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Common sense alternatives

Smokestack Books are launching collections of radical poetry in 2014 which challenge the right-wing agenda of austerity and war

We all like to think that we talk common sense. It's common sense, isn't it?

David Cameron describes himself as a "common-sense Conservative." Ed Miliband believes in something called "common-sense policing." Last year Nigel Farage wandered around Britain on the "common sense" tour. The BNP claim to be offering a "common-sense alternative" in the forthcoming European elections.

Of course most of this is simply special pleading, an appeal to the authority of an unspecified and imaginary consensus to legitimise ideas that are usually anything but common sense.

In the absence of meaningful political parties or serious ideological debate, much of contemporary politics is reduced to a dull, triangulated battle for the low ground of "common sense."

But claims by the elites that their policies represent "common sense" solutions also allows us to argue back. Common sense? Common stupidity, more like.

The tabloid narratives of xenophobia, austerity, public-sector reform, benefit cuts and the "war on terror" are there to be challenged because they are not common sense at all.

In their place we have to identify other kinds of long-term, alternative ideas rooted in collective experience. As Antonio Gramsci argued, "common sense" is usually just short-hand for cultural hegemony. All of which means that every one of us - even poets - have a part to play in arguing back.

One of Smokestack's forthcoming titles is an anthology of poems about the economic, political and social crisis in Greece.

A bilingual Greek and English publication, edited by poet Dinos Siotis, Crisis brings together 30 poets, including Dimitris Angelis, Elsa Korneti, Nektarios Lambropoulos and Kiki Dimoula, each trying to address the crisis in their country.

"Crisis has crept everywhere. Her hair flutters against our faces. Her perfume, the scent of a brothel, pervades us..."

Also from Greece come two book-length epic poems by the Greek communist poet Yiannis Ritsos. Romiosini is a kind of hymn to the Greek partisans of EAM/ELAS in the second world war, while Epitaphios is a lament for a young tobacco factory worker killed by police during a strike.

In Greece the neo-nazi Golden Dawn now has almost 50 seats in parliament while in Hungary the "radical nationalist" Jobbik is now the third largest party. Like neo-fascist parties everywhere, they position themselves as the bearers of a national "common sense."

Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets Of The Holocaust, edited by Thomas Orszag-Land, is a sharp reminder of the historical consequences of this kind of "common sense."

Between March 1944 and April 1945 half a million Hungarian Jews, Roma, homosexuals and political dissidents were transported to extermination camps in Poland and Austria. Tens of thousands were enslaved in labour camps. Almost three-quarters of Hungary's Jewish population perished.

The book brings together, for the first time in English, poems about the Hungarian Holocaust by a dozen poets including Dan Dalmat, Eszter Forrai, Agnes Gergely, Eva Lang, Andras Mezei, Miklos Radnoti, Magda Szekely and Gyorgy Timar.

Due out in February is a new translation of Brecht's Mother Courage And Her Children by Scottish poet Tom Leonard, in which the Thirty Years War has become the War On Terror and Mother Courage a working-class woman from the West of Scotland: "Hawd yer wheesht there stoap yer drum/it's mother courage this way come..."

Also in February, Smokestack publishes Sister Invention. It's a big and long-awaited new collection from Judith Kazantzis, reconfiguring Greek myth from a feminist perspective to address the violent inequalities of the 21st century.

Other Smokestack collections to look out for include The Meaning Of The Shovel, a book of poems about work by New York/Puerto Rican poet Martin Espada and Yoke And Arrows by Sheffield writer Rob Hindle, about the murder of the poet Lorca during the first weeks of the Spanish civil war.

Then there's Graham Fulton's hilariously grim One Day In The Life Of Jimmy Denisovitch, a new collection by Jeremy Robson, a new pamphlet by Ian Duhig illustrated by Philippa Troutman, the first book by Northumbrian poet Paul Summers since he moved to Australia, the fourth volume of Martin Rowson's ridiculous epic The Limerickiad and a big selection of poems by the Anglo-Australian communist writer Jack Lindsay.

Finally, Smokestack is proud to be publishing in September the Collected Poems Of John Berger. The poems by the novelist and art historian are like a sustained footnote to a life spent in prose, a generous affirmation of historical memory - and a wonderful antidote to the fatuous claims of common sense. As he writes:

"Common sense is part of the home-made ideology of those who have been deprived of fundamental learning, of those who have been kept ignorant. This ideology is compounded from different sources: items that have survived from religion, items of empirical knowledge, items of protective scepticism, items culled for comfort from the superficial learning that is supplied. But the point is that common sense can never teach itself, can never advance beyond its own limits..."

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