Today’s post is in honour of national poetry day, grandma shouted it out up to me whilst I was washing off London muck in the shower. But also, this post is in honour of an even more important date to my grandma… today was my late grandads birthday. She never mentioned it to me before, and I was a bit annoyed (probably just feeling guilty that I didn’t know and never cared to ask) she didn’t make more of a fuss. But that is my grandma; straight forward, and never sulky, always lovely.
So, in honour of my grandad and national poetry day, I have chosen to write about Ben Okri’s compilation ‘Rise Like Lions’, a collection of poetry across British history of political activism and thought (left wing, of course). My grandad was what some people would call a champagne socialist. He would sit and pontificate about the woes of the world with a glass of rose in his shaking hands (a rose socialist, is perhaps more fitting for him), and to my shame, I used to think in juvenile delinquency that he was just chatting shit. But my grandad knew struggle, and how those who suffer from it aren’t to blame. He never had a dad, as my great-grandad died in a WW2 plane over the North Sea, and was left to care for his younger brother ( he brought a prostitute home one Christmas and grandad punched him in the face- happy families!) and alcoholic mother, Alice. She was devastated by the death of my grandads dad, and tried to open up a care-home but lost all her money. She relied on an army pension in her old unemployed age, spending it all on toys for my dad and uncle… and of course on more than a few glasses of barley wine in the pub. I’m not saying that my grandad suffered immensely because of the government for who he was. But, circumstance did render him vulnerable- and circumstance is always beyond our control. He knew poverty, and he climbed out of it with his mother on his back, whilst supporting his wife (my grandma) and his kids (my dad and uncles) at the same time. My grandad was no revolutionary political prisoner, but he knew that caring matters.
Today’s book is in honour of my grandad for that reason: he cared. Ben Okri’s book is a celebration of caring. It is a collection of various verses, giving voice to their politics through angry indictments or lyrical odes; but all probe at the concept of truth and how poetry reveals it. From working class revolts, anti-racist rallying and women speaking out their truth- this book fights all battles of oppression. The poems are organised into different sections- Ideas, Vision, Protest, Change and Truth- which each come with introductions by Okri that mediate on the theme of that section. The book uses multiple individual voices, all speaking at different moments to show how even though its expression may vary, truth always holds central place in a poets vision for language, whatever ‘truth’ may be to them.
One of my grandad’s favourite poets was Shelley, and we read ‘Ozymandias’ at his funeral. I asked my grandma why he loved that sonnet so much, and Chrissy said its because he probably won a prize at school for reading it out loud (haha). So again, I can’t pretend that my grandads devotion to Shelley’s ode on the inevitable fall of autocratic power is rooted in some blood-deep militancy, but it must be said, the man had taste. Although ‘Ozymandias’ is a political powerhouse, Okri has not included it in his collection, probably because he knew how popular it already is ingrained in the back of all our minds… “LOOK ON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY AND DESPAIR!” So, instead I have chosen to put another poem by Shelley from ‘Rise Like Lions’. It is dedicated to those who go unrecognised for their struggles and pain in having to serve a country who doesn’t serve them. In my 21st century mind, I like to dedicate this poem to all working class people slogging it out for what feels like nothing. To migrants, immigrants, refugees and minority groups (whether they be oppressed by race, gender, disability or sexuality) who are the backbone of this country. We need to do better for you, and even though grandad isn’t here, I know he would agree.
Hopefully, grandad, if you can read my blog in heaven by some divine intervention where the angels help you work wordpress on a computer, you will like this poem and feel peaceful and happy to know that you are remembered and loved- not just by me me writing this, but every day and all the time. Chrissy misses you terribly and sends her love forever and ever. I am sorry I was so naughty, and would never be sweet and hug you before bed like you asked. But like always, good night and god bless. xoxoxxoxox
To the People of England, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
People of England, ye who toil and groan,
Who reap the harvests which are not your own,
Who weave the clothes which your oppressors wear,
And for your own take the inclement air;
Who build warm houses…
And are like gods who give them all they have,
And nurse them from the cradle to the grave…