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The Poetry Subverse

The Poetry Subverse

During the Soviet era, poetry became a dangerous, subversive activity; nevertheless, poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova continued to defy the censors.
(from The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry edited by Robert Chandler (and others))

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1976)

In 1939, Stalin approved the publication of one volume of poetry, From Six Books; however, the collection was withdrawn and pulped after only a few months. In 1993, it was revealed that the authorities had bugged her flat and kept her under constant surveillance, keeping detailed files on her from this time, accruing some 900 pages of "denunciations, reports of phone taps, quotations from writings, confessions of those close to her". Although officially stifled, Akhmatova's work continued to circulate in secret. Akhmatova's close friend, chronicler Lydia Chukovskaya described how writers working to keep poetic messages alive used various strategies. A small trusted circle would, for example, memorise each other's works and circulate them only by oral means. She tells how Akhmatova would write out her poem for a visitor on a scrap of paper to be read in a moment, then burnt in her stove.
(from the Wikipedia page on Anna Akhmatova)

Although I'd been writing my own poetry for a couple of years as I finished my BSc at Swansea University, I was not widely-read. I began to improve my cultural exposure by spending many hours in the main City library browsing their musical scores and poetry sections. The complete works of Anna Akhmatova was one of the volumes that I was captivated by.

Sunset in the ethereal waves:
I cannot tell if the day
is ending, or the world, or if
the secret of secrets is inside me again.
(from ‘A land not mine’ 1964, on the Wikipedia page on Anna Akhmatova)

Remembering the Fifth

No I'm not thinking about the 5th of November, when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, nor am I thinking of the American right to ‘plead the fifth’ — ‘The Fifth Amendment (Amendment V) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights and, among other things, protects individuals from being compelled to be witnesses against themselves in criminal cases.’ (Wikipedia). I'm thinking about Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifth symphony.

On the eve of Jan. 26, 1936 Joseph Stalin and his entourage attended a performance of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District but they left the theater before the last act. The opera had been playing to acclaim for two years in Moscow and its 29-year-old composer was hailed a Russian musical genius, beloved by his fellow countrymen.
A few days after Stalin's ominous attendance, a vociferous and damning editorial called "Muddle Instead of Music" appeared anonymously in Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper. The editorial denounced Shostakovich as a "formalist" and petty bourgeois composer whose "intentionally unharmonious muddled flow of sounds" was a danger to the Soviet people. Everyone was convinced Stalin himself penned the artistic death warrant.
[...] Shostakovich was forced to withdraw the Leningrad Philharmonic's premiere of his Symphony No. 4, fearing for his life and the musicians who dared play his music. Still, he continued to compose. Meanwhile, Stalin and his officials awaited the debut of his Fifth Symphony to see if a chastened Shostakovich had "reformed" and written music according to their dictates.
[...] Fearing arrest, torture and even death, the composer, with sly brilliance and a remarkable spirit, found a way to compose music which appeared to adhere to Stalin's directives while subtly weaving a deeper and sardonic musical truth, bearing testimony to the despair and terror that reigned over the nation.
(extract from Power and Struggle in a Soviet Symphony, program notes by writer and director Didi Balle)

The score subtly interweaves discordant lines within a structure that the Communist party would approve of, ending with a triumphant chord that could be heard as evoking the resolute spirit of the Russian people whilst, to those who understood Shostakovich’s intent heard him blowing an orchestral raspberry at Stalin.

Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm

I studied Animal Farm for GCSE English back in the late 1980s. I loved its allegorical story about animals driving the farmer, Mr. Jones, off Manor Farm and taking control of the day to day operations themselves. My two favourite characters were Moses the raven, who is used to represent religion and Benjamin the donkey who is a delightful cynic. I re-read both of these books this week, hence this blog post.

As horses are known for their strength, donkeys are known for their stubbornness, and Benjamin stubbornly refuses to become enthusiastic about the rebellion. While all of his comrades delight in the prospect of a new, animal-governed world, Benjamin only remarks, "Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey." While this reply puzzles the animals, the reader understands Benjamin's cynical yet not-unfounded point: In the initial moments of the rebellion, Animal Farm may seem a paradise, but in time it may come to be another form of the same tyranny at which they rebelled.
(from CliffsNotes on Animal Farm)

Animal farm was probably the first book I'd studied where there was a political story hidden beneath the surface story. Less subtly Orwell’s later novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, presented a dystopian story of a Great Britain that had become Airstrip One, part of Oceania, one of three inter-continental superstates.

Throughout its publication history, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been either banned or legally challenged, as subversive or ideologically corrupting, like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Darkness at Noon (1940) by Arthur Koestler, Kallocain (1940) by Karin Boye and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury.
(from the Wikipedia page on Nineteen Eighty Four)

The Miners’ Strike

The strike by UK coalminers was the first major countrywide political happening that I remember — It occurred between 1984 and 1985, when I was in my first year at high school. I love films and books like:

  • Billy Elliot which sets a story of an 11 year old boy, Billy, who wants to go to study in London at the Royal Ballet School, set against the backdrop of Billy's father and brother who are miners out on strike
  • Brassed Off, set in the Yorkshire colliery town of Grimley 10 years after the 1984 strike, when the colliery is under threat of closure. Featuring the colliery brass band in which Gloria Mullins (Tara Fitzgerald) plays flugelhorn and Andy Barrow (Ewan McGragor) plays tenor horn
  • Pride where members of the lesbian and gay community decide to support the miners in the Welsh village of Onllwyn
  • Kit Habianic's novel, Until Our Blood is Dry

Writing was a fundamental part of the protest itself, yet the strikers’ own poems and songs have been largely lost from popular memory. Jotted on scraps of paper and in school textbooks, on till receipts and on the back of cereal packets, the poems are consigned to the archives of specialist institutions, from the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield to the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.
(from from an article in The Spectator)

Ian McMillan wrote a poem based on his memories of the miner’s strike:

It feels like a hundred years ago, or it could just be last week
When they stood on a freezing picket line and history took a turn
When communities refused to die or turn the other cheek
And what did we learn, eh? What did we learn?
For a year the pit wheels stood stock still,
And money dwindled, then ran out
But collectivism's hard to kill
And if you stand and listen, you'll still hear them shout...
But what did we learn, eh? What did we learn?
(the opening of Ian McMillan's miner’s strike poem from a BBc South Yorkshire article. You can listen to in its entirety on YouTube)

The Delivery

I find the difference between Stalinist reaction and Western government reaction to be intriguing. okay, time has moved on, but why do western governments not bother much about what writers of poetry are saying? Do readers not pick up on political poetry or are poets simply not writing enough political poetry? Does the up-front in-your-face language of much current writing tell a less involving story than the allegories and satires of yore? In poetry it may be a consequence of the short form having less scope to tell the tale than a novel, but it's not impossible.

People should not fear their governments; governments should fear its people.
(quote by V in the film V for Vendetta, drawing on the Guy Fawkes story)

My poetry seems to have embraced more of a political leaning since I took the Live Canon political poetry correspondence course in 2016. If ever I suddenly go silent, it'll probably be because we are living in a dystopian country and one of the ministries has black bagged me and sent me off for 25 years hard labour in the Turkish Delight mines :/

... I'll write about that in my poetic memoires ;)

#PoliticalPoetry #Russia #GreatBritain #Governments #Writers @KitHabianic

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