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Stand up and spit In poetry, what matters is where you stand and who the audience are

RECENTLY I’ve taught a couple of classes on the history of spoken word. More particularly, I was brought in to discuss the ranting poetry of the '80s as part of a course.

Spoken word is in a healthy place and it’s starting to look back to where it came from. That’s certainly a good thing. What many find shocking is that there was spoken word before hip hop.

And this is more to do with the windowpane history of YouTube — we simply weren’t there on the interwebs because there wasn’t an interweb when the New Cross fire, the Special Patrol Group and the miners' strike were issues we were addressing and fighting, among many others. I’ve been making much of this available at Some of it is even in colour.

One thing the students have been very interested in, and I am also, is the political engagement of poetry. My feelings are that Twitter and pressing a button on Facebark are nothing compared to actually being on the streets and organising. We all live in our own spaces, let’s make them the best we can.

In poetry terms, it’s where you stand and who the audience are that matters. It doesn’t have to be the echo chamber of social media. I’d much rather the cut and thrust of a live gig where the twats don’t go unchallenged and there’s the delight of hearing new voices saying rousing things. Let the poet be the heckler.

A good poetry gig can be as stirring as that Skids’ song Into The Valley, where you can’t tell the words. As Gramsci had it: “The popular element 'feels' but does not always know or understand; the intellectual element 'knows' but does not always understand and in particular does not always feel.”

Poetry on the Picket Line is what it says, poets doing a turn on picket lines. The gigs demonstrate that it’s where you stand and who the audience are that matters. Whether that be the pickets enjoying the show or the angrys of Tunbrige Wells — no relation — not.

The young poets doing picket-line gigs often ask if they have to do political poems. The answer is no — that they’re doing a gig on a picket line is political in itself. Morning Star readers will no doubt be familiar with the feeling that being spared a turgid political bombast is a blessing.

As for the poetry, that’s the spark between the poet and the audience. Check out @PicketLinePoets

Yes, young people today may be more “woke” than previous generations, or not. Social media may give everyone a voice, or be Orwell’s imagined “boot stamping on a human face” forever.

“Activists” may be the enlightened among us, or they might be lifestylers distancing themselves from the class. Good poetry comes from intelligence, experience and editing. Edit with a sharp knife, I often advise. The editing process is where we hone our thoughts and there’s a direct analogy with life.

Ranting was direct and incendiary, nearly all had a sell-by date. But the struggle against bosses and toffs is ongoing. If it comes from todays Grime MCs or Abiezer Coppe back in ye 1600s, I’m all for it, even if I’m dancing to a different beat.

I read my share of Lucy Parsons and Victor Serge and even raise a glass with Ash Sarkar. I like my class politics to have a measure of joy.

Gramsci, again, writes in his Prison Notebooks: “All men are intellectuals but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.”

Let’s throw in a bit of Skids too: “All systems failing, the placards unroll.”


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