Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.

Monday, 14 November 2016 00:11

Welcome to Culture Matters

Published in About us

Welcome to Culture Matters


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I will not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant land.

- William Blake

Culture Matters is part of our cultural struggle or ‘mental fight’ against class divisions, to achieve a cultural commons in a socialist society – a new Jerusalem, as William Blake called it, and not only in England, but across the world. As you can see from the About Us section, we aim to promote a progressive political approach to the arts and all other cultural activities.

You'll find recent material on this Home page, and every piece sent in since our launch a couple of years ago is available under the relevant topic sections in the Arts and Culture Hubs.

Everything on Culture Matters – articles, poems, images, editorial and technical support – has been contributed freely. We are a registered co-operative, rooted in the labour movement, and apart from managing this website we publish books, run Arts Awards in partnership with trade unions. If you would like to help with this work, please visit Shop & Support. You're also welcome to contribute articles, essays, poems and artworks to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

We hope you enjoy browsing the site, and that you find it entertaining, enlightening and inspiring. Culture Matters!

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: Heretical, Subversive and Revolutionary
Thursday, 10 November 2016 15:43

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: Heretical, Subversive and Revolutionary

Published in Visual Arts

A radical cultural struggle against the established order: Mike Quille reviews the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery.

Curators sometimes overuse the word revolutionary when promoting exhibitions but it is an apt description of the six paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio which hang alongside those of his admirers, rivals and imitators at the National Gallery. The show Beyond Caravaggio demonstrates just how innovative, oppositional and subversive his paintings were — and are.

Rome in the early 17th century was a city deeply divided by class, with a tiny minority of very rich and powerful people and large numbers of poor. It was also dominated by the Church which then, as now, often served to legitimise the exploitation of the many by the few. Art was commissioned and deployed by the popes and cardinals to provide conformist devotional images, part of the ideological justification for an unjust social order.

But Caravaggio’s art was both heretical and revolutionary. Long before thinkers were articulating theories of how religion expressed and inverted worldly suffering, he took religious themes and, visually, brought them down to earth. In Supper at Emmaus, the scepticism and shock on the careworn faces of peasants in their tattered work clothes gives a resolutely human and mundane perspective on sacred events - see how the man on the right of the picture stretches out his arms, like Christ on the cross. Imagine the reactions of poor pilgrims from all over Europe, streaming past these paintings, seeing themselves depicted realistically in sacred scenes for the first time!

The striking realism and “tenebrism” of Caravaggio — strongly contrasting tones, piercing light and vast pools of inky shadows — heightens the emotional challenge and drama in the images, as exemplified in The Taking of Christ.

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The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio, 1602, Dublin


Like the noir film genre, surely part of his legacy, it is a visual expression of the uncertainties, contradictions and obscure, violent terrors of the precarious social existence around him. We can also interpret the painting as depicting the way artistic culture, represented by Judas and Caravaggio himself on the far right of the picture, holding the lamp, betrays truth and justice by allying itself with the violent, armour-clad forces of social domination. It's a prophetic parable of cultural hegemony, centuries before Gramsci was born. 

Caravaggio’s art also has a democratic force: it includes, involves and empowers. In Supper at Emmaus, the disciples’ hands stretch out, drawing us into the composition. For the first time in the history of Western art, the space between viewer and scene has been destroyed. And, in contrast to traditional religious art, the meanings in Caravaggio’s paintings are challenging, ambiguous and negotiable, liberating us from a lazy, deferential consent to the dominant ways of thinking and feeling so omnipresent in class-divided societies.

In paintings such as Card Players, depicting a foppish, soft-skinned aristocrat being cheated at cards by a lowlife character, whose side are we supposed to be on? Is this not a painting of resistance and rebellion, of playfully imagined expropriation by the lower classes from the rich thieves who rule them?

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Cardsharps, Caravaggio, 1594, Kimbell Art Museum

In the light — and dark — of Caravaggio’s amazing achievement, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the other paintings in the exhibition are nowhere near as good. There are some technically good imitations but generally his admirers and imitators reverted to the mainstream aesthetics of devotion, awe and pity in religious art and a relatively anaemic realism in secular art.

The upheavals of 20th-century modernism are what make Caravaggio’s art look incredibly of the here and now. The enduring power of his paintings shows us that truly great art is intrinsically opposed to class-divided societies. Now, we are used to subversive ambiguity, social awareness and uncomfortable challenges to the viewer. Then, it was truly revolutionary — a radical cultural struggle against the established aesthetic and ideological order.

And because our unequal world is not so different from his, we can still feel the strength of his challenging, complex and oppositional art. In that sense art has not, in fact, gone beyond Caravaggio.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Beyond Caravaggio runs at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until January 15, and then tours to Dublin and Edinburgh.

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 15:28

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War

Published in Poetry

To mark the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and in memory of the British and Irish International Brigaders who wrote poems and who died in that war, Mike Quille introduces a few poems taken from Poems from Spain, edited by Jim Jump.

The war against Franco's fascist rebellion saw 'poets exploding like bombs' as Auden said in his famous poem 'Spain', published in 1937. And the war has sometimes been called 'the poets' war', probably because more progressive political poetry was written about it, from combatants and others on active service, than any other war in the twentieth century, even though it was considerably smaller and shorter than other wars. However, as in every other war in modern times, 80% of the fighters were men from manual trades. None of the poems below were written by professional poets. They were, though, exceptional individuals, activists from the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the trade unions and some of the allied cultural and educational institutions.

Alex McDade was a labourer from Glasgow who fought and was wounded at the battle of Jarama in 1937. He became a company political commissar for the British Battalion and was killed on 6 July 1937. His poem 'Valley of Jarama' was the basis for the song by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, but it's shorter, bleaker, and more soldierly.

Valley of Jarama
by Alex McDade

There's a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That's a place that we all know so well,
For 'tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.

From this valley they tell us we're leaving
But don't hasten to bid us adieu,
For e'en though we make our departure,
We'll be back in an hour or two.

Oh we're proud of our British Battalion,
And the marathon record it's made.
Please do us this little favour,
And take this last word to Brigade:

'You will never be happy with strangers,
They would not understand you as we.
So remember the Jarama Valley
And the old men who wait patiently.'


Charles Donnelly was an Irish Republican, Communist and trade union activist, who was also killed at Jarama. Like a number of war poems, his modernist poetry is formally innovative, finding bluntly effective ways to express the horror, cruelty and inhumanity of war.

The Tolerance of Crows
by Charles Donnelly

Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps, well-ordered dispositions,
Angles of elevation and direction;

Comes innocent from tools children might
Love, retaining under pillows
Innocently impales on any flesh.

And with flesh falls apart the mind
That trails thought from the mind that cuts
Thought clearly for a waiting purpose.

Progress of poison in the nerves and
Discipline’s collapse is halted.
Body awaits the tolerance of crows.

Heroic Heart
by Charles Donnelly

Ice of heroic heart seals plasmic soil
Where things ludicrously take root
To show in leaf kindnesses time had buried
And cry music under a storm of 'planes,
Making thrust head to slacken, muscles waver
And intent mouth recall old tender tricks.
Ice of heroic heart seals steel-bound brain.

There newer organs built for friendship's grappling
Waste down like wax. There only leafless plants
And earth retain disinterestedness.
Though magnetised to lie of the land, moves
Heartily over the map wrapped in its iron
Storm. Battering the toads, armoured columns
Break walls of stone or bone without receipt.
Jawbones find new ways with meats, loins
Raking and blind, new way with women.

Norman Brookfield worked in a library in Essex and died in September 1938 at the Sierra de Caballs in the battalion's last day in action. His style is much more traditional than Donnelly's, almost hymn-like, but equally anguished.

'Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm'
by Norman Brookfield

Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm
Relax my limbs, and feel your sooting balm;
Beneath light's tranquil stars I'll sleep at ease
When dawn's well past, to rise, and day-time fill
With pleasant strolls and food and talk at will.
Shaping vague thoughts beneath the olive trees;
Watching tobacco wreathe its lazy fumes
Quintessence rare, O rest of your perfumes.
And yet this is a respite that must end
An interval between the course of war
Which all too soon will raise its dreadful roar,
Bidding my laggard pace once more to mend;
But 'tis the thoughts of past and future strife
That make you sweet, O rest, and with you – life.

George Green was an ambulance driver, dispatch rider and hospital orderly in Spain, and was killed on the same day and at the same battle. He wrote in a very modern, prosepoetical way, vividly evoking the battlefront in an almost cinematic way. 


Dressing Station
by George Green

Casa de Campo, Madrid, March 1937

Here the surgeon, unsterile, probes by candlelight the embedded bullet.
Here the ambulance-driver waits the next journey; hand tremulous
on the wheel, eye refusing to acknowledge fear of the bridge, of
the barrage at the bad crossing.
Here the stretcher-bearer walks dead on his feet, too tired to
wince at the whistle of death in the black air over the shallow
trench; to tired now to calculate with each journey the
the diminishing chances of any return to his children, to meals at a
table, to music and the sound of feet in the jota.
Here are ears tuned to the wail of shells: lips that say, this one gets the
whole bloody station: the reflex action that flings us into the safer
corners, to cower from the falling masonry and the hot
tearing splinters at our guts.
Here the sweet smell of blood, shit, iodine, the smoke-embittered air,
the furtive odour of the dead.
Here also the dead.
Here also the dead.
This afternoon five.
Then eight.
Then two neat rows.
And now.......this was the courtyard of the road-house, filling-station
for the Hispano-Suizas and the young grandees' bellies. The sign
American Bar still hangs unshattered.
….I cannot count. Three deep: monstrous sprawling: slid from
dripping stretchers for more importunate tenants: bearded
plough-boys' faces: ownerless hand: shatterd pelvis: boots laced
for the last time: eyes moon-cold, moon-bright, defying the moon:
smashed mouth scaring away thought of the peasant breasts that so
recently suckled it....
I cannot count.

But poet, this is old stuff.
This we too have seen.
This is Flanders 1917. sassoon and Wilfred Owen did this so much better.
Is this all?
Do twenty years count for nothing?
Have you no more to show?

Yes, we have more to show.
Yes, though we grant you the two-dimensional similarity, even (to
complete the picture) allowing you the occasional brass-hat and
the self-inflicted wound.
Yet there is another dimension. Look closely. Listen carefully.

Privilege here battles with no real privilege.
The dupe there, machine-gunning us from the trenched hillside,
fights still to preserve a master's title-deeds, but we....we battle
for life.
This....we speak a little proudly, who so recently threw off the slave
shackles to do a man's work.....
This is our war.

These wounds have the red flag in them.
This salute carries respect.
Here the young soldier says 'camarada' to his general.
Here we give heed to no promise of a land fit for heroes to live in, but
take for ourselves the world to mould in our hands.
These ranks can never be broken by four years of mud and bitter
metal, into sporadic and betrayed rebellion.
Here the consciousness of a thousand years' oppression binds us as
brothers....We have learnt our lesson.
Look. Over the bridge (it is not yet dawn) comes a Russian lorry,
ammunition-laden.
Forty-three years gone, unarmed St. Petersburg's blood paid a heavy
duty on those shells.
And I? The Chartists commandeered this ambulance from a Portland
Street shop-window.
I drove: and dead Communards raised living fists as far south as
Perpignan. I saw the perils of the Pyrenees spurned by feet that
once had scaled a Bastille, by the fair-haired boys who graduated in
the streets of Charlottenburg, by those who paid a steerage
passage, to tell us how their fathers fell at Valley Forge.
For this is not 1917.
This is the struggle that justifies the try-outs of history.
This is the light that illuminates, the link that unites Wat Tyler and
the Boxer rebellion.
This is our difference, our strength, this is our manifesto, this
our song that cannot be silenced by bullets.

And finally, to Rupert John Cornford, a Cambridge Communist who was the first Englishman to enlist. He travelled twice to Spain to fight for the POUM and the International Brigades against Franco's rebels, and died in December 1936 at Lopera, near Cordoba.

'These are poems of the will, and the will bangs a drum' wrote Stephen Spender of Cornford's poems, which like some of the poems above combine a modernist sensibility with a direct, blunt and unflowery descriptions, images and diction. Here he is, banging the drum from Aragon.


A Letter From Aragon
by John Cornford

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: 'Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.'

Acknowledgements and grateful thanks are due to Jim Jump. The poems are all taken from a highly recommended book called Poems from Spain, edited by Jim, and published by Lawrence and Wishart, 2006. The book contains a foreword by Jack Jones; an excellent, clear introduction to the poems; notes on the poets and poems; and a brief history of the British and Irish Brigades' involvement in the war.

Support Culture Matters
Tuesday, 08 November 2016 16:30

Support Culture Matters

Published in About us

Culture Matters Co-Operative Ltd has been running now for over 5 years. We continue to manage this website; run Bread and Roses Arts Awards; publish books and pamphlets; and help the labour movement through workshops and campaigns on culture issues.

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A picket mounted by the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common, 1982.
Monday, 01 August 2016 16:06

The persistence of protest: the preventative photography of Edward Barber

Published in Visual Arts

A woman sits on a fold-up chair, with a sign – 'Hello, can you stop for a talk?' – inviting passersby to stop for a chat about nuclear proliferation. An elderly woman stands on her own with a sign 'No to nuclear war' round her neck. A sandalled foot sticks out from under a police van, whilst a polieceman leans on the van, smiling uneasily at the camera. A man stands with a paper bag on his head, covered in instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

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CND Rally, Hyde Park, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.

'Peace Signs', Edward Barber's collection of arresting and moving photos from the early eighties, taken at Greenham Common and elsewhere, is currently on exhibition at the IWM in London. The photos capture the protests of people from a hugely diverse range of ages and backgrounds, though most are women.

Some images show the creative, almost playful aspects to the performance of protest, as demonstrators try to obstruct, disrupt and prevent the smooth running of the murderous war machine of Britain and its U.S. ally. Lines of singing women join hands around the fences of the missile base. Activists lie in the roads in the shape of the CND sign. Demonstrators and pickets supply an endless stream of volunteers to block the paths of supply lorries, tractors and bulldozers. Women stage a Die-in outside the Stock Exchange.

die in

Women from Greenham Common stage a Die-in outside the London Stock Exchange during the morning rush hour as President Reagan arrives in Britain, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.

In several more sombre images, we see protesters stare unsmilingly at the camera, returning our gaze. In some ways they look vulnerable and helpless. What chance do young children, older people and women have, ranged against large numbers of blank-faced, uniformed policemen? Yet the strength of their determination and conviction also shines through these beautifully clear, well-printed images, and the challenge of their anger comes vividly across the 30-odd years that separate us, mutely willing us to continue their resistance.

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A protester from the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common after keening in Parliament Square, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.

As befits the anti-nuclear cause, the protests are peaceful, and in a forerunner of the Occupy protests they are often playful and witty, part of an unscripted collective performance. It's a kind of folk art, facing off against the bleak, regimented lines of policemen, lifting and dragging their protesting, prostrate bodies off roads and pavements.

There are no prosaic notes accompanying the photos, giving details of the locations and events depicted, because although they would have given documentary precision, they would have limited the power of the exhibition to creatively communicate its still-relevant messages.

Instead, the photos are arranged to echo the creative, chaotic nature of the protests they document. Then, towards the end of the exhibition, Barber's 'mind map', connecting rough ideas and movements with arrows using a thick marker pen, gives some context to the protests. It maps them into a tradition of creative and collective action, reaching from the fifties to modern day protests by Jeremy Corbyn and others.

women linked round fence

'Embrace the Base': 30,000 women link hands, completely surrounding the nine mile perimeter fence at RAF/USAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.

“I saw this as preventative photography” says Edward Barber, about his collection of photographs. “I intended to document, celebrate and warn. It attempts to foreground both individual and collective engagement, courage and resilience.”

The exhibition can hardly be said to have prevented the continuation of the immoral threat to world peace represented by Britain's arsenal of nuclear weapons. But it is certainly a celebration and a warning. It is a celebration of a peculiarly British kind of humorous, angry and incredibly determined type of commitment to persistent protest against state power and militarism.

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Protestor at Bank of England. Copyright Edward Barber.

And it's a timely warning of the evils of nuclear proliferation. Just when the genocidal threats implict in the Trident missile programme are being renewed by the Government, the exhibition itself echoes and confirms the protesters' critical resistance to war, and renews their creative call for peace.

Peace Signs is on at IWM London until September 4th.

I believe in the common man: an interview with Fred Voss
Thursday, 12 May 2016 21:15

I believe in the common man: an interview with Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

When I asked Fred Voss if we could do an interview by email, little did I know what would happen. In response to my prosaic questions, he sent back a stream of prosepoetry, an inspired, Whitmanesque outpouring of creative thinking and feeling.

'How did you do that?' I asked him afterwards, amazed at what I'd read. 'It was your questions, they sparked something in me' he said, modestly. But as you will see, there was nothing special about my questions, they are the usual ones all writers get asked. The answers, though, are anything but usual.

However it happened, I feel privileged to have sparked this torrent of imaginative prose, and am very proud to present it to you here on Culture Matters. I hope you feel something of the surprise and joy I felt when I opened his messages. And I hope you agree that if ever proof was needed that culture mattered, then surely this is it.

Q. Can you tell us what it's like to live in Long Beach?

I have lived in Long Beach for 40 years, and I love it. It is Los Angeles County’s second largest city, located 20 miles south of L.A. on the Pacific Ocean, and its port of Long Beach/San Pedro is the largest in the U.S.

It has a long history. It was a navy town for many decades, had one of the most famous amusement parks and roller coasters (The Pike on the beach) in the U.S., and was home to Douglas Aircraft Company, builder of aircraft for the U.S. WW2 war effort and of airplanes for the world after the war.

Star Kist was one of many tuna canneries on the waterfront, there was a ferry from Long Beach to San Pedro across the harbor, Todd Shipyard and the Naval Shipyard employed thousands of blue collar men, a statue of Harry Bridges the famous Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) union hero stood beneath the green Vincent Thomas Bridge, oil refineries and oil islands and oil derricks dotted the landscape, the downtown streets were full of all-night movies showing men’s movies and cowboy movies, bars with names like The Pink Elephant and The Poop Deck and the V Room full of pool hustlers and sailors with peanut shells strewn across the floors were on every corner, there were old Hollywood sound stages and the Villa Riviera 1928 hotel with a green copper roof where Clark Gable and Rock Hudson and many other movie stars liked to stay (the ghost of Clark Gable is still said to haunt Ocean Boulevard). In Visions of Cody Jack Kerouac mentioned visiting Long Beach in the 40s and seeing the downtown streets full of guys in cowboy boots.

It is an eccentric city of nearly half a million, and when I moved here in 1976 The Pike Amusement Park was shutting down and the International Long Beach Grand Prix was starting up, making the downtown streets shake. I got a job at Douglas Aircraft Company where over 50,000 people worked, joined The United Auto and Aerospace Workers union and began my career making aircraft parts.

There were hippies in the parks playing softball and sometimes throwing rocks at police, the Morningland religious cult with its purple banners on 7th Street, witchcraft stores selling oils and herbs, and poetry readings in the many bars. California State University at Long Beach, with its 32,000 students, has fostered a strong creative writing poetry tradition since the late 60s inspired by the literary legend Dr. Gerald Locklin, and Charles Bukowski gave several of his first readings in the early 70s at the university and in the city’s bars where he drank and read his poetry in defense of the down and the defeated and the working men and women and the joys and laughs of going crazy and rebelling against the American bourgeois way of life.

An editor of the Long Beach poetry magazine Maelstrom Review, the late Leo Mailman, said he thought there was something magical about Long Beach that made people write, and I’d have to agree, having written 7 novels and 3,000 poems here at kitchen tables as motorcycles roared and old ladies hobbled down sidewalks on canes. On Grand Ave. I lived next to door to Big Ivan from Russia who told me stories from his days wrestling professionally at the storied Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A., then drank himself to death after his drunken wife went crazy throwing furniture at the walls and singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and was hauled away in a police car. How can you not write when you share a paper-thin wall with people like that?

For 26 years I have lived happily two blocks from the sea with my wife the poet and publisher Joan Jobe Smith, founder and publisher of Pearl magazine for 40 years, close friend of Charles Bukowski and author of “Charles Bukowski: His Art & His Women, and I have enjoyed rubbing shoulders with Long Beach’s vast array of roustabouts, pipefitters, bartenders, welders, electricians, tree trimmers, construction workers who walk hundreds of feet up in the air, bookmobile drivers taking Dickens to old people in wheelchairs, nurses, waitresses, shipyard workers, dishwashers, professional wrestlers and truck drivers with the black asphalt roads of America in their bones, graveyard shift janitors and candle makers and pool hustlers as we shared smiles and stories and raised schooners of beer to life.

Long Beach is indeed some kind of a magical city, the land of workers and poetry.

 Q. What have been the main influences in your life?

Watching the stars and planets with my father on our front lawn
as a young boy
infinity gripped me
H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe at age nine
Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and Hemingway at age 11
Playing basketball in High School age 14-15
Emerson and Kant and Whitman and Hart Crane and Camus’s The Rebel
and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Doors and getting kicked off
the varsity basketball team for going to a Doors concert instead of a game
and James Joyce’s Ulysses at age 15 -16
Rimbaud and LSD and demonstrating against the Vietnam War at The University of California
at Riverside campus and Pindar and Baudelaire and Blake and Beowulf and Pink Floyd and Heraclitus and my first girlfriend at 17-18
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at 19
Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and blues blues blues music and Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski at 20
At age 22 after dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature and going to work
in the factory world my father
came to my side and became a big influence again
my rudder against crashing against the rocks of the real world
as I lost my way and life became a nightmare my father
told me of his wanderings across the country in Great Depression 1933 America
and told me I could make it through the long dark subterranean night of my soul to the light
of some kind of dawn
and working in a steel mill with blast-furnace-burned-face and slivers of cut steel piercing my palms my dawn
was setting pen to paper
and writing 7 novels
to the syncopated rhythms of Thelonious Monk’s piano
the golden midnight tones of Miles Davis’s horn
the angry black throbbing explosions of Charles Mingus’s bass
(always I was close to the soul of the American black man as I floated down the Mississippi with Huck and escaped slave Jim)
then the great Marvin Malone
editor of The Wormwood Review poetry magazine entered my life after I submitted the first 4 poems I wrote to him in 1986 and he told me I would survive in literature
Marvin Malone
the main magazine publisher of the great poet Charles Bukowski
Bukowski a huge influence on me since the age of 20 (I was 34 now) with his poetry and novels made of slaughterhouses and lettuce pickers and bicycle factory and post office Neruda
Henry Miller Herman Melville Mark Twain Richard Wright Tennessee Williams Robinson Jeffers
among my heroes as Marvin Malone published over 100 of my poems and I met my wife Joan Jobe Smith on the pages of Wormwood Review: 105 (we had our poems published together on its pages) and later I met her in person at a Long Beach California poetry reading
and Joan and I were married
Joan the founder and editor of Pearl the leading Long Beach poetry magazine for 40 years now
became the second great editor of my poetry
each weekend morning
she hears my latest poem and helps me with her brilliant instinctive poetry ear
listening to my voice as I read my poems aloud to her
and then John Osborne published 100 of my poems in Hull’s Bete Noire literary magazine
and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books published my first poetry book Goodstone in 1991 (published in the U.S. by Joseph Cowles of Event Horizon Press) and The Poetry Society
booked a whistlestop tour for my wife Joan and I
and we crossed the Atlantic and set foot on the emerald isle of England for the first time
and rode the Brit rails to Hull and The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and The Poetry Society of London and The Bristol Poetry Festival and since then I have been blessed
by being published by some of the best publishers in Britain
Martin Bax in his galvanic avant garde literary magazine Ambit
Alan Dent in his hard hitting Penniless Press and Mistress Quickley’s Bed magazines
Michael Curran in his beautiful limited edition hardbound Dwang
Joan Jobe Smith and Marilyn Johnson at Pearl magazine
and Dan Veach at Atlanta Review are regular publishers of my poems
and I have grown to love classical music these last 20 years
Ives Stravinsky Shostakovich Duke Ellington Mahler Debussy Beethoven
and with me always as inspiration is the great Edward Hopper
with his paintings of the lonely American pushing a rake or standing nude at a window
or cutting hair or sitting in a bright lonely diner
swallowed by American night at 3 am
and Van Gogh’s sunflowers Gauguin’s dreamy-eyed Tahitian women
Eakins’s swimmers Grosz’s
fat piggy cigar-chomping capitalist Berliners
and always Neruda
with the foam of his Chilean beaches his ghost of Magellan
on Cape Horn rocks and Buk
smiling over his typewriter just finishing a poem with a bottle by his side grinning as he laughs
at bourgeois America
and always Joan
my incredibly wise and loving wife by my side with her brilliant sense of humor
inspiring my comic relief Frank and Jane poems
and always the factory workers
the never-boring real-as-nails funny exciting bow-down-to-no-man
ready-to-haul-their-toolbox-down-te-road-to-the-next-machine-shop
never-say-die infuriating inspiring shocking x-rated brutally honest indomitable working men
who keep these poems alive.

 Q. What brought you into writing?

I needed something
I had the fierceness and realness of a steel mill I was working in
and I worked at a blast furnace burning the moustache off my face
then moved into the machine shop where the razor-sharp teeth of shell cutters sliced
through ¼-ton steel standards and threw red-hot
chips of steel onto my neck where
they stuck and sizzled
but I needed something more
something that would keep me from feeling empty and hungry inside
I needed to find a spirit within me
as fierce and real as that steel mill
I needed to nail it down onto a page
I needed to bring art into this steel mill of blank tin walls and ticking time clocks
and snarling foremen where no Vincent Van Gogh sunflower had ever
been seen
no Beethoven DA DA DA DA crescendo ever heard
no Hemingway Cuban fisherman old man ever dreamed of African lions sleeping on the beach
I needed to dream I could change the world just a little bit
like Nelson Mandela stepping out of his Robben Island prison cell
Jim Morrison breaking on through to the other side
Jean Valjean
free at last

Q. Do poetry, music and the other arts have anything to do with economic and political realities?

The great ships have circled the globe and stolen the Mayan gold
200 + years of industrial revolution
and 900 lions are left on this earth
as the tiger and the gorilla
barely hang on….
as America has become an oligarchy/plutocracy mouthing words about free speech and voting rights but enslaves its masses in economic chains of exploitation
America ruled by men with clean hands who shuffle the papers and walk the 80th-floor offices
as the earth enters its death throes….

My viewpoint is from the earth-level shop floor where men get their hands dirty. Whitman and Neruda and Brecht are on my shop floor. Neruda’s father worked for the railroad, my father was an outdoors man swimmer and mountain climber (his grandfather a Nebraskan homesteader) who hopped freights in the Great Depression and could walk up to any man on the street and start up a conversation with him and be at ease with him.
I am walking with Brecht’s Mother Courage as she forges ahead through a war-torn landscape.
I am with Whitman walking down his open road and taking off his hat to no king Neruda escaping the fascists by horseback over the Andes Charles Bukowski saying, “The worst men have the best jobs and the best men have the worst jobs.”
I am with Charles Ives the great iconoclastic American composer writing symphonies and songs of marching bands passing each other in the American streets and the sounds of Central Park in the dark and Emersonian universal brotherhood and small town dance bands playing “Turkey in the Straw”, Ives who sent up Wall Street greed with the cacophonous insanity of his 4th symphony’s 2nd movement.
I am with John Huston and his classic American film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that shows how we rip gold from the earth and how money can ruin and take our marvellous gift of life by dividing men against each other.
I am with Whitman and Blake and D.H. Lawrence and the great American artist Thomas Eakins who believed in the honesty and dignity and holiness of the naked human body the laboring human body and I believe in the soul of the labouring man not in top hats and gold and guns and locks and locked vaults full of money and $2,000 suits but bread
for all free concerts in the parks openness and caring for all Yosemite National Park and Sequoia redwood trees for all

I believe in the common man the man of the earth of sweat of shouts in the street and meetings on street corners of Van Gogh’s coal miner potato eaters Eakins’s shad fishermen Goya’s blacksmiths Hemingway’s old Cuban fisherman Santiago battling the sharks Hugo’s Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the Paris sewers Melville’s sailors and his mighty white whale Steinbeck’s farmers Mark Twain’s escaped slave Jim Neruda’s mineworkers Diego Rivera’s mural glowing with assembly line blast furnace flame Philip Levine’s Detroit auto plant workers Thoreau’s homemade cabin on Walden Pond Kerouac’s Sierra Mountains fire lookout August Wilson’s black trash truck driver Troy Maxson Arthur Miller’s thrown-away-like-an-orange-rind-by-the-company salesman Willy Loman Lautrec’s cancan dancers Homer’s warriors Shakespeare’s gravedigger Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony of revolution Stravinsky’s peasant dance folk music as Jim Morrison sings, “What have they done to the Earth?” and The Rolling Stones sing “Salt of the Earth.”

Where do most of us spend most of our lives?
behind bus wheels at sheet metal bending machines behind donut counters at cash registers over jackhammers gripping wrenches flipping burgers serving coffee laying floor washing windows tarring roofs punching out motorcycle gaskets sitting in cubicles looking at inventories on computer screens where we barely feel human where we need poetry and art and music and theater and film to find us and tell our stories
Let Jackson Pollock paint the wall of a factory
Let a symphony grow from the booms and bangs and rattles and groans of an assembly line
Let the grease on a concrete shop floor be full of soul
Let Rembrandt set up his easel beside steel cutters
Is it the maintenance man gripping the monkey wrench that will save the earth?
Is it the heart of the man straddling the machine big as a locomotive that will save the tiger?
If men who stir red-hot molten steel with 20-foot-long rakes are treated like humans could it
keep the polar icecaps from melting?
men who walk the earth where panthers and giraffes and Buddha and Jesus walked
men who keep wheels rolling
old people walking and breathing
bridges hanging
water flowing
boats floating
with their hands
Can they save the earth?

 Q. What's your vision? What do you aim for when you're writing poetry and prose?

Dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature in 1974, my writer’s instinct told me to leave the dryness and cynicism of the academic ivory tower and turn toward life.
“God is a cry in the street,” Stephen Daedalus said in James Joyce’s Ulysses and my writer heroes were
Jack Kerouac hungry for life rolling automobile wheels across America toward a San Francisco bebop jazz club
Hemingway risking his life on the 1937 Spanish earth fighting the fascists and writing For Whom the Bell Tolls
Whitman putting his arm around a dying soldier on the American Civil War battlefield
Melville on a military ship in his white jacket high up in the crow’s nest in the freezing wind and ice rounding Cape Horn
Richard Wright showing how quickly a black man’s life can turn into a nightmare in 1930s Great Depression America
Mark Twain guiding his steamboat around rocks through the fog on the mighty Mississippi
And I was drawn into the world of the factories and went into a steel mill
the fierceness and realness of a steel mill was what I needed
I was not studying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I was Sir Gawain
in 1977 entering a new strange world of adventure and vernacular speech raw open emotions earthiness the sensuous beauty of toil the honesty of working with hands
humor exuberance shouting with 2-ton drop hammers pounding sizzling of cutting torches hissing of welding rods everything outsized and exploding with life
the backbones of cities ready to be carved and stamped out of red-hot molten steel ex-cons out of prison sweating and straining desperate to remake their lives
laughs and curses and screams all the wild guts and heart and passion of man living life hard

And I started writing novels of truth and fortitude and survival until in my last novel, Making America Strong, written in 1985, my vision and aim for my writing truly began to take shape. It was a short novel set entirely in a machine shop where a defense contractor, Goodstone Aircraft Company, is making nuclear bombers and raking in the big money from the Reagan-era military industrial complex.
Writing Making America Strong I had a vision of the corporation as America and suddenly realized corporate capitalism defined America as much or more than democracy did. In the novel workers without any say in company direction or management and forced to follow often insulting and senseless rules and procedures, turn to harassing and abusing each other like humiliated children, using drink and drugs and falling into racism and violence.

In 1986 I started writing poetry and this world of work became the subject matter of my poetry.
My poetry has been greatly affected by the men I’ve worked with in the factories all these years and the fact that I was a poet in the factories.
At first I thought (as we’ve been taught) the men were somehow less than human
less than poetry
less than me
but as the layoffs hit me and I learned what it felt like to know
I might end up living in the street
as I saw men going on gripping wrenches with hands swollen with arthritis
going on as bosses screamed at them
and aching and tired still smiling at the end of the workweek walking out into the sun like man
must never give up hope
and someday we must all be free
those men didn’t look down on me
because I didn’t yet understand how they could still laugh
between tin walls in the face of firings wrenched backs crazy bosses in this loud grinding factory
where no flower
or poem
ever grew
they didn’t look down on me because I didn’t know
what a micrometer or a ball peen hammer or a compound angle was
they handed me their tools
their hearts
wise with a lifetime of steel dust and driving their rollaway toolboxes down highways
and rolling them through countless machine shops and going on with a twinkle in their eye
I didn’t know I would soon begin writing poems about them
or that years later when they found out and read them
they would like them
who says this world contains
no miracles?

We can begin to see workers in factories are just as human
as kings
firemen orchestra conductors tightrope walkers ship captains ambassadors
nurses and novelists

we are all Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp twirling his cane walking down the open road at dawn
Toulouse Lautrec laying down paint onto canvas celebrating the high-kicking legs of cancan dancers though his crippled stunted legs ache
the fighter
getting up off his stool and coming back out of his corner though he was almost knocked out
in the last round

we invented the gods
built the cities
made the wheels the axles the chimneys the wings the masts the scalpels the rudders the valves
the rails the keys
and no corporation should ever stand above us.

See also: Let the poet lift a hammer: the prophetic poetry of Fred Voss

A Monument to the Working Class
Thursday, 12 May 2016 21:17

Let the poet lift a hammer: the prophetic poetry of Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

"I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little." - Fred Voss

Why have mortality rates amongst middle aged working class Americans suddenly increased? Why is inequality increasing, so that the top 1% of the U.S. population own 35% of the wealth, and why are bonuses on Wall Street more than double the total annual pay of all Americans on the federal minimum wage? Why has support swollen so rapidly for a buffoon like Donald Trump? And finally, in such darkly unequal times, what can poets do about it? 

Mortality rates for white working class Americans declined steadily until around 2000, as you might expect following the postwar years of peace and prosperity, the 'golden age of capitalism' as it is sometimes called. But in the last few years they have got worse, for the first time since records began. White working class men who never got beyond high school now have an absolutely worse mortality rate than black, Hispanic or any other demographic.

What are the causes of these early deaths? Drugs, alcohol and suicide, mostly. Basically, these men have killed themselves with drugs and drink because the rich and powerful American ruling class, running the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world, do not need or want them any more. They're on the economic scrapheap, or on their way there. There are simply not enough jobs for them, and the few jobs around are increasingly badly paid.

Those groups who have been on the margins of the capitalist USA for a long time have weathered the recession better because they have always had nasty, short, precarious lives. But white baby boomers, brought up to expect a brighter future, are discovering that they are going to be worse off than their parents. Most of their efforts to cope with, come to terms with, or struggle against this legalised robbery of their labour, their health, wealth and happiness, are failing. They are becoming more and more desperate, and so are voting for the dangerous, delusional fantasies of Donald Trump, when they are not drinking and drugging themselves to death.

Fred Voss expresses the situation poetically as

Shadows We Will Never Escape

All day as we work
we stare
out the rolled-open tin door at the 50-storey downtown L.A. WELLS FARGO
and BANK OF AMERICA and CITICORP
buildings gleaming
in the sun with all their wealth and power
trying
to keep our children fed
trying to keep from losing hope
and throwing in the towel
on our low wages
riding buses
bicycles
thin
with hangovers making us teeter and hold our stomachs
over pitted concrete floors
and stumps instead of fingers
we go without glasses and teeth and hope of anything
but poverty
in old age we
stick our chests out and throw around 100-pound vices and try not
to get strung out on drugs
or pick up guns and go crazy as we work
in the shadows
of those buildings
so close
with so much wealth and power we stare
out at those towering shining buildings
from the shadows on the concrete floor
of our factory
until we truly begin to know what it feels like
to be buried alive.

At the point of production, there is no democracy, no land of freedom and opportunity, not even adequate material rewards for punishingly hard work. For growing numbers of poor working class men and women there is only naked exploitation, built on centuries of racism and violence. In this impoverishing environment, suicide, madness and prison are only

One Hair's-Breadth Away

I sit on my steel stool at work at break and read
the news article
about the genocide we Americans committed against the Red Man
for centuries
I sit
and read about the genocide
we Americans committed against the Black Man
with nooses
and butcher knives
I read
the concern
the horror
the apology in these articles
the shock
that we as Americans could ever have allowed such genocides
then look around
this factory just like so many thousands of factories in this land
at the men
who cannot afford a pair of glasses a haircut shoelaces
a meal a room
a woman
men
one hair’s-breadth away
from suicide
madness
prison
the street
men
getting poorer penny by penny each hour each day each year
without hope of a raise
white men black men men from Mexico and East L.A.
and Guatemala and Vietnam and Russia
men
with twisted backs and tired tombstone eyes
and I wonder
where are all the articles full of concern and shock and horror
about them I wonder
why the only genocides that make our papers are the ones that are already
finished.

And where, you might wonder, are all the poems about work and the working class? The problem here is that

Only Poets With Clean Hands Win Prizes

The homeless woman pushes her little boy and girl in a shopping cart
down an alley to the trash cans
where she desperately looks for scraps of food
as the poet
writes about whether or not an ashtray on his coffee table
really exists
the man works 50 then 60 then 70 hours a week in a factory
so he can live in a tiny cheap room with another man
instead of in a car
and the poet
leans back pleased with her image
of a red teacup
sailing through a wall
the poets
are polishing lines about the shadows inside ivory bowls
and what time really means
as old people
must choose between their medicine and eating
people in agony with no health insurance spend nights sitting in chairs
waiting in crowded emergency rooms
men
go to prison for the rest of their lives for stealing
a sandwich
the poet
is writing about looking in a mirror
as a wave curls
over his shoulder and he knows it is all
an illusion
while men are thrown out onto the street
where they will pick up bottles
or needles that will ruin their lives because
there are no jobs
as the poets
work to polish words that prove the ticks of a clock
aren’t real.

Voss knows the ticks of the workplace clock are horribly real signifiers of oppression and exploitation. Not because of the work itself, but because of the conditions of employment which people work under. Voss sees and expresses the actual evil of capitalist production, but also the potential for good under different arrangements. And he expresses it clearly, lyrically, without ever losing sight of the factual, material basis of life, and the equally straightforward way things could be different. As he says in 'Bread and Blood', he is making parts for attack helicopters in Iraq, when he could be making socially useful things like wheelchair wheels.

Voss's dialectical understanding of capitalist production also connects the energy of work in his machine shop to universal values. See how in the following poem we move smoothly, seamlessly, from the sweaty, oily detail of early morning machining in a metalwork shop, to some of the finest scientific and artistic accomplishments of humanity, and from there to happiness, fulfilment and liberty.

By interpreting the world in this way, Voss is surely helping to change it. His poems sing out hope and possibility to us like Whitman's poems and Kerouac's prose and Ginsberg's poems and The Doors' music did for an earlier generation, or like a

Saxophone on a Railroad Track

There is nothing greater
than the energy in a lathe man at 6:07 am throwing every muscle in his body
into the steel 100-pound tailstock of an engine lathe
digging
his steel-toed shoes into a concrete floor and leaning
into the 100-pound tailstock and flexing muscle shoving it across the tool steel ways of the lathe
until the foot-long drill in the tailstock’s mouth meets
turning brass bar and begins to chew
an inch-in-diameter hole through that brass bar’s dead center
it is the energy
that raised the Eiffel Tower
pushed off
the shore in a canoe that crossed the Pacific
it is Einstein breaking through years of thinking to find time stops
at the speed of light
Galileo
daring to look through a telescope and prove the earth isn’t the center
of the universe
it is Houdini
breaking free of every lock and shooting up out of the river gasping
the air Van Gogh breathed
the minute he brushed the last stroke of oil across his canvas full
of sunflowers
look at the smile on the lathe man’s face as he turns the wheel
forcing the drill through the brass
it is the roar
of the tiger the ring
of the Liberty Bell the laugh
of that lathe man’s baby girl as she sits on his shoulder and reaches up
for a star and the lathe man puts everything he’s got
into turning that wheel
and smiles
because little girls laugh and planets revolve and telephone repairmen
climb telephone poles and train wheels carry a saxophone
toward a music shop window so a man
who has picked himself up out of a skid row gutter can blow Charlie Parker’s notes
off a green bridge again
as the butterfly wing cracks open the chrysalis and Nelson Mandela
steps out of prison
a free man.

Do not think that the clarity of expression is artless. At first sight Voss's poems look like chopped-up prose, but read them aloud and you will hear their sinuous, resilient rhythms, winding onwards like a Whitmanesque river, developing an idea from an initial striking title and first few lines, towards an always memorable resolution.

Here's a good question:

Can Revolutions Start in Bathrooms?

I’m standing
in front of the bathroom mirror washing up after another day’s work
all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
unions broken
wages falling
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich and politicians
talk of “trickle down” and “the land of opportunity” and “the American way”
and Earl on the turret lathe keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through 30-year-old glasses and finally
gives up his car to ride
the bus to work
and Ariel on the Cincinnati milling machines turns 72 heaving 80-pound vices onto steel tables
with swollen arthritic fingers and joking
about working until he drops
all my life I’ve wondered
why we men who’ve twisted chuck handles until our wrists screamed
shoved thousands of tons of steel into white-hot blast furnaces
under midnight moons
leaned our bodies against screaming drill motors meeting cruel deadlines until we thought
our hearts would burst
are silent
as the owners build their McMansions on hills and smoke big cigars driving a different
$100,000 leased car to work each month
why after bailing out the banks
losing our houses
seeing our wages slashed and our workloads rise I’ve never heard one word
of revolt
and Teddy the bear of a gantry mill operator walks into the bathroom to wash
all the razor-sharp steel chips and stinking black machine grease off
his arms and hands
he’s been driving the same cheap motorcycle
for 20 years and says,
“Hey which front office person is driving that brand new Jaguar
I see parked out there now?”
and none of us can answer
as we raise our heads from the sinks
“Well, whoever it is,” Teddy says,
“They’re making too much money!”
After 40 years of silence
I can’t help wishing his words could be like the musket shot
that set off the storming
of The Bastille.

Voss never loses the sense of what work is really for, and what the ideal communist society might look like. He lifts his poetic hammer, verbally envisioning redemptive change, helping to create the communist and compassionate political movement needed so that all of us – but especially the poor – will be able eventually to restore our health and happiness and eat

Broccoli and Salmon and Red Red Apples

Let the poet lift a hammer
let the poet break bread
with a man lying down in a bunk in a skid row midnight mission homeless shelter
let the poet come out from behind the walls of his ivory tower
and feel the steering wheel of a downtown Long Beach bus in his hands
as he steers it toward a 66-year-old grandmother
who rides it to work at a factory grinding wheel
let him feel the 12-hour sun the lettuce picker feels beating down on the back
of his neck
let him pull a drill press handle
hook a steel hook through a steel pan full of motorcycle sidecar yokes and drag it
100 feet across a gouged concrete factory floor as drop hammers pound
let him grease a gear turn a wheel
crack a locknut serve a plateful of crab
drain a panful of oil plant
a stick of dynamite hook a tuna
in the deep green sea dig bulldozer bucket teeth
into the side of a hill feel
how good the sun feels on his face Sunday morning
when he’s finally gotten a day off after 72 hours behind windowless factory
tin walls
how good a tree looks
or a river sounds or a baby feels
in his arms
when he’s earned his bread with the sweat on his back
how true a star
and the notes of Beethoven and the curl of a wave around the nose of his surfboard are
when he’s thrown his arms around a 1-ton bar of steel
and guided it into a furnace full
of white-hot flame
how much a wildflower or a fire truck siren or a pick
in the fists of a man in the depths of a coal mine
mean
when he earns his bread by getting the dirt of this earth
on his hands
how human
we all are covered in soft skin and pulsing
with warm blood and deserving
of a roof over our head and a bed under our bones and a laugh
around a dinner table piled high
with broccoli and salmon
and red red apples.

Finally, here is one of Voss's most complex and successful poems, weaving themes of beaten-down oppression and class division with utopian aspiration and a willed determination to achieve human – and indeed universal – reconciliation through socially useful, unalienated work. It is a vision of

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand

“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time clock and the sun
rises
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
but paradise?
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian beaches
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancún
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vice with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and undertakers know
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of men
carving steel
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in Honduras
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their machines
like the sun
couldn’t rise
without them.

Fred Voss' poetry is rooted in factory life on the West Coast of California, but rears up and stretches our imaginations as we read it, taking us across time and space. It lives in the here and now and works to the tick of the factory clock, but transcends our 'cold competitive time'. Like Blake's poetry, it sees the world in a grain of sand, tells truth to power. And like Blake, Voss combines the precision and realism born of years of skilled craftworking with a sweeping, lyrical imagination and vision arising from years of reflection on work, on the working class, and on the dreadful but alterable material realities of the world around him. Voss's sword will clearly not be sleeping in his hand, any time soon.

Voss writes prophetic poetry with a deep spiritual content, focused on the point of production. He connects the inherent, present harshness of class conflict under capitalism with the ultimate, future promise of communism, a 'warmer way to live' as he says in the poem below. It can be ironic, satirical and even angry, but it always retains its dignity, warmth and humanity. He is searingly honest in description, visionary in imagination, and is surely one of our greatest contemporary poets, tirelessly lifting his poetic hammer and striking the spark of revolution into our hearts and minds.

Let him have the last word, as well as the first. This is a poem about making

A Clock as Warm as Our Hearts

As I sit at this milling machine cranking out brass parts
at the precise rate of 21 per hour
I wait for the sun to creep its way across the sky until it shines
through the high windows
in the west wall of this factory onto the top of the blue
upside-down funnel on the workbench
beside my machine
and then my fingers
the way it always does.
There is an order to things
men in caves
before sundials and hourglasses
and clocks
knew
an order
higher than staying competitive by turning out 21 parts per hour in this factory
or losing your job
a warmth
in the sky that always returns
to shine upon my fingers
the way the dying leaves of fall return
the way our dreams return
the tide
and the comets
and as the boss comes down the aisle cold and angry
and screaming for parts
I wait
for the soothing touch of that sun on my fingers to tell me
that someday
we may put our cold competitive time clocks and bosses away
and find a warmer
way to live.

This article is also published in Communist Review. Thanks to Fred Voss, Bloodaxe Books and the Morning Star for permission to republish poems. Two collections of Fred Voss's poetry are currently available from Bloodaxe: Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls, £8.95 Bloodaxe Books 1998, and Hammers and Hearts of the Gods, £8.95 Bloodaxe Books 2009. 

 See also I believe in the common man: an interview with Fred Voss.

Bakshiram
Monday, 04 January 2016 21:45

Artist and Empire

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille explores the relations between art, politics and empire, in the current Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain.

Has there ever been a more successful engine of global exploitation than the British Empire? And has any other empire been better at reframing that exploitation as benevolent paternalism, moral improvement and the general all-round civilisation of savages?

At its height the British Empire was the largest in history, covering almost a quarter of the world's total land area. It has shrank over the last hundred years to a handful of overseas territories, but its legacy is everywhere. It is most obvious in the statues and monuments all over the country to cruel, thuggish and racist monarchs, admirals, generals, politicians and imperial administrators. They dominate and disfigure our public spaces: hence the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford.

Other legacies of Empire lie in social structures, in the fault lines of contemporary global politics particularly in the Middle East, and in art and culture generally. One of the sad and sobering aspects of this exhibition is the way it reveals how the ruling classes have since the early colonial period co-opted most art and most artists, most of the time. Commissioned by the rich and powerful, artists have themselves been colonised, paid to promote, legitimise, and even glorify Britain's violent and rapacious foreign conquests.

Six rooms at Tate Britain tell the story through art of colonial conquest, collaboration, subordination and resistance. Various items of visual and material culture eg paintings, flags, sculptures, clothing and maps, are used to illustrate various themes.

In the first room, Mapping and Marking, we see how British cartographers and surveyors mapped occupied territory, erased indigenous ownership, imposed new names and new borders, and presented domination as civilisation.

The next room, Trophies of Empire, focuses on the various objects, specimens and other examples of material culture brought back by explorers, sailors, missionaries and traders. It shows how the looting, bartering and purchasing which accompanied the imperial project penetrated museums, elite collections, laboratories and zoos.

Next, Imperial Heroics explores the explicitly ideological mission of most British history painting, which helped shape popular perceptions of the Empire. They include representations of heroic struggle and martyrdom by tiny bands of brave British soldiers, surrounded by crowds of savages. Some of the representations of nineteenth century jihadists resisting Empire are unnervingly topical, and seem prophetic in the light of the current Islamophobia in the media. Just how much has actually changed in the way our mainstream culture views people with other religions and darker skins?

The room on Power Dressing is a fascinating insight into how the Western elite tradition of grand portraiture, developed to convey the power and dominance of representatives of the ruling classes, arrived in colonies along with the gunboats, machine guns and deceitful diplomacy. British diplomats and administrators were often portrayed wearing indigenous clothing such as Native American costume. Colonised peoples, whilst often forced to adopt Western styles of clothing, often modified and resisted it, or knowingly played to imperial expectations by wearing their own. Trans-cultural cross-dressing expressed the tensions and conflicts between homeland, colony, and imperial centre, in striking and sometimes humorous ways.

Face to Face contains some fine examples of portraits of Empire's subjects. Both Charles Frederick Goldie and Rudolf Swoboda paint colonial subjects sympathetically, giving dignity and identity back to them, and revealing elements of doubt, even guilt, about imperial conquest. Swoboda's 'Bakshiram' (reproduced above courtesy of Tate Britain) is one of the finest paintings in the exhibition.

And finally, in the artworks in the Out of Empire room (and occasionally pointedly positioned in the other rooms) we see how post-colonial and contemporary artists developed some effective artistic practices which challenged, ironicised and thoroughly demolished the deceitful ideology and iconography of Empire. Gradually, through long and difficult struggles by Black and Asian artists who were initially marginalised by the art establishment, modern visual art has freed itself from the shackles of misrepresentation and glorification of Empire. Now, it is a much more critical and truthful representation of the political and economic realities which underpinned it.

Artist and Empire is revealing, educational and entertaining, and shows how important it is to present art within its political and economic context. Curating art in this way clarifies how art is rooted in and reflective of its historical and political environment. It shows, sadly, how art sometimes works by supporting and glorifying racism, sexism and other kinds of class-based cultural domination which enable and legitimise the straightforward economic exploitation which is the core project of empire.

You will surely come out of this exhibition, feeling moved and enlightened, as I did, asking questions, like Brecht's Questions from a Worker Who Reads. Why are the relations between art, history and politics not commonly shown in our art galleries? How much more relevant and popular art would become if we were shown, for example, how artistic images of women throughout history are linked to the class-based oppression and exploitation of women from time immemorial?

What if the pictures of representatives of the ruling class in the National Portrait Gallery, and in all our local museums and stately homes, were presented in the context of the actual exploitative economic realities underpinning their elite status?

What if all curators – as they do in Artist and Empire – routinely unearthed and exposed the true nature of the relations between art, ideology and the politics of class-divided societies, where wealth accumulates from the economic exploitation of subordinated working people? Would it not be a public service if more art gallery directors, curators and other cultural workers joined the struggle for our cultural liberation?

Artist and Empire is a brave and satisfying exhibition, a great help with that cultural struggle. And its huge popularity with the general public as well as critics suggests that it is high time this kind of approach was adopted more widely.

Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain until April 10. Admission is £16 but concessions are available.

Blake's Jerusalem Frontispiece
Tuesday, 01 December 2015 14:24

Welcome! Thank You! Join In!

Published in Round-up

Welcome to Culture Matters, a website about progressive art, culture and politics.

You'll find more information about us in the About Us section, surprisingly enough.

We hope you enjoy your visit, and are interested, engaged and even inspired by the material to join in the 'mental fight'.

The Home Page has all of our latest articles, you can go here for details on recent material, and you can look at everything using the buttons above.

In particular we recommend the material which is about (and by) Muslims and refugees, such as the poems and short stories of Mohja Kahf, Muhaned Khorshid, and Amir Darwish. And we recommend Salena Godden's post-punk poem on the Paris attacks; Christopher Rowland's insightful article on Blake; John Storey's cogently argued piece on why culture matters; and Andy Croft's lucid yet passionate case for the essentially communist nature of poetry. If you know anyone who can write like Andy about the other arts, please send them our way.

Thanks also to the Morning Star for their assistance and support. Some of the current pieces you see here are taken from that unique paper. They are there not only for their own sake but as examples of the kind of committed writing we hope you are looking for, and which we want to encourage. And thanks to the Communist Party of Britain for providing webspace and technical support for this broadly based artistic and cultural project.

Culture Matters is currently like a first edition, or a skeleton, or a thinly populated country which we have provisionally mapped out but not defined. Many sections need more articles, and more creative material. In the months and hopefully years ahead, we want contributors to populate the country, help put flesh on the skeleton, and clothes on the flesh.

So please do join in, if you want to. You will find some common threads running through a lot of the material, a kind of emerging consensual approach to art, culture and politics. That approach, coming from contributors, is our steer, which we want to build on. Please help shape the site by reading the material, by making comments and suggestions, and by sending proposals and material to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Help build the new Jerusalem, artistically, culturally and politically, throughout Britain and the world as well as in England's green and pleasant land. Enjoy your visit, and please come back. Because Culture Matters!
Mike Quille and Ben Stevenson, Co-Managing Editors

 

About Us
Wednesday, 23 December 2015 20:05

About Us

Published in About us

We are a group of writers, artists and activists who think that culture matters.

Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire.

I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Culture matters. The arts (films, plays, paintings, music etc.) and culture generally (sport, religion, the media, eating and drinking etc.) can be wholesome and liberating. They please the senses, stimulate the mind, arouse emotions, and feed the soul. But class-based divisions in society, founded on unequal property ownership, constrain and prevent our enjoyment of cultural activities, which are essential to enjoy life and be fully human.

Culture matters. Cultural activities and experiences can promote awareness, arouse indignation, inspire creativity and imagination, create a sense of equality, community and social justice. They can help us in the 'mental fight' to build Blake's new Jerusalem, a more democratic, equal, socialist society – not only in England but across the globe.

So the Culture Matters website aims to publish relevant creative material (poems, images, music etc,) and critical material (reviews, articles, interviews etc.) We also run Bread and Roses Arts Awards, publish books and pamphlets, and work with the labour movement through workshops and campaigns on culture issues.

Submissions

Submissions are very welcome, from anyone who has something to say about art and culture which contributes to these aims. Please write as clearly, concisely and accessibly as possible, avoiding footnotes. We are currently unable to pay for material, unfortunately. If you want to contribute, look at what's already on the site and try and shape your material to fit with our broad aims. Submissions are subject to editing. Please provide brief notes and a jpeg of yourself, any preferred accompanying images, and send to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Our published material is mostly original work. Feel free to link to or copy our articles, but please email us for permission first. All republished work should attribute the author, publication and date. 

Our current team of editors and support staff is as follows: Jim Aitken, Dennis Broe, Mollie Brown, Jenny Farrell, Sally Flint, Martin Gollan, Gillian Grant, Gemma Jane Howell, Michael Jarvie, Mike Jenkins, Fran Lock, Alan Morrison, Mike Quille and Ben Stevenson.

Donations

We rely on donations to keep going, so if you have enjoyed visiting the website, you can support our mission by using the button below.

 

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