News broke last week that Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey are publishing a collection of poetry, featuring Russell Brand, Karie Murphy and Ken Loach, and I have only one question about this: if the choice here is between reading this book and eating a plate of hair, how quickly can you give me the hair?
Called – what else? – Poetry for the Many, it will, Murphy said, “shake off any notion that poetry is not something to be read, written or appreciated by working-class people”.
Now, I have more questions about this, starting with: who, exactly, is supposed to be peddling the notion in the first place? Because quite a few of the greatest poets of all time were working class, from John Clare to John Cooper Clarke, and as far as I know, poetry is on the national curriculum for students of all social classes.
The premise of this book sounds a lot like the kind of thing that makes people laugh at the left, in that they are so blinded with self-righteousness that they can’t see how bizarrely condescending they are.
Don’t worry, intellectually intimidated poor people! Let Uncle Jeremy and Uncle Len reassure you peasants that poetry isn’t scary at all. It’s actually quite fun! Like books, only shorter!
Corbyn’s focus here is very much not just to encourage people to read poetry, but to write it. “There is a poet in all of us and nobody should ever be afraid of sharing their poetry,” he has said, and — to paraphrase the modern poet Kanye West — Imma stop you there, Jeremy.
Len McCluskey and Jeremy Corbyn (Getty Images)
I am not working class, but I have read a lot of poetry and even studied it at university, and let me tell you – there is no poet in me.
None. I’m writing this column next to a bookshelf of my favourite poetry collections (including Seeing Things by the very working-class Seamus Heaney, as it happens), and I could no more write a poem than I could do astrophysics.
And if I did, there would be a very good reason why I would be afraid to share it: because it would be absolutely terrible.
This has nothing to do with social class – as I said, I am about as working class as Corbyn, which is to say, not at all.
It’s because poetry is extremely hard to do well, and if you think that’s not the case, then you’ve either never tried it, or you’re utterly tone deaf to the crapness of your own efforts. Hmmm. Which, do you think, applies to Corbyn?
The premise for this collection falls into the two most common traps people make about poetry: first, that it should be morally and politically instructive (obviously all the contributors, from Maxine Peake to Francesca Martinez, are on Corbyn’s political side, although whether that’s the right side of history is very tbd imho). Second, that it is a kind of pure, uninhibited self-expression.
Both of these produce the worst kinds of poetry, dull and narcissistic, which does sum up Corbyn, but doesn’t make anyone come round to poetry’s joys. Poetry requires pure discipline and a flexible mind, and Corbyn is not known for either.
Want to sell poetry to the masses? Get them to read Nick Laird’s astonishing Up Late, about the death of his father during Covid, which recently won the Forward Prize, or Sylvia Plath’s joyful You’re, or pretty much anything by John Donne.
Want to put them off for life? Make them read poetry chosen by Russell Brand. I suspect that Corbyn and McCluskey will do for poetry what they did for the Labour Party.
Poor old poetry.