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BRITAIN is enjoying a “poetry renaissance” according to the Observer, which recently declared that thanks to the new “superstars” of the poetry-performance circuit, the “Cinderella of literary forms is back in what readers and poets are now feeling confident enough to call a genuine renaissance.”
For poet Alan Morrison, such claims are just wishful thinking, usually made to promote the latest “award-winning poet” on some corporate publisher’s list: “There’s a mushrooming of prose poetry — ‘prosetry’ — at the moment,” he says. But it’s a moot point as to whether it’s actual poetry or a different medium altogether.
“When this sort of thing is announced in newspapers it’s normally to do with spoken word as opposed to poetry for the page. The media seem to be permanently preoccupied with performance poetry because it’s more in your face and takes less effort to access.”
It would be nice to think that there’s a “renaissance” going on “but this would imply some sort of cultural transition towards something more transcendent. But that’s what most poetry perennially aims for. Such things aren’t somehow jump-started by being announced.”
There won’t be much room in a broadsheet-led “poetry revival” for such an original, serious and radical a poet as Alan Morrison. He is one of our best young poets and most energetic poetactivists — a few years ago he edited the two wonderful anti-austerity anthologies Emergency Verse and The Robin Hood Book — and he’s just published his eighth collection Tan Raptures (Smokestack, £7.99).
It is his most ambitious book yet, as well as the most directly political: “Oh what an Eton Mess they’ve made/And the trouble with an Eton Mess/Is it’s left to those who didn’t indulge/To clear it all up, we’re afraid.”
Dedicated to the 90,000-plus incapacitated claimants who died or committed suicide between 2011-14 while under assessment for employment and support allowance, the book is a series of angry verse-missives from the front line of the war against the poor and its spirit-stripping weapons of foodbanks, poor doors and homeless spikes.
Taking its title from the brown envelopes that strike fear into benefit claimants and the biblical rapture, the book imagines these letters as passports to a twisted Tory notion of salvation through benefit sanction: “austerity/throttled the wilting trees, shaking off their brittle leaves/Like burdens that heaped the pavements, as rustlings/Of tan paper envelopes flapped down like mass-arrivals/ Of ravens, tan ravens, piling up on lumpen doormats/In paper dispensations; crackling papyri/ In variegated shades of greys, browns, umbers and buffs/Like patches on disruptive pattern camouflage fatigues/Swishing through Wootton Bassett’s bunting-strung streets...”
Previously a Green Party voter, Morrison joined the Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn became leader and he still supports the Greens in principle, “because they are essentially eco-socialists.”
He describes himself as a Christian socialist: “There are times I seriously contemplate a kind of Christian communism, since both for me are the same in terms of social morality.
“I can’t really call myself a full-blooded communist because I’m not an atheist.”
Morrison is a strong supporter of disability campaigns against the cuts, particularly Black Triangle and Calum’s List and, Tan Raptures reflects that, pulling in lots of different angry directions at the same time.
“It deals with the cyclical repetitions of capitalist society, its inbuilt contradictions and tensions, along the lines of Marx’s thinking,” he says. “Quite apart from its fundamental amorality, capitalism is an apparatus that straps us in our short-term appetites at the expense of expressing our true personalities.
“There’s much about Marx’s theory of occupational alienation and the projection of human personality onto material products, while the producer of the product is, oppositely, depersonalised.
“That’s the metaphysical swap shop of capitalist production. The book argues for a socialist society where human personality, talent and authenticity can flourish unimpeded. Today the unemployed are treated little better than ex-offenders. It’s as if just to be unemployed is considered an offence against society and jobseekers are treated as if on some sort of moral probation for which they have to do penance through unpaid work placements.”
As well as its attacks on contemporary political “common sense,” Tan Raptures is also a kind of people’s history of what Morrison calls “the sea-green heritage of English radicalism,” a tradition of “fellowship and equality, not some notion that we are all the same but that we all have fundamental things in common and attempts to stratify us obfuscate our commonality and our ability to discover and express our authentic selves.
“Only in a true socialist society can we express our individual and collective authenticity and the spirit plays as much a part in that as the material.”
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