Poetry in the age of Brexit

David Wheatley reflects on the lyricism of slurry

Returning to Scotland via Belfast shortly after the Brexit vote in 2016, I was amused to read a local news story about a malfunctioning slurry tanker in Crossgar, which resulted in random passers-by being sprayed with copious amounts of manure. Even at the time, this struck me as an over-obvious analogy for the resurgent English nationalism about to descend like a pall (of slurry) over Britain and Northern Ireland. Naturally then, when invited by Ágnes Lehóczky and JT Welsch to contribute to Wretched Strangers, an anthology of poetry written in the shadow of Brexit, it was the first thing I turned to, providing just the scabrous grotesquery I wanted.

The thought of political poetry riles and overexcites people in equal measures, particularly when Shelley's famous line that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" puts in an appearance. We hate poetry with a palpable design on us, said Keats, yet politics often introduces a strange double standard here. When Larkin says "Life is first boredom, then fear", we are aware that life can be many other things too, and make allowances for the line being spoken in character. But when Michael Hartnett says "The act of poetry is a rebel act", readers will often, depending on their politics, mentally head off to the nearest barricade or place a disgusted call to (poetry) Crimestoppers. Why do we not extend the same courtesy to this line that we do to Larkin's?

Where are the pro-Brexit bards?

The answer, I think, has something to do with questions of form and content, and our deeply ingrained habit of reading poetry for the latter and not the former. What then is the form of the political poem? Wallace Stevens argued that "the poem is cry of its occasion", and in many of the best political poems the occasion is experienced as an irruption of trauma, offering a stark challenge to the achieved calm of lyric utterance. Casting about for a form for my Brexit poem, I found myself drawn to Tom Paulin, that doughty interrogator of English nationalism in poems whose forms are brittle and provisional, brushing the famed Northern Irish lyric very much against the grain. I am old enough to remember a time when Paulin was a fixture on Late Review – a Hazlitt for our times, flying the flag for the radical dissenting tradition. While I have had my own share of dissent from Paulin's writing down the years, I am saddened by his current absence from the scene, and found my poem turning into a homage to his flinty line in poetical argufying.

Echo chamber

A common objection to projects such as Wretched Strangers is that they speak from an echo chamber of the like-minded. I find this disingenuous. Where are the pro-Brexit bards? I as much as anyone would love to hear what they have to say for themselves. Up until quite recently there were still serious poets (Donald Davie, CH Sisson) who could articulate the Tory nationalist worldview (and we've all read Larkin's letters), but nowadays shame or extinction appears to have seen them off. Another possibility is that there is simply no poetry to be written about the merits of Brexit. As we are reminded every time Gove, Farage, Johnson and co open their mouth, Brexit is a place where language goes to die.

Another objection is that no poem ever stopped a tank – except, perhaps, a poem inscribed on a large block of cement. Still, it would be a brave critic who measured the success of a poem by a demonstrable political outcome. The Jacobite sympathies of 18th-century Irish poetry would have fared poorly in a betting shop, but their backing the losing side is not a meaningful piece of poetry criticism. Perhaps the same is true of anti-Brexit poetry today.

I do not consciously seek out the follies of Tory Britain as a subject for poetry

Optimistic poets tell themselves their work can score a victory off as well as on the page (and the use of poetry in the Repeal the Eighth campaign has been inspiring), but exasperation and despair are legitimate modes for political poetry too. Opening his comedy club, The Establishment, Peter Cook explained that he was inspired by “all those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second World War”. A knowledge of its inherent limits and risk of failure makes political art stronger, not weaker.

Satirical route

Were Myles na gCopaleen still with us he could no doubt extract a column or two from jokes about Northern Irish poets paying post-Brexit import duty on references to the Aran Islands, and southerners struggling to remain in metrical alignment with their northern comrades. Several of the contributors to Wretched Strangers go down the satirical route, though the laughs to be had from Brexit are often dark and mirthless. No one reading Wretched Strangers, however, could mistake its animating spirit for po-faced agit-prop. The political poem is an expression of the full freedoms of the poetic act or it is nothing. Technique is the true test of political verse, as it is of any other kind. By our line-breaks shall our politics be judged.

As someone who writes mainly, these days, about Pictish standing stones and the rivers and mountains of Aberdeenshire, I do not consciously seek out the follies of Tory Britain as a subject for poetry. But, the pleasures aside of telling that entity to “Awa and bile yer heid” (as we say in Scotland), I am aware that the “places where a thought might grow” do not survive undefended. “I came to see the damage that was done /and the treasures that prevail”, wrote perhaps the greatest modern political poet in English, Adrienne Rich. This brings me full circle with my quotation from Michael Hartnett. Do the treasures really prevail, in the face of a “hostile environment”? Quite possibly not. The line is a projection, a hypothesis, an act of defiance, not a normative statement of reality. Nevertheless, it seems to me an honourable spirit in which to engage artistically with the vast confection of malignity and deceit that is British politics in the age of Brexit.

David Wheatley is a poet, critic and lecturer at the University of Aberdeen

Flags and Emblems

Homage to Tom Paulin

Are they part of us asked

the man in the post office

of the Northern Irish fiver

the shopper crinkling

his Queen in his palm

I looked to the woman

in the queue but it wasn’t

her place any more

than mine to comment

our awkward wee moment

as Irish as Larkin’s

souvenir UVF tie

the Larne gun-runners

paid no import duty

queued for no stamps

it was free trade of a kind

or is that Southern Ireland

the postmaster added

somewhere anyway

in need of a cloot

to wipe itself down

from the bustit sewage

tanker fornenst the diamond

in Crossgar the week of

the vote randomly

spraying clabbery glar

and shite everywhere

not much of a metaphor

granted in a world where –

gable-ends kerbstones

Brexit – things mean

themselves and nothing

besides and you can’t

clean up shite that’s

still spraying and clagging

the eyes in your head

and but for the flags on

the lampposts you’d hardly

know what country it was.

Read More