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21ST-CENTURY POETRY The world as it is — and how it should be

Three new collections from Culture Matters are an eloquent reminder of how poetry is more vital than ever at a time of crisis

IN 1935, the Independent Labour Party leader Fenner Brockway published the utopian sci-fi novel Purple Plague, in which a deadly virus breaks out on a transatlantic liner.

No port will allow the ship to disembark, so passengers and crew are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in ocean-bound quarantine. The second- and third-class passengers soon object to living below decks while the first-class passengers live in luxury.

The crew point out that there's no reason that they should do all the work and a socialist revolution breaks out as work, food and leisure are shared out equally. By the time a vaccine has been found, the happy ship is ready to take the political lessons of their experiment to the rest of the world.

Now that parts of Britain are beginning to move out of lockdown, the contest has begun to establish what the crisis has “meant,” what we have learned about ourselves and each other, what we want to take with us when we land and what we can throw overboard. The choice is between the values of science and social solidarity or the forces of ignorance and selfishness.  

As the weekly poems published in the Morning Star during the crisis demonstrate, poetry is especially well placed to help shape this debate, because a poem can describe the world as it is and at the same time show us how it might be.

Three hard-hitting new anthologies from Culture Matters, written and edited before the current crisis, are definitely books to take with us as we disembark.  

Witches, Warriors, Workers is an anthology of contemporary working women’s poetry and its editors Jane Burn and Fran Lock bravely refuse to make the usual exaggerated claims for their collection —  what they call the game of “anthology as enclave, anthology as tribe.”

Instead they want the book to be more like a question or a conversation. Rejecting the way that the arts media “pay lip-service to the idea of inclusivity through tokenistic acts of representation, while repositioning structural inequality as a generic and depoliticised adversity,” they hope that the book can instead create breathing room for a feminism that is “collective, porous and multiple.”

The result is a fantastically rich and wide-ranging collection addressing issues that working-class women in contemporary Britain face — motherhood, work, poverty, sexual violence, displacement and silence.

It includes poems from a wide range of well-known and distinguished contributors, including Joelle Taylor, Alison Brackenbury, Jacqueline Saphra, Ellen Phethean, Kim Moore, Lisa Matthews, Julie Hogg and Imtiaz Dharker, as well as Burn and Lock themselves.

Among so many memorable and necessary poems, the book is worth buying just for Hannah Lowe’s A Girl Like You, Lisa Kelly’s This Poem Has a Title, Pippa Little’s Moss Side Public Laundry 1979, Pauline Sewards’s My Grandmothers and Julia Webb’s wonderful her defence:

“I am sewing/machine hemming a/dress a perfect seam an/invisible mend clean/up after the dog hoover/the ants from the cereal/cupboard lug the twin/tub out and in three/kids were zipped up inside/me and I let them out one by/one I fed them breakfast/lunch and tea for years/on end hauling the shopping/home I did the things so/what if I open a book mid  afternoon a woman is entitled/to sometimes stop and read.”

Onward/Ymlaen! is an anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales. Edited by Mike Jenkins, with a foreword by PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka and colour paintings by Gustavius Payne, the book’s epigraph is by the Rhymney poet Idris Davies: “I saw the ghosts of the slaves of The Successful Century/Marching on the ridges of the sunset/and wandering among derelict furnaces,/And they had not forgotten their humiliation,/For their mouths were full of curses.”

The book brings together over 70 poets  — socialist, republican, internationalist, angry and visionary — writing in English and in Welsh. There are some wonderful individual poems here, full of righteous anger at what has been done to Wales, like Tim Richards’s Fuck 'em, Heather Booker’s The Only Red in the Village, Herbert Williams’s Money for War, Gemma Howell’s Benefit Fraud, Brett Evans's Graffiti and Phil Knight’s You are Welcome to Wales.  

This is Alun Rees’ take on Taffy Was a Welshman: He’s fought the wide world over,/he’s given blood and bone./He’s fought for every bloody cause/except his bloody own” and Barry Norris's on the relationship between Wales and London: “the dragon no longer roars with coal and steel,/but whispers from barbecue, beach and caravan park” while  “English barons still cross their feet on the Welsh lapdog’s head.”

And Patrick Jones has written a brilliant epic The Guerilla Tapestry, in which “Victory is acknowledging the fact that we have not yet lost...Ymlaen ymlaen/We are we are/the threads...We are we are/The stitches /We are a no in search of a yes/We are we are/The breaking/We are we are/the making...”

Edited by Jim Mainland and Mark Ryan Smith, Almarks: An Anthology of Radical Poetry from Shetland brings together the work of 22 poets, including Zoe Callander, Gina Paulo Rich, Beth Fullerton and Billy Williamson. The stand-out contributions are Ca Ira by Sheenagh Pugh and Kari Williamson’s lovely Kites idda Wind:

“Fur we aa want things wir wye/Bit we sing a different sang,/An we aa tink at we’re aye right/Though we might weel be wrang./But if we nivver change things,/Hit’ll always be da sam,/We might is weel gying flyin kites/Upo da rigs a Camb.”

Witches, Warriors, Workers, Onward/Ymlaen! and Almarks are available from



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