Occupy This Poem, Part Two

2. What the World Needs Now

An Occupy protester gets it right: "We are the 99%." Courtesy BusinessInsider.com

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.

Folk protest singer Woody Guthrie set the mold for Dylan and many other revolutionary '60s songwriters.

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)

World War I poet Wilfred Owen crafted timeless poems of war from his harrowing personal experience. Courtesy First World War Digital Poetry Archive

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.

Milton Acorn, the 'Peoples' Poet', has fallen from favour due to his socialist leanings but remains a powerful political poet. Courtesy Canadian Poetry Online

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

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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6 Responses to Occupy This Poem, Part Two

  1. kvennarad says:

    In a way the incoherence of the Occupy movement is one of its beauties. If it isn’t a ‘movement’ in the accepted sense, with leaders, organisation, and a programme, there is nothing for the powerful to infiltrate and subvert. If it isn’t a ‘movement’ in that sense it can be seen to be a body of ordinary people and not a cell of ‘activists’. Its prime function is to show what a lie the right of ‘freedom of assembly’ is. One is free to assemble, but there is nowhere to do it because everywhere is private property (and has been so since common land was enclosed in early modern England). One is free to assemble as long as one does not try to grow food or make decisions (and that has been so since the Digger communities were forcibly split up in the mid 17c). One is free to assemble for just as long as the powers-that-be can tolerate, and then in come the batons and pepper-spray, or worse.

    The most wonderful protest song of the 1960s was ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’. I can’t hear that song these days without sobbing. I watched with rage the decades following the 1960s, when the not-so-subtle engine of propaganda and vested interest reinforced conservatism. The strongest voice of protest in the late 60s and early 70s was heard in the Black Power slam (what else can one call it?) ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ by Gil Scott-Heron. I wept as I saw this strength dissipated in the wreck of the Vietnam generation. Where are these strong voices now? Where are the griots of this cause? Perhaps that’s not what it’s about, perhaps it is a rediscovery of community and communal responsibility, perhaps it is something that will not allow itself to be hi-jacked by charisma.

    Nevertheless I am reminded of how a charismatic person can ‘lead’ or inspire a non-hierarchical movement. The presence of Durruti inspired revolutionary Spain. The presence of ‘Sub-commandante Marcos’ inspires the Zapatistas. Emma Goldman, by her relentless tirelessness, inspired early 19c anarchists in America. EG’s attitude to revolution was not the grim ideal of the Bolsheviks but the radiance of someone who would not take part in a revolution unless she could dance – “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”

    The Zapatistas have bequeathed us a slogan. When the Occupy people are asked what they actually want, what better answer could there be than “Everything for everybody, nothing for ourselves”?

    M
    __________
    Marie Marshall
    author/poet/editor
    Scotland
    http://mairibheag.com
    http://kvennarad.wordpress.com

    • Your thoughtful and educated comments are welcome, thank you. It just struck me while reading Tom Wayman’s novel Woodstock Rising, based on many of his own experiences in the student movement of the ’60s, how very organized they were. This was also true of the Labor movements during the union organizing phase. I certainly see the appeal of a leaderless, non-hierarchical movement. I’m just not sure they can accomplish much without organization.

      • kvennarad says:

        I think we look for ‘organisation’ where we should look for ‘community’. The former is contrived and the latter is natural (I would cite Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid: a Factor in Evolution’). When we bring decision-making to the smallest unit where people can participate in a meaningful way – i.e. to a level where there is no feeling that it should be devolved upwards into the hands of ‘professionals’ because everyone at this level is competent to decide and to act on the decisions – we have a unit that is naturally cohesive because of its mutuality and interdependence. For so long, and to our detriment, we have been led to think in terms of the nation-state. The State is the smallest unit that really interests the political class, because it is at that level that the political class can best concentrate and consolidate its power, and at that level at which political power is furthest away from the people who are subject to it. Once we can courageously let go of the notion of the ‘State’ – its flags, its oaths of allegiance, its ‘national interests’ – we will be able to make room for each other. The ideal is a cooperating network of democratic communities, blind to the lines on maps which formerly divided them. I don’t mean blind to such things as ethnic and linguistic differences, but more keenly aware of the things which are of mutual benefit.

        I could go on. 🙂

        M

      • Interesting that you should mention Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid; it’s a book I try to bring to peoples’ consciousness whenever possible. I completely agree with you that the nation-state typically becomes the shadow side of our innate desire to cooperate. It just seems that one of the problems for the faltering Left has been its diffuseness compared to a highly focused program of retrenchment by the Right during the past 40 years. Not saying we should adopt their underhanded tactics but it sadly sometimes seems like we’re “bringing a knife to a gunfight.” i.e. If you pit someone with a conscience against a sociopath, guess who will win? The one willing to do anything to get what he/she wants regardless of ethics. I am hopeful however that the Occupy Movement is a symptom of the ‘hundredth monkey syndrome’, the critical mass that finally tips us over into change.

  2. Interesting that you should mention Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid; it’s a book I try to bring to peoples’ consciousness whenever possible. I completely agree with you that the nation-state typically becomes the shadow side of our innate desire to cooperate. It just seems that one of the problems for the faltering Left has been its diffuseness compared to a highly focused program of retrenchment by the Right during the past 40 years. Not saying we should adopt their underhanded tactics but it sadly sometimes seems like we’re “bringing a knife to a gunfight.” i.e. If you pit someone with a conscience against a sociopath, guess who will win? The one willing to do anything to get what he/she wants regardless of ethics. I am hopeful however that the Occupy Movement is a symptom of the ‘hundredth monkey syndrome’, the critical mass that finally tips us over into change.

    • kvennarad says:

      At the risk of sounding bloodthirsty, you never have to reload a knife!

      I think the weakness of the monolithic Right lies in its very power. It can be seen for what it is and seen very clearly. This makes it easier to present its opposite as a virtuous option. There is value in resistance. There is value in persistence. There is value in telling the Right – beyond the point where they are sick of hearing it – “Actually you aren’t the good guys, WE’RE the good guys.”

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