Socialist Worker

Michael Rosen on what poetry can do

We print extracts from the meeting 'What can poetry do?' given by Mike Rosen at this year's Marxism 2003 event in London. He is an author of children's books and a poet.

Issue No. 1864

Poetry offers many ways of looking at the world, investigating it, and presenting the findings to the rest of us. In schools and colleges, more often than not it's a way of testing and grading children and students. This means it becomes a way of convincing people that they don't know as much as they should.

That's because examiners force teachers to ask children difficult questions about poems. These questions are usually the kind that the children think that the teacher knows good answers to, or at least better ones than they know.

All this works to take poetry away from most people and stops them finding out how good it is at talking about experience, life and the times we live in. Poets have invented hundreds of different ways of saying things indirectly, implying things, suggesting them, using hidden agendas. Poetry suggests that the subject they're speaking of means more than what first meets the eye.

Poetry may also work on our senses by using the sound of words and the sound of sequences of words. Every poem is written, and read, in a time and a place. This opens up a lot of interesting and exciting possibilities. What was going on in the poet's life when this poem was written? What kinds of things were being talked about in society when this poem was written?

From the reader's point of view, we can ask-what does this poem remind me of? What questions does it raise in my mind? All this is political.

It places poems right into the debate about how society is or might be. This debate is always deeply affected by whatever shape or form the struggle for a decent life for all is taking. Every time and place has its own agreements as to what poetry is. It's an agreement between the poet, the publisher and the reader. So when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets the poet, the publisher and the reader all said, 'aha, a book of poems'.

This was true for all books of poems published up until the mid-19th century. Since then there have been many attempts to have other kinds of writing acknowledged as poems-blank verse, free verse sound poems, installation poems. There is no consensus any more. In Marxist terms, we could put it like this.

Writers found that they couldn't say what they wanted about the world they lived in using the forms already to hand. So they adapted and altered old ones, came up with new ones, pulled in forms from other places and declared them to be poems. I say Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech is, to all intents and purposes, a poem.

It has rhythm, repetition and visionary quality. But Martin Luther King wouldn't have called it a poem, and nor would a publisher. At any moment in history, some poets will take deeply entrenched conservative positions, declaring pessimistic ideas about life, time, people.

Some may even do this using new poetic forms, like T S Eliot did. We will find some poets delighted with change, excitedly discovering the world around them. They might even do this in conservative forms and not necessarily in new, unfamiliar forms.

And another big claim for poetry is that it can make connections between the personal world and the political and social worlds, showing how personal life is made up of social life. This is a poem I wrote after the death of my son. It's about what my neighbour said to me.

He's not giving me a great lecture or any phoney guff about how it will all get better with time. He's trying to think of the nicest possible thing he could say.

Next door neighbour Rob works late, talks football, enjoys parties, goes running, washes up.
He didn't drop in or leave a note.
I didn't see him for several days.
Those first worst days.
Then, in the alley between our houses I saw him.
He saw me.
We stood face to face.
rather you than me, he said
We went on standing.
and best of luck on Saturday, he said.
I thought, but the funeral isn't on Saturday.
And he said, Arsenal playing spurs.

Casualty by Miroslav Holub

They bring us crushed fingers, mend it, doctor.

They bring burnt-out eyes, hounded owls of hearts, they bring a hundred white bodies, a hundred red bodies, a hundred black bodies, mend it, doctor, on the dishes of ambulances they bring the madness of blood the scream of flesh, the silence of charring, mend it, doctor.

And while we are suturing inch after inch, night after night, nerve to nerve, muscle to muscle, eyes to sight, they bring in even longer daggers, even more thunderous bombs, even more glorious victories, idiots.

Three poems for women by Susan Griffin


This is a poem for a woman doing dishes.
This is a poem for a woman doing dishes.
It must be repeated.
It must be repeated,
again and again,
again and again,
because the woman doing dishes
because the woman doing dishes
has trouble hearing
has trouble hearing.


And this is another poem for a woman
cleaning the floor
who cannot hear at all.
Let us have a moment of silence
for the woman cleaning the floor.


And here is one more poem
for the woman at home
with children.
You never see her at night.
Stare at an empty space and imagine her there,
the woman with children
because she cannot be here to speak
for herself
and listen
to what you think
she might say.

A poem performed in a social situation is something different from a poem read to oneself. This poem by Linton Kwesi Johnson was written to be read out loud to others. It's called It Dread Inna Inglan, for George Lindo, a black man fitted up by the police.

It dread inna inglan by Linton Kwesi Johnson

Dem frame up George Lindo up in Bradford Toun
but di Bradford blacks dem a rally roun
mi seh dem frame up George Lindo up in Bradford Toun but di Bradford Blacks dem a rally roun

Maggi Tatch on di go
Wid a racist show
But a she haffi go
Rite now
West Indian
an' Black British
stan firm inna Inglan
inna disya time yah

for noh matteh wat dey say,
come wat may
we are here to stay,
inna Inglan,
inna disya time yah...

George Lindo him a working man
George Lindo him is a family man
George Lindo him nevah do no wrang
George Lindo di innocent one
George Lindo him noh carry no daggah
George Lindo him is nat no rabbah
George Lindo dem haffi let him go
George Lindo dem bettah free him now!

The solution by Bertolt Brecht

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers' Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not have been easier In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Wordsworth's poem is often quoted as a simple hymn to nature. These are wild daffodils, so Wordsworth is writing in praise of freedom and pleasure. These lines were written at a time when Europe was going through a major struggle to throw off feudal monarchies-the French Revolution had inspired millions.

This period was also the dawn of the notion that imagination was something important. So the poem is political after all.

Daffodils by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Carrying the Elephant by Mike Rosen tells the story of his life, his left wing upbringing and his family. It is published by Penguin and costs £7.99.

To order tapes of his meeting at Marxism 2003 and his books, phone Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, on 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Sat 16 Aug 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1864
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