1990s >> 1990 >> no-1036-december-1990

Politics of Poetry

Words can convey different things to different people at different times and in different places. This is why definitions are so important—it all depends upon what you mean.

People play the cross-purpose game, confident in the belief that understanding is mutual. This is particularly true of words that are symbols for concepts like Socialism, Freedom, Democracy, Revolution, which are of a magnitude too great for single words to carry. On some occasions though, as in poetry, definitions are not only in the main absent, but would be out of place (inhibiting to flow and form), so that one is then free to make of the words what one will.

In 1929 D. H. Lawrence published a collection of poems entitled Pansies because, as he wrote in the preface, "they are rather 'pensees' (thoughts) than anything else". What is interesting about some of the poems in the book is how they can be seen to reflect socialist ideas and aspirations. Take for example the first and last verses from a poem called 'The Root of Our Evil':

    The root of our present evil is that we buy and sell.

    Ultimately, we are all busy buying and selling one another.

    What we want is some sort of communism

    Not based on wages, nor profits, nor any sort of buying and selling

    But on a religion of life.

 

Lawrence was not a Socialist and, from a reading of his letters in terms of practical policies, very naive. But on the evidence before us his mind now and then flew on quite surprising social lines.

The nature of poetry wonderfully concentrates the mind, so what attempted in prose might be trite, in poetry achieves a cogent intensity. Critical accuracy is not important. If Lawrence says that "the root of our present evil is that we buy and sell", when in fact it is the ownership of property in the form of capital, this does not dampen its impact and essential social truth.

In the poem 'Kill Money' the literal interpretation is not the relevant point, more the power expression of working class life experience, that comes through.

    Kill money, put money out of existence.

    It is a perverted instinct, a hidden thought

    which rots the brain, the blood, the bones, the stones, the soul.

 

    Make up your mind about it:

    That society must establish itself upon a different principle

    from the one we've got now.

 

    We must have the courage of mutual trust.

    We must have the modesty of simple living.

    And the individual must have his house, food and fire all free like a bird.

 

This theme is extended in 'Money Madness; to show how money comes into the way we estimate or value people, and the shame and stigma of poverty:

    For mankind says with one voice: How much is he worth?

    Has he no money? Then let him eat dirt and go cold.

    And if I have no money, they will give me a little bread,

    So I do not die,

    But they will make me eat dirt with it.

 

There is also to be had a touch of William Morris's ideas on how important work is for people and how different it would be in a Socialist world. In 'Men Are Not Bad':

    Men are not bad, when they are free.

    Prison makes men bad, and the money compulsion makes men bad.

    If men were free from the terror of earning a living

    There would be abundance in the world

    And men would work gaily.

 

Lawrence sees a distinction between work and labour. What comes through in the next poem is the social character of work, or rather, how the social relationships of work pronounce upon the way we view work and its effect upon our lives:

    All that we have, while we live, is life;

    and if you don’t live during your life, you are a piece of dung.

    And work is life, and life is lived in work

    unless you’re a wage-slave.

    While a wage-slave works, he leaves life aside

    And stands there a piece of dung.

    Men should refuse to be lifelessly at work.

    Men should refuse to be heaps of wage-earning dung.

    Men should refuse to work at all, as wage-slaves.

    Men should demand to work for themselves, of themselves,

    And put their life in it.

    For if a man has no life in his work, he is mostly a heap of dung.

 

The wages system is central to working class slavery and Lawrence could see in his poem 'Wages' the irony in the need to work for wages being presented as the freedom to obtain ones wants and needs, whereas it is in reality, vicious and constraining:

    The wages of work is cash.

    The wages of cash is want more cash.

    The wages of want more cash is vicious competition.

    The wages of vicious completion is – the world we live in .

    The work-cash-want circle is the viciousest circle

    that ever turned men into fiends.

 

Lawrence's politics, whatever they were, are none but of academic concern. Occasionally, as mentioned earlier, he touched on politics in his letters, as in January 1921 writing from Italy to the author Eleanor Farjeon:

    If I knew how to I'd really join myself to the Revolutionary Socialists now. I think the time has come for a real struggle. That's the only thing I care for: the death struggle. I don't care for politics, but I know there must and should be a deadly revolution very soon, and I would take part in it if I knew how.

Words indeed, but what do they mean? One could, of course, say the same of Lawrence's poetic writings, but at least we may take what we will and use their inspiration to illuminate—imagination to spark upon imagination. What any writer may intend in his work is of little importance. The act of presenting it to the world makes that world the heir and the interpreter, to make what it can from what it already knows and understands.

Ian Jones

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