduction and Political Purpose (1)

There are various reasons one might write. George Orwell, in his essay, Why I Write (1946) suggested four reasons. These are the four. 

“(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
 (iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Each of Orwell’s reasons was the subject of a pair of provocations in the form of ten-minute thoughts or riffs offered for general discussion. Those discussions took the form of eight conversations, two on each of Orwell's reasons.   

‘Conversations’ seems the appropriate word because unlike, say, a formal enquiry or academic conference, conversations can range far and wide and the ostensible subject can develop in a variety of ways. Like a creature growing legs it may scamper off altogether elsewhere. But that’s the joy of conversation: it releases startling ideas and possibilities.

The conference was a sum of those provocations, possibilities, focusings and scamperings-off, with Jon Cook in the Chair and I as the recording less-than-angel. This is the record as a took it, editing it as best I can, trying to mark all the main points and hoping to be true to the character of the sessions.

The last shall be first it was decided and political purpose took precedence. There may be all kinds of reasons for this, including our heightened awareness of frightening political developments in many parts of the world at the same time.

First Provocation: Political Purpose 1

Since the first paper was given by me, it is hard to give a proper account of the discussion that followed but at the heart of the provocation was a practical question. How does the writer respond to worrying developments in a given political situation as a matter of urgency? 

Writers may of course lobby or collect signatures for petitions (as indeed I did) but one needn’t be a writer to do that. What does help, if one has access to the press, is the raising of issues through articles. 

For poets, however, the provocation suggested, quoting Auden and Keats, there may be a problem in the very nature of the medium, something that resists its utilisation for a set political purpose.  There were of course revolutionary anthems and, under repressive conditions, as in thirties Russia and in post-war Eastern Europe, poems of subtle and ironic political resistance. The provocation showed a certain distrust of the former. This was not to suggest that poetry should not deal with politics but that it should be wary of being used by specific groups as propaganda.

Political purpose, as Orwell defined it, consisted of the desire to push the world in a certain direction. Was poetry the right vehicle for that?


The discussion that followed did not focus on the specifics of poetry – there were few poets in the room - but concentrated on the ways different kinds of politics might be addressed by fiction and non-fiction, looking away from the urgency of the practical issue at hand (in the case of the provocation, as situated in Hungary) towards the deeper roots of what constituted the moral and political imagination and the fierce moral currents surging through contemporary literature.

There was talk of the relationship between art and propaganda. There was discussion of Orwell and gender. Who is the writer, the ‘I’ that makes the observations, that is at the centre of events. Does the figure that does the observing represent anyone else, some other group.  We considered revolutionary poetry in, say South America, the work of Shelley in The Masque of Anarchy as both a direct response to a political event but also as a disruption of a courtly form and its shifting onto a democratic sphere.