BY RAVI VYAS
The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, edited by Alan Bold, published 1970. It is currently out of print but good second copies are available from www.abebooks.com.
The philosophy of socialism has a unique attraction for artists, who are notoriously unreconciled to the state of affairs at any given time.
And it is enough for a poet to be the guilty conscience of his time.
Saint John Perse,
Nobel Speech, 1960?
Poetry makes nothing happen yet it acts as a conscience-keeper because we are at least two selves. In the Mundaka Upanishad, the self is described as two birds sitting on a tree — one eating a berry and the other watching it. So we are two — one speaking as the guilty conscience and the other listening to what the other is saying. If socialist poets have always had a universal audience, it is because deep within us, we all want what socialism connotes — progress, equality, protection from corruption, human mastery over initially hostile surroundings. Since such ideals have never been achieved in any one country, the question is always asked, “What is socialism? Aren’t we all socialists nowadays?”
Socialism is capable of so many interpretations, and so much emphasis has been placed on arcane points of the meaning of revolution that at times it appears that capitalism is being left to determine its own inevitable atrophy. Yet opposition to capitalism — on an ethical and economic basis — is what socialism is all about. It insists that the rationale of capitalism is the cynical exploitation of the broad mass of people by a self-perpetuating minority who control the means of production in their own interest and for their own profit. It is only when the means of production, distribution and exchange are commonly owned and administered that we will be emancipated from an imposed social order. Hence the end of socialism is the liberation of man that Marx attempted to put as a scientific doctrine. If this has turned out to be a distant dream, nevertheless the finality and confidence of such a philosophy have a unique attraction for artists (in the broader sense of the term) who are notoriously unreconciled to the state of affairs at any given time.
The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse brings together almost all classical poets — there are over 120 of them drawn from all over the world, beginning with Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) down to an anonymous Russian poet in the 1960s. All the big names you can think of are there which include William Morris (1834-96), Arthur Rimbaud (French, 1854-91), C.P. Cavafy (Greek, 1863-1920), Muhammed Iqbal (Urdu, 1873-1938), Antonio Machado (Spanish,1875-1939), Carl Sandberg (1878-1967), Alexander Blok (Russian,1880-1921), Osip Mandelstam (Russian, 1891-1938), Ho-Chi-Minh (Vietnamese,1892-1969), Cesar Vallejo (Spanish, 1892-1938), Mao Tse-Tung (Chinese, 1893-1976), Vladmir Mayakovsky (Russian,1893-1930), Bertolt Brecht (German, 1898-1956), Pablo Neruda (Spanish, 1904-1973), Leopold Senghor (French, 1906-2001), and many more whom you could check out. What is one to take from an embarrassment of riches? Here’s a random sampling.
If you should ask me where I’ve been all this time/I have to say “Things happen.” The dark of a day gone by/ Grown fat on our grieving blood. The word/ was born in the blood, grew in the dark body, beating/ And flew through the lips and the mouth.
Night, snow, and sand make up the form/of my thin country/all silence lies in its long line,/all foam flows from its maring beard,/all coal covers it with mysterious kisses./Gold burns in its fingers like an ember/and silver illuminates like a green moon/its thickened shadow of a sullen planet.
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear – /And he shows them pearly white –/Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear–/And he keeps it ought of sight.
For once you must try not to shirk the facts:/Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts.
Let nothing be called natural/In an age of bloody confusion,/ Ordered disorder, planned caprice,/And dehumanised humanity,/lest all things/Be held unalterable.
What’s breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank?
The anger that breaks man into children,/that breaks child into equal birds,/and bird, after, into little eggs; the anger of the poor/ has one oil against two vinegars.
The anger that breaks good into doubts,/doubts into three similar arcs/and arc, then, into unforeseeable tombs; the anger of the poor/ has one steel against two daggers.
The anger that breaks soul into bodies,/ body into dissimilar organs/ and organ into thought eights;/ the anger of the poor/ has a central fire against two craters.
Give it up!/Forget it./Spit/on rhymes/and arias/and the rose bush/and other such mawkishness/from the arsenal of the arts./Who’s interested now/in– Ah, wretched soul!/How he loved,/how he suffered./Good workers–/ these are the men we need/ rather than long-haired preachers.
We read napalm and imagine napalm./Since we cannot imagine napalm/we read napalm until/by napalm we can imagine more./Now we protest against napalm./After breakfast, silent,/ we see in photographs what napalm can do./We show each other coarse screen prints/and say: there you are napalm./ We bite our nails and write protests./ But, we read, there are/ worse things than napalm./ Quickly we protest against worse things./ Impotence, tried out on rubber facades./ Powerless, with a guitar–/But outside, finely meshed/and composed, power has its way.
Gunter Grass from “Powerless, with a guitar”
I am Goya/ of the bare field, by the enemy’s beak gouged/ till the craters of my eyes gape/ I am grief/ I am the tongue of war, the ember of cities/on the snows of the year 1941/ I am hunger/ I am the gullet/ of a woman hanged whose body like a bell tolled over a blank square/I am Goya O grapes of wrath!/ I have hurled westward / the ashes of the uninvited guest! /and hammered stars into the unforgetting sky-like nails. I am Goya.
Andrei Voznesensky, from
“I am Goya”.
These are random clippings from the anthology; there is much more to be savoured from a whole range of socialist poetry down the ages.