David Morphet wonders whether modern poets are missing a trick by eschewing the satiric mode.
Poetic satire, whether aimed at social dysfunction or obnoxious individuals, or both, goes back a long way – it is two thousand years since the poet Juvenal scorned the plebeian diet of ‘bread and circuses’. English literature has classics such as Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel; Pope’s Dunciad and Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot; Byron’s Vision of Judgment and Don Juan; and Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy and Peter Bell the Third. Closer to the present, we have Roy Campbell’s take on Bloomsbury in his Georgiad of 1933; the skits of e e cummings (‘a politician is an arse upon / which everything has sat except a man’); the sardonic Bagpipe Music of Louis MacNeice (‘All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi’); the darker side of John Betjeman (‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough’); the satirical songs of Tom Lehrer (‘I wanna go back to Dixie’); the sarcasm of Robert Lowell in For the Union Dead (‘Everywhere, / giant finned cars nose forward like fish; / a savage servility / slides by on grease’); and Christopher Logue’s spleen in poems like Things (‘The train that passes by contains / A general and a scientist / Delighting in each other’s brains.’)
Oddly, there is only a thin trickle of satire within the broad stream of poems submitted each year for publication in Magma. Not that the traditional themes of satire fail to appear. A significant number of the poems submitted are driven by disenchantment of various kinds – political, social, environmental – but they rarely seek to make their point in a satirical way. One begins to wonder if poetic satire has had its day. Do today’s poets believe that the public, and essentially rhetorical nature of satire is too far removed from what is perceived to be a lyric/discursive/descriptive/confessional/introspective/doubt-ridden poetic mainstream? Or do they think that editors just won’t be interested in topical scorn, however well expressed? Compared with the perennial themes of love and loss, or with deep-rooted angst or ludic postmodernism, isn’t it – well – simply too lightweight?
But in the hands of a master, satire is anything but lightweight. It can be deadly. Legendary targets of one classical writer were said to have committed suicide. That is of course not to be encouraged. But the deflation of the Duke of Buckingham in the character of Zimri in Absalom and Achitophel must have been acutely painful, as the pseudonym was completely transparent to Dryden’s readers:
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong,
Was everything by starts, and nothing long;
But in the course of one revolving moon
Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon.
>Or this from the Georgiad
It was a voice of 1930 model
And in a Bloomsbury accent it could yodel
Between its tonsils drawling out long O’s
Along its draughty, supercilious nose.
The author Gerald Brenan told me many years ago that he had known all those satirised by Campbell and that some had felt badly wounded. While the essential ingredient of satire is ridicule, seasoned with irony, sarcasm, parody and caricature, it comes in different strengths, ranging from virulent abuse to gently mocking laughter. At one end of the scale is the personal lampoon driven by contempt, jealousy or, perhaps, desire for revenge. More positively, satire can spring from a desire to reform manners, or policy. Either way, it will latch on to absurdities – though scorn must be tempered with wit. Indignation alone is not satire.
One of the best known and most scathing of all personal satires is Pope’s description of Sporus (Lord Hervey – a foppish and unprincipled political figure of the time, elsewhere mocked by him as ‘Lord Fanny’). In response to his friend Dr Arbuthnot, who has asked ‘can Sporus feel? / Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?’, Pope produces a passage of sustained vituperation, of which the following is only part:
Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt, that stinks and stings …
His wit all see-saw, between that and this
Now high, now low, now master up, now miss,
And he himself one vile Antithesis …
Beauty that shocks you, parts that none will trust;
Wit that can creep, and pride that licks the dust.
Pope highmindedly affected to believe that satirists should defend general standards of moral rectitude and chastise the notorious and powerful who “safe from the Bar, the Pulpit and the Throne” are “touch’d and shamed by Ridicule alone”. But his best effects show real personal animus.
A very different engine drives Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy, written – as he put it – “on the occasion of the [Peterloo] Massacre at Manchester” in 1819. He attacks the powers that be, and by name:
I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh …
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown …
The same engine can be seen in Edgell Rickword’s To the Wife of a Non-interventionist Statesman, of 1938:
On Barcelona slums he rain.
German bombs from Fiat planes.
Five hundred dead at a ten a second
Is the world record so far reckoned.
Today we are deluged by political satire. The daily newspapers carry endless hatchet-job cartoons of leading politicians. Satirical television series from TW3 onwards – Spitting Image, South Park and so forth – attract wide audiences. Private Eye has satirised the high and mighty, and the self-regarding, for over forty years. In the United States, the satirical on-line ‘newspaper’ The Onion has a strong following. But despite the wide public appetite for political and social satire, and the opportunity for wit and invention which it offers, poetic supply seems relatively weak.
Not all that long ago, poets like Tony Harrison, Adrian Mitchell, James Fenton and Clive James made a strong mark with their satire. From the 1970s, one can readily find sardonic, witty poems such as Harrison’s Durham:
I’ve watched the golden maces sweep
from courtrooms to the Castle keep
through winding Durham, the elect
before whom ids must genuflect
or Fenton’s Letter to John Fuller:
Practioners of Ethnic Verse,
Garrulous Scots and Welshmen terse
And Fenian bibbers of the Erse
Castalian fountains …
And still today, one occasionally comes across satirical verse such as Christopher Reid’s Bollockshire of 2001:
You hit the famous ring road. Thrown down
decades ago, like a gigantic concrete garland
around the county town,
riddled and plugged
by the random dentistry of maintenance work
and chock-a-block with contraflow,
it must, you feel,
be visible from the moon.
But judging by Magma entries, younger poets do not generally seem to work this kind of vein. Certainly there are sardonic and comic notes, but sustained satire is rare.
One reason for this might be concern at the possibility of being harassed, legally or otherwise, given the ease with which umbrage is taken in today’s climate of social, gender and cultural sensitivity. Yet this does not seem to inhibit satire unduly in other media, and targets can always be concealed by pseudonym, or – sometimes – disarmed with wit. Another factor, and perhaps a more important one, may be the movement of poetic fashion away from stricter forms such as the rhymed couplet, with its aptitude for satirical bite. A third may be that poets think the field is already overplayed. Or they may believe that their satire would simply not reach its mark – prospective targets being completely out of earshot. What chance of an African dictator, say, feeling the effect of a squib in a British poetry magazine?
Whatever the reason, with satire in such vogue in other media, one wonders if poets are missing a trick. The memorable nature of verse holds out the promise of a much longer life than television or newspaper satire. Pope’s phrase “Damn with faint praise” from Epistle to Arbuthnot has established itself permanently in the language. And the couplet
When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?
goes all the way back to Wat Tyler’s rebellion of 1381. Posterity has an ear for this kind of thing.
Certainly, one should not assume that editors are not interested in satire. They rejoice at well-crafted material, whatever the theme. In the case of Magma, we make a point of looking for poems which give a direct sense of what it is to live today. And satire is a part of that.