Photograph: Riots on the streets of Tottenham (detail) cc Nico Hogg
“SO WHAT’S GOING ON with those London riots, then?” asked the cab driver. I was headed to JFK en route to Heathrow; after eight years living in the U.S., I was returning to the U.K. He told me what he’d heard from the BBC, Fox News, Sky, and I chipped in my two cents, thinking back to when I was last living in North London, sharing what friends still living in the capital had told me.
I’d spent the day before listening to two soundtracks: first, the raised yells, splintered glass, dull thump of heaved bricks as another plate glass window in another high street shop, someone’s livelihood, someone else’s nine-to-five, shattered. The videos on the BBC website, some still live, brought the third night of riots in London, Birmingham, and Manchester into my home in three-by-five inch frames. Buildings the size of traffic circles shot flames 15 feet into the air.
Commentators on newspaper blogs and Facebook reported the latest, sounding their alarm, calling out these yobs, this riffraff, these kids. Some politicians were already blaming social media for stoking the riots. Meanwhile, local residents used Twitter to find one another and begin the clean-up. #whatjusthappened
I watched bands of hooded looters range the streets, jubilant, fired-up; some passersby nervously turnedthe other way, some paused to get out their camera phones. I was here when…What does it mean to be present for these riots, which for me take place in a London that used to be home, in a U.K. where I’m about to, as they say, repatriate? How can any of us make our presence at these riots meaningful, admit our implication in them?
The second soundtrack to my morning had no answers but some useful puzzles. The graveled voice of the new American poet laureate, Philip Levine, recited his poem “They Feed They Lion.” Written in the late nineteen-sixties, about the 1967 Detroit riots, where 43 people were killed, 470-odd injured, over 2,000 buildings destroyed, this poem disturbed my morning in the present, as it should:
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies
They Lion grow.
The poem, written out of an experience of working in grease shops, is not an explanation for the riots. It’s like a transcript of the city’s industrialized energy, all camshafts and nightshifts. In Levine’s poem, something emerges from where it has been waiting, lingering. While he lists the hackneyed causes of riots – new migrants, impoverished urban estates, white privilege – these heaped “out of” phrases collide with one another to complicate our ability to say: this is how and why it started. “The acids of rage” won’t place the blame on a single ethnic, economic, or geographic group nor, as the U.K. Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke has done, on that old fallback of “a broken penal system.” Instead, this poem makes us think hard about industrialization and community, about “gasoline” and “the bones’ needs to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch.”
“They lion grow,” that beautiful, terrible refrain, originates in a self-conscious black vernacular: it comes from a sentence spoken by a mechanic, named either Eugene or Lemon Still Junior. Levine remembers Eugene/Lemon as aware he was speaking a language Levine didn’t speak but could understand. That phrase’s idiom is something else, too, beyond a vernacular: machine parts and garage materials infusing human veins. Class and race have everything to do with it, but they aren’t reasons to stop listening, to set up differences as barricades.
So much of the poem’s power comes from that “they,” the way it speaks an idiosyncratic English, somewhat put on for a white listener, yet doesn’t settle there. There’s no fixed identity position the “they” describes, which you see as soon as you try to unravel lines like:
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
At its most pedestrian, the sentence “they feed they lion” refers to burlap sacks of animal food from the Zoo, but in Levine’s poem, it names a shifting, hard-to-identify Detroit group, the lion as symbol for that city. Levine wrote the poem after returning to Detroit and feeling that he was “part of the problem, not part of the solution,” that he was “middle-aged, middle-class, and white.” He recalled Eugene’s sentence from 1953, 14 years earlier, and, listening to that speech, to something that both was and was not his own experience, he wrote a poem that was not a solution but an attempt to begin to understand: a way of thinking about a happening.
Since the U.K. riots, literature has featured in the coverage in two ways: references to quotations that mention “riot” and articles musing on why the bookstores weren’t looted. Where does poetry fit into the situation? I listen to Levine’s poem again, wanting to work out how “they feed they lion” manages to name a “they” Levine isn’t part of, but isn’t separate from. I wonder who has written a “They Feed They Lion” since July, and when we’ll hear it.
Over the last thirty years, British writers Grace Nichols, Benjamin Zephaniah, Judith Kazantis, Adrian Mitchell, and scores more, have written poems that dissent from the status quo and call out British establishment for its blind spots and hypocrisies. Roger Agard, writing in the eighties, promised to turn “rhymin’ to riotin’.” Jackie Kay’s Off Colour took to task silences in both government and media over deep-seated racism in Britain. Julia Darling’s “Poverty” opened “you don’t see it / it’s packed out of town,” while Linton Kwesi Johnson called out the Sus Law, the motivation for the 1980 Tottenham riots, in poems like “Sonny’s Lettah”: “all of a sudden a police van pull up / out jump tree policemen / de whole a dem carryin baton.” Such poems allowed silenced communities to become audible, helped them coalesce around what some people knew was happening but the rest of society ignored.
At the same time, protest poetry has long been hamstrung by an impulse to separate the “poetic” from the “political.” Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov’s friendship collapsed over the issue; at one point, Duncan argued that Levertov’s poetry of protest had actually become part of the war apparatus. In the fifties, Langston Hughes critiqued Melvin B. Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia – written to commemorate that nation’s centennial – as too “hyper-European” and “unpopulist” to be of political use. Back at the turn of the 19th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth disagreed as to how realist or fantastical their revolutionary Lyrical Ballads should be, with Coleridge claiming a “radical difference” in their takes on poetry. Our tendency as writers and readers to slight the poetry or the politics behind a poem seems doubly strange when one thinks about the linked genres of folk music, rap, and spoken word, where protest is routinely valued.
Underneath these disagreements lies a way of reading poetry that privileges its content: what the poem is about, rather than how it goes about. When we do so, we limit what we might take from poetry to ideas, ideas we can only agree or disagree with. Agard’s vow to set “rhymin’ to riotin'” is a plan to change form as well as introduce new subjects. Lyrical Ballads wanted to change how poetry was written, the languages it could speak, not merely its subjects. Today’s need to classify a poem as either political or not is regressive; it separates poetry from the language we use every day, the language that tips us towards or hold us back from the kinds of conflict that become full-fledged battles, ignoring the fact that language is always political.
We see the intertwined nature of politics and the poetic in Myung Mi Kim’s writing. Her third book, Dura, explored the cultural divides that happen around claims to “own” language, which should be shared. At one point, Dura interweaves Kim’s words with words spoken by Jung Hui Lee, the mother of Edward Jae Song Lee, killed during the 1992 L.A. riots (for looting; he wasn’t): “Flakes of fire ripen fire / It could not be my son.” This poem bears witness to the stories of those riots, but it also asks readers to consider their own involvement in the event, no matter what distance they might claim from it. As Kim has pointed out, language is a “social practice”: we all use language, and use it differently, so part of forming meaningful communities involves finding ways to attend to each other’s words, sounds, and meanings. Poetry offers us a way to do this, as poetry is bound up with the daily languages we speak and hear. Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” remember, began with that sentence spoken by his co-worker. Poetry has always been part of the equation.
To think about poetry and riot in Britain, we could go back to John Gower’s 1381 Vox Clamantis, which depicts London rioters as irrational animals during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. We could look to Shakespeare’s depictions of Jack Cade fomenting riot in Henry IV Part II. We could look to the Williams, Blake and Morris, or to British writings about the French Revolution, but there is a poetry beyond all this we haven’t paid enough attention to, a poetry already being written that has much to tell us about riot even when – especially if – it never mentions the words. If we can read beyond content, read for poetics, a poem’s ways of thinking, we might learn to understand riot in more complex ways.
I flew overnight to London, landed at Heathrow at the tail end of a bored sunrise. It was the briefest of stays: my brother drove me through city centre streets choked with traffic and road works, crawling towards Paddington Station, where a train would take me four hours into the South West, out past the most westerly of the reported riot scenes, in Bristol, where Cabot Circus shopping center was attacked and police clashed with rioters outside one of the many British pubs named The Jamaica Inn. As we drove, I looked for signs of the riots, for boarded-up windows, police tape, embers. I looked for evidence, looked to see what had happened.
It was the wrong thing to be doing, a ghoulish riot tourism that had been everywhere since the first outbreaks. In the immediate aftermath, Google maps popped up on newspapers and blogs to locate and describe the various scenes. At best, they helped to track unfolding event and to inform people who might be headed to those places, but in the weeks after, they seemed like virtual walking tours, claims to be able to pin down just what happened. Almost always, they described looting and/or window-smashing. Some of them used catchy images of burning fires.
Perhaps what feels wrong about this kind of labeling and fixing is that it supposes London, Birmingham, Manchester as generally untroubled space. In so doing, it masks the way our big cities are always on edge, always about to tip over into some kind of aggression. Something about London’s warren of streets and its boroughs uneasily bordering each other means that there’s a lot we don’t notice. If New York City thrives on street theatre and on public displays, events in London too often happen out of sight, then suddenly erupt, as they did in August. To try to read meaning in the fact that bookstores weren’t looted, that certain sports stores were, or that the riots were a parody of consumerism is to get incongruous snapshots of a process that has developed over time across geographies and communities.
Returning, I think back to the moments when London sparked into violence while I lived here: the pitched gun battle on the road by the park two weeks after I’d moved away; the anti-Semite haranguing me in front of Euston Station; the preteens shooting fireworks at each other across the street on Guy Fawkes night; the day soon after 9/11 when 20 or so policemen stormed up the stairs of the block of flats opposite me, battering rams at the ready, only to come back out minutes later empty-handed, milling around. To tell these incidents, though, is to slip into the risks of anecdote, to rely on half-knowledge rather than to think about the connections and fragmentations in London which leave us unaware that too many of us are being stopped and searched time and again for no reason.
Eleanor Cooke’s long-awaited fourth book, The Return – her previous book, A Kind of Memory, came out eight years back – has nothing, on its surface, to do with the London riots. Cooke writes about language, about religion, about the way men position women. Her poems are intimate, at times domestic, and sparse, with not one syllable left in that was needed elsewhere: “Words charge everything with their lies, / their certainties : / how cuply is this cup. How lovely, love.” At the same time, these poems have everything to do with riot, with social coming-to-blows, with what is called “the broken society” – provided we let them. They tell a story of small instances of violence, of aggression just below the visible surface of the social fabric. They ask us to think about how we’re acting on the street, in our homes.
Even the pleasures of meeting become tense and untrustworthy here. The Return‘s opening line is “A small shock of recognition,” and, elsewhere, a woman searches for words, “something I wanted to say, tell – beads, / a spell; but he was holding my hands, / filling my mouth with kisses.” A palpable sense of upheaval makes this an uneasy, restless book where we find
between the shutters and the window glass.
The house rocked,
but couldn’t comfort them.
These protagonists are disembodied; their only solace is a building that can’t offer them what they need. As in “They Feed They Lion,” Cooke’s poems present us with a world where human interaction is hard to find amid the wear-and-tear of the material world.
It’s not only the lingering violence of the contemporary world that we notice reading The Return. Cooke’s lines tend to isolate meaningful phrases from one another, a way of writing which causes these poems to take place in slow motion, their conclusions all the more devastating for having seemed at once inevitable and preventable. If only we could intervene after this line break, or this one, they seem to say. A woman finds a couplet by the 8th century lyric poet Godric in her handbag: “Ic on this erthe / wid mine bare fote itrede.” What Godric might offer, we never find out: “She screws it up […] / No use to her if she can’t understand it.” The double meaning of “screws it up” only serves to make these lines of poetry doubly useless. Though the West Saxon words are about to make sense, we’re not given a do-over: in the next poem, Godric emerges to flash a “gang of schoolgirls” and be interned in the Cottage Hospital.
Caribbean philosopher Edouard Glissant wrote that “The poem is a moment of voice, it does not come to rest.” That, it seems to me, is the work poetry can perform during moments of social upheaval and fragmentation. Whatever we envision poetry to be, however spoken word or settled form, lyric or dissonant or dissonant lyric, poetry is an activity that asks us to think about how things fit together – or don’t. Whose mouths are we filling, stopping? Poetry is a challenge to not take language at face value, to not let things settle in fixed categories. It works against the repeatability of the sound-bite because it tends to cause the sort of confusion Godric’s reader experiences in The Return. The question, of course, is how to stop poetry being screwed up, so to speak.
Where Cooke’s The Return shows us the ordinariness of violence and leaves us to face it, Robert Sheppard’s Berlin Bursts, his twelfth book of poems, addresses the historical legacies that inform our actions and language today. This deep history is happening, for Sheppard, right up close: “The sound / in your head was the Mayan stopwatch, / millennia stretching from the head of a pin / and all our futures conquered.” The effect is a dizzying movement between scales, with the action taking place inside our craniums, but also meandering across everyone’s millennia to come.
This translation between scales works to bring the individual into focus and to make her – you – a part of the mass, “the slow recession of figures / into the crowd at the back of every century, jostling / at the turning point.” A sudden gathering of pace in these lines leaves no pause to take stock of what’s going on – not that that matters terribly, since there’s “no clear signal beyond this point” anyway. The answers, Sheppard suggests, are not out there waiting for us. The road is closed for a murder investigation but still we find “the traffic lights / acting as if nothing had happened.” If we’re faced with riot, it’s not for the first time; there’s a historical scale against which to balance three nights in July 2011.
Berlin Bursts (balloon bursts), like Sheppard’s previous book, Warrant Error (war on terror), prods at language, displacing its familiar formations. The sleight of language by which the breaking down of the Berlin wall edges up against the bursting of a balloon works against what one poem poignantly calls “the empire of automatic reflex.” With the materiality of the world shifting before our ears and eyes, it’s impossible not to ask questions. Or, as “The Poem in the Book” puts it, “You’ll never finish reading / the poem in the book with reality pulling itself / inside out before your eyes.”
That assertion describes a key strain in British poetry’s engagement with social and political conditions: a tension between what it means to act and what it means to write. To use Alison Fell’s pithy lines about the Cold War, “I became crazy: / ‘I’ll be an artist’ I said / and bristled for the skirmish.” If we’re tempted to accept the notion floated (and ultimately rejected) by William Carlos Williams that “it is difficult / to get the news from poems,” both The Return andBerlin Bursts find a space somewhere between those two terms. They neither require poetry to tell us what has happened nor free it from an obligation to the realities of the world unfolding around us. In addition, they ask us to think in different ways: not to adopt new opinions, but to practice new ways of looking at the problem. These books offer us different ways of thinking about the world, the former tracing the steps by which a sudden anger erupts between two people, the latter seeing us caught up in a relentless accumulation of historical events we ignore at risk. They don’t need to be about riot to be useful to us now, to give us pause — when pause now is needed — for thought, for coming to understand.
There’s a legend about this place I’m living, Devil’s Point, a promontory of Plymouth, England, the place we say the Pilgrims sailed from. (It’s true, but only because they’d stopped to repair their ship; they set off from Leiden, Holland and arrived in what become Provincetown; Plymouth is the word we’ve given to their migration.) Legend says that the Devil, having conquered almost all of England, tried to finish the job in Cornwall. He found too many local saints there, so he leapt right back to England, and Devil’s Point was where he landed. Like all stories, it’s a way of making sense of where we’ve found ourselves. It’s not a truth, gospel or otherwise, but a means of trying to understand our situation.
This essay has not meant to make a case or even an apology for poetry. Poetry survives all on its own. It’s up to us to listen to it, and to give it the kinds of space where we can listen to it: whether that takes the form of London outfits 57 Productions’ Poetry Jukebox, Berkeley’s Addison Street sidewalk poetry, Philip Levine’s hope as Poet Laureate to introduce 5-10 minute radio slots for poets, or something else as yet unimagined.
There’s a habit of thinking that poetry is good at fostering: a kinetic, non-didactic way of keeping-you-guessing. “They feed they Lion” indeed. Who they? Who we? When we they? Waking up in the middle of the night once in the U.S., I switched on BBC World Service radio to hear poet Simon Armitage defining poetry as “considered speech.” The definition, as poetry tends to, plays two ways: it either means that poetry must be language carefully thought about by its writer, or that poetry doesn’t become poetry until it’s been thought about by others, considered. Or possibly it means something between the either/or; perhaps we can best describe poetry as the / we’re liable to gloss over.
British poetry won’t tell us why these latest riots happened, when they’ll happen again, or why we seem unable to come together as communities who can listen and explore difference. British poetry might comment on why so few Brits could say much about HMS Windrush, or Britain’s role in the slave trade, or how Britain’s imperial ambitions implicate her in the current oppression in Burma, but it won’t resolve those issues, and it won’t change the minds of those who make decisions – not all of whom, the riots showed us, are elected officials.
What poetry will do, if we let it, if we listen to it, is show us some ways of thinking about these problems. The tour-de-force closing poem in Cooke’s The Return, “The Eye and the Laureate:River Thames, London, 2510,” riffs on those famous Westminster Bridge poems (the erstwhile radical William Wordsworth at their source) to offer a dystopic, post-apocalypse London that’s eerily like our own:
We gather where the old bridge stood. It’s cold. We want to go to the shelters but the word’s gone out, so we wait under the moving cloud, trying to cover our heads
In Cooke’s bewildered and bewildering version of London, the huddled “we” seem to know that language matters, but not quite what it’s meant for. “‘I’ve got a new word,’ I says, ‘but it’ll wait till morning.'” That’s where Cooke leaves us: hanging on a word. It’s up to us whether we’re the first to chip in a handy verb or hefted noun, or whether we stop to survey the scene, to see what’s already being said. Neither way is prescribed, not in Cooke’s poem. We’re not, to quote British poet Liz Locheed, “really that bossable.”
How we use language during these post-riot months is a key part of what kinds of reconciliation and rebuilding we’ll be able to achieve in Britain going forward. Lest we forget, the spark that set them off — whatever they became after — was the reverse synecdoche by which Mark Duggan, Tottenham resident, father, estate kid, football player, became just a gun. Language is not an abstraction that’s isolated from social conditions. In the hands of poets like Levine, Kim, Cooke, Sheppard, and others mentioned here poetic language gives us multiple ways to think. In the aftermath of sudden events, we ask the experts to air their conflicting opinions, to stake their claims to being right; that’s the format we’ve devised. Imagine if we imposed a day’s moratorium on opinion in favor of the on-the-move, doubling-back voices of poetry?
That fanciful notion risks a naïve idealism; and yet Granta reports how anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahir Square, Egypt, recited poems by Mahmoud Darwish and others during their nighttime vigils. We can understand those recitals as a means to coalesce group identity — the way poetry is typically seen, wheeled out for “occasions” — or we can recognize the ways such uses of poetry encourage thought. We might, in turn, think about the poems being written and recited in Cairo’s new uprisings, in Syria, as part of the Occupy movements; but also beyond these spaces, in spaces which too often go silenced unless they erupt. Turning to poetry could be our way of thinking about the riots themselves, their precursors, their futures, and our own roles as participants and observers, implicated and in it.