Socialist Worker

Words are shaped by the times

by Mike Rosen
Issue No. 1877

If you study literature in school or university, you can easily get lulled into the notion that novels, poems, and plays live in a world of their own.

It can seem as if writers are people who pull ideas out of their heads because, apparently, they have very special heads.

It can also seem as if the only thing that affects what they write and why they write are other books. I remember being told that the thing that made the poet John Keats special was the way in which he was 'influenced' by Shakespeare.

In fact, writers can't escape the times and places they live through and their writing (what, why and how they write) is always shot through with the stresses, strains and contradictions of their era and locality.

As the Thatcher era rolled on, I noticed that in children's literature, for example, some of our best writers were writing novels with tough, pessimistic viewpoints, as if they were saying, 'Things are bad, there doesn't seem to be any way out of this.'

In the same period, Tony Harrison, one of the most important poets writing today, produced an anti-epic called V, a saddened view of the desecration of his parents' grave by young working class men.

Because he's a socialist, he could take us beyond his taking offence to seeing what had happened as the effects of Thatcherism. There is a battle in the poem between his anger at that and his sadness.

So, writers position themselves in relation to the historical moment they're in. On Friday night, over 150 people crammed into a basement in London to hear Paul Foot, Martin Smith and myself celebrate oppositional and resistance culture-Shelley, John Coltrane, and radical poetry.

On the eve of the great anti-war demo last February, hundreds were turned away from the Bloomsbury Theatre to hear, amongst others, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Tony Harrison, Adrian Mitchell and Benjamin Zephaniah read and perform their poems.

On Wednesday 19 November, on the eve of the Bush visit, there's going to be an anti-Bush poetry and music show in Camden Town Hall. I sense that the moment is inspiring writers to come up with angry, satirical words yearning for change.

Last Friday as I was reading out poems by radical writers from hundreds of years ago, I found myself thinking (1) how every era's injustices inspire writers to find ways of fighting back with their words and (2) how so much of this writing is neglected and hidden.

I'll give you one example. In 1649 the King of England was sentenced to death and executed. Many people hoped that this would be the end of tyranny, the beginning of an era of freedom and justice. Several groups, like the Levellers and the Diggers, realised that this wasn't happening.

One of the Diggers wrote a great piece of angry political analysis in verse that to my knowledge has only ever been reprinted once since it was written in 1650. It explains how 'great men' got 'poor men to aid and assist them in setting up their self-will power, and thus they do the poor devour, yet they cunningly pretend, they have no other end, but to set the poor free, from all their slavery.'

What with the priests taxing the poor, the lawyers taking fees, the lords seizing common land, 'We cannot see that good hour, the taking down of kingly power.'

We are living now in a time of burgeoning resistance and an exciting and vital part of that, as it always has been in times like these, is the writing and performing of radical oppositional literature.


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Sat 15 Nov 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1877
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