Alan Morrison on
A New Waste Land – Timeship Earth at Nillennium
464pp, £15 paperback/£25 hardback
New Departures, 2007
PO Box 9189, London W11 2GQ (+ £2/£4 p&p)
Hurry Up, Read, It's Time!
Firstly, it’s necessary to emphasize that this epic poetic anti-testament to the sheer ideological waste – and betrayal - of the main swathe of the New Labour era (1997-2007), is a truly beautiful production. A larger-than-A5 gloss-jacketed and fully illustrated tome, frantic with images throughout of many of the 60 culturally progressive/seminal icons of the last two thousands odd years, as well as many Blake etchings and engravings; and legion satirical cartoons charting the Noughties’ gradual downturn from social democratic optimism through war and the national uber-corruption/ acceleration of Thatcheritic nihilism in the buy-to-let property boom which, apart from eventually exposing so many right dishonourable members of parliament as nothing more than opportunistic capitalists, also contributed to our current financial crisis and consequent tyranny of austerity cuts. This juxtaposition of words with images lends the work a certain collage feel, but one free of any pretension.
The Notes to this epic after-echo and reinvention of Eliot’s 1922 imagistic masterpiece comprise almost half of the book itself, incorporating a veritable encyclopaedia of polemic, dialectic, press extracts and even further poetry excerpts, some from Horovitz’s own hand - all of which makes for breathtaking, even slightly daunting, reading. Of themselves, the Notes are a kind of supplementary work to the main poem, an exceptional intellectual achievement, and one which, in its macrocosmic scope, contrasts starkly with the oppositely microcosmic, domestic-oriented mainstream prosetry of the Noughties (the fashion for post-Joycean/(Dylan)Thomasian ekphrastic verse but with the verbalistic and linguistic gusto of those two writers torn out in favour of the old Hemingway ‘omission’; invariably leading to basically a prose form of poetry, not quite poetic prose, and work which is commonly lauded more on the basis of what it omits rather than what it actually contains, lacking as it often does in terms of figurative ingenuity or verbal flare; the obsession with continually ‘paring down’ to the point of journalistic uniformity).
Though A New Waste Land – directly reinventing the canto-like structure of Eliot’s Waste Land and satirically rejuvenating its various section titles to clever topical puns – has clearly undergone significant drafting (as such a vast undertaking has to) and no doubt been pared down a fair bit along the way, Horovitz displays a highly accomplished, disciplined and well-sustained flourish of verbal play and musical rhythm throughout this 200-odd paged epic, which is made more reader-friendly by being punctuated with pictures and photos, so as to give pauses for reflection throughout its run. In terms of this book’s polemical message, Horovitz pulls absolutely no punches in his almost physically-felt invective against Blair’s betrayal of a generation and his bastardisation of not only any socialist spirit left in the Labour Party, but also of our once necessarily partisan political system, which by the end of his tenure, melted down to simply a pinstriped, pro-market, anti-welfare right-of-centre consensus where the two main, tokenistically tribalist parties were/are marked more by their similarities and ideological overlaps than by any sense of offering alternatives to one another.
But not only is this vitalistic and skilfully composed invective leavened by a razor-sharp dissection of the hypocrisies, duplicities and contradictions of Blairism; it is also given even more cultural weight through Horovitz’s unabashed and hugely admirable chutzpah in so brazenly pouring very clear red water between himself/his (rightly) outspokenly left-wing, establishment-sceptic camp – including, among others, the late though then still writing Adrian Mitchell – and the poetry establishments, through a much-needed trouncing of the journalistic hyperbole surrounding these ‘upper echelons’, charged here not so much for their debatably compromised opportunisms, but more for their complaisance in assuming the often specious mantles thrust on them by a media besotted with the ephemeral and ‘the moment’, who frequently insult the hard-won reputations of past poets who have long earned their critical posterities by empty comparisons between their gifts and the less obvious ones of many present-day pale equivalents; most of whose stars, in any case, have been so transparently ascendant on the backs of one or a combo of salubrious backgrounds, connections, networking, self-promotion and in some cases, sheer ruthlessness of ambition.
Horovitz, for one poet, has not missed this accelerated trend of poetry celebritisation particularly rampant from the late 90s onwards, where one is treated as supremely talented simply because a few underwhelming columnists and a knitting circle of rotating poet prize judges say they are. One of the only other poets still writing I can think of who has had the guts to speak out against contemporary poetic polite society is the rebarbative and similarly empassioned Leeds-born poet Barry Tebb. Like Tebb – whom, incidentally, Horovitz himself included in his groundbreaking 1969 anthology of the poetry underground, Orphans of Albion – Horovitz knows instinctively that any true inheritors of the likes of Blake, Clare, Keats, Shelley, W.H. Davies, even Eliot himself, are most likely to be found today on the shadowy fringes of the poetry scene; whereas, perennially, in establishment circles, one is most likely in the main to chance upon the modern equivalents of Southey, Austin, or Bridges. This is hardly anything that surprising of course since most of those lauded from the past were very much a part of their respective periods’ countercultures rather than the fashionable literary sets. As a doyen of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century poetic counterculture, Horovitz is in a commanding position of considerable experience to remind us of such incontrovertible verities, awkward though this may be for many to hear. But A New Waste Land is not meant to be a comfortable read, it is intended and succeeds as a cultural and political wake up call to a nation that was growing decadently complacent during the last decade’s distinctly ahistorical, non-ideological, consumerist slumber of empty hyperbole.
One of the reasons I am reviewing this work four years after its original publication, is because, in spite of its topical commentary on a specific period, it is still relevant to 2011, in spite of perhaps this current Thatcherite coalition’s only single gift to our society, the re-radicalising of the nation’s youth to the left of the spectrum in response to tuition fee hikes and attacks on the welfare state: but because, more so for those of the previous couple of generations who position ourselves on the left politically, but most specifically those who still drag their heels in support for a yet-to-be rejuvenated Labour Opposition, it is vital that we do not forget the gross solecisms and missed opportunities of the New Labour era, one which has literally opened the doors for punitive Tory rapaciousness, dismantling of what is left of the welfare state, and a still-embryonic marketisation of our NHS.
This is especially important since Labour is again at a critical moment in its history: having distanced itself from some of the more unpopular aspects of Blair’s embourgeoisement of the movement, under Ed Miliband’s marginally more left-leaning leadership, the front ranks of the party are still dithering as to which way to jump, and are being unhelpfully distracted from a full-tilt restoration of the party's core democratic socialist ideals – which is needed now more than ever before, in the wake of Tory social apartheid in extremis – by potential red, or rather 'blue' herrings as academic Maurice Glasman’s ‘Blue Labour’ concept. Apart from its titular alliterative bounce, this latest shadow-prefix for Labour not only echoes disturbingly its discredited ‘New’ predecessor, but in dialectical terms, seems, in its emphasis on working-class conservative - with a small 'c' - values, to broadly misjudge the growingly radicalised, left-leaning mood of, most importantly, today’s younger generation – could any of us, during the sheer political apathy of the Noughties, have ever predicted such youth-driven political agitators as UK Uncut cropping up at the beginning of the following decade? That thousands of young people have been jump-started out of hedonistic, iPod-plugged apathy into a new political consciousness by the vicissitude of this draconian government is about all we have to be grateful or optimistic about at the moment.
While ‘Blue Labour’ gets it right in one respect by its debunking of the Blair/Brown morbidly market-oriented dogma of the past 13 years, Glasman’s brainchild otherwise offers little different to the expedient ‘squeezed middle’ sophistry of New Labour, keeping emphases on the Calvinistic ‘deserving/ undeserving poor’ dualism which is presently employed to its maximum rhetorical effect by the Tory-led Coalition – as helped by its leading policy bolsterer, the excremental Daily Express – and by focusing almost entirely on some obscure but inherent conservative-bent in historical Labourism (shoehorning into this notion the fact that now Labour are the new conservatives in that they are arguing – apparently, though it’s not always obvious - to conserve and protect state institutions such as the NHS from the coalition’s market-driven ‘radicalism’), rather than on its infinitely more important and founding principles based in redistributive socialism and egalitarianism. Out with Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan, and in with, well, who exactly is a bit of a mystery. Most curiously, Glasman draws a line in the sand pre-1945, thus attempting to put more clear blue water between Labour and the welfare state and NHS, their greatest ever achievements, as if they have become faint embarrassments. 'Blue Labour' appears to be a muddled and hair-splitting idea, more concerned, self-defeatingly, on wooing back the right-wing tabloid-reading sections of the working classes - Cameron's own 'angels in marble', to borrow a Disraelian idiom for One Nation Toryism - rather than the numbers of left-wing voters of all classes who have ceased really caring anymore, and have already switched allegiances to the Greens or to other proper socialist parties (myself included). ‘Blue Labour’ then promises to be yet another centrist sidestep in Labour’s long elevenses of the soul; another pause for non-reflection by Labourite middle-classes so they can find yet another excuse to readjust their movement for convenience and do not have to admit that they are basically just more compassionate Tories than anything truly resembling social democrats, let alone democratic socialists. So they conspire to turn Labour finally ‘Blue’ rather than just cross the floor and leave the redder members to reassert the party’s soul. I cannot wait for Horovitz to get his poetic teeth into this latest wrong-turn in Labour thinking in his long-anticipated follow-up to this book.
But to return to the nuts and bolts of A New Waste Land – eventhough nothing short of a slim pamphlet of criticism could really do the sheer scale and scope of the work full justice. One must first say that since this is a thematic, discursive and very visual poem (in terms of its shape on the page, which includes sporadic flourishes of concrete poetry), it feels almost disrespectful to randomly quote excerpts. However, in order to give examples of some of what are to my mind the most strikingly composed parts of the work, it is necessary to give readers a glimpse of what they are missing, and what they need to get hold of in full hard copy in order to truly appreciate. From the point of view of including selected extracts for Horovitz’s contribution to Emergency Verse, it proved a delicate operation editorially, almost like removing organs or taking swabs from the larger body and carefully tweezering them into the page; excerpting from A New Waste Land can’t do it full justice of course since it is a long narrative piece – but in terms of highlighting some of the compositional and phrasal flair of the writing, it serves a sampling purpose, albeit narratively scooped out-of-context. [One further note is that due to formatting restrictions on this website, I will not be able to present the excerpts in precisely the same measurements of indentations as in the book proper but try to get as near as damn it].
Chronologically then, one of the first passages that really struck me in terms of lyricism and figurative poignancy on first reading was only a page in to the first section, Prologue: The Burial of the Living, and it reads thus:
– piled windfalls
of sungold apples
ripe and sweet
and free for all
to feast on
in all the orchards
that for eighteen years
had festered, fruitless
[ – save as nest-egg reserves
for corporate profits
walled in and policed,
safe and untouchable
as the houses of thatcher’s
parliament decrees, for
survival of the richest
for the dispossessed ]
As one can see, there is a deliberacy of shape on the page in the poem, perhaps partly to add a sense of visual movement to the text. The first section certainly packs a punch polemically regards the New Labour betrayal, and there are many exceptional verses one might quote from, but here is another I particularly admire for its Eliotonian clipped lyricism:
Where beds of roses had beckoned
punishing thorns closed in
and tore at the most vulnerable throats
– unwaged parents,
the handicapped and wheelchair-strapped,
underpaid nurses and teachers
unestablished artists and writers,
This particular passage is so poignant for today where we can now see how the punitive New Labour era of ‘welfare reform’ was merely a warm up for the full fiscal atrocities to come in under the present Tory-led government, with what must rank as one of the most shameful episodes in modern British social history: that the disabled of this country were forced to literally wheelchair past Parliament in protest against an unprecedented assault on their very wellbeing and survival in the Hardest Hit march of 12th May – possibly the darkest moment to date in the legacy of our declining social democracy. And Horovitz is equally prescient on the perennially vexed topic of welfare, which has been periodically demonised in periods of economic recession over the past forty odd years in particular; the ConDem’s spurious ‘scroungerphobia’ has literally been blueprinted since 1976, via the usual suspects, such as the Daily Express, Daily Mail and News of the World, though back then even more shamefully under a then Labour government (see Peter Golding’s classic Images of Welfare):
– New Labour switched
from bleeding heart voter-hugging
up until the landslide
During these dark times of classist slanders such as Osborne’s regarding claimants effectively ‘mugging the taxpayer’, among other hyperbolic attempts at scapegoating those dependent either temporarily or indefinitely on the state, a phrase such as ‘claimant-mugging’ should be shouted from the highest rooftop, especially in light of the incoming housing benefit caps in the absence of rent controls, a tacit nod to Malthusianism that threatens to ghettoise a whole generation of the unemployed, and, with no small irony, in areas likely to provide them less opportunities to secure work.
Horovitz displays a literary humility and collectiveness of poetic cause to occasionally incorporate some of the most memorable quotes from previous socially conscious poets and writers, including that perennial maxim, ‘it’s the rich what gets the gravy/ it’s the poor what gets the blame’ from ‘It’s the Same the Whole World Over/She Was Poor But She Was Honest’ by the music hall songwriters Weston and Lee, famously performed by Thirties comic entertainer Billy Bennett. Horovitz’s lamentations at the ideological death of Labour are palpable and heartfelt throughout:
‘Old Labour’ ideals
erased from the lickspittle purring
so-called Centre-Left Agenda
– Socialism excommunicated,
an airbrushed currency,
disused bucket –
Pitifully, it is pretty much the same story in 2011, in spite of a brief makeover by Ed Miliband, with the ‘Blue Labour’ agenda rearing its misguided head, as mentioned earlier. Horovitz manages skilfully to marry lyricism with a certain verbalistic, spoken-word tone, making the poem both suitable for page and performance with its constant wordplays and Tressellian titular puns – some of which are eye-puns, such as ‘Her Maggie-sty’s’. There’s an urgent fatalism, an almost teleological sensibility, to the intensifying spiral of this work, which spins inexorably on towards seemingly inevitable social apocalypse (as figuratively suggested by the powerful front cover image of an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud). Such topical tropes attacking contemporary junk culture, all its tabloid titillations, celebrity chefs and ‘banality TV’, are contrasted vividly with the period interpolations through the mouths of past but still relevant literary and political commentators; crucially in this first section, which largely focuses on the issues of work and welfare, there is a lengthy versified quote from DH Lawrence, who was, apart from being a prodigious novelist, also something of a social visionary, especially regarding the philistinism of the Protestant Work Ethic:
Men should refuse to work at all, as wage-slaves
Men should demand to work for themselves, of themselves,
And put their life in it.
For if a man has no life in his work, he is mostly a heap of dung.
Such Lawrentian vitalism, in the age of New Deal and exploitative apprenticeships, could not be more apt for quoting, and one also recalls his profound aphorismic poem ‘Work’, ‘There is no point in work/ unless it pre-occupies you as well as occupies you’ – which Horovitz quotes at length in the third section of his poem. Horovitz’s eye roves and plunders language for semantic interplays and overlaps, even some elements of ‘clanging’, a form of speech pattern following sound associations; alliteration is never too obvious but is consistently present, perhaps serendipitously:
For this fat Pharaoh’s story
spun out to bury
labour’s pure-hearted lifeblood,
human rights eisteddfod
Such prosodic juxtapositions give an almost symbiotic capitulation to an overall collage effect stitched throughout with illustrations and photographs. In 2011, with the continual mantras of the austerity cuts spoon-fed to us daily by government ministers, tropes such as ‘‘bray for dear life’ about so-called ‘tough choices’’ seem chillingly prophetic in retrospect and just go to show how politics is ever oiled on specious and repetitious spin.
To which, the second section, “Growth’’, they are shouting, “Growth’’ ... kicks off with a diatribe against Blair’s celebrity-baiting honeymoon period filled with ‘lavish binges for his favoured glitterati/ - “a privileged few”’:
– If Tony truly wanted social change
it would have been so easy to arrange
a slap-up meal and champers with cherie
for a party of single parents and their kids
along with a quorum
of london’s homeless and jobless,
hungry and unwell
– it could so easily have been
a genuine social security foru
homing in on the breadline range
for genuine political change
Thus spake a socialist of his once socialist party, now turned lip-serving pinking elite quickly forgetful of its electoral promises, for the intoxication of power and hobnobbing with the bourgeois establishment – sounds familiar again? It’s the sheer predictability of any remotely progressive party, post-Thatcherism, promising the earth and then delivering little but u-turns, fairy dust and, worse, quite the opposite political approaches once they’ve slid into government limousines that, in light of the latest national betrayal by the Lib Dems, feels particularly sore for most of us in 2011. We always know where we are with the Tories, we expect nothing more than what they dish out, which is invariably brutal and classist, dressed up as enterprising and populist; but arguably the era of true electoral betrayal started with Blair and New Labour, and has now simply been replicated by Clegg and his risibly opportunistic orange liberals. So little has changed, except the colours.
III. A Little Kite Music, starts off with an image-rich, verbalistic flourish:
All over London late for work
underslept worry-frayed faces
clench and sweat,
in and out
of sardine-tin tubeholes, hurriedly
grimace into mirrors.
dab, adjust hair
make-up, clothing, chit-chat
to changing weather,
manoeuvre newsprint, shif
at better perches.
on what might lie inside
their fellow travellers’ façades,
on what they might be like
Not thrumming headsets
nor dregs of dawnstrained DayGlo orange
sustain body or soul through the cut-throat scrum
Much word-play and ‘clanging’ is employed skilfully in this section, lending a verbal cartooning quality - ‘the nerve-racked edgeworn/ Edgware Road’ - which occasionally veers to the Lennon-esque psychedelic with subversions such as ‘Marmalade Arch’. Further into this section the form takes on a more concrete/visual shape, with words curling and freewheeling across the pages. Inevitably for a section focusing on the masochism of the British ‘work’ ethic, there is also a quote from the poem ‘Leisure’ by the ‘Super Tramp’ poet himself, W.H. Davies.
IV: Is there Life beyond the Gravy? is one page of surreal stream-of-consciousness poetic prose; there’s a rambling Ginsbergian quality to passages like these:
I worm to the rear in low dudgeon and sprawl a clumsy entrée amidst the stinky gaggle of gluesniff-gasping bums who’ve taken over the back seats alcove. Despite their stoned scatological invective, random retchings and flailing bottles, my exasperation subsides into a cosy doze
Heady stuff. V. This little island went to Market takes a majestic swipe against the entrenched and ever-retrenching, self-admiring literary establishments through punning polemic that cuts vitally to the bone:
“The Poetry SuperLeague”
waxing fabber and fabber
and ever more fab
An almost Joycean vocabulary abounds evermore tangibly:
And in passing, chew
the fool’s gold-fatted calf, lap up
the sacred milch cow’s fetid barf.
In this celebrity forebear-claimants’ fiddle
and froth of quick turnover rout
Everyone must get Dumbed Down
from the Bard on out.
Horovitz takes no hostages in his bravura verbal blitzkrieg on the self-fulfilling prophecies of media-spun literary hyperbole.
VI. Art is Long continues in image-rich vein with some wonderfully verbal grotesquery in phrases such as ‘tusk-padded shoulders’ (describing the late Ted Heath) and ‘whirligig-roistered ... racehorse meat’ (again, reminiscent of Lennon's surreal wordplay circa 'I Am the Walrus'). Horovitz births his own word-salad patois with his own idioms, such as ‘Goforit’, ‘EnterPrize’, and, inevitably, ‘Tory Blair’.
In passages that read like surreally inflected literary criticism in poem-form, Horovitz is unrelenting in his pursuit of celebrity poets of perceived specious poetic reputations, most frequently Felix Dennis, the multi-millionaire English formalist/spoken word poet. While some might argue that Horovitz hardly needs to draw so much attention to his personal cultural bugbears, one can only admire his brazen candour in so openly denouncing what he sees as over-hyped mediocrity wherever he sees it. But the crux of such invective is a further-reaching attack on the commoditisation of art, the dumbing down of hard-won posterities through spurious contemporary comparisons to mostly ephemeral ‘names’ of the moment, many of whom, as is Horovitz’s contention, are celebrated simply because they have been journalistically canonised, thereafter perpetually spoon-fed to the public until, as Lennon would say, ‘the next big thing’ comes along. But Horovitz exposes these flashes-in-the-literary-pan more as Lilliputians, poetic pygmies in scale once their actual output is put side by side – as this poet does within these dialectical stanzas - with a chorus of formidable posthumites, such as Blake, Byron, Shakespeare and, perhaps less obviously, Kipling (though the quote Horovitz plucks from the latter is of unusual figurative brilliance, no mere balladry).
What makes this particular section of A New Waste Land so literarily controversial is its – to many of us, incontrovertible – contention that, frankly, comparisons of the most ‘high profile’ or ‘mainstream’ of contemporary poetic output to the countercultural but posthumously celebrated works of past masters in the same medium, simply shows up the former as baldly inferior in terms of subject, ambition and composition. This is not of course to say that what is past is automatically superior to what is presently still in formulation, but that, inescapably, what is hyped or implausibly lauded of any given time tends to be in the main of an intrinsic and limited value to that particular time, and less likely than slower-maturing works to achieve a true critical posterity (for instance, how is it that so many prize-winning poets of practically any period, but quite notably in recent times, rarely tend to elicit the sustained critical praise one might think was an automatic companion to such accolades? Of course there are always exceptions, both in their times and posthumously; but more often than not, as literary history has shown us, those retrospectively deemed to have proven to be the most significant and influential have frequently been ignored or misunderstood in their own generations, though sometimes at least critically recognised by certain progressive circles who themselves also often prove to be of future significances).
VII. Gland of Hype’s Vainglory cranks up the vitriolic wordplay a notch or two:
– View Halloo
– indisputably the best
Postmodernist rock ’n’ roll model spearhead
of the Goldspivs’ collage head-butting school
of virtual New Vandalism
There are nods to historical Labour left-wing stalwarts such as Nye Bevan, and to the last true Labour leader, John Smith, to bruise Blair with further embarrassment by comparison; and what appears an allusion to the dismantled coal mining industry, possibly merged with old Labour ideals:
the pitiless extinction
of Britain’s last tribes
the salt of the earth
The Millennium Dome is besieged by a well-deserved barrage of biting polemic from Horovitz, of a similar vein though of entirely different ideology to John Davidson's misanthropic and anti-democratic 'Crystal Palace':
on a monumental
Conceived by the Tories
To squat on Greenwich
– with less outward grace
Or inner necessity
Than the mythic New Clothes
Tailor-made for the arrogant
Emperor of empty
The New Labour architects are fittingly described as puffed-up Kubla Khans in suits; and the opening to the next section, VIII. How Astutely Faulty Towers ... ... Corrupt Absolutely, launches straight into a parody of Coleridge’s famously unfinished (therefore, even more appropriate a parallel to the inconclusive legacy of the dome) dream-poem:
In London town did Kubla Tone
a stately treasure-dome decree
all new brits’ home from home
Horovitz makes some powerful moral points on the back of the materialistic evangelical cant of Blairism: ‘Saint Tony proclaimed/ that the Dome in its Whizzdom/ would make Britain/ nothing less than/ “...The envy/ of the world...” Then a bit later comes the bruisingly true trope:
The arousing of world envy
figures nowhere in His creed.
And no Mr Blair, the capitalised ‘He’ doesn’t refer to you, but to the higher entity you purport to worship. Tapping in to corny celebrity-patronage of such vacuous public monuments as the symbolically hollow Dome, Horovitz adds a sprinkle of glossed Liverpudlian vernacular from that red-rinsed doyen of Thatcherite era TV trash, Cilla Black (after falling sharply from the grace of actually being a talented vocalist):
“Time to make a difference”
time to gerralorralolly
– whilst other countries
But Britain, of course, continued to be infested with ‘Blue Meanie bosses’, a welcome Beatlesque phrase reminding us that Horovitz has his roots in the Sixties’ Beat counterculture. After a digression into the legacy of the Holocaust, Horovitz aims his guns back at capitalism, by reminding of us the angriest moment in the life of Christ, when he ‘whipped the money-changers/ out of the Temple/ – overturned their tables,/ poured away their profits/ and pronounced them Thieves’. Would that we had a Second Coming at this time and Christ could pronounce the same against the bankers and speculators who have ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands in this country, and also those poised to descend on the NHS like a flock of vultures after profit carrion.
IX. Touchstones for Babylon is infused from the outset with images and quotes from Blake, a photo of whose beguiling closed-eyed bust appears only a few pages previously; Virgil is also quoted, writing against the disease of warfare profited on by a more ancient capitalism. There’s some apt semantic juxtapositions, such as ‘“Culture of Enterprise”' and ‘cultureless compromise’, and ‘Moloch’ and ‘Murdoch’. Homage is paid to the spirited powers of twentieth century poets and singers in an incantatory passage which intones the ‘Fire of Lorca’s duende,/ and Dylan Thomas’s hwyl,/ Robeson’s ‘Old Man River’ rolling, culminating in an Eliotonian trope: ‘ – revive the roots/ that clutch/ ...stir deep rhytms/ in the blood’.
X. Bombs Degrade Humanity echoes the sentiments of Blake’s brilliant poem ‘London’ (as well as his iconic ‘Jerusalem’), opposite which its first page is juxtaposed with a reproduction of that poem as an engraving:
Each wave-slave reflecting
the drear porn-gilt skies
satanic drudge-mills, wanton lies
of this time-dishonoured
nation of shopkeepers.
An allusion to Eliot’s “...heap of broken images” that were perceived to form his modernist threnody The Wasteland, prompts one to recognise that in many ways Horovitz attempts here a similarly dislocated, muscularly discursive, allusive and fragmented collage of cropped polemics and embossed images scattered throughout the pages like semi-excavated crocks on a dialectical archaeology dig. The omnipresence of the underpinning original Wasteland increasingly punctuates Horovitz’s own verses with echoes from the publican’s refrain in Eliot’s stunning II. A Game of Chess' section, ‘HURRY UP PLEASE,/ IT’S TIME’. A deeply felt, poignant lyrical passage follows in which Horovitz the man writes beautifully of his late wife, poet Frances Horovitz, where he speaks of the songs they used to sing together that now to his ears ‘mingle/ with the twining cadenzas/ of early birds’; an elliptical lyricism occasionally arrests one, as with the William Carlos Williams-esque, ‘...moon fades/ to a thumbprint/ beyond the curtain/ at daybreak’. But after such aphorismic respite, Horovitz launches back into full-blown rebarbative gusto:
imploding that idyll
with brain-dead rumbulations
of Big Bomb-bloated
– staccato braggadocio
of the inescapable Voice
of Top Doktor Amerikkka’s
– inflaming terror
– cremating medicine
– praxis of
(for whose sins?)
recurrent man-made thunder
– of Cruise-Aider Clint’s
and Bomb-Trader Tone’s
and Bash-Blagger Dubya’s
mutual bad-habit hardened
bombardments of Iraq
Then a brilliantly described digression into the Blitz, in which Horovitz evokes the proverbial terrors of ‘unassailably unpiloted/ flametailed dive-bombs’ of ‘despotic drone’(s) that ‘scattered’ the kids of Forties London ‘from searching out/ velvet-cased walnuts/ amidst the damp/ leaf mulch/ between the trees/ in suburban Cheam’ - the latter placename also evoking inevitably images of Hancock's lugubrious homburg-wearing bedsit-philosopher.
The apocalyptically titled XI. U-turn On All This – Or Die, begins with probably one of the best composed passages in the book, an excerpt from which below:
and complicit as the last gang
with planned obsolescence
– with that casual victimisation of the powerless
which is bound to leave worse-off than ever
anyone who won’t
– or can’t –
this government darkness visible
– clotted as Monsanto – thick
as thieves in the night
with sycophancy, cronyism, owed favours, bribery
– with prostitution on every level,
with calculated deception and finagling,
with state-scripted killer drug addiction
– with planted questions, evasive answers,
ballot-rigging, censorship, ruthless arm-twisting,
industrial giantism, global market-worship,
gung-ho chauvinism, pea-brained Hollywooden
conquering heroics and kneejerk violence
The last section, XII. Epilogue: A New Land’s Hymn to would-be Star War Saints like Bulls Clint, Bash and Blur whose rigged haloes bleed Christ’s gospel to despair, goes out in a protracted chorus which intermittently satirises the words to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, rounding off the work as a whole with a resounding death-rattle dedicated to the ethical and intellectual global nadir that is the neoconservative/neoliberal trans-Atlantic axis. One can only wonder eagerly how Horovitz might go on in the future to similarly proclaim a counter-gospel to the years 2007-2011, and beyond, into the truly ethically contemptible and socially catastrophic policies, spin and mantras of the new austerity cuts culture, its accelerated – and barely questioned – war on benefit claimants, public sector workers, unions, legal aid, and of course the NHS.
Horovitz was rightly so morally offended by the blatant ideological and moral betrayals of the Blair years to have mustered the monumental energies no doubt required to produce such a ringing poetic statement against them as A New Waste Land; and although T.S. Eliot himself was certainly no left-winger, he was undoubtedly a skeptic of capitalism together with the philistinisms that are its bread and butter, and would most likely have had similar distaste for the ethical corruptions of Blair’s tenure as prime minister, but even more contempt for the latter’s hypocritical evangelism in defending his amoral ‘crusade’ in Iraq. Otherwise, it seems Horovitz’s choice, or instinct, to reinvent a seminal twentieth century poem by a poet known almost as much for his intellectual flirtations with Thirties Falangism (and for his antinomian inclinations mingled with a conservative form of High Anglicanism - which he sometimes termed as ‘Catholicism’ without the ‘Roman’ - his royalism, and even his tacit anti-semitism) as for his early modernist trend-setting long poems, was one based more on the corrosive tone and fragmentary composition that constitutes The Waste Land, as an apocalyptic anti-gospel of the war-torn early twentieth century.
But really, in spite of very different notions on which type of politics might resolve the perceived decadences and degenerations of human society in their respective times, Eliot – as with the misanthropic, anti-democratic, similarly vitalist John Davidson before him – and Horovitz would both fundamentally agree that something needs to be done to reinvigorate society spiritually and artistically; it’s ‘just’ their ethical responses to the philistine excesses of capitalism are markedly different, even antagonistic to one another. While Eliot, in the context of his time, saw solutions in the ancient elites of monarchies, or more specifically, philosopher kings, intellectual meritocracy (echoing Davidson’s contempt for what he perceived as ‘the mob’, his motif for ‘democracy’) and, most controversially, an element of racial purity; Horovitz, thankfully, still doggedly believes in a political and artistic socialism, a true social meritocracy along the lines of Williams Morris or Blake (if we opt here to forget some of the latter's darker aphorisms, especially those in relation to Milton’s Paradise Lost), a materially egalitarian society in which each individual can fulfil his/her gifts and abilities to their full potential without recourse to state-imposed poverty, as is presently still – even more abjectly than for some time – the case under the thumb of the atomistic Tory ‘work ethic’ which deems anyone who is ‘economically unproductive’ as basically surplus population. Horovitz passionately believes in the important role of the poet in post-industrial society, a principle that was not lost on the much-maligned communist countries, many of which have paid the full cultural price of embracing capitalism as a speciously more liberating economic model – but one which substitutes the more priceless, spiritually uplifting ‘capital’ of rich artistic and literary values with the hollow doughnuts of consumerism and commodity.
Horovitz rightly rails against the disenfranchisement and material impoverishment of the poet/artist in capitalist society, and tacitly hints that surely it would not be such an unjustifiable thing to have a form of state stipend specifically for creative individuals whose artforms, while not immediately of economic value, are of even more timelessly imperative literary and artistic value to the societies in which they germinate. Such a central dialectic as to capitalism’s merciless suppression of the creative spirit threads through Horovitz’s mixed-medium tour-de-force with a razor-sharp insistence, and it is both a brave and vital stance to take in such a materialistic society as ours, where tabloids and right-wing governments continue to embed in the national consciousness one single narrow equation: paid employment + taxpaying = economic productivity = societal contribution. Horovitz is tub-thumping the case that literature, art and music contribute just as much of importance to society and the community as do the frequently less altruistic methods of employment, (mostly grudging) tax contribution (i.e. how many of the so-called Tax Payers’ Alliance avoid their taxes?), ‘wealth-providing’ (entrepreneurialism, invariably driven entirely on self-interested profit motives). Horovitz is urgently addressing the fundamental cancer at the heart of capitalist society, which is that everything is measured in terms of money as the sole determinant in the usefulness and productivity of lives, and that only human transactions with numbers branded on them – thus quite the opposite of true Christian ideology – have any societal value; not voluntarism, not cultural contribution, not poetry or art or less marketable music forms.
Now in the even more hostile, wrecking-ball era of ConDem austerity, I suspect Horovitz is currently bristling in anticipation of his next masterstroke poetic commentary against the continued moral degeneration of British capitalist society. Having now used the template of The Waste Land to leaven his first epic tirade of verse, quotations and visuals against contemporary capitalism – making for a kind of modern day anti-consumerist epistolary gospel – one wonders, assuming he plans to employ a similar technique next time, which past poetical work he will choose to underpin it. If he decides to stick with Eliot, in the new ConDem age of political duplicity, broken promises and morally hollow spin, ‘The Hollow Men’ beckons?
But whatever follows, Horovitz has made a timely and important poetic/artistic intervention with A New Waste Land, an especially brave and defiant statement to make during the politically complacent Noughties’ boomtime, but now no doubt a work that will be sought out by many recently radicalised converts to a counter-movement in the face of punishing right-wing policies, who will find in this book three chief things: an almost chilling prescience regarding how decadent and dishonest British politics would become only a couple of years later; an even more topical polemical work against the centre-right anti-welfare consensus of the political classes, wealthy elites and tabloid moguls; and a book which will, if there’s any justice in posterity, serve as a lasting testament to the untrammelled spirit of artistic socialism during one of the darkest, most tyrannising ages it has had to struggle through; a ‘dialectical trans-materialism’ (even ‘dialectical spiritualism’) of the creative consciousness. A New Waste Land is a unique multi-medium poetic document produced with spirit and gusto, and with the feel of an almost semi-posthumous co-operative effort incorporating as it does lengthy contributions from past luminaries as diverse as Blake, Lawrence, Eliot, Ginsberg and Guthrie - all this, spun together through Horovitz’s highly accomplished and infectiously verbal polemical composition. Highly recommended.
Alan Morrison © 2011