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Book Review A bonanza of poems for radical readers

ALISTAIR FINDLAY welcomes the rare left perspective on poetry that is invited by a new anthology edited by Corbyn and McCluskey

Poetry For the Many, 
Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey, OR Books, £16.99

I APPROACHED this review with the trepidation of an old pro asked to judge a fantasy foootball team chosen by fans and fearing to find most of the positions filled with strikers, the Gary Lineker sort, not Mick Lynch. 

Turns out this anthology has all the fascination of Desert Island Discs, songs chosen by celebrities for personal reasons, some of which they would never think of disclosing through a direct interview in a public setting.

Plus all the proceeds are going to the Peace and Justice Project. A win-win then, this old pro says.

Readers of poetry achieved equal parity with writers of it in the 1960s from the likes of Roland Barthes who announced the “death of the author,” which meant the final word on the “meaning” of a poem or book passed from its writer to its readers.

We are all critics now, even if we have never written a poem or kicked a ball about the park for a living ourselves.

There is also the slightly morbid fascination of why a convinced red like Len McCluskey would ever pick a poem by an empire patriot like Rudyard Kipling — If — still one of the (English) nation’s favourites, including McCluskey’s old docker dad, an association I find more moving than the poem itself which has been lampooned mercilessly by generations of the left since it was first published. 

McCluskey also quotes lines from the poem he associates with his comrade, Jeremy Corbyn.

I will now think of McCluskey’s dad and Corbyn too whenever I glimpse this poem in future, added associations and dimensions, a different “reading” of an old classic, which is the hope and purpose that all poetry, old or new, potentially offers all readers.

There are several motives stated for this book, not least to give the public a truer picture of what motivates these highly prominent political leaders off-stage, to counteract some of the monstering they routinely receive, not only from the media (except the Morning Star) but by some of their own comrades inside the progressive labour movement, and we all know who they are. 

To give such a picture is a noble hope and well fulfilled by them both, though it will mostly confirm the stereotypes most readers will already have regarding either their near cult or pariah status. 

This project is, in other words, simply another testimony to the closeness between their private and public principles that they have displayed consistently for decades: Corbyn as a peacemaker over Ireland and a radical opponent of anti-semitism when accused to the contrary; and McCluskey keeping Unite, the largest union and financial donor affiliated to the Labour Party and the key backer and supporter of Corbyn when under fire as Labour Party leader.

To most Morning Star readers (and an old commie like myself) this book will be more than pleasing politically, but as a poet, poetry editor and tutor of how to read and write poems, I will add this anthology with its informed commentaries to a reading list for any younger or older budding poets who may come my way. 

It offers a broad range of British and international poems and poets from diverse periods and styles — supplying text, context and intertext — plus commentaries which offer not only personal responses but political and socialist perspectives and insights.

Corbyn and McCluskey reveal themselves to be life-long members of an old left movement club and tradition.

They are self-taught activists, whom Gramsci dubbed organic intellectuals, of the kind I encountered in droves in the 1960s and ’70s before I even signed up for the left movement (it took Thatcher’s Falkland’s war to do that) and whose earlier example no doubt drew me into the movement.

This volume is one that all poetry readers and writers can learn something from, especially from the left, which is part of its openly educative purpose, because many of the poems have been written by poets from a broad left perspective themselves, which Corbyn and McCluskey then respond to or interpret from their own committed broad left experience and vision as readers and activists. 

This is highly valuable for both budding readers and budding writers because it offers a  rare opportunity for the “audience” to talk back, as it were, and to offer commentary perhaps a million miles away from what the poet may have intended, but which tells of how it has been “read” or understood by a left-informed reader.

And the same goes for the “friends” invited to choose and comment on poems they have chosen — people like Maxine Peake, Alexei Sayle, Michael Rosen, Melissa Benn, Ken Loach and several others. 

So, an interesting Cooke’s Tour both of poets and subjects. 


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