Roses are red, So is this book: Jeremy Corbyn’s dire new agitprop poetry anthology
Poetry for the Many
Edited by Jeremy Corbyn & Len McCluskey | OR Books, 2023, 207 pages
What is the purpose of poetry? Like so many of the best things in life, it is its own purpose: if you even have to ask that question, then I would suggest you just don’t really like poetry very much at all, or even truly understand what it really is.
Two men whose own personal understanding of the artform is self-evidently very limited indeed are the former quasi-Marxist leader of the left-wing UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and his close friend and ally Len McCluskey, one-time leader of the leading British trade union Unite.
Unfortunately, the pair have just been given a prominent public platform to advertise their practical ignorance of the form by the New York-based publisher OR Books, in the shape of an edited anthology, Poetry for the Many, which is hauntingly “dedicated to all those suffering from miscarriages of justice. In particular … Julian Assange.” Mr Assange’s own contribution to the volume, “The Ballad of Belmarsh Gaol”, shall not be cited here.
Poetic justice warriors
The title of this literal Little Red Book (its very cover appears to have been designed by the ghost of Chairman Mao) is a reference to a line from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Masque of Anarchy”, about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when State-backed cavalry charged into a crowd of protestors in the English industrial city of Manchester, killing 18 bystanders. Urging the wronged masses to rise up and overthrow their oppressors, Shelley reassured such downtrodden proles that, compared to the evil aristocrats who oppressed them, “Ye are many – they are few.”
In other words, Shelley (who was himself an aristocrat …) was calling for a working-class revolution. As such, during the 2019 UK General Election, under Corbyn’s abject leadership, the Labour Party slogan was ‘For the Many, Not the Few’. But was this really true? According to OR Books’ publicity material, back in 2019 “Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey collaborated to help achieve the biggest electoral success for socialism in recent British history” – i.e., they lost. Badly. Under PM Boris Johnson, with his contrasting slogan ‘Let’s Get Brexit Done!’ (not lifted from the corpus of any 19th century Romantic poet, so far as I am aware), Britain’s Conservative Party romped home with a massive 80-seat majority, since totally squandered.
Far from being “For the Many”, it transpired Corbyn and McCluskey’s brand of pathetic, student-radical style intersectional nonsense had about as much appeal to the average voting member of the general public as does the unreadable politically-motivated dirge of contemporary Far-Left British agit-poets like Ka(t)e Tempest (she isn’t sure, her gender shifts by the day, meaning her name, like that of Keats, is “writ in water”) or George the Poet (a man whose gifts are so negligible he actually has to advertise the fact he is a poet in his own stage-name – imagine Shakespeare calling himself Bill the Quill).
How many members of the public think a woman can’t have a penis, for example? About 99 percent. And how many, like the leftists who took over Labour during Corbyn’s tenure, think they can? About 1 per cent. On every given issue under the sun, from trans rights, to mass immigration, to the armed forces, to BLM, the likes of Len and Jeremy actually represented the opinions of the metropolitan Few, not the normal Many.
If they themselves had been present at Peterloo, maybe they would actually have been the ones riding into the crowd waving their sabres, in severe disappointment at the false consciousness-ridden proletariat’s total lack of interest in the horrors of life in 1980s Chile under that all-time right-wing fiend General Pinochet, a celebratory poem about one of whose opponents naturally appears on pp.105-8, apparently written by William McGonagall:
Victor Jara of Chile
Lived like a shooting star
He fought for the people of Chile
With his songs and his guitar.
Sadly, General Pinochet and his troops had access to some machine-guns, so that didn’t do Victor and “the people of Chile” all too much good in the end.
Nonetheless, for our two anthologists, the pen really is mightier than the sword, perhaps explaining Corbyn’s one-time leadership position within the pacifist-posing Stop the War Coalition anti-Western protest group. Whilst genuine enthusiasts of verse, Len and Jeremy possess an exceedingly instrumentalist view of what poetry should be, saying that, for example, “Poetry is key to political empowerment” (Corbyn, p.88), or “poems should be considered as an agent”(McCluskey, approvingly quoting someone else’s line, p.24).
In other words, poems should function primarily as a handy means of verbal, pseudo-literary indoctrination of their readers or listeners. Unlike, say, Robert Graves or Ted Hughes, who viewed poets almost as modern-day shamans, for Len and Jeremy, poets should be propagandists. One versifier included is a Palestinian Communist, for example: shamefully, he isn’t gay and in a wheelchair, too. Surprisingly, one left-wing poet who doesn’t appear in Poetry for the Many is Josef Stalin, who held youthful ambitions in this area himself, once; maybe he will make an appearance in the book’s sequel.
The book contains two types of poem: genuine old classics from the likes of Yeats and Rossetti, given a spurious left-wing spin by the anthologists in their brief introductions, and unreadable modern rubbish about key intersectional obsessions like the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Mau Mau rebellion, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or – and I’m not making this up – the ultra-obscure 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike in Massachusetts (“After nine weeks,” Len tells us, “the union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), won a pay rise of 15 to 20 percent, plus improvements in overtime rates and conditions”, p.109).
Jeremy also at one point recalls the natural poetry of a speech he once heard his predecessor as Labour leader Michael Foot give about the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (p.41). One poem written by a Cuban wrongly imprisoned in the US for espionage, meanwhile, “brought tears to hard-nosed British trade unionists’ eyes” when Len McCluskey read it out to the TUC conference in 2008, apparently (p.137). Did he misinterpret precisely why they all burst into tears?
Some of the poems have been chosen by Corbyn and McCluskey, others by lefty friends like film-director Ken Loach and Scottish trade union activist Karie Murphy. Russell Brand was supposed to be involved but was dropped when his probable choice of Lord Byron’s Don Juan was deemed inappropriate in light of recent well-publicised allegations.
Loach is particularly insightful, believing William Blake to be talking about the Marxist shibboleth of “false consciousness” with his famous phrase “mind-forg’d manacles”, whilst elsewhere Ken tells us that Hilaire Belloc educated his readers about “The Tory MPs of vast wealth [who] lecture us on public morality and tell us that will end the poverty that their system produces.” (pp.156-7)
The level of the two main anthologists’ literary insight, revealed in their mini-introductions to each piece, are inadvertently hilarious.
Here’s McCluskey on Kipling’s If: “The poem’s different verses have a specific meaning to many people, hence its popularity.” The specific meaning they appear to hold for Len is as a prophecy of supposed mainstream media lies about Corbyn immediately prior to the 2019 election: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools/[… you’ll be a Man, my son!]” (p.16)
And here’s Corbyn on Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”: “The second verse is particularly beautiful, but it should be read as part of the whole poem.” Jeremy also thinks Wordsworth’s lines convey “a strong message advocating for environmental sustainability” as if he had really seen not a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils, but a forest full of lovely Green wind-turbines. (p.13)
Elsewhere, young readers just out of the Ladybird Books Alphabet Scheme learn that metaphysical poets are “those who emphasise ideas” (p.86), that “Shakespeare is regarded by many as the greatest English poet” (p.116), that Dylan Thomas died of alcoholism aged only 39, something “which ensured that he was doomed as a career poet” (p.56), that “Translating poetry is difficult. A poem that rhymes in English will not have the same effect in another language” (p.131), and that Oscar Wilde would surely have been pardoned for his homosexuality under the Labour government of Gordon Brown, who quite rightly helped do the same thing for Alan Turing in 2009 (p.64).
Some of the modern poems chosen are truly execrable. Consider the following couplet, chosen by tedious far left actress-cum-activist Maxine Peake, imagining the reaction of the ghost of the hyper-unknown 1970s black squatters’ rights activist Olive Elaine Morris to the winner of the 2019 General Election:
Jheeeeeeeze. Olive Morris
What would you say about Boris? (p.161)
Much material clearly appears only because their authors happen to be black or Pakistani, etc, often written in creole-type patois, as in the following lines from a poem about the allegedly pressing need for a shorter working week, which will give oppressed workers:
More time fi leasha
More time fi pleasha (p.181)
More time to learn how to spell properly too, one might hope.
We don’t need no re-education
To finish off both the book and the reader, a special treat is in store: “Calais in Winter”, a poem by Jeremy Corbyn himself, written on the train home one day from a trip to a ‘refugee’ camp in Calais, where he spent an enjoyable time emoting incontinently with the migrants.
According to Jeremy: “There is a poet in all of us and nobody should ever be afraid of sharing their poetry. It doesn’t need to rhyme or scan. It can just be an expression of thoughts that may as first appear as random but, when written down on paper or screen, can become more coherent and take on a deeper meaning.” Translation: It doesn’t actually have to be any good, just so long as the political message involved is the “correct” one. That’s certainly the method Jeremy himself applied with his own poem, which is basically just a short newspaper op-ed piece, split up randomly with arbitrary line-breaks and no punctuation:
They will be stopped
The enemy will not land
Say screaming headlines
They are lawbreakers
Say experts on the radio
Apart from the short reprints of extracts from Yeats et al, which you can easily get elsewhere for free anyway, the entire content of this book is embarrassingly worthless, albeit admittedly quite funny. That said, if people of Corbyn and McCluskey’s mindset really want to spend their days either reading modern rubbish, or systematically misinterpreting actual worthwhile poetry of the past so that, say, John Donne’s “No man is an island, entire of itself” suddenly becomes a paean to collectivist Communism, that is their business. British people inhabit a free society (at least until the Labour Party are soon re-elected) and if this really makes them happy, why not?
The problem is, such obsessive ideologues are not content to leave it at this at all, but insist upon pushing it onto others by force – namely, helpless schoolchildren. The literature curriculum in British schools is increasingly dominated by politically motivated identitarian activist trash like the above, at the behest not only of certain activist teachers, but, more seriously, of examination boards and teaching unions.
According to Len McCluskey, “I believe it should be compulsory on the National School Curriculum to make it [poetry] accessible to every student, so that the stigma in working-class communities about poetry only being for ‘posh people’ or ‘softies’ would gradually be eliminated.” (p.11)
Eh? But poetry already is compulsory for study on the UK’s National Curriculum. So what does McCluskey mean here? I can only presume that what he is actually calling for is for poetry to be transformed even further into a form of soulless agitprop, to be force-fed into defenceless young classroom minds in order to ensure disgraces to democracy like Labour’s unsuccessful 2019 General Election result never occur again. Or, to put these sentiments into terrible verse myself:
Labour are red, Tories are blue,
If you vote for the latter, then shame on you!
But will the currently ongoing woke jihad to transform poetry into mere progressive propaganda in our classrooms really bear the bright fruit McCluskey thinks it will? Over the last decade, English Literature has dropped from being the most-studied subject in English schools at A-level (the standard post-16 qualification for students in UK Sixth-Form Colleges) to the twelfth most popular, beneath even previously fringe pursuits like Sociology and Psychology.
I thought committed re-educators of youth and public taste like Len and Jeremy wanted poetry to be for the Many, not the Few?
Steven Tucker is a UK-based writer with over ten books to his name. His next, Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science, comparing the woke pseudoscience of today to the totalitarian pseudoscience of the past, will be published in summer 2023.
Image credit: Bigstock
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