2. What the World Needs Now
Much has been written about what the Occupy Movement seems to be lacking—leadership, focus, unified goals, etc. Of course, most of this criticism has come from the corporate media, whose owners have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo that the Occupy protesters are seeking to overcome. While hardly as unfocused as the media claims, I agree that for the movement to actually create change, much yet remains to be done—not the least of which is more organization and some serious strategizing. But often to keep the hearts of supporters strong, what’s needed is something that captures the spirit of the movement. And what better way to do that than with songs and poems?
Every revolutionary movement needs a song, a poem or a slogan that its followers can rally around. (“We are the 99%” is a great slogan.) And in fact every movement for social change throughout history has had just that. It’s a tradition that probably goes back to the earliest days of civilization, with work gangs singing chants to keep their energy focused and soldiers singing battle songs to boost their courage. The French Revolution had La Marseillaise, the socialist movements of the 20th century had their rallying cry in The Internationale, the Labour movement had Solidarity Forever (and an entire songbook), and the civil rights movement had We Shall Overcome, among others.
What is often forgotten or glossed over in the media today is that songwriters like Bob Dylan—who today are revered as cultural icons—cut their teeth on ‘protest’ music as the civil rights movement was beginning to blossom in the early 1960s. Dylan himself was merely borrowing from protest singers like Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger. And if you take it further back yet you find that most original American blues is based on protest music written by black slaves in the guise of folk music. Indeed, if you look at the Smithsonian’s songbook of Classic Protest Songs, it includes Black, Brown and White by Big Bill Broonzy and Bourgeois Blues by Leadbelly, two of the earliest blues masters. (http://www.amazon.com/Classic-Protest-Songs-Smithsonian-Folkways/dp/B001YOD580/ref=pd_sim_sbs_dmusic_t_3) One list of ‘essential folk music labour songs’ also includes John Henry by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. (http://folkmusic.about.com/od/toptens/tp/BestLaborSongs.htm)
I mention songs first rather than poems because during the past 50 years or so, music has been relentlessly commercialized, to the point where the majority of the populace are likely to think of songs before poems when it comes to rallying cries for social justice movements. But in fact, poetry too has a long history of championing the causes of the downtrodden. From the poems written in Old English by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century through to the 21st, poets have turned a keen eye toward the injustices and foibles of their age—and an even keener pen. Much of the earlier period tends to focus poetic grievances on love rejected or on human mortality—the latter probably best summed up by 20th century poet Dylan Thomas in his famous line, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But by the 19th century we have poets such as Lydia Sigourney writing that the American Indians probably made a dreadful mistake by welcoming the early European settlers. In The Indian’s Welcome to the Pilgrim Fathers are the memorable lines: “But who shall heed thy children’s wail, / Swept from their native land?” Her poem The Needle, Pen and Sword is equally poignant, not least for its recognition of the sheer power of the word to change history. (http://theotherpages.org/poems/sigour01.html#6)
The 20th century, with its abundance of atrocities, produced a bumper crop of political poetry. With the century opening in an internecine bloodbath of unprecedented viciousness in World War I, it took little imagination for war poets like Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen to craft harrowing poems. Merely by describing their trench warfare experiences they left no doubt about the wastefulness and horror of war. Instead of the syrupy In Flanders Fields, we should be reciting Dulce Et Decorum Est every Remembrance Day. And even more subtle poets like T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land penetrated the dark heart beating beneath the new prosperity brought on by industrial capitalism. When the Beat poets came along in the 1950s, they had two world wars to fuel their righteous indignation, followed closely by the senseless slaughter of the Korean War and then the Vietnam War. Though not much remembered now, Lawrence Ferlinghetti parodied Dylan Thomas with the line, “the force that through the red fuze / drives the bullet…” in his meditation on the murder of John F. Kennedy, Assassination Raga.
On the international scene we had poetic giants like Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca poking a stick in the eyes of fascists and imperialist coups riding on the backs of multi-national corporations. Lorca was murdered by anti-Communist forces in Spain before he could reach his 40th birthday, probably more for his homosexuality than for what his poems actually contained. Neruda was a supporter of the international Communist movement and as a result was driven from his native Chile when Conservative Chilean President González Videla outlawed Communism in that country. Neruda wrote one of the best poetic critiques of capitalist imperialism in his famous work Canto General, particularly the sequence The Heights of Macchu Picchu. The Russian poets were groaning beneath the weight of Stalinist repression, which cost the lives of Osip Mandelstahm, the husband of poet Anna Akhmatova, and many others.
While Canada is not known for its tradition of political poetry, according to poet Gary Geddes, this reputation isn’t entirely accurate. “More than a century ago, Alexander McLaughlin penned his famous proletarian verses… and in 1899, Archibald Lampman created his nightmare vision of the technological future in City at the End of Things. …Frank Scott wrote various satirical poems about Canadian politics and social policy; AM Klein paid the price for his insights into the depravities of Nazism… Dorothy Livesay published her documentary poem Call My People Home, about the incarceration of Japanese Canadians during World War II; Irving Layton unzipped his poetic bazooka for an assault on the Puritan mentality and the groves of academe; Earle Birney produced his verse drama, The Damnation of Vancouver and his poetic satires sending up attitudes in Anglo-Saxon Street…” (from Out of the Ordinary–Politics, Poetry and Narrative, Kalamalka Press 2009) Tom Wayman did the working classes a great service by almost single-handedly creating the ‘work poem’ genre, coming as he does from a tradition of labour activism. The wonderful Milton Acorn, the ‘Peoples’ Poet,’ has since fallen from favour for his socialist leanings. And of course who could forget Margaret Atwood’s vivisectioning of male domination through poems such as those found in Power Politics.
So despite my personal misgivings about the state of poetry in Canada during the past 30 years or so, trending downward into the obscure and merely career-oriented, it seems we do after all have a strong tradition of dissent to draw upon. (Despite Patrick Lane and Northrop Frye’s assertions that no such tradition exists.) It’s a tradition that is long overdue for revival, especially with the rising of the Occupy Movement. And it’s worth remembering that while industrial capitalism was still in its cradle, the Romantic poets and social justice writers like Charles Dickens saw it for what it was and sounded the alarm. Now 150 years after the birth of industrial capitalism we’ve reaped its toxic harvest, and realized the poets were right all along.
To get a sense of what the Occupy Movement is really saying, I recommend this site: http://occupyvancouvervoice.com/10-important-questions-and-answers-on-occupy-vancouver/
The Guardian has a great page with up-to-the-minute Occupy news: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/occupy-movement