The Revolutionary Art of the Future: Rediscovered Poems by Hugh MacDiarmid
It seems to me that Hugh MacDiarmid has never quite got the praise and honour he deserves: he seems never quite to have found his rightful place in the poetry pantheon, probably because of what are now considered his "impotent political opinions". Indeed, it would seem that simply because he had politics his poetry can or should be ignored - or at least discounted as polemical and therefore lesser. (MacDiarmid was a Leninist, the editors here describe him as a "extreme left Republican Nationalist", and a founder-member of the National Party of Scotland in 1928.) By all accounts an irascible and rather forbidding character, MacDiarmid was a titanic figure in Scottish literature and should be seen as a major poet: to discount him is to give in to the mania of the chattering classes for middlebrow lyricists rather than to rise to the challenge of his complex work. To misquote Ezra Pound (another Modernist with some right dodgy political opinions), at the very least MacDiarmid's poems helped break the tyranny of the pentameter! It is not a matter of defending MacDiarmid's politics but of reading beyond them and asking whether he makes successful poetry of them. The reader can then both enjoy the work and oppose - or not - the positions taken up in it.
The Revolutionary Art of the Future, say the editors in their excellent introduction, is "a selection from around 300 poems ... drawn from the archives of the National Library of Scotland, most of them never published before. MacDiarmid seems not to have submitted them for publication." He, perhaps, couldn't have published a poem as arguably seditious as On the Imminent Destruction of London, June 1940 which begins with the confrontationally exasperated
Now when London is threatened
With devastation from the air
I realise, horror atrophying in me,
That I hardly care.
London, he goes on to argue, "has flourished like a foul disease": which is hardly an argument for welcoming a bombing that would injure the innocent workers within London itself who also find themselves caught "in the ghastly centre of the web / In which all human hopes like flies are caught". Notwithstanding the absurdity, this remains an angry, righteous and oddly persuasive poem: a Bakuninist's terrible logic may well be at large here but, for all that, the target is well meant, "For London is the centre of all reaction / To progress and prosperity". He understands something that lovers of the human race have always understood that humanity "can only gain from treason"; but Macdiarmid was not radical enough - he was willing to sell London but only to buy Edinburgh: his Nationalism always undercut his "extreme left" desires. But like the anti-globalisation lobby of today, Macdiarmid's overblown anti-capitalism, way back when it was called Socialism, may lack nuance but it certainly doesn't lack bite - nor bile.
Poetry is not politics. Macdiarmid's voice is not identical with that of his poems: his poetry's first person is not synonymous with Macdiarmid the man (actually called Christopher Grieve). So, to argue as I have done about, about the "argument" - the line of reasoning - of a particular poem, is itself specious. The "I" of a poem is as much a construct, a character, as the "I" in a novel. Notwithstanding that, Macdiarmid was a "man of the Left" and to read his poems well we need an understanding of that political tradition and the historical context in which he made the political decisions he made to align himself the way that he did.
Macdiarmid isn't all politics. His writing is sometimes quite lovely, unexpectedly tender - and there is a religiosity often forgotten. But the poems were primarily written in the 30s and should be understood in this context: a context in which MacDiarmid's politics had a keener resonance than perhaps they do today.
There is much to baulk at here too: MacDiarmid is wild, over-polemical, didactic and often as subtle as a brick. He is also bonkers! The "revolutionary art" of the future that Macdiarmid is arguing for is ... modern ballet: "the dramatisation / Of motion itself". The editors do a good job presenting the poet's case (they don't include the rambling 13 page poem itself) but I wasn't convinced.
When the need for progressive politics has so violently pushed itself forward The Revolutionary Art of the Future turns out to be a surprisingly timely collection. As the poet himself says, "The whole of life is how to make people aware". And whilst we must be wholly aware of Macdiarmid's often misguided politics we should become again keenly aware of his poetry. We should be aware of how politics and poetry meshed for Macdiarmid and we should be learning how to meld them together for ourselves.