Leo Cookman reviews a new collection of poetry playing with Karl Marx and Marxism today.
Neil Laurenson, Exclamation Marx (Silhouette Press, 2016)
Being ‘witless’ is still considered an insult (one that has been levelled at me) and is a dagger to the heart for poetry for many, brevity being the soul of wit and poetry being the martial art of brevity. Lack of wit is not something that can be said of Neil Laurenson’s new pamphlet of poems that takes an acerbic look at Britain’s shaky current and past political dalliances with socialism and desperate attempts by various governments to extract it.
The title itself and the eponymous first poem sets the tone as an extended pun on Left Wing ideology paired with modern practicalities of capitalism embodied through our education system suggesting Marx’s grammar is what’s letting him down, the final lines stating “I would not want him to start thinking that / Class is a Struggle…” This kind of word play and punmanship is on display in every poem and certainly the titles: ‘A Well Hung Parliament’ and ‘The Lady’s Not for Burning’ most notably, the latter using another spin on a famous axiom “I had no match for him / And he was no match for me.” Wit is not something that these poems lack.
Sadly I wasn’t convinced by the actual poetry of the collection. The shape and structure of each poem seems built for the punchline or to rather unsubtly ram home the point, which to be fair is a style often used in protest poetry but comes across as rather clunky on the page. I suspect these poems work rather a lot better in performance than on paper. In general the whole thing seems better suited to the 80s alternative comedy scene that was so volatile and loathing toward the politics at the time. Not to say it doesn’t have something to hit against in the current Conservative government but several invocations of Thatcher and the almost Alexi Sayle-esque Marx allusions and cover image smack of a slightly dated view on the whole situation. Modern conservatism is far more preoccupied with a sinister approach to its attack on public services and values, using media language, vox pops and soundbite culture to realign public opinion to better suit their own. One would hope poetry, itself concerned with language, vox pop and soundbites, that protests against their ideology would deploy the same weapons in defence. Instead overuse of crass imagery and almost nudge-nudge wink-wink banter – farts, dildos and being ‘well hung’ – seat it in the more (unnecessarily) derided category of ‘Light Verse’.
Despite all of that there is plenty to like here, it got plenty of sniggers and snorts out of me and when it veers into more obscure and difficult territory the poetry comes alive. ‘Barcode Suit’ and ‘Shrinking of Shrugs’ are much more like balanced poetry with a solid internal rhythm and challenging imagery, whilst ‘Death in Basingstoke’ is almost Larkin like in its depiction of suburban despair and tragedy. Not only that but wit and not-taking-itself-too-seriously is something modern poetry is sorely lacking today but can be found here in abundance.
In the current British political climate and poetry market place Laurenson’s collection does feel out of place. But that is probably to its benefit.
Get a copy here
Leo Cookman is a writer living in Brighton. His poetry has been published in Poetry of Sex (Penguin Books, 2014), The Best of Manchester Poets, Black Sheep Journal, LadybeardMagazine and BlankPages Magazine, among others.