Login   Sign Up 



by James Graham 

Posted: 06 January 2012
Word Count: 285
Summary: Some curiosities here, especially in the second part.

Font Size

Printable Version
Print Double spaced



A poet should know
how to compose world-rage
into a Guernica.

Rage against the money-game
that makes children, long past crying,
live short, sick lives,

rage like the subtle workings
of slow arsenic: put into verse,
it should become fibre.

A poet should feel better.

I once threw a clock that wouldn’t go
against a wall and smashed it. Its giblets
all fell out. Two reasons why:
I couldn’t make it go,
and Tony Blair. It should
be better, though, to write a poem.

The trouble is: the archives of iniquity
are full of heavy-footed prose. And numbers.
Injustice doesn’t go andante.


640 million children are without adequate shelter.

That’s eighty-seven Londonsful.
(Fly over London, see how small it is.)

The world’s billionaires — just 497 people (approximately 0.000008% of the world’s population) — are worth $3.5 trillion (over 7% of world GDP).

Rob all four-hundred-ninety-seven of them,
leave them enough to pay the rent. Then give.

$4 trillion is currently held in offshore banking centres from the Cayman Islands to Vanuatu.

Take it
Give it


cries the soap-box speaker to the empty street.
Whatever, says the silence, Barnard’s Star
is 30 trillion miles away, the Universe goes back
13.75 gigayears. These mega-numbers are all Greek.

Who will take? says the silence. Who will give?
They take from mega-banks and give to banks
that are poor and hungry and sleeping rough.

Poets are heard by people with world-empathy.
They hear the command to care, and they obey,
but cannot obey the order to take and give.

It’s a poor poem this. Still, I won’t smash anything.
But empathy is strong and very feeble,
and love cries out in a starless age.

Favourite this work Favourite This Author

Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 15:58 on 06 January 2012  Report this post
Lots to think about there, James. I think I'll have to read it a few times before commenting.

One line that jumps out at me, though:

A poet should feel better.

Clever used of a double meaning. And, yes - we should.


Account Closed at 20:12 on 07 January 2012  Report this post
I don't really know how to crit this poem, James.

Whilst I am saddened and often shocked by what goes on in the world, and whilst I understand your anger and can empathise to a large degree, I find it difficult to be moved by bald statistics. And whilst I am no great fan of the bankers and the billionaires you deplore, I can't hand-on-heart say that I completely agree with your political view, either.

Therefore, on this occasion, I think I'm going to have to wimp out and not attempt a critique as I don't know how to sensibly approach the task.

Although I will say that I think your opening stanza:

A poet should know
how to compose world-rage
into a Guernica.

is very fine.

Hope this is OK with you, James.


FelixBenson at 13:47 on 08 January 2012  Report this post
Hi James

I've read this a few times, and I just wanted to respond with some early thoughts before commenting further.

Although the second stanza quotes those numbers, there's much more to this than statistics. This is a soliloquy of a poem, a poet asking questions of the universe about how we are to comprehend the scale of the poverty problem and the consequences of our economic strategies; about why no-one is listening; about the fact there's no-one to appeal to in order to solve the problem; about how to make these important ideas into a poem.

And it makes sense for this poem, which talks of trying to articulate the meaning of the mega numbers/banks, to go for another Greek concept, i.e. to go meta.

I think this approach works is what gives the poem something extra - more truth, more sadness. We've discussed in this group before how difficult it is to express a political aim or idea in a poem, or questioned how valuable it can be, whether it can have impact through poetry. So to include that debate in the poem gives an extra richness. To acknowledge within the poem its possible failure or the poet's sense of disappointment about what poetry can do (or the people who listen to poems) parallels the larger question of our failure to find an adequate way to comprehend the (economic/political) trouble we are in...or find a solution.

As long as I have been a member of this group you have written poetry of ideas, in measured, carefully constructed free verse, but always with a great sense of poetic language, image and idea, nothing over-written, this poem is good example of that. These passages are beautifully expressed:

A poet should know
how to compose world-rage
into a Guernica

But empathy is strong and very feeble,
and love cries out in a starless age.

There are wonderful lines of sardonic wit:
They take from mega-banks and give to banks
that are poor and hungry and sleeping rough.


cries the soap-box speaker to the empty street.
Whatever, says the silence, Barnard’s Star
is 30 trillion miles away,

These references to silence and the heavens are what made me think of the soliloquy. Also because the poem is so sad. My favourite part is this idea that

The trouble is: the archives of iniquity
are full of heavy-footed prose. And numbers.
Injustice doesn’t go andante.

This expresses that idea so well, and acknowledges it - thereby inviting those mega numbers to come trampling in through the second stanza. To me you found a way to let those numbers in - heavier the better by acknowledging how un-andante they are. The change to longer lines of almost prose makes sense, it's like a long breath. But this section contained either side by the control of the free verse does not allow the mega numbers to over take the poem.

Ok, not much in the way of suggestions for further work, but I will re-read and comment again on that. I've also not spoken on the theme of rage and the broken clock (with it's giblets falling out- wonderful image), which is central to the poem...

I've enjoyed reading this poem tremendously.


James Graham at 15:23 on 08 January 2012  Report this post
Jan, we're quits, because I just wimped out of doing a crit of your new poem! - entirely due to my own ignorance in this case.

Kirsty, your commentary is very encouraging, and reassures me that the poem has worked. I'll say more as soon as I've time.


James Graham at 16:52 on 09 January 2012  Report this post
Kirsty, your response to this poem is very close to the way I see it myself. For a long time I’ve thought along these lines: (1) I’m appalled at the ‘abysmal gap’ (phrase from a UN report) between wealth and poverty in the world; (2) I can write poetry, and do write about everything else that seems worth writing about - except this. Eventually it came to me that the only thing to do was to raise questions.

Can one write, in poetry rather than academic or political prose, about this subject? That is, not only about the appalling scale of poverty, but about ideas that would offer a way forward. One of the most telling phrases (telling because it’s so simple) I’ve come across is by the philosopher Ted Honderich, who says the vital issue in our time is ‘how to get people out of bad lives’.

It seems to me a subject that cries out to be written about by poets, yet one that’s so difficult it sometimes seems to lie outside the sphere of poetry altogether. So I wanted the poem to seem to be on the edge of failure. You understood that, as well as the reason for the presence of those enormous numbers.

The other questions are ‘Who will take?’ and ‘Who will give?’ or in other words, who will do something about this? Who even knows what to do? I’ve read more than is good for me of the new political thinkers, including the celebrity French intellectual Alain Badiou. Maybe I need to read still more, but so far it seems to me that in our time nobody can suggest a way forward - beyond charity, UN agencies and international aid, all of which do some good but will never get all the world’s communities ‘out of bad lives’.

Now I’m starting to go on and on. Thank you for your perceptive comments, and if you have time I would appreciate any ideas you have to make it still (in a sense) a ‘poor poem’, but a better ‘poor poem’.


clyroroberts at 17:48 on 09 January 2012  Report this post
The statistic I read recently that most bought the idea of "take and give", or the lack of ability to take and give was the stat that the several aid agencies who had mobilized to help the Haiti earthquake victims still had several millions of the donations given in bank accounts 2 years after the event. Apparently they don't know what to do with the money! I can make no sense of this at all but it shows how capital completely fails us in the end.

I think the second section of this piece might be better (and worse - if that's your aim!) if some of these kinds of stats were added. I think there's a kind of devastating poetry to some statistics that brings home the limitedness of a capitalist system. And particularly the blindness of the current economic wisdom (Paul Krugman is a very good source of contrary macro-economic data)

I can't suggest much more at the moment. I'm a bit confused about your idea of creating a good bad poem. I think I said my bit recently about what I think about the limits of poetry to tackle the very huge problems we are now facing. At the same time I find it rather appalling when reading the PN review or some other well regarded journal that almost no attempt is being made by poets to engage with the issues. A form of post-modern blindness perhaps, or, my own theory that most artists share the psychic numbness of the general population. The big question for me is, how do we wake ourselves?

I've said before with some of your pieces that they would be best printed on large posters and stuck up on walls. I think this one could be quite a lot sharper with a few well researched figures and it would stand alongside the slavery piece you wrote recently.

TessaF at 21:56 on 09 January 2012  Report this post
Hi James
I'm new here, but I really wanted to respond to your poem as I find myself drawn to it.

Your opening stanza:
[A poet should know
how to compose world-rage
into a Guernica]

keeps going round in my head - it's like a call to arms (if you'll forgive the simile).

Also I love the way the statistics force themselves in - they are so aggressive.

The emotion is powerful; your words snap like bullets at times and yes, we really should feel angry about what is happening in the world.

I do wonder if the title needs to be ‘Rage’ though as it seems like too big a clue to what is coming (but that's just my opinion so feel free to ignore).

A wonderful, thought-provoking poem.

Account Closed at 09:48 on 10 January 2012  Report this post
James, I think it is absolutely possible to write poetry about world poverty and other political issues although it is, as you say, difficult to do so. But your poem is clearly hitting the mark with most people here which means that it is working even if I don't quite get it!

I think, for me, it's about finding the particular in the universal, i.e. taking that 'world-rage' and expressing it in more intimate terms. It's the old psychic distance thing: if you hear about a car crash, you're not much bothered. If you witness the car crash, you are more bothered. If someone you know is involved in it, more so, if you yourself are involved, much more so. That kind of thing. The technique they use on TV charity ads, showing you a particular child, giving that child a name makes the average viewer feel much more the anguish of starving people in Africa, children drinking dirty water, etc.

Whilst we 'should' feel your rage because of the things that are happening in the world, we feel it more easily if our attention is focussed on one little area of it. The particular can express the universal, of course.


James Graham at 17:04 on 10 January 2012  Report this post
Jan, of course you're right in saying that poems can be written about world poverty if we zoom in and deal in particulars. A good poem of this kind would evoke sympathy and possibly anger, as the charity ads do. The particular points to the universal, perhaps more easily in this case than most others; people know very well that a sick child in Somalia, or a family living without clean water in Bangla Desh, are typical and there are many, many others like them. This is good; there should be much more poetry of this kind.

But is it enough? Any such poetry tends to be emotional rather than rational. It risks a reader response that says, this is awful, it's very sad, but can't get much further than that. It doesn't put before the reader anything about the causes of world poverty. To take just one example, the maquiladoras (sweat-shops) in northern Mexico, close to the US border. People there are producing cheap consumer goods for the US market; they're paid lower than subsistence wages, and turn to drug-dealing and prostitution to supplement their incomes. In this case you can say that business is helping to perpetuate poverty, because low wages are paid in order to keep prices 'competitive'. Can poetry not only give us close-ups of the plight of these people, but also pull back and say something about the system that brings about their poverty? That is, present a rationale of poverty? Even suggest way in which greater social justice might be achieved?

I've always believed that poetry can take on any subject whatsoever - no limits - but this is a difficult one. The monstrous numbers - of children in poverty, or the wealth of the super-rich - are, I think, as important as close-ups of poor people's lives. But in this poem I felt I had to introduce the statistics by saying this isn't really poetry but it's too important to leave out.


Account Closed at 20:40 on 11 January 2012  Report this post
In the end, James, I think all poets and writers of fiction can do is point a finger at what happens in the world, accusingly or otherwise. The business of bringing about change is the business of campaigning non-fictioneers, I think. But that's just my view.


James Graham at 18:09 on 13 January 2012  Report this post
Hi Kirsty - Thank you so much for your further comment (your essay! ) on this poem. I hoped that the poem would manage to do several things at the same time: ask questions about how to write poetry on massive world issues; talk about the ‘silence’ (the dearth, not of caring, but of ideas about a way forward); and at the same time talk about the issues per se. Up to a point it does seem to have succeeded.

‘Horses, M62’ is a very fine poem, visually very sharp, full of strong imagery. But it’s hard to see it as political except, as you say, by looking outside it. You could say that the horses represent the ‘animal kingdom’, all animals both wild and domesticated, which are threatened by human activity - especially machines. This would point in the direction of environmental politics. However, horses on the motorway must be a rare occurrence, and they seem an odd example to take to illustrate an environmental issue. On the other hand, the threat to forest animals from logging - oil-burning machines involved here too - is not rare but very widespread. We have to look well outside the poem to get into this sort of territory.

And it was written at the time of the Iraq invasion, but I don’t see much except ‘Motor oil pulses/ Black blood’ to connect it. Oil from Iraq. Well, just maybe - but for me it’s above all a poem which simply records in vivid language an extraordinary event. That’s more than good enough. Armitage is doing what poets have always done: saving, in John Clare’s words, ‘little things from the wreck of time’, making significant and memorable something that would otherwise be lost to memory.

I’ve always liked Fenton. He sometimes - as in ‘Tienanmen’ - makes very explicit political statements, and he makes his formal, rhymed, repetitive verse work for him over and over again.

Anyway, thanks again for all your feedback on this. Soon I may come up with a poem that blatantly states a point of view, and risks ‘closing the poem’. At worst, you can always learn from a failed experiment!


Jan, you make me more stubborn than ever about writing poems that don't just point a finger but talk about changes. But as I said above, it might well turn out to be a failed experiment!

SarahT at 16:50 on 21 January 2012  Report this post
Wow, James. This is a bit of a one. My first instinct is that says so much and yet pretends that it doesn't. I think I will return in a couple of days to see how it sinks in.


SarahT at 21:29 on 23 January 2012  Report this post
Hi James,

Time to clarify my comments, I think. I've re-read this and I've re-examined my first response and I think it will still be more interesting to explain it in full, rather than to change my mind, if you see what I mean.

I don't think this poem is necessarily about the political outrage. Obviously, the lines say a lot about that but I saw something else, about the process of writing a poem, as the first and last lines infer.

A poet should know
how to compose world-rage
into a Guernica.

It’s a poor poem this. Still, I won’t smash anything.
But empathy is strong and very feeble,
and love cries out in a starless age.

This was what I was referring to when I said that it was pretending not to say much. I think this poem is almost pretending to be about outrage when, in fact, it is also about how hard it is to get thoughts, especially ones that are wrapped up in rage or indignation, into a poetic form. This is the effect that you get from the long lines of statistics, they are ruling the poet, the poet cannot pin them down into his 'Guernica'.

By the last verse, the thoughts are pinned down into a more poetic form but the last few lines are almost weary from the effort, hence not being able to smash anything.

Anyway, that was how I saw it when I read it the first time. Hope this is helpful.


James Graham at 18:28 on 24 January 2012  Report this post
This is a very perceptive comment, Sarah. I’m not entirely sure about the word ‘pretending’, in the sense that I didn’t set out to pretend in the sense of trying to deceive the reader in any way, or play games with the reader - but I don’t think that’s what you meant anyway.

‘It’s a poor poem this’ is the most blatant game-playing line. It tempts the reader to say, ‘Well, you’re right about that at least’. At best the reader will say that it’s a ‘poor poem’ in the sense that it fails to put what those statistics contain into an effective poetic form, and demonstrates how hard it is to do that. Even so, there’s a kind of mind-game going on, especially in that line and also in the way the poem keeps on telling us it has failed.

Even as I write this, I’m coming round to your idea of ‘pretending’. It’s fair enough. I keep trying to express it in some other way: the poem ‘appears’ to be about outrage at the world order, but it’s more significantly about the difficulty of writing poetry on such themes. That’s just a slightly different, more defensive, way of putting it. If it comes across as pretending, or appearing, to be about one thing when it’s really about something else, that’s fine. I don’t mind if it comes out that way, because on reflection I think I knew from the start - or at any rate half-way through - that it was going to be, in spite of itself, a poem about writing a poem.


To post comments you need to become a member. If you are already a member, please log in .