At last, a land long dreamt of, but now it is a time for poets to be silent

Blake Morrison
Saturday 03 May 1997 23:02

You would be forgiven, with all the distractions last week, for failing to spot it, but one of our best poets, Tony Harrison, has just celebrated his 60th birthday. He's a poet who deserves celebration, and Radio 3 has been paying tribute with daily readings of his poems. For the past decade Harrison has been a kind of unofficial Poet Laureate to Ted Hughes's official one, rather as Larkin was in the era of Betjeman. His poems, more than almost anyone's, give a sense of what contemporary Britain looks and feels and sounds like, with special reference to the parts that other poets don't reach, whether graffited gravestones, Asian corner shops, tolling burglar alarms or worked-out pits.

Harrison is that rare thing these days, a public poet, one who has tackled such subjects as the Rushdie fatwa, the miners' strike and the Gulf war. His poem "v." (short for versus) is a wonderful exploration of some of the basic conflicts - class, religion, language, gender - that divide people from each other here and all over the world. The fury it provoked among Tory MPs when broadcast on Channel 4 in 1987 was as much to do with its politics as its use of four- letter words: it was, implicitly, a deeply anti-Thatcherite work. Yet it offered hope, too, looking forward to the day when the "v." of the title might recover the meaning it had in 1945, when "v." symbolised victory, peace and unity.

It's tempting to believe that day has at last come. Labour's election landslide is so massive and unexpected, and the cheering crowds are so euphoric, it's as if the new dawn has magically arrived, with all the bliss, release and buoyancy of 1945. The outward appearance may be the same, but we know we are living in a different country. An overwhelming majority of writers, left-liberal by temper, have long dreamt of seeing the back of the Conservatives. And now the nation has voted them out.

So will Tony Harrison, whose values of freedom, justice and equality have played a part in this quiet revolution, be invited to become New Labour's troubador? And the other poets, novelists and dramatists who've worked to send the Tories packing - will any of them be getting the call from Downing Street? What will the role of writers be, what should it be, in Blair's new Britain?

A bit of distance is to be expected at first. Tony Harrison, for his part, is too much his own man to accept canonisation even if it were offered: like many writers, he's political but not party-political, an edgy witness not a joiner, and more Old Labour than New. As for Tony Blair, he has shown little interest in encircling himself with writers, perhaps associating such stuff with luvvie-dom and Old Labour. The nearest we come to poetry in his camp is in Gordon Brown's Byronic mouth and Robin Cook's Lawrencian red beard. We don't even know which literature Blair has read since Walter Scott. That he shows more interest in Oasis lyrics than Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage, and in the Spice Girls rather than Jeanette Winterson or Wendy Cope, doesn't augur particularly well.

Yet it's not unknown for poets to be asked to help usher in a new political era. Maya Angelou read at Clinton's inauguration. Robert Frost not only read at Kennedy's but, at 88, took off on an unofficial diplomatic mission to Russia, where he hoped to charm and pacify Khrushchev (he thought he'd succeeded but the Cuban missile crisis followed six weeks after their meeting). Closer to home, Margaret Thatcher invited Philip Larkin to Downing Street within a year of her election and welcomed him by quoting, or perhaps misquoting, his poem "Deceptions". The poem has an image of a mind lying open "like a drawer of knives", and since Larkin thought Mrs T "a blade of steel" it was as if the poem had become a kind of tribute to her.

If political leaders invite poets to dinner, it is to show the world how chic or civilised they are, how well disposed towards writing, publishing and the arts. And if poets accept the invitation, it is because they like the idea of exerting influence (and the free food and drink). Disappointment invariably follows. When Kennedy had Robert Lowell to dinner at the White House 35 years ago, Lowell was flattered and told his host (with whom he had a close friend in common, whose name was Blair): "You are the first President who's treated your peers as equals." But when next morning JFK sent the 7th fleet to Laos, Lowell felt cheated, as if the presence of poets at the White House had been mere window dressing, whereas "we should be windows".

The idea of being a window for politicians, enabling them to see clearly and take the wider view, is a beguiling one for poets. In this century, both Yeats and Auden wrote passionately about the great political events of their day. But Yeats was sceptical about the power poets have - "We have no gift to set a statesman right" - and Auden, too, decided that they are "singularly ill-equipped to understand politics or economics".

Most politicians think this as well, but it doesn't preclude the hope that their struggles might be eulogised by some friendly versifier. It isn't unknown for poets to flatter with an ode, Milton having written one for Cromwell, "our chief of men". There was a time when British poets and politicians mingled freely with each other - when the poets were the politicians. But as the specialising of the two professions has forced them apart, so the opportunity for informed political verse has been diminished. "To write a good poem on Churchill," Auden thought, "a poet would have to know Winston Churchill intimately, and his poem would be about the man, not about the Prime Minister."

There are no living poets intimately acquainted with Tony Blair, so far as I know. Indeed some suspect that there are no living persons intimately acquainted with him, except perhaps Cherie. We know all about his gleaming smile, but nothing of his bite. We've had bright fragments of what he thinks and feels, but wonder about the masses left unsaid. Once he is in office, wielding power and making policy, all this will change. But for now there's little to make poets start reaching for their pens.

Perhaps it's just as well. Auden thought that a poem built like a political democracy would be "formless, windy, banal and utterly boring"; a New Labour poem would risk being all these things, and blandly cheerleading as well. An anti-Blairite poem is even less thinkable: for a week or two at least poets should allow themselves to dream. When Osip Mandelstam condemned his leader, Stalin, he was exiled. Poetic dissidence is less harshly punished in the UK, where our Mandelstams are safe to satirise Mandelsons. All the same, this is hardly the moment to carp.

The problem is that writers tend to be oppositional even at the best of times, and after 18 years the habit of protest - whingeing as Margaret Thatcher called it - is deeply ingrained. To lend support to a new administration, if only passively, requires a different art: a leap of faith, a willingness to be carried along with the tide, patience. It may even require that public poets be silent, until they can see what the new nation looks like.

In "The Morning After", Tony Harrison writes of the VJ parties he watched as a child in August 1945, and of how

that, now clouded, sense of public joy

with war-worn adults wild in their loud fling

has never come again since as a boy

I saw Leeds people dance and heard them sing.

On Friday lunchtime, as children waved Union Jacks outside Downing Street, that sense of public joy did come back, for the first time in many years. If Blair can build on that mood of trust and optimism, he'll have no need of poets to dream for him.

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