Poetry in the age of Brexit

David Wheatley reflects on the lyricism of slurry

David Wheatley found in a malfunctioning slurry tanker in Crossgar which sprayed random passers-by in manure an apt image for Brexit.

David Wheatley found in a malfunctioning slurry tanker in Crossgar which sprayed random passers-by in manure an apt image for Brexit.

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?

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