Progressive power of poetry

I shall not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant land

These words by William Blake – which, of course, we interpret to apply not only to Britain, but the whole world – inspired the website and publishing collective called Culture Matters. In this article, I’ll say something about our general thinking, and about the three poetry booklets we’ve just published. The arts and culture – by which we mean a wide range of activities, including sport, religion, eating and drinking etc – are vital parts of human life. They develop our intellectual, emotional and spiritual faculties, and provide meaning, pleasure, inspiration and enrichment to our lives.

A capitalist market economy creates enormous potential for cultural creation and enjoyment. But at the same time the drive for profit, the unequal and exploitative property relationships, and the resulting ideological drive to generate a culture of acceptance and legitimation of capitalism, necessarily shapes and constrains the quality of cultural creation and consumption.   Culture Matters

At the same time, the arts and cultural activities can resist, oppose and overcome constraint, alienation and oppression. They can promote awareness, arouse indignation, and envision alternatives. This is how we interpret Blake’s ‘mental fight’ to build a New Jerusalem, as a cultural struggle to transcend and replace capitalism with a better society. It’s a struggle involving sports clubs, churches, supermarkets and pubs, as well as art galleries, concerts and poetry readings.

Culture Matters is a platform for creative and critical contributions to the cultural struggle. It’s about a year old, and we have had a great response, from writers, academics, and artists. Four writers and artists who responded particularly wholeheartedly were Kevin Higgins, Bob Starrett, David Betteridge, and Fred Voss.

Fred Voss is an American metalworker and this year’s winner of the Joe Hill Labor Poetry Award. His The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand is about the dire situation of the American working class, whose health, wealth and happiness are being eroded by the massive deindustrialisation and globalisation which is directed by corporate and political elites. Voss has said this: ‘I want to change the world: I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little’.

His poetry combines the precision and realism born of years of working on the shop floor, with a wide-ranging, Whitmanesque lyrical imagination. Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, provided the Foreword, and bought several hundred copies for his members. He said: ‘Fred Voss is like a prophet. He is warning us of the consequences of the way we live, and inspiring us with a positive vision of a possible – and desirable – socialist future.’

Kevin Higgins writes political poetry of the highest order, telling truth to power with Swiftian savagery and satirical humour, dissecting and denouncing political doublespeak, pretension and hypocrisy. The Minister for Poetry Has Decreed is written in a wickedly simple and hilariously entertaining style, but artistically deploys a profoundly moral sense of justice and truth to expose lies, evasions, greed and sheer stupidity.

Finally, David Betteridge’s poems are lyrical, learned and leftist, infused with a sense of history, class struggle, and compassion for the suffering of working people. Slave Songs and Symphonies is a beautifully crafted collection of poems, images and epigraphs, about politics, progressive art and music, social justice and peace. One of them is featured in the next article in this edition.

Like the Voss collection, they are inspired by visionary hope, and a strong belief that our class-divided society and culture can be transformed by radical politics and good art – and by radical art and good politics. The subtly expressed political message of the poems is complemented by the skilful draughtsmanship of Bob Starrett, the official cartoonist of the UCS work-in of 1971-1972. David commented: ‘Bob and I share a liking for strong outlines, both in words and images. We also share a commitment to radical politics, as well as cultural struggle, like the presiding genius of Culture Matters, William Blake. The booklet combines our own collaborative work with that of all those others who inspire us, the famous and the unfamous, from olden times to the here and now’.

All three booklets are superb examples of the kind of politically progressive, inspiring art which we have published to contribute to building a new Jerusalem: a fairer, more equal, socialist and democratic society.

The booklets are £5.99 each or £15 for all three and are available from manifestopress.org.uk

Mike Quille is a writer and arts editor, and founder and co-editor of Culture Matters, www.culturematters.org.uk

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