Illusion & Austerity/ Verses in an

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Porterloo

by Niall McDevitt

International Times, 2012


81 Austerities

by Sam Riviere

Faber, 2012

1/1

Part 3

McDevitt is neither celebrating the crane nor the wrecking-ball, but is very much sending his own verbal wrecking-ball swinging through the forever arrested scaffolding-consciousness of a property-worshipping culture, to which ‘gentrification’, ‘depopulation’ and ‘social cleansing’ are part of a hyper-materialist, Malthusian ‘work ethic’; an anti-culture wherein bricks and mortar are the means not to building homes for human beings, but for building up expanding portfolios and capital for property-speculators –cement being, effectively, the new currency. Not simply a society of depopulation but also of dehumanisation: a society where prospective rental tenants have to jump through hoops of ‘personality profiling’ before being permitted to pay exorbitant rents to keep a roof over their heads (almost to a point when soon landlords and letting agents will be requiring them to have DNA tests to check whether or not they are genetically predisposed to defaulting with rent). Shelter now being a ‘privilege’ rather than an entitlement or basic human right, and, increasingly today, a sanctuary to which receipt of any form of state benefit, particularly Local Housing Allowance –in spite of many recipients actually being in work but on poverty wages– is, opposite to its fundamental purpose, proscriptive rather than in any sense beneficial (and this isn’t even to touch on the recent criminalisation of “squatting” in derelict empty buildings –those jutting Easter Island corpuses of property speculation in lieu of human habitation), since most private landlords will no longer even consider LHA claimants as tenants.


Curiously enough, during my break from writing this review, there was an item on Channel 4 News about the dangerously inflating property price bubble artificially created by the scabrous Osborne’s duplicitous ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, which (quite apart from its deeply irresponsible, politically opportunistic calibration of what is potentially another sub-prime mortgage scam under a different name), due to including no safeguards to limit its scope to genuine first time buyers looking to secure home mortgages, is leaving itself wide open, like every other property initiative, to rapacious opportunism and abuse by the ever-increasing parasitism of buy-to-let private landlords. And this was in part what this item was tackling, with some sharply insightful and apposite interpolations on the housing crisis by Danny Dorling, author of the not-before-time polemic, All That Is Solid –The Great Housing Disaster (Allen Lane).


Dorling –and his book– argue that simply focusing on the supply side of the housing issue by building more homes on a 1930s or 1960s scale will not in itself solve the catastrophic contemporary housing problem of high demand, low supply, and the continual hiking of private rents by landlords to capitalise on the high demand, which in turn prices hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) out of the private rental market (most direly, those who rely for all or some of their incomes on state assistance, mostly in LHA, in order to, paradoxically, top-up said increasing rent shortfalls). The reason it won’t is because of the scandalous absence of any proper regulation of the private rental sector. Dorling is arguing what many have for some time now –and I myself have argued at length through polemic both on The Recusant in the two Caparison anti-cuts anthologies– that the only viable and immediate way to solve the lack of available and/or affordable rental accommodation is to reintroduce private rent controls, those perpetually prevaricated ‘elephants in the room’ of the rental issue which are today spoken of in tones of dread, as if they are an entirely new and radical concept, a hitherto ‘untried’ and un-trusted ‘Stalinistic’ default-mechanism that would arrest ‘enterprise’ and ‘entrepreneurship’, ‘dis-incentivise’ private landlords from ‘investing’ in more rental housing stock, thus, in the long-run, reducing supply.


This is the deeply disingenuous type of capitalistic claptrap and scaremongering that Dorling had to endure from a representative of the ‘business community’ on the C4 News who was, nonetheless, making a great effort to appear ‘open-minded’ and ‘socially concerned’ by occasionally widening his eyes, speaking in a conciliatory tone, and fidgeting with his designer-framed glasses. But as anyone with an ounce of knowledge of twentieth century political history will know, Britain used to have a system of rent controls, first introduced in 1915 under prime minister Lloyd-George (the “Welsh wizard”) and further strengthened in his Rent Act 1920, which capped private rents at acceptable levels –in part inspiring A.J.P. Taylor to hail the new “principle that housing was a social service” (something all but extinct in post-Thatcherite society)– and sustained almost without interruption (any interruptions being, of course, under Tory governments), actually strengthened as protections for tenants by the mid-Seventies’ Harold Wilson Labour Government, until gradually phased out under Margaret Thatcher, and ultimately abolished, reprehensibly, during John Major’s premiership.


Of course, for all those whose consciousnesses are conditioned purely by the post-Thatcherite de-regulatory ‘consensus’, such things as ‘rent controls’ sound dangerously socialist, distinctly European, if not faintly Soviet –which shows how risibly low in the trough of regressive right-wing ‘thinking’ British culture has sunk in the past three decades or more. But Dorling is absolutely right, the most vital and long-belated imperative at this time of escalating rents and escalating evictions and homelessness, is for urgent and radical state intervention in the regulation of the private rental sector. Bluntly, to do anything short of this is to be politically complicit in the mass-pauperisation and decanting of entire sections of society onto the streets (oh, wait a minute, that’s precisely what the Tories are trying to facilitate!).


It’s a constant source of perplexity to me that these days so few political commentators, including many on the Left who are otherwise very insightful on other social issues, simply miss the point time and time again on the housing crisis, by constantly banging on about increasing supply and building more but, inexplicably, rarely arguing for a combination of this with the reintroduction of private rent controls! Most of Europe has private rent controls; Scandinavia, particularly conscientious in this regard, has managed to sustain the principle of ‘housing as social service’, which Britain threw on the pyre back in the Eighties –and in Sweden, buy-to-let (or ‘bet’) landlordism is not only extremely rare, it is even commonly frowned upon, in keeping with the cultural Swedish ethic of lagom, which translates as, ‘the right amount’/‘just enough’, and precludes any rapacious behavioural acquistiveness –the diametric opposite to British ‘Thatcheritism’, ‘greed is good’ (the Swedes also refer to their welfare state as folkhemmet, meaning ‘the people’s home’ –difficult to imagine any unlikelier moniker for our welfare state, which most red-top-spoon-fed Britishers would more likely call ‘the 'scroungers'’ home’).


Then, of course, even trying to ‘opt out’ from the whole bricks-and-mortar trap today and cultivate an ‘alternative lifestyle’ is practically impossible, thanks to the recent criminalisation of squatting, even in empty properties, and even prosecutions of many street homeless too. Nonetheless, I was recently encouraged to find a group of dreadlocked squatters ‘camping in’ inside one of many derelict empty shops on my local high street, their front window display, like some polemical conceptual art installation, draped with a black and red anarchist flag, and wrapped in all kinds of dissenting statements, almost all insightful, if slightly callowly expressed. It was my misfortune to have been stood sympathetically reading these shop-window polemics just at a point that a half-inebriated conventional looking thick-set man stopped to shout through the glass at the squatters, ‘WE ALL HAVE TO PAY RENT! GET OVER IT! GET-A-FUCKING-JOB!’, pathologically missing the point of the enterprise of course, for being consumed with such chest-swelling masochistic pride at living out an entire life as a depersonalised, alcohol-placated pawn of capitalist exploitation.


Among the petitions pasted up in this ‘pop-up polemical emporium’ was one hastily scribbled notice pointing out that occupation of abandoned land/space was practised in the seventeenth century by some radical groups (alluding to the Diggers, but without naming them); and some more pithily, felt-tipped slogans such as HUMANS ARE THE ONLY ANIMALS THAT HAVE TO PAY FOR THE RIGHT TO EXIST, and RENT IS THEFT. Arguably this has always been the case, rent being a kind of ancestral tithe levied on the dispossessed classes of society (actually the majority) by capitalists, property speculators, and, of course, the hereditarily propertied (the Camerons and Osbornes of this world), whose own ancestors effectively thieved the birthrights of many of ours’ through the land grabs, clearances and enclosures and industrial displacements, reducing most people to rootless human-commodities whose only ‘possessions’, their labour power, had to be sold in return for the ‘privilege’ of a ‘wage’ designed at just the right level to keep workers perpetually at one remove from poverty, in order to make them materially dependent on ‘employment’. That’s the standard Marxian take, anyway; and it’s one which I subscribe to myself.


Rent has ever been the extra ‘yoke’ for the worker, monthly soaking up any potential surplus he or she might otherwise have had left over from their ‘wage’, for saving, for instance –and just as many wages can never stretch beyond month-to-month material survival, so too is rent, a perpetual pouring of monies into the pockets of property owners/landlords, a hiding to nothing for the tenant; at least, nothing other than keeping a roof over their heads from one month to the next. From this angle, one might legitimately argue that housing and subsistence benefits are a kind of incremental ancestral reimbursement for the interngenerationally dispossessed classes, and the welfare state, a structural payback apparatus. (But not a substantial payback: that would be a Universal Basic Income along the lines that the Green Party have proposed, and something which McDevitt himself believes in, as do I).


And yet today, even more so than in the latter half of the past century, such ‘fiscal karma’, if you like, is now being comprehensively dismantled by the Tories (whose very name, as previously mentioned, derives from the Irish word for ‘outlaw’), who are after all the traditional party of the landed classes, on the mean-spirited premise that even such paltry state compensation for capitalism’s inability to provide all its citizens with secure employment paid at sustainable wages is indicative of a “culture” of “idleness” and “entitlement” among its ‘recipients’; even if this is a distinctly impoverished “culture” compared to the luxurious indolence of the inherited rich (e.g. the aristocracy and monarchy etc.).


So the Tories attempt a ‘moral’ justification of systematically pulling the rugs of basic subsistence from under the poorest in society by arguing it’s somehow liberating them from “benefits dependency” –but the trouble is, of course, it’s not so much ‘liberating’ as simply decanting them from relative pauperisation to abject pauperisation, in the marked absence of any authentic or sustainable alternatives, such as proper employment for a living wage. And here we hit the crux of Iain Duncan Smith’s so-called ‘welfare reforms’: the reduction of poverty via a reduction of the poor. There appear to be two ‘ends’ to the Malthusian ‘means’ of these ‘reforms’: to put people “back into work”, or, if that can’t be achieved, to put people into the ground; tip them into ‘employment’, or, failing that, tip them into premature graves (along with their cradles). This is not hyperbole when one considers clinical facts and figures: in 2011 alone, 10,600 sick and disabled claimants died within six weeks of being stripped off their benefits by Atos.


And it’s the same Malthusian rationale with regards to renting: the housing benefit cuts and the bedroom tax combined to make it almost impossible now for hundreds of thousands of pauperised households to keep roofs over their heads, not only in the private rental market, but also in the once ring-fenced social and council housing sector. And rather than reintroduce the basic sanity and rudimentary ‘fairness’ of private rent controls, the Tories leave the sphere unregulated, so that, inevitably, rents increase exponentially with reductions in state provision to enable tenants to pay them. This then can be seen as another mass-displacement and dispossession of the already hereditarily displaced and dispossessed classes; a second historic wave of clearances and enclosures. Unregulated private rents today are truly extortionate, and the complementary parasitism of letting agency fees and administrative charges, equally pocket-crippling, make the whole private renting apparatus nothing better than a state-sanctioned extortion racket (and, to add further insult, one which is now increasingly excluding those tenants most in need of shelter, simply because the state provision they receive to pay their rents is being vindictively reduced).


But off the soapbox and back onto ‘Poterloo’: McDevitt includes two quotes from one Peter Bradley, Labour MP, who, according to his Wikipedia entry, ‘As a member of Westminster Council and deputy Leader of the Labour Group… was a leader of the campaign to expose the 'Homes for Votes' scandal which led eventually to the surcharging of the former Conservative Council Leader Dame Shirley Porter and colleagues’; the second quote excerpted is particularly illuminating as to the judiciary’s heel-dragging approach to punishing the rich and powerful (when, oddly enough, it is much ‘swifter’ in its athletic meting out of ‘justice’ to the poor and underprivileged), and reads almost like a politically satirical version of ‘A Partridge in a Pear Tree’:


‘If I have an obsession, it was probably nurtured during my time as a councillor

in Westminster. That is why, some 18 years after the events of which we

complained began, 15 years after we registered our objection with the auditor,

10 years after he produced his provisional findings of “disgraceful, improper

and unlawful” gerrymandering in Westminster, eight years after he published

his formal findings of “wilful misconduct”, seven years after the High Court

endorsed those findings, three years after the Law Lords pronounced on what

they judged to be “a deliberate, blatant and dishonest use of public power”

amounting to “political corruption”, and a year after the European Court of

Human Rights rejected Shirley Porter’s final legal campaign as “manifestly

ill-founded”and “inadmissible”, we still seek justice…’


McDevitt’s bravura verse-missive ends with virulent irreverence, the subversion of the Tesco slogan ‘Every Little Helps’, particularly apposite:


O Milady of the 5p cemeteries, asbestos dream-homes, and gold rimmed

chaise de

(euphemism

thine acquilinity ravens us

(oh every little hurts

from the Holy Land to the Everglades

ee’n in the Great Vault

ineffable and unutterable

of thy 24 hour


t***o


Again, it’s instructive to see its contextualisation from International Times:


Porterloo’s title is a multiple pun on portaloo/Waterloo/Peterloo and which alludes to the disgraced ex-Tory councillor and Tesco heiress, Shirley Porter. Though her reputation was destroyed by her misbehaviour as leader of Westminster Council, the Conservatives continue to misbehave in exactly the same way, having learnt nothing from her nemesis. Tory hubris rides high and, once again, social cleansing, asset-stripping and gerrymandering are the order of the day. The ‘porterloo’ imagery is sustained through the volume, from the portaloos of Tent City to the discovery of a dead Conservative in a portaloo at Glastonbury. Here, McDevitt provides a masterclass in unsentimental storytelling, as published in Alan Morrison’s The Recusant.


Porterloo thus becomes a codeword for the latest class war to be unleashed by the Tories, their first large scale mobilisation of the 21st century. In the climax to the first section of the book – called “P” – McDevitt envisions the precarious situation in which millions of people find themselves as ‘waiting to be flushed down the Porterloo’.


‘The Labour Mart’, subtitled ‘(after ‘Morning Dissertation’ by David Gascoyne)’, is an exemplarily composed poem on the weekly dehumanisation of the unemployed via mandatory job centre appointments to ‘check up’ on how voraciously claimants are chasing those all-important phantom job opportunities or poverty-waged zero hour contracts that are supposed to act as life-transforming miracle cures for all their circumstantial poverties and personal ills –all hail the new elixir of ‘Work’, any work, it doesn’t matter what, whether it be well-paid, poorly paid, or unpaid, no matter how insecure, mind-numbing, humiliating, dead-end or ultimately debilitating, any work is better than no work, anything is better than no work, and so on and so forth (in fact, exactly the same penal attitude that deems putting prisoners to hard labour morally reconstructive, is applied to today’s unemployed, who are not seen as the victims of economic failure, but of their own “fecklessness” and moral ‘deviancies’, guilty before proven innocent, “scroungers” before proven legitimate claimants).


McDevitt subtly polemicises today’s cynical misappropriation of humanistic ‘occupational’ theory (as expounded through occupational therapy, which, in its organic form, makes a differentiation between ‘occupation’ –something which employs one’s natural faculties and is fulfilling– and ‘work’, something which is more often performed through demands of economic necessity, mere survival, ‘to earn one’s living’, than through any authentic choice or conscious expression of one’s personality or talents) as a means to promoting the notion that any occupation/paid employment/‘job’ is implicitly of not only material and ‘moral’ but also therapeutic benefit to the human personality. McDevitt caricatures the deeply duplicitous auspices of the likes of fraudulent corporate carpetbaggers A4e whose ‘employment advisers’ present themselves as svelte temptresses of mythical vacancies –rather like desk-bound suited Sirens, “creaming off” the more employable ‘clients’ for quick-fix work placements for which the company receives its government bounties, while “parking” the less employable in piles of ring-binders– as the ‘human faces’ of


new companies of caring thaumaturges

tapping compositions on keys…


(Arguably, most of the ‘authentic’ occupations in society are not facilitated through employment, but through unpaid volunteering, which is, in its purest form, an altruistic expression of the human personality, through the exercising of free choice, to contribute something to its community, un-sullied by the grubby bartering of the ‘wage’ negotiation –but capitalism has even muddied the one oasis of spontaneous human social expression, community volunteering, by making it mandatory… at least, for the long-term unemployed; thereby cheapening such authentic gestures of citizenship as a kind of paying back ‘in kind’ to the taxpayer for receipt of state benefits).


It is this capitalistic bastardisation of occupational theory which informs the apocryphal morphology of DWP mythmaking, and of our culture’s entire ‘work ethic’, or ‘work myth’: the ‘myth’ being that all work, any work, is of inalienable benefit to the human organism, and is, moreover, the prime purpose and supreme expression of one’s existence, which must take precedence over everything else. That to be ‘in work’ today is the first and most fundamental self-justification for existing, and, like some axiological antinomianism, a job automatically bestows on a person an implicit moral superiority over those without one, and a government-extended moral prerogative to judge those who are not in work, even to subject them to all manner of verbal and attitudinal stigmatisation, or in some cases, the sticky end of petit espionage (i.e. ‘tipping off’ the DWP as to suspected “benefit cheats”) –all this being a kind of state-granted (anti-)‘karmic’ payback to the “hard-working taxpayer” who resentfully and involuntarily subsidises a tiny percentage of benefits for the working-age unemployed.


Over the past four years the Tories have relentlessly emphasized the 'tax'-link to welfare benefits in order stir up resentment towards unemployed claimants among working taxpayers. Contrapuntal to this has been a rhetorical occulting of the concept of 'Work', as if it is the highest possible human contribution to society, and employment, the prime stamp of personal 'moral' fibre. There is no more any emphasis on spontaneous 'good deeds' in the human community (much of which is expressed through volunterism) -as Marx, Caudwell, Wilson and others quoted throughout this review/polemic argued, capitalism reduces authentic human exchanges and social bonds to mere commoditised transactions: the only valued 'contribution' in Tory society is 'tax' (though many who laud this fiscal sacrament are among the most athletic to avoid it). 'Work' is lionised as the paramount 'good deed' to society (attitudes that no doubt in part prompted Church leaders to speak out against the welfare cuts and the demonisation of the unemployed used to justify them). 'Work' is occulted as not only good for society, but also 'transformative' for the individual (one might "get back into work" -as politicians of most colours put it- but then what? In most cases: sub-living wages, insecurity, stress, zero hours contracts, whittled employment rights and protections, "working poverty".


Before politicians try to solve the problem of unemployment, they should first solve the deeply unsatisfactory and often punishing culture of employment; to deplete any alleged "culture of dependency", they first have to understand why it is that so many feel they can't depend on the 'culture of employment'. These are the elephants in the room that will never be addressed, let alone solved, by any of the three main parties. Indeed, it is a crowning irony that at the same point that this Government is evangelising the glorious wonders of 'work', it is simultaneously making employment seem as unglamorous and unappealing as possible; because the implicature of its Doubspeaking mantra "Make Work Pay", once unscrambled,  translates as "Make Benefits Not Pay". The 'choice', then, faced by most of us, is simply between two types of poverty: unemployed poverty -or working poverty (sans the stigma of the former).


Indeed, if ‘work’ was such a panacea for human personality, so infinitely rewarding and fulfilling, then why is it that so many of the working population resent the fact they have to do it, and begrudge the pittance in benefits paid to the minority who, for whatever reasons, are currently not doing it (or at least, not doing paid and taxed work, but who most undoubtedly have their own forms of personalised ‘occupation’ –for humans are 'occupational animals’)? If ‘work’ is its own reward, then why are so many who are in work constantly resenting the paltriest scraps of tax that, very circuitously, go towards keeping those who are (largely) being denied work alive; and even partly –and entirely on false premises spun by Tory and red-top– envying their poverties, not only for their mythically “over generous” benefits, but for a perceived abundance of spare time (itself increasingly a myth since now unemployment, along with sickness and disability, are, as far as government is concerned, ‘time-limited’!)…? Are they not happy enough in their work to not care about how many crumbs get chucked to the workless? (We're back to Graeber again).


I am, of course, playing devil’s advocate here, especially since there are so many living and struggling in “working poverty”, which is an equally dispiriting state to having to endure stigmatised workless poverty. But I’m trying to challenge the ‘Work Cures All Ills’ cult of today. Certainly ‘occupation’ might cure most ills, but only in its authentic sense, which is the employing of one’s full faculties, talents and personality in the performance of a task useful to the community, and by ‘useful’ I don’t only mean in the utilitarian sense, but also in the humanistic paradigm. The arts, for instance, of vital importance to the psychical nourishment of society, much of which is produced by the ‘unemployed’, or the ‘lumpenproletariat’ (much poetry, by the ‘lumpenpoetariat’ –and that is not meant in any way disparagingly, it is simply a cultural reality which society refuses to accept or accommodate).


It’s instructive to reflect that disputably the only political system to date which not only materially accommodated but also culturally venerated its poets was Soviet Communism, under whose auspices it was not uncommon for artists, writers, playwrights and poets to receive state stipends to sustain them while they pursued their crafts, without constant pestering from chalk-striped atomists trying to get them to stack shelves instead (although I will not feign disingenuousness by omitting to recognise that to some degree such Soviet litertati were perhaps pestered by chalk-striped State apparatchiks to punctuate their productions with agitprop). Here is a glaring contrast between the cultural ambition of communism, and the abject philistinism of capitalism –two types of materialisms, but with very different cultural priorities: one for authenticity of production, the other, for cheapness of production as dictated by the profit motive.


And in ‘The Labour Mart’ we have one brilliant example of a poem, an unsponsored product, which would more than merit in itself a giro payment than the signatured list of Mcjobs applied for in the past fortnight, and demonstrates the utter absurdity of capitalism, its materialist contempt for any accomplishments which it can’t commoditise and turn to profit, its deeply ironic incapability of actually capitalising on authentic human capital as encapsulated in the natural talents of the personality. Not to mention the crowning irony and hypocrisy of capitalism, of all creeds, aspiring to the notion of “hard work” when its entire point is to secure a position, through ownership of the means of production, serviced by the sweat of the workers, for a tiny minority to exploit others’ labour –and even poverty– to accrue idle gain, and surplus leisure to speculate on accumulating further assets, all organised in order to enable capitalists to be in a position where they do not have to work themselves! Capitalism is, quite simply, labour-parasitism.


This is the vicarious ‘work ethic’ of capitalism: get others to do your work for you, slap them with a bare subsistence wage to keep them out of abject poverty, then pocket the rest of the profits in order to keep you from having to work yourself. Speculation is not work by any definition; it is gambling; and speculation is the modus operandi of capitalists. It is not “hard work” that capitalists and those who ascribe to the capitalist creed aspire to: what they actually aspire to is a state of privately-maintained unemployed ‘grace’, subsidised by others’ grateful labour (we ‘ragged trousered philanthropists’), rather than by subsidies circulated through tax, as in the case of the common unemployed. Capitalists are the real “scroungers” of society. That’s precisely why they and their political representatives get so incensed by any even vague signs of ‘illegitimate’ benefit-claiming, or “cheating”, “fiddling”, “scrounging”, as is their crude nomenclature for the corner-cutting of the desperate: because they believe such ‘deviant’ behaviours should only be permissible for their own rich and propertied class, those whose material ‘status’ entitles them to euphemistic impunity for venalities which are not only equally illicit, but actually far more morally inexcusable, since rather than being driven by the necessity of survival, they are being driven by pure undiluted greed, avarice, acquisitiveness and an almost antinomian arrogance.


In the deeply twisted, almost satanic capitalist mentality, claiming benefits due to poverty and dire need indicates a “sense of entitlement” and “something for nothing”, while speculating on shares, properties or others’ labour to accrue profits not personally earned through one’s own effort, conversely, is indicative of a canniness to “opportunity” and a ‘sense of ‘entrepreneurship”; what’s more, such behaviours, apparently, also create wealth –albeit mostly un-redistributed and just kept by the “wealth creator” through industrial-scale tax avoidance and evasion. Capitalists create wealth, perhaps, but only vicariously via others' labour, and primarily for themselves: very rarely do they spread this wealth through wider society, let alone to their employees. And even if they do generate some of the wealth, it’s only done so as another form of speculation, and any apparent philanthropic outcome that results –Adam Smith’s old “invisible hand of capitalism” (‘invisible’ for a very good reason: it’s a complete myth)– is purely accidental and still ultimately motivated by the clincher of ‘a return on investment’. Though, interestingly, in this sense, those who argue for some ‘philanthropic’ effect in capitalism use the same ‘means justify the ends’ argument of many Marxist revolutionaries for the opposite objectives. The difference is, the only revolution the capitalist is seeking is that of the pound in his pocket doing an investment turnaround to duplicate itself several times over -that old "make your money work for you" chestnut: and why not, since they’ve only made others’ work for them to get their money in the first place, they might as well get that same money to work for them too. Human flourishing, or nourishing, has little if anything to do with any of it.


Moreover, capitalism is not only the prime generator of unemployment –through commoditisation of labour, monopolisation of resources and the inescapable labour surplus– but is also dependent on it to an extent, in order to keep wages down and to have a convenient, defenceless section of the population on which to direct all frustrations and resentments of the employed, underemployed, and particularly the ‘working poor’, through the persecutory pincer-auspices of Tory politicians and capitalism-propping red-tops. This endemic exploitation of limited employment opportunities to suppress wages and thereby increase corporate profits is commonly euphemised as “competition”; and current athletic attempts by the Tories to neutralise what little employment protections remain for workers, such as recourse to unfair dismissal tribunals, is, by extension, and implicature, euphemised as “making it easier for businesses to employ [i.e. exploit] people”.


McDevitt’s choice of title is also apposite: for capitalism does indeed facilitate a very literal ‘labour market’, and the American abbreviation of ‘Mart’ is also instructive, given the UK’s increasingly Americanised brand of capitalism. Job Centres used to be called, at least more honestly, Labour Exchanges, and capitalist society is indeed a system of mass ‘exchange’, albeit lopsided, and in entirely material senses –and perhaps one notion of socialist society would be one in which there are much greater, deeper and more authentic ‘exchanges’, not simply of material goods or services, but of those human qualities and faculties that can’t be so crudely commoditised, such as spontaneous emotional and creative expressions unfettered by the depersonalising protocols of material and nutritional demands.


But, those aspects to society which were once conducive to more authentic forms of human exchange, of authentic expressions of personality and gestures of community spirit, have long been bastardised by capitalism, and most grotesquely and lastingly eviscerated by the cultural cross-stitch of Thatcherism (we are still attitudinally, if not behaviourally, an acquisitive Thatcherite society). Vast swathes of the English today are so many emotionally constipated, socially petrified, culturally paralysed stuffed exhibits of Thatcherite taxidermy, rather than anything approaching authentic individuals. Thatcherism, like all capitalist mutant-strains, could only offer a one-dimensional form of ‘individualism’ procured through purely material acquisitiveness and expressed vicariously through such material acquisitions; the authentic personality and fulfilment of personal potential had nothing to do with it: now people could ‘express’ their sense of accomplishment and significance through property, cars and other capital –but all to the detriment of their own human capital, neglected and left to rust.


In his follow-up polemic to Illusion and Reality (1937), Studies in a Dying Culture (1938) (which was also expanded on in Further Studies in a Dying Culture, published almost a decade later), Christopher Caudwell was astonishingly prescient –especially since these works were actually written earlier than dated, in the early to mid-Thirties, published posthumously, as almost all his polemics, Caudwell having been killed in action in Spain in 1937 –as to the incipient shape of a commoditised form of human consciousness and marketisation of culture which, already putting out its feelers in the decade of his commentary, arguably wasn’t fully distilled, at least in Britain, until the Thatcherite ‘revolution’ of the Eighties. Thatcherism systematically uprooted post-war communitarian aspirations with the atomisation of social bonds (“there’s no such thing as society”, “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the [British] people”) through the planting of a new acquisitive, materialistic ethic (‘greed is good’). Ironically, it served in the end as a far greater tyranny over the authentic expression of human personality and individuality by constraining its remit purely to material acquisition. But Caudwell’s take on capitalist society in Thirties Britain (also blitzed by Tory austerity policies, under the right-wing Stanley Baldwin) reads uncannily today in our post-Thatcherite early twenty-first century (almost as if Caudwell had mentally rocketed himself to a futuristic corporate-planet Mongo like Buster Crabbe in the contemporaneous film series of Flash Gordon):


Man cannot strip himself of his social relations and remain man. But he can shut his eyes to these social relations. He can disguise them as relations to commodities, to the impersonal market, to cash, to capital, and his relations then seem to have become possessive. He owns the commodities, the cash and the capital. All his social relations appear to have become relations to a thing… By shutting his eyes to all the relations between men that constitute society… man has enslaved himself to forces whose control is now beyond him, because he does not acknowledge their existence. He is at the mercy of the market, the movement of capital, and the slump and boom. …Blind Fate, in the shapes of war, unemployment, slumps, despair and neurosis, attacks the free bourgeois and his free followers. His struggles put him into the power of finance capital, trustify him, or, if he is a free labourer, he is herded into the mass-production factory. So far from being free, he is whirled like a leaf on the gales of social change. And all this anarchy, and impotence, and muddled dissension is reflected in his culture.


And this is precisely what Thatcherism, as an ultimate attitudinal and behavioural expression of the most philistine aspects of capitalism, actually managed to achieve: the trustification of human individuality and identity into a corporate cult of capital-worship –almost like a bizarre subversion of the collectivist stratagems of the very trade unionism she so aggressively overhauled; but, conversely, applied to a new ‘collectively’ incentivised cultural imperative of unlimited individualistic acquisition (a kind of reverse-Marxism). Someone I used to know once expressed his own absorption of this contradictory ‘spirit’ of individualistic aspirations and materialistic competition as some kind of perversely ‘unifying’ meme: “In a way, capitalism unites us all in a kind of common purpose towards achieving our individual aspirations” –which is, to my mind at least, a dialectical cul-de-sac.


Trustification is not collectivisation, it is concentration, monopolisation –an agent to plutocracy; and in this sense capitalism is really just a secular application of the antinomian principles of Lutheranism, but applied in material terms, where one’s capital is symbolic of moral impunity (just as today it is constantly implied in political rhetoric that being in employment and paying taxes also infers, if not a moral impunity, then at least a moral prerogative to judge those who are not, even verbally persecute them (i.e. the cult of ‘Scroungerology’)); while the sanctity of property is paramount, and to be protected at almost all costs –i.e. criminalisation of squatting in empty derelict buildings, the increasing empowerment of occupiers and owner-occupiers to use considerable physical violence, if needs be, to expel intruders, with more impunity than ever before etc.– and the basic human necessity for shelter, re-branded from ‘right’ to ‘privilege’ (no longer the “social service” which A.J.P. Taylor once identified in the housing policies of Lloyd-George).


As to any aspirations of cultivating any even remote form of authentic human consciousness, capitalism can only grant a synthetic ‘individualism’ (which is, manifestly, almost diametrically opposite to actual individuality), which, ironically, most often manifests as a kind of commodity-acquiring homogeneity (the privet-hedged uniformity of suburbia, “keeping up with the Jones’s”, and so on). At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have long argued that only a certain form of socialism could ever grant sufficient freedom for the human personality to cultivate actual and authentic ‘individuality’; such as unlikely ‘red’ dandy, Oscar Wilde, wrote in his little-known 1891 essay, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’:


With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbol for things. One will live. … Most people exist, that is all.


As a cultural cynic associate of mine from years back –who was emphatically not a socialist, but was an anti-Christian, since he completely rejected any notions of human capacity for ‘universal love’ or ‘fellowship’, which are prime components to both Socialist and Christian thought– once quipped: “Capitalism offers us the freedom to be a shopkeeper or to open a bank account, but that’s just about it”. And I think in his own circuitous way he was partly expressing what I’m trying to here: that capitalism, by commoditising every aspect of human life into a process of material exchange and barter, can only grant us the symbols of ‘individuality’ and ‘freedom’ –i.e. the home with mortgage, the car, the money in the bank– but not the actual authentic and immaterial ‘things’ themselves. In fact, by shackling us to material obligations, capitalism intrinsically precludes any such sense of authentic individuality or freedom (except perhaps for the super-rich who can afford the time and space to start concentrating on what little might be left of their ‘spirits’ –cue the white-robed Messrs R. Murdoch and T. Blair gathered for one of the rapacious capitalist brood’s baptism on the banks of the River Jordan where Christ is thought to have received His; a laughably hypocritical spectacle not entirely different to if King Herod and Pontius Pilate had taken a dip with John the Baptist).


So, under capitalism, human exchange becomes shabby transaction; labour becomes commodity; personality is expressed through spending power; individuality through acquisitiveness; and soul-nourishment is forgotten in it all –though religion and poetry both do their best to provide some. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx focused on this almost satanic capacity of capitalism to subvert authentic living into something only symbolically resembling it, a synthetic, counterfeit ‘reality’, a cross-cultural dehumanisation that resulted from the system of money, itself a tangible symbol for trade, literally a paper or metal metaphor, intrinsically worthless except in its signification of spending power. So that capitalism is a kind of secular apparatus of anti-transubstantiation: turning mind, body and spirit back into their symbols or tokens.


In an exceptional chapter of his classic 1940 polemic, To the Finland Station (1940), deceptively titled, ‘Karl Marx: Poet of Commodities’, Edmund Wilson wrote on Marx’s observations of the profounder domino-effect of money, itself a purchasing symbol, a transactional voucher exchangeable for a physical or comestible commodity, that it becomes, almost by perceptual proxy, a commodity in itself, an end in itself:


And the greatest of the commodities is money, because it represents all others. Marx shows us the metal counters and the bank-notes, mere conventions for facilitating exchange, taking on the fetishistic character which is to make them appear ends in themselves, possessed of a value of their own, then acquiring a potency of their own, which seems to substitute itself for human potency…


(Christopher Caudwell applied this Marxian analysis to poetry under capitalism, describing it as “commodity-fetishism” (i.e. “art for art’s sake”*)).


Indisputably, the ultimate ‘festishisation’ of ‘money’ came through the now-opprobrious “Big Bang” of the de-regulated stock markets in 1986 under Margaret Thatcher, and a simultaneous vandalism of the British manufacturing industries, which resulted in an economy disproportionately centred in the banking sector of the City, which, as we know, eventually let to the economic meltdown of our economy in the “Great Recession” of 2008 onwards. This whole Thatcherite-monetarist process –which, with thumping irony, today’s neo-Thatcherite Tory-led Government is now claiming to be remedying through austerity, blaming it entirely, of course, on Labour, as with the weather, both economic and meteorological etc. (though ‘New’ Labour were culpable for irresponsibly accelerating Thatcherite de-regulation of the financial sector)– constituted perhaps the world’s most glaring realisation of Marx’s fiscal bête noire, ironically engineered by the very right-wing ideologues who were simultaneously proclaiming the diagnostic inaccuracy of Das Kapital’s analysis of the innate instability of capitalism and predictions for its future collapse through intrinsic contradictions (which, I personally believe, we are beginning to witness today).


But returning, briefly, to To the Finland Station: Wilson quoted Marx directly:


‘All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.’


(Substitute the word ‘spiritual’ for ‘intellectual’ in the latter trope and you pretty much have a Christian statement –or what Marx might have called an ‘opium trope’). Here we can see how David Graeber –a significant intellectual influence on McDevitt’s verse-ethic– is today voicing similar Marxian insights in his contemporary polemics, as in this apposite excerpt:


In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.


Absolutely –and capitalism and all its apparatchiks and investors would be the very last to ever ‘talk about it’, since such systematic wasting of human potential for authentic occupation and expression, is their exploitative bread and butter. In these senses, capitalism can be impeached not only for exploiting people materially, but also for stripping them of their authentic personalities, their identities (the latter being the bete noire of all creatively inclined individuals, artists, writers and perhaps especially poets).


One glaring example of this commoditisation of human identity and function is in the universal term ‘consumer’ –as opposed to the moderately more tolerable ‘customer’, which at least used to imply some kind of individual spontaneity and conscious ‘choice’ in transactions– which seems to imply that human beings in capitalist society are just so many cattle to be fed, which in a way we are; it also inhibits inclinations towards creativity and self-expression, and to be ‘producers’ –and, through the parasitical societal disease that is euphemised as ‘privatisation’, what were once ‘services’ are now ‘commodities’, all differently branded under ‘private providers’, and we can apparently ‘choose’ from a tantalising menu of uniformly profit-motivated, unaccountable and extortionate replica companies. Privatisation is the synthetic substitute commodity for the authentic service of nationalisation.


In his own metaphor, Wilson also referred to this materialistic masque as ‘the dance of the commodities’. Wilson alluded to Marx as ‘Poet of Commodities’ in the sense that he saw much poetic expression in the prose style of Das Kapital, in spite of its ostensibly ‘dry’ economic themes –which contradicts the common preconception that belies its reputation as an inescapably ‘dry’ read: he remarks that ‘Marx has… in common with Swift that he is able to get a certain poetry out of money’ –Wilson actually meaning here, ‘out of the subject of money’. Certainly Wilson isn’t implying, as the elliptical chapter heading might seem to those glimpsing it, that Marx was some kind of ‘commodity-poet’, as is, in the lowest common denominator sense of the phrase, an advertising copywriter. Which brings us back to Hayakawa’s ‘sponsored’ (i.e. copywriters) and ‘unsponsored’ (i.e. authentic) poets again. And, above all, McDevitt’s verse draws attention to the perennial plight of the ‘unsponsored’ poet in capitalist society, whose ‘product’ is near-impossible to commoditise towards profit, and so is depreciated, grossly undervalued, even misperceived as somehow outdated and irrelevant –but is anything but.


McDevitt is a very rare example of a contemporary ‘unsponsored’ poet who is prepared to very openly and explicitly speak out against the iniquities inflicted on, if you like, ‘unsponsored’ people: the unemployed, the poor, the socially marginalised etc. And these poetic depictions are drawn as much from observation as past experience, McDevitt having been one of countless contemporary poets who have at certain points in their lives found themselves in such impecunious circumstances (our nation’s unspoken ‘lumpenpoetriat’) as to be at the unenviable mercy of the state. But on behalf of all those currently negotiating an existence under the dangling Damocles of Iain Duncan Smith’s punitive benefits regime, McDevitt figuratively challenges all the ‘scroungermongering’ hegemonies that besiege them: his myth-busting poetry forges its own oppositional ‘mythology’, a kind of refusenik system of thought and symbol –an insurgency of shadows. In these senses, McDevitt’s is the verse of adversity; and, fortunately for all of us, has that distinctly Irish recalcitrance and revolutionary verve to actively confront and arraign the very administrators of of his once parsimoniously rationed promise.


McDevitt –who, as mentioned, believes in the principle of a Universal Basic Income– would almost undoubtedly identify with some of the equally unconventional but sublime notions on the nature of ‘work’, its obduracy towards full expression of personality and talent, and the unforgivable waste of human potential that shrivels up in its sacrosanct shadow, as argued by Bertrand Russell in his 1932 dialectic, entitled, with breathtaking satirical antagonism, In Praise of Idleness:


In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it... Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. ...Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia.


But surely many of us can see in this profound –and poetic– statement something in itself every bit as inviolable as the British ‘work ethic’.


Nevertheless, ‘The Labour Mart’ is one of McDevitt’s less vitriolic verses: it is, in fact, one of his most meditative and moving poems, important not simply for its polemical message, but for the experiential nature of the polemical message, from past first-hand experience, and thus much more affective and soul-nourishing than the vicarious ‘virtual-verse’ of Riviere. In terms of the dispiriting picture it paints of the material, physical and psychical punishment that it is to be (or to have been) a benefit claimant in today’s begrudging and aggressively judgemental climate, ‘The Labour Mart’ reminds me, at least tonally, of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s little-known poem on poverty and unemployment, ‘‘A Tale Of Society As It Is: From Facts, 1811’ –from which I excerpt below:


And now cold charity’s unwelcome dole

Was insufficient to support the pair;

And they would perish rather than would bear

The law’s stern slavery, and the insolent stare

With which law loves to rend the poor man’s soul--

The bitter scorn, the spirit-sinking noise

Of heartless mirth which women, men, and boys

Wake in this scene of legal misery.


Now back to McDevitt’s ‘The Labour Mart’:


in rooms you sadden, or stretch, in the rooms of our solitude

and touched, maybe, with a butterfly-coloured crisis

fountaining from the crown. a green tea assuages

the blueness of veins. there is calm to intellectually cross

bridges—engineered of finesse—to where who you are

finds itself in new companies of caring thaumaturges

tapping compositions on keys for you to apprehend


in rooms you have no say, negatively capable,

even as you spy on a green-tabarded builder

crossing the scaffold of the opposite semi-detached house

confidently, but in a white helmet…

…as you’ve laid words menially as bricks.

your consciousnesses have intermingled. he works in the sun

cutting a black bin-liner into squares for his colleague

squatting behind the chimney, drilling, fixing tiles.


they move about the roof’s slant with a panther’s agility

in the few hours of daylight left to them, unprecious.

they won’t—they can’t—be there by night. even if you look

the men in their decades will disappear.

work if you can


The trope ‘the men in their decades will disappear’ has a truly sublime, almost visionary tone: it might have come out of the mouth of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Eliot’s Tiresias. The language and style are of course much more modern (Gascoynian) and radically different to Shelley’s, but the slightly despondent, alienated tone of dehumanisation is remarkably similar –albeit Shelley’s is purely observational and empathic; which also serves as an indictment of the criminally small ground British society has covered in terms of common perceptions of unemployment and its causes in the past two centuries. Indeed, after what might retrospectively be seen as an historical oasis, the Attlee Settlement/Welfare State and post-war consensus of 1945-1979 (a time span of just thirty-four years –though one might also add on to that a couple more years for the period of the Liberal Party’s People’s Budget, 1909-1910, through which Lloyd-George introduced the first incipient system of universal unemployment benefit and welfare relief, the ‘dole’ thereafter referred to disparagingly as “going on the Lloyd-George”), British treatment of the unemployed has been relatively uninterrupted in its attitudinal brutality since industrialisation intensified the societal prevalence of worklessness through land-dispossession and commoditisation of labour.


What is also particularly incisive and quite profound in this snatch of McDevitt’s verse, is the juxtaposition of the unpaid occupation of (‘unsponsored’) ‘poet’ –an occupation –at least, in the organic/holistic sense of the term– in spite of often not paying anything and many poets being officially ‘unemployed’– with that of paid manual labour, as in the brilliantly symbolic line:


as you’ve laid words menially as bricks.


That line has to be one of the most sublime metaphors on the nature of poetry and labour I’ve read anywhere in years. That McDevitt chooses the word ‘menially’ –as opposed to, say, ‘laboriously’– is a quite marvellous serendipity since it, paradoxically, possibly unconsciously, implies that composing poems, itself a highly specialised pastime (especially in creatively-stunted consumerist society), can be perceived as as ‘menial’ a task as laying bricks: when one considers the definition of ‘menial’, which means, essentially, activity or work which is somehow ‘lowly’ and/or ‘degrading’, then we’re given a glimpse of the occupation of poetry as something of much effort but little reward, as indeed, in a purely pecuniary sense, it is.


This is a kind of Marxist-materialist depiction of poetry, as something which brings no material benefits. It’s a symbolic –and probably consciously ironic– conceit which Christopher Caudwell would have had much cause to analyse and deconstruct. Though, in spite of his dialectical materialist/Marxian frameworks of cultural analysis, he would quite probably have argued that composing poems was every bit as vital to society as laying bricks, and that, moreover, the only type of poets comparable to a paradigm of ‘poetry as menial labour’ would be, ironically, those who were overspecialised, what he termed ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalist’ poets, whom, just as their occupational parallels, advertising copywriters, only appear to write poems in order to ‘advertise’ their own euridition and vocabularies i.e. to 'advertise' themselves; whose esoteric works are of no essential value to wider society because they don’t address wider society, are socially irrelevant, therefore of limited cultural value, and therefore ‘degrading’ in the sense that they serve only the purposes of expressing and indulging the isolated individual ego.


McDevitt’s ‘poetry as menial task’ is a paradigm designed almost to antagonise modern day attitudes towards those who ‘choose’ certain ‘lifestyles’ at the expense of the state, and one which no doubt Bertrand Russell would have gleefully relished for its audacity. But is it really audacious? When one thinks of the amount of effort that goes into producing poetry –that is, authentic, accomplished poetry– then it seems less so; then, the only argument against such a vocation might be purely materialist: i.e. but what does it actually ‘do’ for society? Is it a product of necessity, in the same way that laying bricks is? Some would argue that, culturally and spiritually speaking, it is; but poets are sometimes the greatest devaluers of their own medium in that many –and often, ironically, those who associate themselves with the Left politically, through some sort of Marxian-materialist sense of guilt and inadequacy– would probably, if pressed, confess that they do not feel their product to be as necessary, vital or important as those who build the buildings around them (or, indeed, those who wrecking-ball them down). But whatever anyone says, there is much more to the true condition of ‘unemployment’ than meets the eye, in that mostly everyone, whether in work or not, has some kind of private pursuit or ‘occupation’ –and in the very special cases of poets, they are ‘never knowingly unemployed’.


Unemployment is never more vilified than today by its inveterate generators, the Conservatives; but is generally the political punch-bag of all neoliberal governments, Gordon Brown’s fag-end of New Labour having reintroduced the Calvinistic –even mediaeval– dichotomy of “deserving” and “undeserving poor” into the (anti)-dialectic of the issue (while ‘enlightened’ society, only recently near-bankrupted by the City, has yet to draw up a dichotomy between the “deserving” and “undeserving rich”! One which I suspect would be disproportionately tilted towards the latter). To which, the next poem, ‘A Tory in Avalon’, is a sardonic take on the rather bizarre death of the Chairman of David Cameron’s local Witney Constituency Association, Christopher Shale, who was found dead in a portaloo at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival -apparently from a “heart attack”, but it is thought to have been induced by a cocaine overdose, and suspected by many to have been suicide. Shale was discovered in his lifeless state only an hour after receiving two phone messages from Downing Street operatives reprimanding him for having publicly criticised his party for being “graceless, voracious, crass, always on the take” (so basically, for having stated the facts).


The irreverent ‘A Tory in Avalon’ starts off with the hilarious disclaimer: ‘The Tories in this poem are fictional. Any resemblance to Tories, living or dead, is purely co-incidental. The ‘memo’ is reconstructed from newspapers’. This is one of the longer poems in the first section of the volume, and tackles its delicate subject matter with respectful detachment mixed with empathy for the unnamed Shale, depicting him as a Tory who has experienced a sudden life-shattering Damascene moment as to the deeply unattractive private and public character of contemporary Toryism; while, by implication, impeaching those Party apparatchiks who leapt on him like the proverbial pack of wolves as soon as he publicly voiced his revelatory insights (quoted verbatim in excerpt from the poem below):


A Tory in Avalon has been having bad thoughts.

The cocaine and alcohol

douching his disused right-brain

have been sprinkle-systeming new ideas,

new flowers, from his own intellectual

soil. ‘Why this piranha-like morality?

Why this razor-toothed voracity?

In rituals, virtue has been hailed.

The Cathars we love were perfecti.’

He has sent out a ‘strategy document’

expressing the conscience-prick.

Here, music stimulates finer feelings.

He takes the air pulsed with English song.


A Tory in Avalon has been rather candid:


‘When we come together in groups,

we are not magnetically attractive.

We morph into something different,

and not an appetizing proposition.

They will not join. Why should they join?

There’s no reason to, lots of reasons not to.

For years, we’ve been seen as graceless,

crass, voracious, always on the take.

They think we’ll beg from them, even steal,

and they’re right. We must do something.

We must look different, sound different…’


He takes the air of solstices, of henges.


The poem closes on a poignant variation on the part-refrain:


He takes no air. The air is taken back.


‘Royal Pocketmoney’, subtitled ‘for the nation’s favourite ‘dependent family’, is a relay-race of parallel verses jostling all manner of meme and word-play associated with the almost taboo Republican shadow-sport of anti-monarchism, batting back and forth with reverberating verbalism. ‘Processed Words’ is a poem-polemic on mainstream and ‘literary’ journalism –that supplemental pain-inducer with built-in analgesic; appositely, the poem is composed in deliberately restrained language, with much emphasis on the self-betraying journalistic term ‘copy’. McDevitt’s evident disdain for this profession would seem to encompass every title from The Guardian to the Tory-er-Times Literary Supplement, and, among other aspects, comments on journalism’s seemingly endemic need to inflict misery on certain people and minorities, and its deeply unimaginative, miserablist conflation of ‘newsworthiness’ with crushingly ‘negative events’:


(N.B. It is important that no one is offended;

although, now and then, a little controversy

or frisson is a useful selling-point).


Almost always in a poem by McDevitt, there is at least one prominent ideogrammatic signature, and in this it is a random emboldening of sporadic words and phrases. ‘The Pharaoh’, subtitled ‘Assange at the Ecuador Embassy’, is composed in Ginsbergian poetic prose, and depicts the designer-greyed Australian figurehead of whistle-blowing website Wikileaks as a metaphorical pharaoh trapped in his own tomb, and takes a very circumspect approach to his true motivations, not to say highlighting some tell-tell signs of a degenerative verbal insurgent gradually becoming more adept at managing his own media image:


…his hieroglyphs, his trigonometry are no longer the liquid bread he gifted to the breadless. his hair is agon-bleached, whale-white. in the formless darkness he gropes for machines.


the pharaoh no longer feels his own solidity or liquidity, but only his gas, his miasma. … he hears nothing in the silence from Thoth or Imhotep, former advisors whose former advice he ignored. ‘it is not death, more of an antechamber’, he thinks of his environs, missing what was palatial, the great house of etymology. his anubi are the journalists he feeds, patting their gloss-black shanks, and who lovingly nibble his hands as he does so. their cynical gratitude is canine to the bone.


his pharaonic days are done. there is no sun. …he breakfasts on law who used to break it, as once he broke the curse of the sphinx. now he is the sphinx. …


This piece is erudite in both Egyptian and Greek mythological imagery, and it’s ostensibly fitting –if only to indulge Julian Assange’s projected self-image– that he’s juxtaposed with Prometheus, the Titan who stole ‘fire’ from the Olympian gods and gave it to the mortals so that they could progress to civilisation and self-determination:


a giant arm and fist from the British Museum is punching his glass jaw,

pounding his liver.


The latter trope appears to refer to the gods’ punishment of Prometheus for his act of altruistic theft, which was to chain him to a rock and have an eagle peck away at his liver for eternity (for he was immortal), the liver regenerating every night to be devoured afresh the following day. This is a sublime mythological choreographing of the Assange enigma, not least in its own playing on the self-generated mythopoeia (or mythmaking) of the man himself: but what more apt figure of myth to mingle Assange with than Prometheus (whose name means ‘forethought’), both having been punished by inscrutable and invisible ‘powers’ for having, unauthorised, disseminated to mortals/the public jealously guarded, illuminating sources of power/information. And the sublimeness of this juxtaposition lies in that of symbolically similar punishments: for what else has happened to Assange but to have been chained to the rock of the Ecuadorian Embassy to have his figurative ‘liver’ pecked at continually by the eagling media, while the shadows of hawks encircle him from above should he put one foot outside his bricked prison of political asylum…? Moreover, in relative terms, Assange’s ‘asylum’ would seem to be of potentially sempiternal duration, given the unlikelihood of the lingering threat of his extradition to Sweden to answer to charges of sexual assault being lifted (and which, in turn, could automatically trigger his secondary extradition to America, which he fears would lead to his permanent impounding under draconian US anti-espionage law, or something even worse).


Interestingly, Assange-as-Prometheus crops up again, but in a more sympathetic context, in the following poem, ‘Umpteenth Epistle to the Marxists’ (which starts with the quote, ‘I am not a Marxist’ – Karl Marx):


and I see Assange mythopoeically

not reasonably

but as people will see him 1000 years from now

not with the cynicism of — to use Gascoyne’s phrase —

‘callous contemporaries’

not as Jesus, but as receiving the same treatment as Jesus

or actually as Promethean

and see the vultures swooping in to gnaw his liver…


‘Umpteenth Epistle’, a missive to an unnamed poet, highlights in its first stanza much of which I’ve been previously discussing as to how I interpret McDevitt’s own highly idiosyncratic anarcho-politics, based more on feeling, perception and impression than any doctrine or rigid ideology; and here the poet expresses what feels to him to be his own authentic dissent, a kind of humanistic resistance to materialistic modes of being. Significantly, he brings into this his own specific ‘identity’ as an Irishman in London, and interestingly contrasts differences in attitudes between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon mentalities (the former more inclined to the intuitive and mystical, the latter, to the ‘rational’ and scientific), even if some on both sides of the paradigm are broadly allied in terms of what they perceive to be the obstacles to authentic living peculiar to capitalism, memes that replicate human personalities and thus impair their full development and growth:


Dear Fellow Poet


I am not right-wing

I am stung-wing I am stung-wing

by our failed friendship

by the jellyfish ribbons

of misunderstanding of obviousness

of a brick-wall English Marxism

that seems to exclude

Celtic blow-in would-be magic-thinkers

too unsaxonic for words

or wyrds

or a single good word from you (though Anglo-Celtic

as the island itself)

that misreads the mind

thinks aiming your sights

is perception

and what is someone like you doing anyway

in a thought-policeman’s uniform? that blue-black

and the ever-ready charge-sheet again:

‘brutal’ ‘ill-read’ ‘right-wing’ ‘Christian’

denying me my individualist anarchist

anti-status…


With regards to the ‘Afro-US witchdoctor’, McDevitt elucidated to me that he is referring to controversial American poet, dramatist and writer, Amiri Baraka, who passed away on 9 January 2014. What’s interesting here again is McDevitt’s emphasis on his sense of ‘racial’ displacement as a London Irish:


when who is as brutal as the Afro-U.S. witchdoctor

whose own magic extends to making you a doctor — congrats,

for what it’s worth —

who brutalises in writing

Jews whites women, sometimes, when the black bile overwhelms

but gets through it anyway

without doing 14 years in a madhouse like Pound

because he knows—a racial outsider in America—

what I know—a racial outsider in England—

political correctness can be challenged from the left

and the collective unconscious can be conscience-pricked

by the medicinal individual

the lower-than-lowcouping trickster

with the right serums in the right syringes

to pin

smug bubbles

not right-wing


What is evident in this verse-tirade (which is not meant in a negative way) is that McDevitt has no truck with ideological dogma, whether Right or Left, but, most explicitly in this poem, with textbook dialectical materialism, bourgeois Bolshevism, or any other type of ‘vicariously revolutionary’ viewpoint:


I don’t want to read all of Adorno!

I want to read all of Elizabethan theatre not all

the theory in Frankfurt

but it is no crime to criticise an idea in isolation

when, you must already know, a single idea can be very dangerous,

and of lefty bibles

I favour the bohemian, say Benjamin and Debord,

to the academic flat-liners

and anyway as Ken Campbell said

‘I’m not mad, I’ve just read different books’

and the brick wall of English Marxism

is a book wall

and man cannot live on frankfurters alone


It is hugely significant here, however, that McDevitt mentions his craving for ‘Elizabethan theatre’: Marxist polemicist Christopher Caudwell highlighted Elizabethan theatre as the last example of truly community-oriented, participatory public art, which he believed expressed not individual ‘bourgeois wills’ of isolated playwrights writing completely apart from their publics, but a ‘collective spirit’ encompassing playwrights, actors and audiences; W.H. Auden also argued along similar lines, but referred back much further in time to Ancient Athenian theatre which was explicitly participatory and interactive. McDevitt, also an occasional actor, might well identify with the –albeit less ethical– sentiments of a character from Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, as referenced in this context by Caudwell:


‘…the meanest creature, the empty, Braggart Parolles, realises this unbounded self-realisation to be the law of his stage existence and in some sort the justification of his character: ‘Simply to be the thing I am/ Shall make me live”…


(Caudwell, Illusion & Reality, 1937)


And isn’t this, in essence, exactly what McDevitt is asserting in much of his poetry: the personal will to authenticity, warts and all…? And that ‘authenticity’ is one’s own felt sense of individuality, of identity. If McDevitt’s verse serves any ‘therapeutic’ purpose for its author other than a vent for his very real sense of grievance against an intransigent, illusively oppressive consumerist culture, it is as an amplification and protection of his own sense of identity. In many senses, this is a spontaneous Teflon-coating of authentic personality against the all-proliferating infringements perpetrated on it through the depersonalising auspices of hyper-capitalist society, and its analgesic hypnotism through advertising. In a psychopathological context, such capitalist auspices play a very significant part in melting the already fragile ego-defences of individuals prone to the schizophrenic spectrum, which often involves a sense of depersonalisation, a displacement of one’s personality; a defragmentation of the ‘self’. Just as capitalism is succoured on the atomisation of social relations, including relations with one’s own authentic self, schizophrenia is symptomatic of an atomisation of the ego. We might ask, is schizophrenia, in part, a cognitive response to the contradictions and irrationalities of capitalism?


Capitalist society is certainly deeply schizophrenic in nature: most noticeably, in its’ –albeit superficial and untypical– ‘aspirations’ towards ‘philanthropy’ (both corporate and individual) through private charity donation in order to help alleviate the very social and economic miseries it inflicts on a vast section of society, the ‘non-consuming consumer culture' which is unable to afford to purchase its products and includes many people who actually make those products! The old ‘poverty amidst plenty’/ ‘over-production’ but ‘under-consumption’ contradiction peculiar to capitalism. Of course, ‘consumer’ is the operative word of capitalism, its ultimate meme, which has many meanings at many levels, the most disturbing one being that capitalism itself is the ultimate ‘consumer’: it feeds off human labour and consumes human vitality and personality, only to repackage it and sell it back to people as inauthentic product, a synthetic alternative to the ‘real thing’, a substitute for ‘being’. Further, by persuading –or hypnotising– people into being consumers with ever more predictable responses to promotions and commercial spiel (‘Pavlovian advertising’?), capitalism inculcates a form of mass depersonalisation which is disputably at some levels commensurate to the individualised depersonalisation of the schizophrenic.


In diametrical contradiction to the deeply deceptive Thatcherite dictum of ‘individualism’ –emphatically not individuality– anarcho-capitalism not only threatens but actively inhibits authentic human identity. It does this through various means, each of which depends on the ‘social class’ of its targets: the middle classes are inculcated through material temptations and financial acquisitiveness; the working classes, through the depersonalisation of employment, which, in the capitalist form, and to take the broad Marxist line, alienates them from the ‘means’ of their own ‘production’; and the non-working classes/unemployed/‘lumpenproletariat’, through the material and psychical depersonalisation of poverty. And on the latter point, the type of ‘poverty’ can vary hugely –abject (i.e. literal hunger), or more relative: nutritional, environmental, architectural, educational, and in terms of opportunities, or even awareness of such opportunities.


Indeed, in many ways ‘relative poverty’ is one of the most insidious and alienating types of human privation, not only because it is constantly antagonised by propinquity to others’ plenty (which can in turn induce a sense of isolation), but also because it is more ‘invisible’ than abject poverty, and is more easily camouflaged behind idiopathic mystification and spurious ‘moral’ rhetoric (as we see today in our culture of ‘Scroungerology’). But above all, its relative invisibility –and thus the many invisibles of its chronic effects on human beings– precludes a sufficiently informed and wide enough public knowledge of it to carve out a path to its fundamental and comprehensive alleviation:


If the crippling were obvious, if the poor all had rickets ... we would act; but the crippling is to identity so we can claim it’s nothing to do with us.


It might surprise some readers to learn that the source of the above quote is the seminal physicist and lesser-known Marxist thinker, Albert Einstein. As Einstein insightfully points out to us, much of the damage done to those living in relative poverty is of an invisible psychical nature: it is the ‘crippling’ of their ‘identity’, which is capitalism’s most effective secret weapon. Stripped of identity, it is then much harder for the impoverished to bring attention to their plight, many perhaps not even completely aware of it themselves, while it also makes it extremely difficult for sympathetic outsiders to identify their true nature and the causation of their privations. And even those who do become aware of the iniquities inflicted on so many by capitalism dampen out their ‘Damascene’ moments with quick-fix rushes to judgement (cue IDS), basically ‘shadow projections’ (see Carl Jung’s On Scapegoating) of their own nearly surfacing but swiftly repressed sense of some personal and/or societal culpability for the poverties they uncover. The myth-construct of the ubiquitous “scrounger”, then, protects the majority from its own guilt, which itself projects the opprobrious social-grotesque; and this orchestrated shadow-projection enables the rich and powerful to continue enjoying their earthly monopolies without interruption from incipient consciences. When poverty and unemployment become too widespread to ignore, such robust idiopathic stigmatisation of the poor and unemployed is made priority number one for politicians and newspapers, the mutually supportive props of capitalist mythopoeia.


And capitalism is spectacularly architected on the template of myth; it is an adumbration of human society, a prefabricated replication of authentic culture, no stone of human community left unturned and unbranded, or without its own specially formulated, inhibitive meme. Christopher Caudwell often depicted capitalist society as a kind of flat-back stage-set representation of ‘reality’, rather like a film set –and many aspects to our urban environments do actually partly resemble a film-set, only with advertising hoardings instead of false house-fronts. Though, having said that, there is at least one street on the outskirts of London with a gap left by a former demolition filled by a fake blow-up image of bricked houses mounted on a giant hoarding in order to give the impression it is continuous –scrape away at man-made physical realities (those Swedenborgian 'shadows') and they peel away to reveal metaphors!


In many ways it seems to me McDevitt in some senses perceives outward commoditised ‘reality’ very much as a kind of stage-set with fake shop-fronts, a substitute-reality, in which he finds himself a strutting anti-actor who alone recognises that he’s inhabiting a societal façade while everyone else around him unwittingly thinks it the ‘real thing’. Again, here we can see a certain Swedenborgian, or even Platonic, sensibility adumbrated and –via an angle not dissimilar in many ways to Caudwell's in Illusion & Reality– applied to capitalism, the ultimate societal imitation of ‘reality’, itself an imitation, hence an imitation of an imitation of an imitation: consumerist society is a commoditised and price-tagged ‘reality’, a marketised inauthentic copy of a copy of the authentic thing, which no longer even pretends to aspire to any authenticity and actually celebrates its own syntheticness, as if tantamount to some kind of valueless ‘achievement’.


So McDevitt is in many ways the only ‘actor’ of the societal troupe who recognises he is actually in a stage set (like the dreamer who is aware that he is in a dream even if its other protagonists –his own projections– don’t appear to), who is aware of the limitations of the narrative, and is singularly refusing to repeat his apportioned lines from the script. In these senses, there is a certain ‘theatricality’ to some aspects of his poetic technique, which can be seen in a similar satirically antagonistic light as his ‘we’re being evicted by others’ envy’ ventriloquism in ‘The Human Elephant’. McDevitt battles the ‘enemy’ with their own weapons (rather like, in a very different sense, certain rogue Middle Eastern states that ended up fighting the West with the very weapons they’d supplied them; so McDevitt’s figurative insurgency equips itself, in response, with salvages of the very weapons originally intended to deter it –a kind of boomerang effect).


There are references in ‘Umpteenth Epistle’ to –as previously mentioned– a distinctly Promethean Julian Assange, Naomi Klein, and poet John Kinsella, who sticks in my own mind most commendably for having withdrawn himself from a T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist of not so long ago, as a principled, “anti-capitalist” (his own wording) statement against the Arts Council-cut Poetry Book Society’s taking up an offer for funding from a hedge fund firm. McDevitt’s defiant and feisty refusal to be ‘pinned down’ politically, or in any other sense, finds full and almost rapturous expression in the sixth and final stanza of this poem:


Baraka was dispensing manna on Sunday

— if I use Xtian imagery, forgive me —

not making left-wingers feel like right-wingers

or sinners or lepers or tax collectors or

the whites we are

advising us not only to talk of revolution

but to sit on the railtracks, stop the trains, elect black mayors etc.

and to be honest

and not to feel the need to use flower-language

when the language of the mouth says it all

of even downturned mouths

and of course he is still asking who

is doing the evil

and of course the answer is still

the humanity in inhumanity

but he danced for us anyway

—mostly whites—

(and seemed to shadow-box)


The Gascoynean trope, ‘and not to feel the need to use flower-language/ when the language of the mouth says it all/ of even downturned mouths’ encapsulates so much of McDevitt’s sensibility as a poet and protestor. ‘The Shoppers of Oxford Street’, which poises itself on a quote from Shakespeare, ‘Thou makest the triumviry, the corner-cap of society,/ The shape of Love's Tyburn that hangs up simplicity’, is a deftly written poem decrying the historical ignorance of British mainstream culture, the disregard for the richness of common heritage and the municipal rape and plunder that is urban ‘redevelopment’, or ‘gentrification’, which paves over the relics of our commonality. But on another level, McDevitt juxtaposes the thronging shoppers of Oxford Street with the crowds that thronged there centuries before to witness public hangings on ‘the Gallows tree’, when the street was known by the name of Tyburn Road. The poem is an apposite juxtaposition of past and present, abundant with historical and biblical allusions –here are of some choicest excerpts:


1

the shoppers of Oxford Street live in a different lighting-system

—though Christian—

to the humanities of bygone times, they are other pilgrims

than the pilgrims who came for a vision of God or the relics

of saints, they are almost like miners chiselling in darkness

for a darker matter, hammering for invisible masters

who reward with tokens, shunting up and down material halls

chasing shoes, jewellery, suits etc. speaking in tongues,

the pidgin Englishes of the four-cornered empire, they flaunt

their shopping bags and tetragrammatons, they think

of this as play though it's much more like work, they think

of this as leisure though it's really overtime, they come in thousands

and swarm in the street as bees—especially in the sales


of bi-polar Januaries…

[The term ‘tetragrammaton’, from Ancient Greek meaning ‘four letters’, is a descriptor for the Hebrew theonym (name of a god) transliterated into the Latin letters ‘YHWH’, standing for Yahweh (the name the Hebrews gave to ‘God’, which was forbidden to be spoken on pain of stoning).]


2

they come, they come, not knowing of the poetic Jerusalem

—the Blakean—

that was envisaged along this meridian, seeing only

the lower case jerusalem of outlets, retail and price-tags,

not knowing the street’s former name was Tyburn Road

or how the throngs of former times would swarm in

not for bargain goods but the public hanging of felons

tied to the Gallows Tree, the triangle of execution,

a triangle they do not see in the traffic island—ghosted—

or in a pub called The Tyburn which has slyly expelled

images of history from its walls (too unappetising

for punters!)…

…they shop, they shop

under the xmas lights, on the killing grounds of shoplifters

and on culverted sewers, and on diverted rivers, they run...

they don't know what's going to happen

(to them or anyone)


The penultimate poem in this section, ‘Millbank’, is one of its longest, a kind of polemic-cum-poem-eulogy to the Tory HQ-rocking climax of the student tuition fee protests of late 2010. An historic episode in the history of British protest and agitation it undoubtedly was, and on a scale and level of collectively expressed antiestablishment (or more specifically, anti-Tory) fervour and direct action not witnessed in Britain, arguably, since the Poll Tax riots of 1990 –though certainly adumbrated in some key aspects by the pretty tempestuous G8 protests in London of 2008 (the most memorable sight of which was a masked protestor smashing a window to an RBS building with shattering symbolism). Before going into my own take on the poem, here is its contextualisation from the International Times’ promotion:


A later companion piece to this was a self-questioning celebration of the 2010 storming of the Tory H.Q. at Millbank by students protesting the rise in tuition fees. McDevitt is honest enough to examine his feelings of jubilation at hearing the news and wonder if those feelings are unworthy. He concludes, with irony, that they are not. The poem was published in the Spring edition of the radical new magazine STRIKE!


Certainly there was a sense of some national psychical release valve being vented through this vicissitude, even if, for many, vicariously experienced via television coverage, and there’s no denying that the sound of hundreds of young people chanting TORY SCUM, TORY SCUM as they broke into Millbank was –in spite of the very lively vandalism on display– though nothing any worse than the “we love the sound of breaking glass” Bullingdon Club escapades of Oxford-undergraduate millionaire heirs Cameron, Osborne and Johnson, with perverse irony, prime minister, Chancellor and Lord Mayor respectively, at this time– actually quite rousing to the ears of those to the Left of my own markedly less radicalised generation, who were too young to be politically active during the Thatcherite Eighties, and, by the time they were old enough, found themselves attitudinally marginalised, even perceived as obsolete, amid the long ideological hangover of the Nineties.


That politically exhausted, rather hedonistic decade culminated of course in the final capitulation of the Labour Party to capitalist values, thinly disguised by an all-to-smooth –and bogus– ‘societal transformation’ facilitated by ‘New’ Labour and the ‘Third Way’. This ‘gathering in the centre’ was ectopically presaged by the equally superficial, tokenistically ‘retro’ and wholly derivative ‘Brit Pop’ scene, which, like Blair’s counterfeit makeover of the Opposition, managed to be an object of mass-projection for a growing but unfocused hunger for cultural regeneration, a more ‘progressive’ hegemonic direction, and a new form of patriotic expression which could be accommodated within the parameters of ‘political correctness’ (itself a glaring misnomer and source of semantic pedantry which was absolutely not indicative of any authentic ‘politically’ or socially progressive evolution in British thought), but which had attached to it the condition of a ubiquity of emphatically non-jingoistic Union Jacks (rather like a national Modism). Of course, eventually we all discovered that any Trojan Horse of ‘New’ Labour had long bolted by the time new young Greeks bearing gifts decamped at Downing Street for thirteen years of pink capitalism, which ultimately served as an incubation period for what would eventually be a resurgence of unreconstructed Tory Thatcherism, and its swift mutation into a vicious and more aristocratic form of ‘fiscal fascism’.


But to return to the poem ‘Millbank’, in which McDevitt praises the energy, guts and esprit de corp of the youthful protagonists whom besieged Tory HQ, though not without occasional digressions almost seeming to justify his positive responses to the riots: there is one part of me which thinks and feels, and certainly did at the time, that this was a hugely significant and entirely justifiable outburst of student protest against an intransigent and duplicitous policy, which has absolutely dire ramifications for the future ability of those from poorer backgrounds in society to be able to afford a university education (effectively privatising the university sector), and certainly something stirred in me at the spectacle of so many of today’s youth making a very public and robust statement against capitalism as represented by the Tory party –a sight and sound which would have been thought of as fanciful back in the nihilistic Nineties, or during the analgesic Noughties.


And this was, after all, a policy which was a manifest betrayal of the youth of the nation by the Tories’ partners in office, the ‘Fib’ Dems, whose leader had publicly pledged –replete with signature!– to abolish tuition fees altogether in order to cynically accrue the student vote just before the last election; not only had Nick Clegg gone back on his pledge, he had supported through parliament not simply a retention of these fees, nor merely a doubling of them, but a trebling! That’s betrayal three times over! This was beyond any reasonable definition of political compromise in coalition –it was quite simply unscrupulous and unprincipled treachery, one of the worst examples of political duplicity and opportunism since Labour’s first prime minister, James Ramsay MacDonald, ‘betrayed’ his party by forming a National Government with the Tories, way back in the early 1930s. What’s more, this grave solecism doesn’t only spell the likely abrupt end of Clegg’s career come 2015, but also that of the Liberal Democrats as a significant political party.


But then there’s another part of me, admittedly the smaller part, which can’t help feeling a very slight sliver of cynicism –possibly ill-founded and not really worth all that much attention– towards the better-heeled student activists and self-proclaimed ‘anarchists’ to whom, to some degree, such mass-amplified ‘high spirits’ and throwing of fire extinguishers off balconies is perhaps, in part, a sort of ‘trustafarian’ sport, too spasmodic and unfocused to indicate something more deeply and authentically ‘political’ in terms of aspiring to a wider ‘revolutionary’ transformation of society. But as I say, that’s just a very small part of my retrospective view on the events, and my sense of solidarity with and respect for the gutsy show of protest by so much of today’s truly embattled youth is still primary in my impressions and perceptions of the student riots.


Nevertheless, I’m inclined not to take quite so lionising a tone towards the student protestors as McDevitt appears to in ‘Millbank’, and would also mildly disagree with his somewhat over-emphatic demarcation between direct action, or ‘sedition’, as he aptly terms it in this context, and less demonstrative, creative or vicarious forms of protest as expressed through poetry, literature or music, which he seems –almost in spite of himself and his own participations– to perceive here, by contrast, as a kind of milky bourgeois substitute for the ‘real thing’, which ‘transcend(s) the artistic, the aesthetic’. It might seem an odd irony that a poet so immersed in the potencies of symbol and signification should suddenly ‘attitudinally’ discard the ‘artistic activism’ at which he is, himself, so accomplished, for placards and squibs. But my having said all this –so what? We all have our contradictions, just as has, glaringly, the capitalist society we protest against. And, in any case, ‘Millbank’ is goes much deeper than panegyric:


1

It's challenging to think the most politically joyous day

I remember

was that of the young marchers ransacking Millbank

in the late autumn of 2010. This, I felt, was sedition... at last!

No, not drawing a brilliant cartoon of some Tory basilisk,

or writing an iconic protest song, or devising a modern dance,

or even finding the just words for a literary satire

but an action that transcended the artistic, the aesthetic,

a replay of Bastille. That I laughed and cheered on 10/11/10

so fulsomely, so earnestly, drunk on nothing but the facts,

later made me ask myself if something was amiss.

Perhaps I—or many of us—had been warped by the control-machine

of Conservatism, and made incapable of finer feelings?


Those last two lines emphasize McDevitt’s self-questioning on his own visceral responses to the events, and this auto-interrogative vein runs through the poem.


2

To hear the young had smashed into the Tory forcefield

—think of the name Millbank, the very concept of Millbank:

a fusion of Blake's satanic mills with the banking system—

seemed like an orgiastic victory. They'd struck a blow,

ferocious cherubs with Asian bows-and-arrows,

not by throwing eggs at individuals or fire extinguishers at no one

but by attacking the furry, malodorous Ubu of an institution

by assaulting Tory architecture in black hoods and leopardskins

along the chameleon smile of the Thames.


McDevitt continues to search himself, and others, for an authentic assimilation of the student riots, as if to justify his own euphoric sense at something of seemingly huge political significance:


3

The students shocked everyone out of their automatism

that day. Authority was rug-pulled. That night: masterless revels

in an upside-down realm, with a cavalcade of royals and retainers

looking a thousand years old in slow-rolling contraptions,

and a palpable mass joy not felt in years. London throbbed

with frisson, and the vibration of the island was raised.


So McDevitt, quite rightly, interrogates the armchair cynics:


Those hecklers who cavilled of 'self-interested students'

had missed the point that—while the sad majority

have become inured to suffering Tory-dealt attritions

retaliating at best with cartoons, songs, dances, poems

or, at worst, buying shares in loss leader alcohols—

a new generation had stood up to Goliath and hurled

the full force of its slingshot, right at his walnut brains.

Images of the spiderwebbing glass, the spray-painted As

and youths kicking and chanting at yellow phalanxes

of Met baboons…


Finally, McDevitt closes on a kind of apologia:


4

(even if there’s something wrong with me for thinking it

or something wrong with you for reading this)


In spite of my mild quandaries as to the tonal approach to the subject –which, like McDevitt, are largely ones more related to my own personal responses to the student riots, sort of internal interrogations– McDevitt certainly has nothing to apologise for, unless it is for being, like all of us, a human, an ambiguous animal, and one who, like many of us, has a thirst for authenticities forever replicated in appetite-protracting synthetic substitutes.


The final poem in this section, one of the pithiest, makes an extremely important statement, particularly given our contemporary cultural stigmatisation of the poor and unemployed. “P” is a six-line epigram which pinpoints another past episode of British persecution of the poor, as the Note at its close elucidates: ‘recipients of Poor Law Relief were forced to have a "P" stitched onto their clothing. A “P” in the margin of a parish burial register meant the person named had died a pauper’. The 1832 Poor Law, to which, presumably, McDevitt is referring in the poem, was itself, in part, a reactionary Act brought in to curb a new surge of ‘radicalism’ among the lower classes, such as the machine-breaking of the Luddites, and was a parliamentary response to the Swing Riots of 1830; most notoriously, it summoned in the monstrosity of the ‘workhouse’. But the nineteenth century Poor Law was a modernised form of a series of punitive edicts dating right back to the fourteenth century and the Poor Laws of Edward III’s reign, via the punitive Tudor Poor Laws which, similarly to the later ‘P’ fashion, had ‘V’ for ‘vagabond’ stitched to the clothes of the poor and homeless within its auspices.


This topic, and thus poem, are important because we currently live in a society in which it is deemed ‘acceptable’  to casually refer to the unemployed, irrespective of their genuine need and legitimacy of claims, as “scroungers”, and in which a punitive Tory administration has made many attempts to more visibly stigmatise the unemployed by replacing cash payments of benefits with plastic pre-payment cards proscriptive of any ‘non-essential’ purchases (such as cigarettes etc.), and/or food vouchers for food banks –both of which are means to a more visible stigmatisation than the current dysphemistic lexicon employed with impunity by Tory politicians and right-wing newspaper columnists.


"P"


born the wrong side of Plebgate

to 40 years of Pauperization

subject to the whim of Poor Laws

and waiting to be flushed down the

Porterloo

I am a microphone

who has problems with the letter "P"


The second section of the book, ‘The Quibbala’, starts with ‘The Broken Heart’, dedicated to Jeremy Reed: it’s a kind of perambulatory stream-of-consciousness poem which seems to meditate, or ruminate, on the sense of displacement and almost schizophrenic occupational ‘status’ of the poet in modern capitalist society, often in official terms ‘unemployed’ and yet in a much deeper, authentic sense, more ‘occupied’ –or preoccupied– than most people; but yet, of course, chronically undervalued by materialist culture for his/her frequently ‘unmarketable’ talents. This poem is composed in an almost hypnopompic –or hypnagogic– semi-dream language reminiscent in some aspects of its technique, particularly in the agrammatical first line (‘but a mere david a man a man but harpless’), of John Berryman (The Dream Songs), James Joyce (Finnegans Wake), even David Jones (In Parenthesis), while also echoing the more fragmentary parts of Eliot’s The Waste Land, and, again, David Gascoyne’s oeuvre –as in the following excerpt from the first stanza:


I have appeared on walls in paints in a purple robe

anointed by samuels surrounded by lookalikes

I have appeared intoned disappeared reappeared

into this jerusalem (the broken heart)

as the light falls to touch the bodymind—again!—

on the city that is called the heart of the world

among them among them we walk among them

for a glass of grapefruit ale


The absence of both punctuation and capitalisations –even of names– seems complementary to this kind of dream-like experiment. Of particular interest to my mind is the third stanza, which touches more emphatically on what I previously referred to as the ‘schizophrenic occupational ‘status” of the ‘poet’, being, in the purest sense of that often-abused and indiscriminately applied term, a kind of apprentice to a ‘calling’, or an apprentice to inspiration, an impecunious employee of the zero hour contract Muse, the ‘unsponsored’ holder of an ‘unemployed occupation’ –an oxymoronic ‘function’ which capitalist society has long discarded, unless it is to attempt to corporatise it as a ‘packaged product’ of some kind. So, in this stanza, we get some empirical sense of this anomic ‘occupational’ status, its strange melange of Micawberish shabby gentility and sartorial hand-me-down bohemianism. Here, as in many other of his poems, McDevitt’s trajectory is often towards a kind of metaphorical peripeteia (a figurative ‘reversal of circumstances’), which gives his own poetic persona a kind of Dick Whittington quality:


we live the life are employed and unemployed

buried under obelisks buried under stars

and in hearts broken inwardly to be perfected

in their humility to dwell therein

as a davidic king if you could be

even in charityshop clothes even then to be

surrounded by giant symbols

running under or across or around or through

them

(just to get to the charity shops!)

as the giant symbols are exuding their magic

their brainwash their magnetism


There is a very druidic quality to ‘McDevittan Vitalism’, apart from the shamanic aspects, and this poem in particular makes much ‘unsympathetic magic’ with the manufactured smoke and mirrors of consumer culture, satirising the neon hypnotism of the Tesco logo as if corporate brands exude some kind of magical power –which, in terms of consumer-mesmerism, they do; McDevitt is cleverly sending-up the Pavlovian persuasiveness of advertising by presenting it as some kind of modern day supermarket thaumaturgy:


in the sacred space in the round earth

ball of the city or its pilgrim hills

in the third heavenly temple in the 24-hour tesco

I find this quotidian life too magical to move in

with cars and planes and planes and cars

who yes are enemies and must burn off

but their noises are lulling as sea-wash

in the third heavenly temple in the 24-hour tesco


The title of the next poem, ‘Leun’Deun’, has an almost druidic –or Gallic– sound to it, as if to attempt to imbue the more stolid-sounding name ‘London’ with some sort of Celtic mystique or phonetic chic; indeed, according to McDevitt, ‘Leun’Deun’ was Rimbaud’s sobriquet for London. The style of the poem is similar to its predecessor, and again there are afterglows of ee cummings, and of T.S. Eliot at his most fragmented:


jobless

I inhale the sun

(honey guillotines)

in the Sumerian city I walk upside down

by a noiseless river

trees

with noises of rivers

bluebottles


dove o’clock


two testaments

ark and cross

on the

intellectual skyline


people on their own wings fly


public buildings sold off

public houses closed down

buy-curious

bored to debt


ears

take us to the core of the city’s layers

the tombs

the feet of joggers


as the bells call

we look to Jerusalem south of the river

in a grapefruit panorama


The second stanza is particularly affective in its staccato aphorisms:


‘la Londonisation’:


a non-conformism

of coffee-shops

an anabaptism of adverts


but in towers

doors slam (echo)

of a mystery people


and in the airplanes I hear Charles Ives’

‘unanswered question’

Slide


security van LOOMIS


pigeons lapping vomit


streets carpeted in newspaper


But arguably the fourth and final stanza is the most powerful in its uncompromising contemporary depiction of a deeply traumatised and atomised capital –the ‘Unreal city’:


aggiorniamento / approfondimento


rays


eyes


look into a thousand windows


sacred space

‘TO LET’


unhappy hour


the giant ‘insane’ rastafarians

lounge on flags

as ambulance crews

come to inject them


this altitude

is best for peregrines

black-yellow-grey


tyres rub the tar

to fat

comfortable as token animals


under a

VEDETT parasol

the city’s inert honeycomb

foxes jump fox corpses

to a tenement drum


jobless

I inhale the sun


limbs lit

(rivered)


this ‘peace’ astounds

this haunted


‘leisure’


That last phrase is particularly resonant, even profound, and, I assume, is a gnomic allusion to unemployment, as well as a part-allusion to the Welsh ‘Super Tramp’ poet, W.H. Davies’ much-anthologised poem ‘Leisure’, almost the ultimate plea of the poet-of-no-fixed-occupation:


WHAT is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?


Next comes McDevitt’s panegyric, ‘To the Left Honourable Allen Ginsberg (in his knifeless realm)’, which is composed more in the typographically acrobatic mould of ee cummings:


to the night zenith to the knifeless realm


I have to follow


the nightwatchman and the beetle’s hum

into a

poet’s

O

blivion

to be examined in the lens

of a magnifying-glass

moon

for indebtedness and pettiness


The second and third stanzas, centred and italicised, are of a more lyrical timbre:


2.

I have to cough a London toxin

in thanks

who made the ball of London roll

brought to the apex of Primrose Hill

by the glass-eyed Merovingian

adding to the lore


3

but in the night zenith

when I look at the thousand-windowed hospital’s

invisible stars degenerating into mad gleams

I feel the gold gratitude again—in lieu—

for thine Alvah Goldbook-cum-Carlo Marx

diagnostic of the codes

fired from the city

as dragon-noise

or the hum of

the thousand CCTVs under Eros

you as Leo Moon Leo Rising

to heal

knots in godly shoulderblades

and flower the tombs

of Dies and co.


The poem ends on another interesting phrase denoting perhaps the aforementioned anomie of ‘poethood’: ‘our/ ‘queer’/ careers’. The markedly pithier ‘The Gentile’ comprises four short haiku-like lyrical aphorisms; the first appears to allude to McDevitt’s own origins:

I am bred in the darkness


of an Irish hotel-room

to drink to Jesus

always


The fourth is an aphoristic anecdote of one of life’s quirkier moments, the poet ‘dreaming’


of a Jewish woman


who bought a box

of assorted fruit condoms

for me


The third section of the collection comprises one long and typographically explosive poem, titled with the graffiti- or text-like abbreviated expletive, ‘FUCKU’, attitudinally elucidated by its subtitle: ‘A year of Conservative-Liberal Government from the Hung Parliament to the Royal Wedding’. It alludes to David Cameron as ‘king david’, emphatically as an antipathetic pun on his Christian name and power status, and keeps with the biblical paradigm:


david sings a psalm: 'we're all in this together'


royal we    (that's us!)


McDevitt has much sport with word- and name-play here, while also picking up on the rampant implicature of Cameronian Toryism, and the purely abstract bastardy of the emphatically anti-Thatcherite-sounding but entirely nebulous and opportunistic concept of the ‘Big’ Society (which, by profound irony, Cameron and his fellow Tories continually attack whenever aspects of it manifest in society through volunteerism and altruism; especially in the case of the Trussell Trust, chief provider of food banks, besmirched by Iain Duncan Smith as “partisan” and run by “scaremongering media whores” simply because some of them spoke up against the devastating effects of the welfare ‘reforms’ and the Government’s abdication of responsibility for supporting the most vulnerable in society and effectively leaving it to the charity sector to construct its own ‘shadow’ or ‘alfresco welfare state’. McDevitt cannily emphasises the rhetorical sleight-of-hand of contemporary Toryism (which is essentially a form of social fascism), while also emphasizing a semantic post-Thatcherite circumlocution:


'there is such a thing as society'


(u-turn...)


'and what's more it's BIG!'


The ‘Big’ Society of course being one of the most heinous misnomers in modern political history, since it is actually extremely small, at least in terms of provision, vision, cohesion and organised application –not to say, mythical as well:


big society' also known as

lilliput

small minds rule okay


The poem has the appearance at times of that contemporary trend of ‘found’ poems, a kind of randomising textual ‘cut and paste’ technique which, outside the poetry sphere, and back in the early Seventies, David Bowie used to sometimes use to form the serendipitously surreal lyrics of his Ziggy Stardust phase –but McDevitt’s textual material is far from random, or ‘found’: it is very deliberately and appositely sourced from the plethora of contemporary political Doublespeak, whether straight from the mouths of Daves, political commentators or newspaper columnists, and is bitingly polemical:


king david is chic male model for tesco


'every little hinders'


*


torydactyls back

sadly they are not extinct

see the fossils fly!


*


the 'nasty' party

did someone say 'nazi'?

no! no! nasty party


aneurin bevan: ‘scratch a tory

and you’ll find

an itchy

fascist…’


*


ideology


the

ELEPHANT

in the room

thatcher

ism


….


citigroup leak:  'we're not an economy...

we're a plutonomy'


'equilibrium'

does not mean equality


hail the money czars!



arts cuts:

grim reaper

is grimmer when he swinges


The polemical puns come thick and fast throughout the poem:


lumpen freudoisie v. lumpen doletariat… who’s the daddy?


IDS a new disease: irritable dole syndrome



compassionate conservatism's

new poor law: ‘no more legal aid’


(compassionate conservatism: all signifier

no signified)


(Tories deconstruct public services with the help of linguistics)


compassionate conservatism: who says tories don’t give ATOS?


The punning phrase ‘chav-nots’ is particularly astute. But as ever with McDevitt, history, by way of adumbration, is always catching up with the present –as with this aphorism from a past not-so-‘compassionate’ Tory prime minister: ‘famous words of pitt/ asked about youth employment:/ ‘yoke up the children”, which, had it not been uttered by a Tory, might well have been a satirical quip in the style of Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal…’. In Orwellian mode, McDevitt ingeniously abbreviates the ‘Big’ Society as BIGSOC, pace, the INGSOC ideology of authoritarian Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four; this is followed with the punning legend:


the

incredible

shrinking

big

sociey


And, almost as an afterthought:


liverpool

opts

out


Thatcher is alluded to as ‘the handbag yahwe’ (a truncated tetragrammaton for a demiurge), while her ethically illiterate heir –and unwitting ideological plagiarist: ‘cameronism: defrosted thatcherism reheated blairism’– makes figuratively gory gestures at her altar:


david's sacrifice

burnt offering to darwin:

roasted jobseeker


McDevitt picks up on sporadic hypocritical exhortations from Tories having sudden and brief Damascene spasms:


'euergetism'

boris greek tory greek: 'philanthropy'

(rich giving to rich)


The right-wing press isn’t spared the swingeing McDevittian swipe:


daily mail torah:

'adam and eve on the dole

expelled from eden!'


*


'no votes for unemployed!'

telegraph

(telegraphing its ignorance)


But the vitriol is primarily aimed at the blue torch-bearers themselves, whom the red-tops prop up, and their world-beating line in Doublespeak:


‘boundary reform’

tory euphemism for

gerrymandering



dave on arab spring: 'petrol-pump attendants

getting uppity what!'

king dave warns arabs: ‘do not oppress your peoples

with

british weapons!’


('yes we sold tear-gas

but there is no evidence

our tear-gas was used')


david multi-tasks

arms dealer-cum-peacebroker

man of many

parts



chancellor quotes marx

smirking at his own joke

as

he scraps workplace rights


‘TORIES ARE US’ is another gem of a McDevittism. A Note at the end of this typographically athletic marathon elucidates: ‘The fucku is an Hiberno-Japanese poetic form invented in 2011’, the name presumably being a pun on ‘haiku’ –in many ways ‘FUCKU’ is almost like reading a poetry sprint of the political vicissitudes of 2010-2012 in a kind of imagistic shorthand. It’s certainly a bold creative statement in its collage-like typographical cascade. I again excerpt from the promotional piece which accompanied Porterloo’s launch for some further contextualising of this poem:


After attending a reading by the veteran Afro-American poet Amiri Baraka and particularly enjoying the sequence of political haiku called ‘Lowcoup’, McDevitt wrote a lengthy 30-page sequence of anti-Conservative haiku which he called ‘Fucku’, satirising the daily minutiae of Tory power games, mind games and language games with the assistance of the invaluable Facebook page Nobody Likes a Tory.


The fourth and final section of McDevitt’s volume comprises, again, one long poem, titled ‘A Thousand’, and is split into four titled sections: ‘1. The Jew’, ‘2. The Christian’, ‘3. The Marxist’ and ‘4. The Whore’. ‘The Jew’ is an exquisite lyrical poem dripping with aphorism (I particularly like what appears to be a kind of text-speak abbreviation, or drunken murmuring, of ‘Jerusalem’ in ‘Yrslm’):


1 The Jew


though the Book was

My portable city, a Yrslm

Moved by me into many cities,

My soul and belly-button have not intersected

At the navel of the earth.

From the yellow-blacknesses of Galicia

I came to know London, New York and—surprisingly—Berlin

Where writers and journalists were Isaiahs about town

i.e. analysts of the present

But I could not cleave to God.

Other syllogisms swayed me. I was for revolution,

One of the spectral

But birth was the flood

From which I couldn’t recover

Even as I thanked England

For putting Darwin on its ten pound note.

I imbibed my own shotglass

Of the Davidic, the Solomonic.

I end. It ends.

The mind is more than this

But extinguishes

As a candle is extinguished

By a human breath.

The disappointment was in seeing no angels.

No one had wings!

I was too realistic.


Then a simply stunning aphorism erupts, almost with an Oriental haiku-like flavour to its intense imagism:


Once, an amazing profile butterflied

Among heliotropes

And I hung on her tones as on a meathook.


One notes the unusual –for McDevitt, and other poets of similar stylistic–capitalisation of all first letters (bar the first of each stanza), which gives the visual form of the verse an Eliotic quality and, perhaps, is partly employed to emphasise the aphoristic import of each line:


2 The Christian


to look into the cross-shaped hospital is to know myself in Christendom,

The mind of Kierkegaard,

A Black Death map.

Once, we were linked in Catholicity like a television audience.

Today in the conurbations of Christendom we walk

On cement-mixer films above the mass dead,

Media phantoms in a hades of screens,

Fingers blackened by newsprint, ears tinnitused with jingles,

Eyes dazed by electricity;

Our hearts have been told too many things.

The cross has ceded to the Diogenes barrel

And the sky is a mirror-ceiling we study human sex in.

This place was supposed to be left-wing.

Au revoir. My ascension is privatised.

My ascension is privatised. Au revoir.


The curious repetition of ‘Au revoir’ in these last two lines recalls for me the ‘Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight’ of ‘II. A Game of Chess’ (the brilliant ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’ passage) from Eliot’s The Waste Land. To my own personal tastes, I prefer this slightly more formalised –in style and tone– approach of McDevitt’s, and find it more affecting and impressing on first reading (and further ones) than some of his more typographically experimental pieces. The aphoristic profundity of much of this fascinating poem needs no concrete acrobatics to get its points across. It is perhaps my very favourite poem sequence in the entire volume, and so, for me, a fitting one to end on. McDevitt demonstrates a masterly command of tone and phrase throughout, without exception; some of the aphorisms and turns of phrase are truly exceptional. Aspects to the poem, its phrasal lyricism combined with sharp aphoristic imagery, recall David Gascoyne again, particularly his ‘And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis’ –and ‘A Thousand’ certainly does emit some of the reflectiveness of that poem, even if McDevitt is more likely to speak of ‘red drapes of vituperative spleen’ than Gascoyne would his more internalising ‘white curtains of infinite fatigue’. Perhaps my favourite verse of ‘A Thousand’ is the following one:


3 The Marxist


I have run out of materials except for those of the coffin

I must build in an ark-shape to sail into the sun

Where no man may exploit my personality or handicraft

But a lit country, a workshop without hierarchy.

Here, I have always lived underneath money, somehow

As under a sea, working on the sea-floor

Thinking I was on land, looking up

At the passing seaweed, imagining it as cloud

As my lungs and mind were salt-poisoned,

My limbs and heart were pressure-crushed

And my back was dismantled and reassembled daily.

I saw the Leviathan of history cruise by

Smiling a lees-red smile, a human blood smile.

The sun warms my back as I hammer the wood

Into the belly-shape of a hull to hold

The emotions we earned proudly, not the emotions

Of the dishonest exploiter but the honest exploited.


This verse ends again with another striking aphorism, reminiscent in its almost prophetic, religious tone, of Eliot:


I have lived in the rich shades of goldmines

And will be weighed as usual on the way out.


While the final verse is a virtuoso figurative lyric:


4 The Whore


I am the whore of Joseph Salmon

And in the waters of Joseph Salmon

I laid my femininity

Uniting mercers coopers scriveners

Imprinting their auras onto my aura

(Unknown to Mr Salmon, I found a way back into the garden)

Protestant, a traitor to my race,

But yet a protestant against

The iced boundaries here

Salting my wound with money, and the wounds of men

With deference and technique

Milking their glands religiously

I have spawned poems as salmon


Joseph Salmon was a veteran of Cromwell’s New Model Army, an immanentist and Ranter (a pantheistic sect of the Commonwealth era -1650s), categorised by historian Christopher Hill as of the ‘mystical and quietist wing’ of said sect, who pamphleteered his ‘heretical beliefs’ between 1647 and 1651 through four tantalising titles: Anti-Christ in Man (1747), A Rout, A Rout (1649), Divinity Anatomised (1649), and Heights in Depths (1651). Certainly there is something of the declaratory temperament of the seventeenth century Ranter in the frissons of McDevitt’s poetic personality. On a prosodic note, I particularly admire the aphoristic precision of this poem; and the alliteration of the beguiling phrase ‘Milking their glands religiously’ is beautifully wrought. It makes for an unexpectedly dulcet close to the collection, a glorious crescendo, and the very final line is a fascinating phrase to end on, salmon having a very curious, almost mysterious lifecycle whereby, apparently, they always ultimately return to the same brackish waters of their birth, where they end up effectively committing suicide by leaping into the shallowest parts –that is, unless they’ve already been snatched mid-leap by the paws of bears anticipating on the bank. Perhaps here McDevitt is implying that, in the end, poems return to their source: the poet.


Is this a way of suggesting that, ultimately, in spite of a poet’s best intentions to compose work of universal relevance, the polemical poet, as much as the esoteric poet, or indeed most other types of poet, still writes primarily for his or her self? That hoary legend “art for art’s sake” (“L'art pour l'art”), a phrase made into slogan by French poet and dramatist Théophile Gautier, and repeated in the prose of Victor Cousin (French philosopher), Benjamin Constant (Swiss political writer), and Edgar Allen Poe, who couched his own definition of the principle in his essay ‘The Poetic Principle’ (1850):


We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake [...] and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.


S.I. Hayakawa also pointed this out in his Language in Thought and Action, ‘Poetry and Advertising’: ‘true poets don’t write to ‘satisfy any external demand, but to satisfy themselves’ –and this would seem to be a pretty apt depiction of the McDevittian verse-imperative.


But here we also enter a Caudwellian paradox –or one of the allegedly legion dialectical flaws of the kind of Marxist criticism Caudwell attempts in Illusion and Reality (which has over the decades drawn quite scathing criticisms from other Marxist and socialist polemicists such as Raymond Williams, Maurice Cornforth, E.P. Thompson and Terry Eagleton, along the lines of the book’s dogmatic rigidity on the subject of ‘bourgeois poetry’, its general muddled-headedness and contradictions, and a legacy of it being perceived as a kind of ‘vulgar Marxism’): since Caudwell perceived the esotericism, specialisation and individuation of poetry (i.e. art for art’s sake) in a bourgeois capitalist culture as being, by dint of its gradual distancing from its audience or readership –i.e. the public– and fragmentation of its pre-capitalist ‘social/community function’, a manifest form of inauthentic artistic expression, he thus equated it with ‘commodity fetishism’, being an inauthentic state of social relations. This was something observed as long as 1945 by George Thomson in his polemical pamphlet Marxism and Poetry (1945):


Our poetry has been individualised to such a degree that it has lost touch with its source of life. It has withered at its roots…


However, in the case of contrasting the verse of McDevitt with Riviere, it’s not completely clear, in Caudwellian terms, how we should define their diametrically opposed oeuvres, since both seem to overlap spheres. With McDevitt, we have a robust spirit of universal communication on social and political themes, which would appear to be operating at a level of authentic interaction with the reader; but then we have the avant-garde, esoteric, symbolist and ‘pidgin’ aspects to how it’s communicated which might draw more comparison with l’art pour l’art principle (i.e. if the reader ‘gets it’ then good, but there’ll be no aesthetic compromise to help him/her in the hermeneutic process). I am, as a side note, fully aware of my constant use of the term authentic, which I employ in a Caudwellian sense, but which I appreciate might be seen, in part, a contradiction of my initial statement that ‘none of us knows the ‘truth” –authenticity, if not completely synonymous with ‘trueness’, is at least commensurate to common notions of ‘reality’ or ‘actuality’; but what I mean by authentic, strictly speaking, is being ‘true’ to one’s own (ultimately subjective) perception/impression of and response to external events, and associated attempts to elicit from these any felt notions of social ‘truths’, and express them through an artistic medium (in this case, poetry/verse).


While with Riviere’s volume, we have an evasiveness of tone and an elliptical conceptual thrust which give the surface impression of an individuated and, thus, in Caudwellian terms, inauthentic theme (in spite of the synthetically ‘universal’ title); but then, conversely, there is the sense that its’ verse style –even if elusive and elliptical, nevertheless– is broadly conforming to a certain ‘fashionable’ strain of conceptual postmodernism for which it is implied –by the sheer gusto of the book’s promotion– there is a fairly wide readership (thus, in some aspects, it is formulated with a target audience in mind). However, we might equally argue that, since the majority of today’s poetry readership is made up of poets, any such anticipated readership is, far from being indicative of contemporary poetry’s retention of authentic social ties with a broader public, really more solipsistic, and further evidence of the intensification of its own specialisation to the exclusion of wider society. Poets have long been the consumers of their own output (veritable cannibals!), which takes us back full circle to John Hartley’s contention that ‘poetry becomes more specialized, until at last it has no subject but itself’; and, by extension, no readership but itself (poetry will eat itself…?). This also taps back into George Thomson’s thesis in Marxism and Poetry, in which he argued poetry had become


a commodity, the poet a producer for the open market, and with a decreasing demand for his wares.


Ultimately, as discussed at the beginning of this two-book review–and-interpolative polemic a la the Caudwellian line, aesthetic taste, and thus, critical responses, are subjective, and, in that, simply opinion, not statements of any unverifiable objective fact or hermeneutic monopoly of ‘truth’, even if provided more verisimilitude by being leavened with supportive snippets of ‘peer review’ –and in my capacity here as a ‘reviewer’, and not some living satellite of divine insight, I have given my subjective verdict on two books both published within a politically tumultuous year’s breadth of one another, within ostensibly similar thematic remits. The first of these has left me poetically cold, and with a mental impression akin to a sour aftertaste, a bit like manila on the tongue, since it is as far as I can fathom something of an empty package, a conceit-as-end-in-itself, of counterfeit zeitgeist, a volumed opportunism, with a Trades Description Act-busting title; a prestigiously liveried synthetic substitute for the authentic dissenting verse it should have been, and in many ways, inadvertently no doubt, a distillation of what Christopher Caudwell meant by ‘capitalist poetry’. I can only apologise for my own responses, but I felt they demanded addressing.


The second volume, however, is to my mind a much more authentic entity, since it is a more passionate and experiential work, and this empirical quality authenticates and vindicates the avant-garde flights of its concrete wings; but, most pivotally, McDevitt’s volume is absolutely about the ‘austerities’ inflicted on all of us in the first two critical years of the ConDem Coalition –austerities not only in material but also in moral and spiritual terms; those very Austerities which Riviere’s volume, in spite of its titular implication, almost entirely avoids, revealing as it does inside its covers more 81 verses of self-advertising than anything –to my mind– resembling a satirical or polemical poetic critique of our currently embattled culture, wrapping it all up in an opportunistic conceptual ‘workshop’-like exercise, which, for me, is near-unrecognisable in the broadly hyperbolic praise that couched it –a conspiracy of poetic myopia? (But then this simply reconfirms the chasmal divide between contemporary mainstream tastes, and the antithetical aesthetic and thematic values for which The Recusant was created to cater). That might still sound very harsh, but these are harsh times, and such harsh events as are evoked in the term Austerities deserve more authentic and sincere addressing in verse than any abstracted conceptual exploitation or vicarious navel-gazing can provide.


So, as to the final score of McDevitt versus Riviere:


Poterloo 8/ 81 Austerities 1.


A.M.

22/2/14 – 5/3/14


[Note: by strange coincidence, the first draft of this review/polemic was written, without my knowledge at the time, on Niall McDevitt’s birthday, almost by way of an unconscious ‘birthday gift’ as McDevitt commented to me in an email. A case of burning ears or sixth sense!]