What is going on in Brazil?

After a pleasurable few weeks posting and conversing only about poetry, I feel obliged to return to the thorny issue of Brazilian politics.

Living as a ‘guest’ in Brazil—although I dispute the use of that metaphor for someone who has been a legal resident of the country for nearly 20 years—I am often cautious of commenting on local politics. Likewise, as both a long-standing sympathizer and detached critic of the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (henceforth PT), I find my loyalties severely divided by recent events. Yet, as a social scientist and student of politics in Brazil and around the world, I find myself duty-bound to comment on the recent crisis, which—storm in a teacup though it may be—nevertheless poses a potentially serious threat.

Political developments in Brazil need to be set in three distinct, but often overlapping and clashing, broader contexts. First there is the history of politics and class-conflict in Brazil and, more broadly, in Latin America as a whole, within which Brazil is both a fellow-traveler and a very distinct entity. Second, there is the world-wide historical shift towards a crisis of confidence in traditional politics and ideology, which has engendered apathy and extremism in differing measures in various parts of the globe. And third, there is the global economic context, in which unprecedented and largely unfettered interconnectivity precludes the possibility of local solutions, while glaring inequalities and unsustainability sow the festering seeds of crises and conflicts to come.

I imagine few people in the West bother to read articles on the Russian-government-funded RT News website, except briefly before launching into tirades against its obvious pro-Putin bias, heedless perhaps of the pro-Washington Consensus bias that unwittingly or not pervades even the most liberal of their own supposedly free and independent media outlets. I do.

A recent RT editorial argued that, of the four original BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), Brazil is the one that is currently floundering in its new global mission. I do not fully agree with this, although I myself once suggested—somewhat tongue-in-cheek in a lecture that the BRICs should be renamed the CRIBs, since China is the clear front-runner and Brazil the most fragile member of this informal grouping.

I cite this RT article, not because I agree with it, but because of the striking contrast between the view of the Putinite RT journalists that Brazil is stalling economically because it is too much in the pocket of the US and the EU and that of many of the most vocal opponents of the newly re-elected Brazilian government to the effect that the country’s leaders are crypto-communists increasingly favoring Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran.

The fact is that Brazil finds itself—not for the first time—caught in the middle of a global clash of opinions, and local politicians—yet again—are only too eager take advantage of this situation.

Latin America has always been at a huge geographical disadvantage compared to the rest of the world. Forbidding geographical barriers divide it from other continents and even from itself, making coast-to-coast economic or political unity a virtual impossibility. This disadvantage was exacerbated by the history of European intervention and interference, beginning at a time when the continent’s own aboriginal civilizations were starting tentatively to develop their own kind of economic take-off. The European conquest devastated the continent through a combination of greed for gain, racism and slavery, and the unwitting or deliberate spread of infectious disease.

Easily dominated, Latin America proved much less easy to control or overrun. The gold, silver and sugar that the conquistadores and bandeirantes stole from temples and had slaves dig from the ground only served to fuel inflation in the motherlands and entrench a brutal feudal racist and increasingly fratricidal system in the far-flung colonies.

Different from Europe, where feudal disputes between nobles, kings and popes gave rise to the emergence of a relatively prosperous, and hence vocal, middle- and later working-class, the Latin American haciendas and export-oriented coastal cities remained deeply divided by perverse notions of birthright, authority and race—as to a great extent they still are.

Post-independence, the new Latin American republics, for all their Jacobin-inspired and later positivistic fervor, collapsed under the weight of contradictions between their own classes in the context of an unpropitious international environment. The nascent US treated Mexico and other nations to the same kind of gunboat diplomacy that the British Royal Navy had used so effectively around the globe. This was especially effective in Latin America, where everything depends upon the balance of trade to a much greater extent than in any other part of the world.

Keen to turn round this dependency on exports and imports and consequent vulnerability to the vicissitudes of international markets—especially in the wake of the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s—Latin American governments in the 20th century embarked on a policy of import-substitution industrialization (ISI). This understandable, but ultimately misguided strategy, aimed to ‘catch up with’ the industrialized nations of Europe and North America by developing local manufacturing industries for a local market.

Import-substitution would prove to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it did provide a kick-start for modernization, albeit it one of a peculiarly skewed and inequitable kind. On the other, it created new class fissures, without resolving old ones, and led to urban overpopulation, rural depopulation, impoverishment and degradation, and ultimately hyperinflation, since domestic technological advances could not keep pace with foreign competitors without cancelling out its potential profits and accruing massive debts through the need to import the secondary technologies necessary for the industrial upgrade.

Brazilian governments, like those of other countries in Latin America, are always stuck between a rock and a hard place in this regard. They have to keep up appearances internationally, while driving down costs at home, All too often, this results in cruelty, poverty, inequality and disenfranchisement among the most vulnerable sectors of society and the perpetual pursuit of a perverse and ultimately unsustainable mirage of a trickle-down developmental path that precariously benefits none but a tiny few.

Internally, Brazilian governments, of whatever ideological persuasion, have had to negotiate a patchwork of entrenched, often violently conflicting, interests. Local coronéis (with a range of quaintly outdated ideologies) vie for favor with landless peasants and powerful trade-unions that represent not the poorest of the poor, but the already highly privileged public workers of a bloated, out-dated, at once servile and militant, civil service. No government can succeed unless it somehow juggles all these demands. The untranslatable jeitinho of corruption is often the only way to get any good done and things usually end first in apparent amity, compromise, amnesty and impunity (em pizza, as they say in Brazil), then badly, as cycles of relative success grind inevitably to a halt. The clunky wheels of state are stalled by the accumulation of dirt left by the very oils and unction intended to lubricate them.

The apparently miraculous break with this depressingly repetitious pattern in recent years in Brazil is now being seen by many as yet another, albeit somewhat more long-standing, cyclical economic mirage.

Brazil and its PT government have enjoyed exceptional good luck and misfortune in equal measure in the early years of the 21st century. When the PT first came to power nationally in 2003, it was—Messianic acclamations from the likes of Anthony Giddens apart—a progressive left-wing government practically alone in a world in which almost everybody else was hurtling headlong towards the now vindicated supposedly post-ideological and post-geopolitical (globalized) tenets of the neoliberal right.

Ironically this global scenario provided the fledgling leftist administration in Brazil with the very springboard it needed. Global growth—especially in China—enabled Brazil to return (and much more lucratively) to the export-based economy that had been the 19th century stock in trade, exporting, as luck would have it, huge quantities of food, biofuel, steel and (later) oil to the emerging Chinese juggernaut.

This windfall enabled Brazil to pay off its burdensome debts, invest to some extent in its own technology sector, and introduce some modest much needed social reforms and wealth distribution, although the latter were only achieved by way of creative and arguably corrupt negotiations with an overwhelmingly hostile national congress—a necessary, yet morally dubious, pact with the devil that haunts the PT to this day.

Back in 2003, I was reading a lot about the origins of parliamentary democracy in 17th century England. Faced with an intractably corrupt, hostile, and backward-looking royalist parliament, Oliver Cromwell marched his roundheads down to London and closed the whole thing down. The Lula government achieved consent for social reform merely with a few well-placed bribes. Something regrettable, but far from unusual in the politics of Brazil or any other country. Though this may reflect how venal and cynical democratically-elected representatives have become, I know which I prefer… A little bit of corruption to oil the wheels and do good; not a military coup.

In the years following 2003, Lady Luck continued to smile on the PT and sun Brazil with her largesse. The Great Recession of 2007-2009 left Brazil virtually unscathed and new oil-extraction technologies, combined with rocketing prices for this and other commodities and a growing social-reform-driven internal consumer market appeared, by the time Lula left office, in 2010, to have brought Brazil within reach of its age-old aspiration and seeming titled right to join the ranks of the first world.

Many serious issues, however, remained unresolved. And luck, as it tends to, is fast running out. Social reform and wealth redistribution in Brazil, despite significant achievements, remained modest and piecemeal. While shopping and credit and real-estate speculation have thrived, buoyed by a sturdy export market for soya and steel, services in sectors such as health, transport and education—although much improved in recent years—have still fallen far short of the high standards that have become the perhaps illusory norm in supposedly more developed parts of the world.

Such shortcomings clashed sharply with the pomp of pricey white-elephant building projects connected with upcoming international sporting events and sparked widespread protests and demonstrations across the country in June 2013. This wave of dissent was led principally by the young, the wired and the far left, and largely confined to the middle class. It was met with a painfully familiar combination of government indifference and police brutality, which came down especially harshly on the few working-class and student protesters, who were campaigning primarily for nothing more than more affordable public transport. All of this orchestrated by a new president who had herself once been tortured and raped by a military regime.

By the time of the presidential and congressional elections of October 2014, this popular opposition movement had been fully co-opted by the right and the media barons that are its faithful thralls, resulting in an unusually bitter election campaign—by laid-back Brazilian standards—on all sides. Friendships were broken by the constant to and fro of increasingly polarized posts on social media.

The PT and its fair-weather coalition partners won the 2014 election by a whisker. But, unusually for modern Brazil, the opposition seems to have rejected this outcome, rousing the discontent of the June days of 2013 to call for impeachment and raise, fifty years after Brazil descended into the moral quagmire of a dictatorial regime, the specter of a military coup.

I doubt a coup will occur. Nor do I expect President Dilma Roussef to be impeached. The only Brazilian president to endure this humiliation was Fernando Collar, back in 1992—the first year I visited Brazil—who, like Nixon in the US in 1974, was by then universally regarded as an incompetent and a crook. Dilma, for all her troubles and failings, is not seriously regarded as such.

The ground is muddied, however, going forward, by a legacy of unwholesome alliances, which Dilma cannot manage with the likeable panache that was Lula’s forte, and by the increasingly obfuscating glare of social media.

The outlook is not rosy. The fall in oil prices, the slowdown in China, and the inevitable levelling off of economic growth, not just in the south, but in all parts of Brazil, do not augur well for short-term prosperity or long-term stability in Brazil.

Had the legitimate concerns raised by all sectors of society in June 2013 been heeded and swiftly and robustly addressed by the central government, this situation, whereby popular protest has given way to right-wing slogans, personal attacks and the veiled threat of outright sedition, might have been averted.

The reason it was not surely has to do with the fact that, even after 12 years of government, the PT is still and increasingly beholden to pseudo-centrist, backward-looking, essentially extremely right-wing coalition partners, whom its politicians are increasingly coming to resemble in all but name.

It is precisely these self-interested, right-wing, fair-weather backers of the PT administration that threaten—raising the specter of impeachment or a military coup— to bring it down, drawing opportunistically on a justifiably indignant and fearful popular imagination.

And, given the dirty deals the PT has done in the past decade to spur, stagger, or stall social development, these reactionary forces are in an ideal position to smugly and self-righteously blackmail their one-time partners into submission.

The Brazilian PT—once the great hope of the world—has nurtured a nest of vipers in its bosom. Let us hope that the venom is not as potent as opponents pretend and that stings will backfire. And that the PT will wake up finally to its duty and one-time promise to provide genuine political and socio-economic reform for this proud and great, yet perennially self-destructive, nation that is Brazil.

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Haiku

I have never been a great fan of haiku. I baulk at the fuss about form and question whether a Westerner can ever achieve the detachment from ego necessary to dominate the genre or indeed whether this is a desirable goal.

Here, nevertheless, are some loosely constructed haiku poems I wrote last week during a thunderstorm.

Urban Haiku #1

Rain tips down parallel

to tower blocks

to a drumbeat from above.

Lightning lost in city lights.

Urban Haiku #2

Streetlights twinkle

in the downpour,

dripping tears of water

between the trees.

Urban Haiku #3

A single lit window

half-way up a skyscraper

winks out into the night.

Urban Haiku #4

The weight of rain

weighs down power cables

like tropical icicles

Urban Haiku #5

The dark mass of two mango trees

frames a streetlight

and a reddish patch of sky

Urban Haiku #6

Pets flee the sudden light and noise

seeking refuge under sofas and beds.

Urban Haiku #7

A lull in rain

brings out frogs

and dimly lit Windows

Urban Haiku #8

The sky blackens;

the image transmitted by Sky

Is pixelated

Urban Haiku #9

Relief comes

to a city

set again

in sharp relief;

water seeps

into earth.

 

Urban Haiku #10

Calmed

barely audible thunder rumbles

faraway,

like someone secretly clearing out an attic

for a midnight flit

Urban Haiku #11

Odd drops drip from leaves

in the still night

before dawn

Modal Verbs Over Time

I was going to post something on the messy and increasingly worrying business of Brazilian politics, but instead I find myself seeking solace in a more abstract comfort zone of statistical linguistics and discourse analysis

According to Google N-gram, the pattern of frequency of the nine main Modern English modal verbs, can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will and would, in texts made available online by GoogleBooks, has changed significantly over time.

With the exception of can and could, the frequency of all modal verbs in this corpus declined between 1800 and 2000. At the outset of the 19th century, these nine modal verbs accounted for 1.09% of all lexemes in the corpus. By 1900 this had dropped to 1.02% and by the year 2000 to 0.87%

The most striking change is the rise of can. In 1800 and 1900, can ranked fourth behind will, may and would with a frequency of 0.13%. By 2000, however, it had risen to a clear first place with 0.20%, 0.06 percentage points ahead of will and would in equal second place. Most of this change occurred in the second half of the 20th century.

The frequency of could remained unchanged over the 200-year period surveyed, although, given the overall decline in the use of modal verbs, this translates into a rise from 8th place out of 9 in 1800 to 6th in 1900 to 5th in 2000.

The modal verb that saw the sharpest decline was shall, falling from a frequency of 0.09% (7th place) in 1800 to 0.7% (8th place) in 1900 and 0.2% (last place) in 2000. May also declined, albeit at a slower pace, from 0.16% (2nd place) in 1800 to 0.15% (3rd place) in 1900 and 0.11% (4th place) in 2000.

These bald statistics merit some discussion and interpretation.

Given, as always, the proviso that the kinds of texts included in the Google corpus may differ according to historical period (e.g. more fiction in earlier years, more non-fiction recently), thus biasing the results, the changes revealed would appear to be related to shifts in meaning and fluctuating trends over time and, more controversially, to ongoing social, cultural and technological developments.

The large increase in the use of can may be explained in part by the tendency, especially over the past 50 years, to fail to distinguish between can (=is physically able) and may (=is permitted) and to use can for both purposes. In more old-fashioned language “Can I open the window?” means “Am I physically capable of opening the window?” rather than “Do you mind if I/am I allowed to open the window?” While this distinction may persist to this day in the politest of spoken discourse, it is almost gone from written texts. “May I open the window?” sounds OK, if a little overweening, “Immigrants may apply for a permanent visa within 90 days” has a somewhat fussy, fusty and off-putting tone, compared to the same sentence with may replaced by can.

The greater frequency of can could also be explained by the rise, especially since the 1950s, spurred by the advertising and self-help industries, of a mentality of “can do”, “ yes we/you can”, often with a previously unnatural sentence stress on the modal verb. This reflects both a rise in personal liberties, but also, more negatively, an increasing insistence that people draw on their supposed inner resources for personal betterment, rather than rely on others: “You can lose weight…” “You can quit smoking,” “You can be successful…”

In an age of increasing inequality and powerlessness in the face of addictions and the multinational corporations that fuel them, the growing use of this little word conveniently shifts the lion’s share of the blame onto the victim, without resorting to the harshness of modal verbs of obligation–“must, should, shall,”—all of which have declined significantly in frequency of use between the early 19th and the early 21st centuries.

Google’s frequency analysis does not allow us to distinguish between the modal verb ‘can’ and ‘can’ as a noun meaning a container for processed food and beverages. Both of these could reasonably have been expected to have increased in frequency in the period after the 1950s—and, to some extent, for the same reasons.

We can measure the potential bias produced by the emergence of canned food and drinks by comparing the frequency of can (modal verb + substantive” with that of near synonyms that have no grammatical functions.

“Tin” for example is synonymous with ‘can,’ albeit rarer in American English, and also has another substantive meaning, referring to the metallic element whose chemical symbol is Sn, which would need to be subtracted from the total. Rounding numbers down to two decimal places, as I have done with the modal verbs analyzed here, ‘tin’ never rises above 0.00% throughout the 200-year period. It reached a peak of 0.002% in the late 1940s, but has since declined by 50%, probably because of the rise of “can”. This would suggest that the contribution of “can” as a substantive to the overall frequency of the word is minimal.

A comparison with “box” shows an equally gaping disparity. “Box” has a frequency of about 0.005% up to the late 1980s, when it surges to 0.01% and, as with ‘tin,’ a small measure of this must be accounted for through use of ‘box’ as a verb in connection with the sport. However, even if “can” as a substantive enjoyed an equivalent increase over the same period, this would still only account for a minimal fraction of its growing frequency.

Even more convincingly, the word “computer”, which one would expect to rise in frequency dramatically in recent years, especially in a Google-gathered and hence biased corpus, shows exactly the same pattern as “box,” increasing from a low level of less than or equal to 0.005% up to the 1960s to a relatively meagre 0.01% at the turn of the millennium compared with modal verbs. It can therefore be concluded that the influence of canned food and fizzy drinks on the rising use of can as a modal verb is minimal and insignificant.

The reverse however may not be true. Google’s corpus does not allow us to compare the global frequency of use of the words “can”, “tin,” or the more exotic Australian “tube,” to refer to a standardized cylindrical container for processed food or drink. However, there can be little doubt that “can” has won the world-wide competition for the more popular term. This may be largely due to the sheer weight of numbers in favor of US or US-influenced “can” compared to parochial UK “tin” and Australian “tube”, but surely also has something to do with the apt convergence of the term with a growingly popular modal verb that signifies personal freedom and ease of use.

American English peculiarities do not, therefore, spread simply by dint of the economic, military and demographic weight of the US. Clunky US “faucet”, by contrast, is clearly parochial compared to the nicer and simpler “tap,” which has now taken on a wide range of different meanings, functions and grammatical forms around the world.

The global psychosocial shift towards language that implies ease of achievement and ease of use may also in part explain the rapid decline in the frequency of shall (with its overtones of external authority) compared to will (with its overtones of personal volition) in the Google corpus.

“You shall lose weight” (a phrase that sounds odd, if not outright wrong, in modern discourse) implies that the speaker has some magical power or authority to make this happen, while “You will lose weight…” implies that this is some natural process; hedges the statement—and hence dilutes the responsibility—by couching it in the form of a prediction regarding an always uncertain future; and, more subtly, suggests that the patient object of treatment’s own will is somehow intimately and ultimately entwined as subject and agent in a radically alien imposed healing process.

Apart from this, shall may have been over-represented in earlier texts because of adherence to the erroneous prescriptive rule that it is the correct modal verb to use to express the future in the first person.

In many empirical examples, this prescriptive use (albeit erroneous) does in fact overlap with the authoritative overtones of shall, especially when used by a speaker in a position of power, as most people who knew how to use it ‘properly’ at the time would have been.

“We shall fight them on the beaches!” conveys a much more powerful sense of duty and resolve than the somewhat lily-livered-sounding ‘will’—‘we want to, but…’. ‘maybe we will…’. To cite another Churchill anecdote concerning modal verbs: in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the British Prime Minister’s first words to Roosevelt on the trans-Atlantic telephone were “What shall we do?” Here shall has much more exhortative power than a helpless-sounding deer-in-the-headlights “What are we going to do?” Will here, interestingly, would simply be wrong.

While there may be some value in the decline of arbitrary authority and grammatical prescription in the modern world, the reduced frequency of shall and the irresistible rise of can also bear witness to a certain failure of resolve, combined with a growing tolerance of whimsical self-interest and comfort at the expense of collective duties and needs and an unhealthy (often hopelessly idealistic) emphasis on what underprivileged individuals can or should do. Politicians nowadays are more likely to tell us what they will do (i.e. what they want), what is going to happen (a shrug of inevitability) or what they or we can do (bombast in the first person; victim-blaming dolled up as empowerment in the second).

We all can and should do better than this.

Burning Questions

The following ‘found’ poem was constructed simply by taking the most common Google search requests beginning with the word ‘why’ plus a modal/auxiliary verb or the word ‘people’ and arranging them roughly in alphabetical order.

I have excluded any items that might be deemed offensive or that refer to celebrities, popular culture or passing fads.

I am not sure whether this is sad, funny, shocking, or all three.

Burning Questions

Why am I so tired?

Why am I always hungry?

Why am I always cold?

*

Why are gas prices so low?

Why are oil prices falling?

Why are you interested in this position?

*

Why aren’t flowers sold at a monastery?

Why aren’t my messages sending?

Why aren’t we funding this?

*

Why can’t dogs eat chocolate?

Why can’t I fall asleep?

Why can’t I get a job?

Why can’t we be friends?

*

Why couldn’t it be Christmas every day?

Why couldn’t the ghost tell a lie?

*

Why did I get married?

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why didn’t he call?

Why didn’t I think of that?

*

Why do dogs eat grass?

Why do I sweat so much?

Why do we dream?

*

Why does my cat lick me?

Why does my stomach hurt?

Why does it hurt when I pee?

*

Why doesn’t he text me?

Why doesn’t my hair grow?

Why doesn’t the moon rotate?

*

Why don’t we do it in the road?

Why don’t you get a job?

Why don’t you love me?

Why don’t you play in Hell?

*

Why hasn’t he asked me out yet?

Why hasn’t he called?

Why hasn’t my hydrangea flowered this year?

Why hasn’t my period come?

*

Why have a website?

Why have I missed my period?

Why have kids?

Why have we not returned to the moon?

Why haven’t we found aliens?

*

Why is my eye twitching?

Why is the sky blue?

Why is my internet so slow?

Why isn’t YouTube working?

Why isn’t my iPad charging?

Why isn’t Netflix working?

Why isn’t Pluto a planet?

Why isn’t the sky violet?

Why isn’t my brain working?

*

Why might a corpse be exhumed?

Why might a scientist falsify results?

Why might the government freeze assets?

*

Why must chemical equations be balanced?

Why must DNA be replicated?

Why must I be a teenager in love?

Why must I cry?

Why mustn’t you wake a sleepwalker?

*

Why not both?

Why not me?

*

why people cheat

why people lie

why people smoke

why people snore

why people bully

why people drink alcohol

why people get married

why people believe weird things

why people use drugs

why people hate me

*

Why don’t people vote?

Why don’t people believe in God?

Why don’t people like me?

*

Why shall the meek inherit the earth?

Why should I worry?

Why should we hire you?

*

Why was the Berlin wall built?

Why was the Declaration of Independence written?

Why wasn’t I good enough for him?

Why were dinosaurs so large?

Why were Jews persecuted?

Why were pyramids and castles built?

Why weren’t there enough lifeboats on the Titanic?

Why weren’t we told?

*

Why would you put that on the Internet?

Why wouldn’t you.

Butterfly Poem

The Butterfly

I would rather have you

fly away

like a butterfly

than go off

like butter;

I would rather taste

the sweetness

of your loss

than the rancour

of an unwanted presence;

I would rather live

the regret

of never having

cupped you

in my hands –

provided

you come back to me

from time to time

to sing your fluttering beauty

round my ears

in late night radio songs.

Reflections on ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ poetry

I wrote this post some time ago and am inspired to publish it now by the experience of being involved in WordPress’s Writing 201 Poetry course, during which I was impressed by the large number and wide range of contributions garnered from around the globe.

When did poetry cease to become mainstream? Was it ever read or written by more than an élite few? Could it really now have become marginal to the point of insignificance, if not extinction? Or has it merely been driven underground?

There was a time, not so long ago, when poetry was part of the mainstream and the lifeblood of society. Until quite recently, no self-respecting middle-class home would have been without books of verse on the shelves and working-class culture was pervaded by popular ditties, whose passage from one generation to the next, in a world with no sound-recording technology, required them to be memorized, improvised on, or written down.

There was a healthy flow back and forth between the erudite and the popular, as the numerous poems attributed to anonymous authors in the early sections of anthologies eloquently attest. It is practically a cliché to note how Shakespeare’s plays were carefully crafted to appeal simultaneously to the various and varying strata of Elizabethan society.

Elitism in poetry, as more broadly in literature, would appear, therefore, to be a relatively recent phenomenon, coinciding ironically with the emergence of a superficially more democratic age, less sharply divided by class. While pre-modern societies were pyramidal in structure, with the masses firmly oppressed at the bottom, the cultural mortar that held them together was more uniform and the layers shaded, both socially and culturally, more subtly and haphazardly into one another.

Modern societies are more likely to take the form of a wedding cake, with clearly distinct tiers, each with its specific ingredients to appeal to the increasingly ingrained tastes of increasingly firmly entrenched tribal groups. In this world of culturally, rather than socially-determined status, social mobility tends to be low, even though, in principle, all citizens have an equal right to cut a slice from whichever tier of the cake they might wish to try.

I think it is fair to say that, in the highly circumscribed world of so-called ‘contemporary poetry,’ verse is published by and for a tiny minority who define themselves and their taste in terms of that world; many, if not most, connected in some way to university departments of English Literature.

In the US, as early as the time of Lowell and Berryman, this was already largely the case, although, different from other parts of the world, US students are still encouraged to write poetry at all levels of the education system.

In the UK, until recently, poetry did still reach out to a wider audience, largely due to the efforts of a still paternalistic mass media. As a result, some of Lowell and Berryman’s contemporaries on the European side of the Atlantic—Betjeman, Larkin, even Auden—managed to garner a broader appeal. The popular appeal of academic poetry probably reached its most recent peak with prurient interest in the Plath/Hughes dyad in the late 1960s and thereafter, though more have probably read the biographies and the gossip than the poems themselves.

On the Celtic fringe of the United Kingdom and its former colonies and ghettoes in the US, poetry continued to thrive in this period through its association with nationalist movements and the long overdue promotion of diversity. It is debatable however whether many or most of these poems will survive beyond their immediate historical setting, except in libraries and university lectures.

Few mainstream anthologies include any poets born after 1964 and precious few born after 1945; poetry competitions are routinely won by academics who imitate long out-dated styles and the very idea of poetry is enough to evoke an impression of stuffiness, elitism and class oppression and a yawn of passive-aggressive indignation in perhaps most of the population of the contemporary world.

But it is not true that poetry in general has declined. In fact, with the possible exception of a personal diary, poetry is probably the medium of written expression that ordinary people are most likely to engage in, be it as a counterpoint to the drudgery of their everyday lives or as a response to events by which they are emotionally overwhelmed. Their work tends to be sporadic, often secret, and when one of these amateur poets is ‘discovered,’ their verses are more likely to be turned into pop-songs than printed in a slim book.

I am not interested here in judging the merit of this work or arguing as to which criteria should be applied to assess it, but merely in its extent, as a pool from which, in the future, a new, more genuinely democratic, canon might be drawn.

This has happened before in other fields—the rediscovery of the Blues in the 1960s, for example—and it is in fact more likely to occur now that so-called amateurs have the option of publishing their work, however precariously, online, rather than stuffing hand-written manuscripts away in a drawer, Emily Dickinson-style.

In fact, this reliance on a largely subterranean aquifer of unexplored talent for continuing innovation has probably been more the norm than the exception throughout history. The cliques and elitism of modern culture—the departments of literature, as if poetry could be fitted into a bureaucratic structure—are a peculiar—and ultimately unnatural and counter-productive—feature of the capitalist system; as are the inverted snobberies and glib philistinism that this engenders in its loudest opponents.

Poetry has always felt ill-at-ease in a market-oriented and elitist system. This is in part because it is practically impossible to make a living, let alone a profit, out of producing intangible small artifacts at an infrequent rate dependent on a force as fickle as inspiration. The result is that poets are practically forced to be super-specialists or amateurs or both. Super-specialization by its very nature carves out only a minuscule niche market; amateurism is condemned and discouraged by an increasingly bureaucratized, ‘professionalized’ form of capitalism.

My hope is that the Internet is now changing this and that we will soon see a flourishing of innovative, democratic literary production akin to that which occurred in the music industry in the 1960s with the rediscovery of the Blues.

Writing 201 Poetry Task 10 Sonnets/Future

These poems are unlike anything else I have ever written before or since. They come from a brief period in a now quite distant past but dwell morbidly yet hopefully on an infinitely distant future.

Back in 2002 I led a troubadour-like existence around a supposedly dangerous favela in the Northeast of Brazil. And, of course, I was writing a lot, in notebooks, on napkins and toilet paper, even on occasion on my own body, when paper ran out and I was especially inspired.

The only literature I had with me at the time was an issue of a Brazilian literary magazine on the French Oulipo movement and a pocket-sized collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I read these through over and over again as I watched my own life and that of others disintegrate around me.

It was the only time in my career as a poet that I have felt the need for some kind of guiding structure or form and I duly set about writing sonnets, often based around mathematical, theological and economic themes. Still, incorrigible rebel that I am, I could not confine myself to the strict sonnet form. Although most of what I later put together as a series called Unholy Sonnets –in homage to John Donne—follow a fairly strict rhyme scheme, with a somewhat obsessive emphasis on what the French call pure rhymes and Anglo-Saxons repetition, the length of the lines varies greatly, creating a constant tension between expression and form, like pie-filling spilling out over the crust and the cake-tin and burning acridly on the metal plate that covers the fire that fuels the oven.

These poems, despite or perhaps because of the effort to pack feelings into form, are the most personal I have ever written.

I post two of them here.

A special prize goes to anyone with a cryptic-crossword-puzzle-solving type of mind who gets the trilingual pun in line 13 of Unholy Sonnet #1, which is the abysmal center of the poem.

Unholy Sonnet #1

I have exactly nothing else to say.

You were the light and reason of my rhyme

and now, uncloaked, with nothing else to say,

I cannot claim you left even a sprig of rhyme

to cover up the lack of link between us.

Blind to the likeness between unlike things,

those senseless things that I remember meant us

are now reduced to dry and brittle nothings.

There is no longer feverish correspondence

between things. No sense in all that nonsense.

All things of everyday importance

are drained to a mundane significance

now there’s no us in them.

The sap of truth is spent; the bloom of meaning snapped at the stem.

Unholy Sonnet #17

When God hooks us up like fish out of oblivion

in a trice – a trick with prime numbers – we

will see each other for the first time again.

We will know what it is simply to be –

one another. Qualms will not part us and our God

will smile to see us meet infant again.

And we will reap the profit then of being odd

in this world, when all the all too even reasons then are gone

to Hell. And I will love you as I loved

you at first sight and I will love you as

I always wanted; and we will then have proved

that love is constant and irrational as

the square root of two; and we twin primes; our numbers

matched in this lottery that spares us an eternal slumber.

Writing 201 Poetry — Task 9 — Landscape/Pastoral (with a doubt in the middle)

Here is my latest 9th contribution to the poetry course. It is provisionally titled “Pastoral (with a doubt in the middle)”

I spent hours yesterday debating with myself whether to use the word ‘on’ or ‘off’ in the line “to read the names on old graves.” I bother about such things, not because I wish to conform to certain standards of form or propriety. but because I want to be true to what the stuff I write about actually means.

“To read the names off old graves” would appear, on a first reading, obviously to be more aesthetically pleasing, with its f/v alliteration . I instead first opted for “on” not wishing to give the impression of reading off data in a mechanistic fashion and interested by the idea of reading being as proactive a process as writing, the ‘on’ hovering ambiguously between verb and object. I then went back to “off” interested in the use of this particle in phrasal verbs such as ‘wearing off’. Finally, I returned to ‘on,’ imagining it to be more pregnant with the ambiguities I intended and the subject matter deserved. But I am still not satisfied and even thinking of hedging my bets with a vulgar yet honest and faintly jocular ‘off and on’

Maybe I should crowdsource the decision.

Which of the following do you think fits best in my poem?

  1. On
  2. Off
  3. On and off
  4. None of the above (please specify an alternative)

This strategy worked well for choosing the frames of my eyeglasses; maybe it will work for the always tricky choice of prepositions.

Pastoral (with a doubt in the middle)

The old lane

a small car can just squeeze down

between hawthorn hedges,

and stop occasionally,

as we leap out,

like bank robbers,

to pluck blackberries

from the hedgerows,

for crumble, jam and the deep-freezer,

for free

leads to the village churchyard

I wander round in a long dark coat

trying

to read the names on/off (?) old graves.

*

Zig-zags of ancient paths

cross fields of cows,

where we can picnic on apricots,

warily under their watching eyes.

*

Cattle are called

to water,

and shelter

as church-bells ring at dusk

and we skip off to the red-brick house

that once was home.

*

The shepherd is a ghost

singing to his lost flock

as night falls.

The chocolate factory chimney

belches out sweet-smelling smoke

over this parceled and divided land.

Writing 201 Poetry Task 8 (Drawer)

I just wrote this inventory-poem in response to Writing 201 Poetry Task 8, which asked participants to clear out a drawer and describe its contents. I found this task especially instructive and productive. I was not only inspired to clear out a drawer I haven’t opened in ages, but also shocked by the way the accumulation of objects and the way I choose to describe them build up a faithful but far-from-flattering form of poetic self-portrait.

Stuff stuffed in a drawer

A July 2009 electricity bill

Three old adhesive bandages that have still not lost their stick (two now I just tested one)

A worn leather wallet full of faded receipts, blank check-stubs and unused business cards

First drafts of apologetic notes left by semi-literate maids

A pub calendar

Expired aspirin

A packet of spring onion seeds

The incomprehensible instructions to an old cell phone

Rubber bands melted by the heat

Long-since dried out pens gifted by friends

Earphones and one-armed sunglasses

Annoying-sounding wind chimes

A Zippo lighter and a key-ring bunged up by rust

A succinct birthday note from an ex

Plastic parts whose function is now obscure

A list of poems (some unwritten) for inclusion in a book

A scratchily written film review and a sketch of TV script

Emails from a probate lawyer printed out on sky-blue paper

A single loose paperclip

A green highlighter pen still in its packaging

A 2007 charity Christmas card from a work colleague (candles, holly, pine-cones, baubles, painted with mouth and feet)

Dust and sand

A plaster of Paris statuette of an angel with a clipped wing and one leg broken off

A single roulette chip

The handle of the drawer

Page 22 of the screenplay of Casablanca [beginning “I’ll get it from the safe”,

ending “Rick: I stick my neck out for nobody.// Renault: A wise foreign policy.”]