Jennifer Cooke, “Public Disorder” and Poetry, 2010-2011


I have to begin with an apology, which is that this is not quite the paper the abstract promised, and that, in fact, I won’t be looking at any poetry in detail at all but instead discussing the role of poetry and the figure of the poet in relation to politics. In this paper, I want to explore several related problems, as I see them, for the relationship between poetry and revolutionary potential, or, more prosaically, poetry and the political events of protest and social dissent. These comments assume several premises, potentially problematically, potentially wrongly (although perhaps productively wrongly), and it’s probably best to sketch them at the beginning. Although I’ll be referring to Sean Bonney and Keston Sutherland, I’m using them as examples of a certain type of politically committed left-wing poetry. Within the left-wing commitments of these types of poets there are rather a lot of shades, stretching from reformist, Marxist or socialist to anarchist.[1] In other words, they might agree about what they dislike but they don’t necessarily agree upon what to do about it, or what might replace it. The other broad brush I’m employing is to term what these poets write as ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’, in different ways and to different extents, of course. It would be accurate, I think, to say that most of these left-wing poets were in support of the students protests of 2010-11, if not of every act committed during those protests, and that some of them were supportive of the London riots too, although perhaps to a far lesser extent and with greater qualifications. Sean Bonney is right to note that everyone went rather quiet after the riots. It was not ‘our’ battle, after all, in the same way that the student protests traversed the field of work and study that many of us are involved in, and the riots were conducted in an intense, contagious, but also diffuse way which is somewhat unfamiliar to – or at the very rate unexpected by – traditional activists on the left. Indeed, both the protests at Millbank and the riots of August 2011 took most left-wing activists by surprise. Poets wrote poems commenting upon these events: Keston Sutherland, Sean Bonney, Timothy Thornton, myself, Emily Critchley, to name a few.


So, one of the things I want to explore here is how poetry responds to the event of political protest; specifically, in fact, I will be examining a common critique of avant-garde political effectivity in the light of occupation readings by Sean Bonney and Keston Sutherland.  I want to explore the fact, and also, significantly, the prevalent feeling amongst politically committed poets, that poetry only does and can respond after the event of political dissent and disorder instead of contributing to the coming, crystallisation or happening of that event. There is a desire in some of this poetry to be politically instrumental (indeed, the conference poster suggests poetry wishes to be): not merely to be a comment upon, a commemoration or celebration of events of public protest and dissent after they have happened, but instead, or at least additionally, to participate in their revolutionary potential. I’m going to explore moments when avant-garde poetry has been involved in political event-making, and their implications for how we recognise, make use of, and create that poetical involvement for poetry, and what challenges that might pose to our usual conception of poetry and its performance.


Let us begin, then, with a traditional objection to avant-garde, late modernist, innovative practice and its political positioning, which in this instance I am identifying as left-wing and therefore critical of capitalism, especially neoliberal and conservative forms of capitalist policy-making and organisation. In her recent, brilliant book Cruel Optimism (2011), Lauren Berlant points to two related problems with political avant-garde art. Firstly, it is ‘preaching to the choir’, performed for usually small and like-minded audiences, often composed predominantly of other poets, who essentially broadly agree with its political message.[2] Thus, many of us have sat in the Judith E. Wilson Studio at Cambridge, or the Centre for Creative Collaboration in London, or in the upstairs and downstairs rooms of many pubs listening to poetry which criticises what we agree needs criticising, and expresses the anger, ridicule or despair which we ourselves feel about the political landscape. Berlant does not think this is without merit. In fact she deems the primary aim of this kind of work to be providing ‘a scene for being together in the political’ (237). The secondary aim of avant-garde political art, which is where she locates the second and more complex problem, is ‘to magnetize the political desires of a larger public’ (238). I’d want to switch these around in terms of priority, since I’d argue that the manifest desire of experimental political poetry is more about magnetizing and inspiring, about anatomising, highlighting and sometimes satirising the social contradictions produced by capitalism, than it is about any sense of collective scene-making or affirmation, even if, in fact, that feeling is produced as a corollary effect, and even if the poet recognises that the context of the reading is one of choir-preaching. This is evident in the forms this poetry takes and the syntactical jumps, slices and violences it commits upon the language it employs and often detourns: the work is more immediately alienating (visually and syntactically) than it is offering a warm site of solidarity and coming-together. Nevertheless, there is some sense of togetherness insofar as I am referring to a poetry reading, where the poet is the centre of the room’s quiet focus, and where there is a collective sitting down together to listen. It makes a significant difference, I think, that Berlant’s argument pertains to video art, where the artist is absent and the audience comes and goes, stays perhaps only for a while, and hasn’t necessarily chosen to encounter that work specifically.


Berlant concludes that despite the affirmation of preaching to the choir, traditional avant-garde practice is politically nullified by the social relations its aesthetics imply and tend to disclose: ‘[t]o offer solidarity through an uncanny and lightly discomforting aesthetics that keeps its own commitments and program implicit is to conflate solidarity with aesthetic sophistication – that is, with a privileged class location’ (238). Whilst we might want to qualify the kind of effects she outlines here, it is indisputable, I think, that the appreciation and enjoyment of avant-garde poetry is inescapably indicative of particular class structures and positions. It doesn’t have to be a formal, university learning that provides the aesthetic education such poetry tends to require in order to be ‘understood’, but it takes first of all an encounter, and then the time and space to engage, think about and become familiar with such work, and perhaps to meet and talk to others who appreciate such linguistic and formal strategies of deranged and deranging poetic composition. These days, such time, space and contacts are usually the result of education and/or a certain level of socio-economic security. That is not to say that no working class people are involved in writing, reading or listening to this poetry, bit that the majority of us are firmly on the side of socio-educational privilege, even if we might not be free from economic precarity.  


This raises questions about the relevance of late modernist radical aesthetics in attempts to address poetry to a political moment, especially if, as we all I think acknowledge, any political revolution or change needs to galvanise a large number of the population, specifically, given they’ve the most to gain from socio-political re-organisation, the working class. Simply, and bluntly, does it matter if we write political poetry which only a small, usually highly-educated, section of society, a section of society with broadly the same political stance, understands and appreciates? Does it matter politically? Does it matter than it might be alienating to the very people whose support it needs if its political dreams are to be realised, and alienating precisely because the poetry displays overtly a familiarity with nonpopular and complicated aesthetic forms and ideas and thus demonstrates the probable social (though not necessarily economic) privilege of the poet? One simple answer to this is to say, no, it doesn’t matter; that art is art and must unfold in relation to its own aesthetic logic. Yet I think the poetry, or at least some of it, wants to matter politically. For instance, Sean Bonney’s first poem in his recent collection Happiness begins: ‘september 2003. we were wondering why the poets were silent’, as though events that month, which included various Iraqi deaths at the hands of Coalition troops and the election of a BNP candidate, should be remarked upon poetically, should have moved the poets to speech.[3]  


 I want to explore these questions tangentially, through examining two scenes of poetry readings during political events, namely at occupations. It’s probably worth pointing out many occupiers (all of them, in the context of student occupations of university buildings) are educated and therefore broadly part of the more privileged strata of society, even if that privilege doesn’t any longer guarantee security. However, it is probable that most of them will be unfamiliar with experimental poetry and its strategies. Writing of his experiences of and frustrations with the interface between poetry and politics, Sean Bonney specifically refers to his occupation readings in his ‘Letter on Poetics (after Rimbaud)’, dated 25th June 2011:

            How could what we were experiencing, I asked myself, be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it. The form would be monstrous. That kinda romanticism doesn’t help much either. I mean, obviously a rant against the government, even delivered via a brink through the window, is not nearly enough. I started thinking the reason the student movement failed was down to the fucking slogans. They were awful. As feeble as poems. Yeh, I turned up and did readings in the student occupations and, frankly, I’d have been better off just drinking. It felt stupid to stand up, after someone had been doing a talk about what to do if you got nicked, or whatever, to stand up and read poetry. I can’t kid myself otherwise. I can’t delude myself that my poetry had somehow been “tested” because they kinda liked it.[4]  


There are a host of desires being articulated here: a call for art to more effectively mirror experience; for a new poetic form; for better slogans or something better than slogans; for poems not to be feeble; for poetry and protest to move beyond one rant or a singular act of property destruction; and, linked to this, a rejection of romanticism. I want to pause on this last point. The romanticism rejected is both the fantasy of creating a formal monstrosity and the illusion that small acts of dissent, protest and denunciation are as effective as they are passionate. In other words, poetry doesn’t do anything in the world, anything useful, and therefore it feels politically redundant even though the illusion of singular agency to express and act, to create and to rant, might sustain us for a while. This is the point Bonney makes about the reading of experimental poems at occupations: it doesn’t seem as useful as other types of communication, even if people enjoyed it. If the slogans of the student movement offended Bonney’s poetic sensibility, reading his own poetry at occupations offends his sense of political praxis.


            Another poetico-political anecdote might be instructive here. In March 2010, Keston Sutherland was invited to read to a group of students occupying a lecture theatre in protest at managerial decisions made at his place of employment, The University of Sussex. Whilst waiting to read, Sutherland penned a poem, which he subsequently circulated to the UK Poetry Listserv, along with an account of the reading, its atmosphere and some thoughts upon why he’d suddenly felt he should write something new, there and then. I’m not going to reproduce the poem here, but suffice to say, it had the Sutherland markers of metrical care but was unlike his poetry of that and preceding times in most other respects: it rhymed in simple ways; it was extremely easy to follow semantically and syntactically; it was rhetorically rousing, utilising the recognisable voice of political protest; it was angry and specific about the targets of that anger (which was not internalised); and the poem included a description and promise of political and physical solidarity. Sutherland has never revised it for publication, even though it was published by Joe Luna in Hi Zero, where he printed an essay of Justin Katko’s which reproduced the poem amid a critique of another poem of Sutherland’s (‘10/11/10’) about the student protests in London.[5] Sutherland’s occupation poem criticised the management of the university, complained about the fiscal orientation of the institution’s decision-making, and expressed solidarity with the students and who were protesting: it was technically an illegal act, breaking a Court Injunction which the university had taken out to prohibit staff from entering the occupied spaces. His explanation for writing this poem, on the spot, was that it felt to him like an immediate response or address to the political moment. This suggests that his other poetry on its own was in need of supplementation or that the moment called for something of another order, something new that addressed the context. He read it last, after only a few 12-line sonnets, and it got a big cheer from the students in the room.


            The feelings of Bonney and Sutherland towards reading in these occupied spaces and the reactions to their work by the activists within them is, I think, a practical route for thinking about the relationship between poetry and the immediacy of the political moment that addresses the critique which Berlant outlines. Sutherland wrote differently for the occasion, directly addressing the circumstances in a language which the occupiers could identify with and immediately recognise; Bonney desired for his poetry to be more instrumental, more useful, and, not insignificantly, I think, some of his poetry of this period is prose, and that which isn’t, has become more accessible than his earlier work to the reader unaware of the tradition out of which the poetry is working. I think it is also centrally important that both of these poets give extremely affective readings; readings which don’t of course negate the difficulty of the poetics the poems are enacting, but which certainly hold out an emotional register for the audience to inhabit and share, enjoy and feel the immediate political scene-making that the poetry itself and those two readers reading it create. Occupied spaces are creative, impromptu political spaces; thus, however fragile they can sometimes feel, they are powerfully imbued with the transformation they effect in the use and ownership of space itself. Writing of the fact that artistic circles often cross over with revolutionary ones, anarchist-activist-anthropologist David Graeber suggests that this is ‘precisely because these have been spaces where people can experiment with radically different, less alienated forms of life’, and, we might add, forms of agency.[6] The occupation space is a microcosm of what could be potentially possible: the decision to invite poets to read is an affirmation of the kind of relationship between the imagination, art and political space that the occupiers are envisioning. Although Berlant points out that preaching to the choir can feel like a kind of pointless cliquey insularity, she also points out that it: 

is always undervalued…[A]s a world-confirming strategy of address that performs solidarity and asserts righteousness, it is absolutely necessary to do. When an intimate public is secreted in its own noise, it rehearses affectively what the world will feel like when its vision gains mass traction…perhaps reinforcing intimate binding is the main function of avant-garde counternormative political work. (238)                        


Rehearsing how the world will feel when a vision is made reality is precisely what occupations, however temporary, try to do, which is why the arts are affirmed alongside more practical lectures, reading groups, and political discussions which these spaces also usually host. Graeber sees the artist or poet and the revolutionary as one with the potential to challenge and help restructure the social imagination (61); they provide spaces where experimentation and play with the concept of value is central (97). This final point about value is, I think, one of the most important that Graeber gives us if we want to think about radical poetics and political spaces.


            One of the indisputable facts about radical poetic aesthetics is its insistence on valuing what it does outside of everyday market forces. There is the fact that it is possible to buy, for very little money, and for a price which in no way reflects the labour and time involved in the making of them, seriously beautiful objects, like the books made by Richard Owens of Damn the Caesars or Richard Parker of Crater Press. These are exquisite objects and no one who holds them would think otherwise. On top of that, the poetical values the poetry itself enacts is also removed from economic thinking. This is one way of thinking of disputations of ‘good’ work: not as a fascistic act of judgement but as the formation of categories which are not subject to economic equivalence.


            Viewed in this light, Bonney’s and Sutherland’s acts constitute important affirmations of solidarity, vision-sharing, and partake in a new kind of social and spatial imaginary which shows us ways to value both poetry and its potentially affective space-making. However, there is nothing necessary about the radical aesthetics of what they write which makes this true, except that avant-garde practices tend to line up against a mainstream which is institutionalised and attached firmly to the market. I have one reservation, however, one that is remarked in, worried at, and often satirised in the work of both Bonney and Sutherland, and that is that a deeply affective poetry reading which displays a fantastic skill with language and knowledge of poetical strategies can risk leading us right back to the figure of the artist, of the poet. I think some of the ways the Occupy movement has used the human microphone reconfigure this problem, as, indeed, do certain forms of experimental performance (such as Becky Cremin’s paper yesterday), and I look forward to seeing poets negotiate political spaces in ways which demonstrably challenge the centrality of the poet.







[2] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), p. 237. Further references, where clear, will be in parentheses in the body of my paper.

[3] Sean Bonny, Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud (London: Unkant, 2011), p.12.

[4] Sean Bonney, ‘Letter on Poetics (After Rimbaud)’ in Crisis Inquiry, ed. Richard Owens (Buffalo: Punch Press, 2012), p. 21. First published on Bonney’s blog, Abandoned Buildings in 2011, and then in a small print run called Four Letters, Four Comments published by Punch Press in 2011. 

[5] Justin Katko, ‘On ‘10/11/10’’ in Hi Zero, ed. Joe Luna, Vol. 4 (2011). Unpaginated.  

[6] David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art and Imagination (London: Minor Compositions, 2011), p. 98.


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