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21st-Century Poetry ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chainstores’

THAT headline comes from Jim Greenhalf's declaration in his new book, with an ironic nod to Rousseau. His collection Breakfast at Wetherspoons (Smokestack, £7.99) is a kind of bleak Bradford noir, full of gruff bar-stool wisdom.

“Whose cup spills over?/The emptiest pot makes the loudest din./Clay is stronger when it’s fired,/Flesh is stronger when it’s hired./Look through a glass darkly:/half-empty or half-full?/Some have no glass at all,/others no water,/no country.”

Greenhalf walks down Dead Pan Alley and stays too long in the Hard Day’s Night Hotel, where “One man’s gain/is another man’s loss./One man’s fool/is another man’s boss... One man’s bond/is another man’s chain./One man’s blood/is another man’s stain.”

The latest pamphlet from Alexis Lykiard, Time’s Whirligig (Anarchios Press, £5) contains a number of splendid series of attacks on all things vertical — monarchy, celebrity, privilege, hierarchy, religion, authority — as in Keeping Them Down.

“Bully for priests, presenters, princes, politicians,/all pundits who abuse their privileged positions;/pimps with wild promises for any dupe to hear,/claiming to 'make things absolutely clear'... flags flutter, Leaders wave, as we all watch The Show,/a hapless herd stunned by the magic status quo!”

The book’s an update of that famous description in The Communist Manifesto of the way that under capitalism “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

To mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, Peter Raynard has written a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto. Brecht once tried to write a verse adaptation of it, putting its arguments in his own words, but Raynard’s approach in The Combination (Culture Matters, £6) is to respond to Marx and Engels line by line — “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims (Coming ready or not!)”

A “coupling” is an irreverent dialogue with an original text. The added lines in brackets are sometimes like whispered asides, sometimes like a running commentary. They can add, subvert, update, barrack, heckle, contradict or expand on the original. “The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. (We’ll do the twist the stomp, the mashed potato too, Any old dance that you wanna do, But let’s dance.”)

This is Raynard’s take on the Manifesto’s argument about globalisation.

‘The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country (pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man, bake me a cake much faster than you can’).

And this is what he does with Marx and Engels’ argument about the bourgeoisie.

“It has resolved (to take that which is no longer yours and dissolve) personal worth into exchange value (that’s debt to me and you) and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms (like a two-week beano in Marbella) has set up that single, unconscionable freedom (don’t say it, don’t say it, let me guess, I know this one) – Free Trade.’

It’s an extraordinary and ambitious venture. Not all the couplings work quite so well as this, yet Raynard generally illuminates the arguments of the Manifesto with brilliance, wit and eloquent power for contemporary readers.

“Proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains (& high-vis jackets, tabards, uniforms, see through knickers & a peephole bra, plus endless hours away from those near & dear). They have a world to win (Another world is not only possible, she is on her way, and if you listen carefully, you can hear her breathing.)”

 

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