Left-wing values cling to the young like a second skin - power to the people, equality for all. Almost every young writer I’ve ever met in thirty years amid the smoky workshops and pub back-rooms of the country has wanted somehow to bring the government down. Writers change the world. The world is powered by men with money. That’s got to be sorted. The writers turn out their poems and their novels. Better red than dead. They sing their socialist songs. Working Class Hero, Midnight Special, Ghost of Tom Joad, Maggie’s Farm. We Shall Overcome.
There’s a great list of these activists. Jack Kerouac, Kingsley Amis, Arthur Koestler, David Mamet, PJ O'Rourke, Nick Cohen. And they all shifted right as age came upon them. Fighting the system is an exciting, adrenalin-driven activity - getting yourself locked to railings, carried away from sit-ins, graffiti the sides of buildings, putting metal glue into the locks of the Welsh Office, pouring blood red dye into the fountains of Trafalgar Square. Easy when you are twenty. Harder to stay with once you’ve retired.
But Mike Jenkins, stalwart of the Welsh working-class left and a hero in his own right is still as true to his chosen position (Socialist republican) as he was when he started. Merthyr’s Red Poets Society is his stronghold. His magazine of the same name has now reached fifteen numbers. This is a journal of radical poetry from Wales and the world. System breaking stuff from the revolutionary road. It is financially supported by the Welsh Books Council, an agent of the state. The ambiguity of this situation is worn with a sort of wonky pride.
“How do poets respond to the total moral and ideological bankruptcy of most politicians who let the financial sector operate unfettered…” Jenkins asks. “With invective and satire” he then replies. Jenkins believes that poetry can still change our consciousness.
The magazine ripples with outraged protest. Poetry against war, tourism, fascism, the dollar, unemployment, government failure, nuclear power, Israel, the downturn, the banks, Gordon Brown, mammon, and then war and the bomb again. Nothing changes in the world as it rolls on, except maybe the names at the top and the order in which our difficulties come.
Phil Knight tracks the red streak he’s found in the work of Dylan Thomas, Dylan “the romantic socialist” willing to join in with anyone who believed in “the right of all men to share, equally and impartially”. There’s poetry from the late and much-missed Terry Hetherington along with an appreciation of his work from Alan Perry. Among the larger roll call sit Herbert Williams, John Evans, David Lloyd, Phil Carradice, Alun Rees, Mab Jones, John Gimblett and Robert Nisbet, all still sailing across the clear red water. Copies are available at £4. Check http://www.redpoets.org/.
A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 7th November, 2009