Alan Morrison on
We’re Going On! –
The Collected Poems of Tom Wintringham
Edited by Hugh Purcell
(Smokestack, 2006) £6.99
One knows that a poetry collection from Andy Croft’s radical Smokestack Books will be – at least to anyone of a remotely leftist persuasion – a double fest of strong poetry and riveting polemic. Though Croft is as assiduous in his choice of poets as he is in to what extent his press wears its political heart on its sleeve, Smokestack is unambiguously left-wing, and this naturally is reflected, to an extent, in its published cannon. I for one applaud this in an age in which, for some strange and perplexing reason, it is not ‘fashionable’ to politicise poetry.
Those with insight into the modern Spanish attitude towards their historic Civil War (July 17, 1936 to April 1, 1939), will know it is not something they particularly like to discuss, since inherited knowledge of internecine brutalities on both sides has created its own form of censorship on the subject, though one chosen rather than imposed, as the official one was by Fascist victor and subsequent national leader (until his death in 1975), Francisco Franco. That said, after over three decades of the oppressive Censorship under said dictator, one can assume in the main that modern Spanish perceptions are more inclined to the Republican side than the Fascist. The Spanish also have an unusual positive take on monarchy, since it was with the restoration of the institution, in one Juan Carlos Borbón, that parliamentary democracy returned. This was probably a true surprise at the time since Juan Carlos had been designated by Franco as his successor, and was also hitherto a Carlist (believer in the absolutism of monarchy and Church). Though ultimately, what was and still is blazingly apparent is that the Spanish Civil War, at least symbolically, if not also literally, was possibly the only ideological war of 20th Century Europe, easily perceived as what it partly was: an internationalist crusade of the Left against the threat of a reasserted oligarchical Right. Not only this, but also a semiotic conflict between progressive, laitist (secular) Modernism and an absolutist (or Carlist) Traditionalism. Notions on a generation of young socialist poets and men of letters and unemployed working-class radicals (as in Ken Loach's spirited depiction) flocking to arid plains of Spain to fight Fascism, can be seen as historical fact as much as the gritty realities of a poorly equipped Republican side pitted against a better-trained Fascist army, and, in turn, a corrupted Comintern. Indeed, these latter factors only add to the chivalric nature of this political war.
But before one begins to wonder if the British Left’s traditional view of events – distilled at a distance in Ken Loach’s gritty but ideological POUM-homage Land and Freedom (1995) – is simply specious romanticising, might be reassured, not to mention riveted, by the poetry of one of the more revolutionary and lesser known poets – that is, than his fellow Oxbridge Brigade's Stephen Spender and ambulanceman WH Auden – but more prominent British volunteers of the conflict, Tom Wintringham (1898-1949). Through his ‘Spanish Period’, one gets a first hand poetic take on the conflict, and one even more valuable for being from the orthodox Communist perspective of an International Brigade leader, as opposed to the more popularly depicted Trotskyite POUM one (as in the aforementioned film, and Orwell’s candid Homage to Catalonia (1939); Hemmingway’s more romantic but highly emotive For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940) being less germane here), which ultimately lost in the internecine propaganda war of the Republican side, dominated by the Stalinist columns. Bearing in mind, however, that Wintringham was later to be expelled by the Communist Party – even after years of active service on its behalf and having helped launch the Daily Worker and Left Review – one can read his work in the knowledge that this was a trial-and-error journey through the Communist ideological machine, and one which concluded probably in more the vein of George Orwell’s cautious socialism. Having said this, the revolutionary flavour of Wintringham’s views never left him, and he later founded the Commonwealth Party, inspired in part by one of his historical heroes, Gerrard Winstanley, believing in the legendary Digger’s maxim ‘What other lands do, England is not to take pattern of’. Wintringham believed passionately in change, and was literally instrumental in many thwarted attempts to achieve it.
Wintringham was one of the founder members of the British Communist Party – one of 25 leaders jailed for sedition in 1925 – and went on to command the British Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain. As a writer, he was most well-known for his best-selling polemic, Your M.P. (under the pseudonym 'Gracchus', Victor Golanz ,1944). But seeing as this comprehensive volume includes an 18 page biographical Introduction on Wintringham by dedicated editor Hugh Purcell (not to mention a full published biography by Purcell, The Last English Revolutionary: Tom Wintringham 1898-1949 (Sutton, 2004)), there’s less need to go too much into the poet’s life in this review, except of course to remark that naturally it is at the heart of the poetry contained herein, that serves as much as a private diary of military and political experiences of a life as it does a collection of poems. Indeed, one might view this collection as a valuable empirical social document of a momentous period of European history, from the First World War up to the Spanish Civil War, the first and last poems included dated as March 1914 and December 1937 respectively. This gives a true sense of the epic scale covered through this collection of poetic jottings, that, since penned by – and, as Purcell comments at one point, possessing an unfinished quality – a mover and shaker of the times depicted, often seem to function almost as Shakespearean asides in the heat of a narrative’s events, as if Wintringham – as was probably to some extent the actual case – rested his rifle down to scribble his thoughts into a notebook before returning to the battle line again (Wintringham undisputedly had far more excuse than most poets for not re-drafting). This book serves indeed as an individual’s political journey as mapped out through poetry: entering the First World War as a faint patriot, then – along with his contemporaries Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Sassoon et al – swiftly disillusioned in its arbitrary, shelling realities, turning to Communism, disillusioned later by its internecine power struggles, then finally settling on a sort of Utopian Socialism more akin to Winstanley’s bucolic vision than Marx’s materialist one.
As for the poetry itself, for work put down without posterity in mind, by way perhaps as more of a creative vent than a portfolio for publishers, Wintringham’s output is in the main impressive; even its rough edges and under-drafted qualities somehow fitting it and its contexts, rather like the makeshift uniform and large beret worn by the slightly-built bespectacled poet on the cover photo of the book itself. (If you ever wondered what James Joyce might have looked like in combat gear, this is the nearest you’ll get).
For much of Wintringham’s earlier output (1914-1917) the sonnet is the preferred poetic form, and one which other poets of that period, especially the Keatsian Wilfred Owen, seemed to be drawn to. But Wintringham often more specifically employs the Petrarchan sonnet, which he uses skilfully and emotively. It’s interesting too to read of First World War poems from, as it were, an aerial view, this poet having served in the Royal Flying Corps. Here is an extract from the second stanza of ‘Utterby Pines’ (June 1915):
This poem demonstrates an effective sparseness of style, sometimes almost an austerity, which lends a true sense of sincerity to its subject. In ‘1915’, Wintringham begins with a first statement that strikes an instant chord, in its brutal simplicity: ‘There can be never silence.’ Indeed, believably, for one who has experienced at first hand the din of war. The curiously antediluvian syntax of ‘be’ preceding ‘never’ lends a sense of ancient sagacity to this line, while also betraying the apprentice poet’s rooting in more romantic classical poetic traditions. But this is not a real surprise for one grooming their craft at the tail-end of the Georgian movement.
The sense that some of this work was in-progress, not yet re-drafted, and still in development, is literally shown through what are essentially three revisited mutations of the same poem, each altered, rearranged or partly rewritten: ‘Dawn Near Vimy’, ‘Below Vimy’ and ‘To Some Englishmen’. This is invaluable in to those reading this book purely for the poetry, because unusually it shows the process of a poet’s attempts to perfect the framing of a theme, and in this sense the three poems serve in part as three drafts, presumably ‘To Some Englishmen’ being the culmination of this. What’s particularly interesting here is that each poem is dated significantly far apart: the first, 1917, the second, July 1918 and the third, January 1919. This shows that Wintringham felt compelled to return periodically to this particular poem/theme, evidently finally finding time and detachment enough to finish it once peace had broken out.
The latter poem opens with the line, ‘With the force of twisted phrases you urged to curse and kill’, which has more than a ring to it of the quite striking epigram ‘A Fat Man…’ only two pages before:
Again, here is a sense of a poet developing his craft, often like many poets obsessing over certain lines, phrases and images, these then bleeding into future poems, partly appearing to be drafts, partly apparently different poems reusing and rearranging certain lines and images from an original. By the third, Wintringham has abandoned the reference to Vimy of the first two poems, perhaps by way of asserting it as a separate piece. All three poems, however, contain captivating images, and it’s tantalising to read how these are played with when they reappear throughout. One notes too the tendency to pare down as the poem is re-drafted/incorporated into a separate one – the proverbial poet impulse to strip down to the soul of the piece.
And a new confidence emerges to experiment in the more discursive as in ‘Against the Determinate World’. But to my mind Wintringham always excels when in epigrammatic polemical mode, as in the hauntingly lyrical ‘Acceptance’:
‘Revolution’ is a rallying cry more than a poem, with its repetition of the line ‘Men will remember!’, and reads almost like one of Winstanley’s tracts. Its beginning bristles with the sort of radical hopes of the time (1925) which in our post-Thatcherite society today we can only wonder at as quaintly radical notions of a less cynical age:
Into the Spanish Civil War, and here Wintringham’s poetic skills, allied with an idealism now put into practise, strikes with his finest blows, producing some brilliantly focused pieces, such as ‘Granien – British Medical Unit’:
Almost inevitably, there is a poem entitled ‘International Brigades’, which serves both as a strong poem and as a rallying cry for British assistance in the idealistic struggle. It begins with some aphorisms:
‘January in Spain’ hints at the poet’s love-hate homesickness: ‘Yes, we hate England’s foulness; we hate London/ For its soot-sepulchre, its yellow fat/ Sweated out of all the world; we’ve got a han on/ Harrow and plough for it;// But never say we hate the English country/ Or English folk’.
‘Spanish Lesson’ meanwhile takes in the spirit of the country the poet is fighting for, his chosen crusading ground, and as if by way of honouring his new bond with this nation, he incorporates some Spanish for refrains, while rather ironically, employing sacramental Catholic motifs which would have been associated with the enemy – so one assumes this is intentionally ironic:
To my mind, the two finest poems of the collection close it. ‘The Splint’, written while Wintringham was convalescing at Benacasim and St Thomas Hospital, September – December 1937, shows the poet at the peak of his abilities in a moving depiction of the war veteran’s sense of disembodiment:
‘Embarkation Leave’ I quote in full, it being a piece which it would seem almost heartless to extract from. This simple and beautiful lyric in many ways represents the very best of Wintringham’s oeuvre, through its combination of sparse wording, reflective aphorism and sheer emotional punch:
Interesting to notice that this is both the only poem in which Wintringham liberates himself of the capitalised line, and which is undated; in themselves these omissions might serve as metaphors for a mind finally transcending the trials of his times, of which it was an instrumental part.
We’re Going On! is highly recommended by this writer to lovers of war poetry, of poetic polemic, and socialist literature, and, of course, those who are a bit of all three. This is a book that for all three reasons, I will cherish. It is one which also most emphatically proves how essential a press such as Smokestack is to the continued unearthing of neglected voices from the rank and file of social and political poetry. Editor Hugh Purcell, and publisher Andy Croft, are both to be commended for bringing the hitherto uncollected invaluable work of Tom Wintringham to a wider reading public.