Alan Corkish, Alan Morrison, Anne Sexton, Brighton, Caroline Lucas, Cuts, Emergency Verse, George Orwell, Keith Armstrong, Mick Moss, Naomi Foyle, Niall McDevitt, Pen Kease, PJ Harvey, Poetry, Protest
The UK’s general election of May 2010 produced no overall majority, and for the first time since 1945, a coalition was formed by the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg taking the roles of Prime Minister and Deputy. Chancellor George Osborne swiftly proposed the most radical cuts to public services in a generation, in order to repay a national deficit estimated at £7.5 billion, and following the worldwide economic crisis that began in 2007.
Between the coalition’s Emergency Budget, and its Comprehensive Spending Review four months later, a palpable sense of unease brewed among many ordinary people. Autumn saw widespread student marches and occupations, while campaigning groups like UK Uncut staged ‘sit-ins’ at high street stores including Vodafone and Top Shop, in protest at corporate tax evasion.
During this period, the poet and editor, Alan Morrison, collected submissions for a new anthology, Emergency Verse: Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State. As reported in The Guardian, it was released initially as an E-book, and a print edition was subsequently launched at London’s Poetry Library in January 2011.
Emergency Verse has a local connection: Morrison is poet in residence at Hove’s Mill View Psychiatric Hospital, and the book’s patron, Dr Caroline Lucas, was elected last May as the UK Green Party’s first MP, representing Brighton Pavilion.
This collection runs to 368pp, including 160 poems by 112 contributors from across the UK and beyond. With such a wide range of material, it would be difficult to review it all in one blog. The opening and closing essays take a sharply critical view of the current crisis, but although well-argued, there is little here that hasn’t been said before.
The poems featured cover a wide range of skill and experience. The more polemical work may be more suited to live performance than the printed page. However, some of the most powerful moments are from up-and-coming writers, lending the subject a rawness befitting a time of outrage.
Poetry is strongest when dealing with specifics: Keith Armstrong’s empathetic ‘A Prayer for the Loners’; Alan Corkish’s portrait of a young woman trapped on benefits, ‘Do You Blame Her’; Naomi Foyle’s darkly comic take on bureaucracy, with the refrain, ‘Could Anne Sexton please borrow a pen?’ referencing the late confessional poet; Pen Kease’s deft sketches of English life, from hospital wards to the Blackpool Illuminations; Niall McDevitt’s ironic ‘George Orwell is Following Me’, recalling the Great Depression; and Mick Moss’s ‘Illness You Can’t See’, exposing poverty’s scar on the most vulnerable.
With the impact of cuts only beginning to show, our political future is too close to call. However, the spirit of protest is stronger now than in many years, in the UK and abroad. Emergency Verse is supportive of the Coalition of Resistance, established in the weeks after the coalition was formed, and campaigning websites such as 38 Degrees and initiatives like the Robin Hood Tax.
The mainstream media has been slow to react to the new protest movement, though Johann Hari, Laurie Penny, John Harris, and numerous bloggers have all been vocal in their concern. With many established artists, film-makers and musicians as yet non-committal (though PJ Harvey’s war-themed Let England Shake is subtly political), Emergency Verse – though not without flaws – can be welcomed as one of the earliest, and most genuinely inclusive, creative responses to a new era.