Review: John Berger’s Collected Poems


The tongue

              Is the spine’s first leaf

Forests of language surround it

-Words II


From the gazals and qawwalis of Lahore to the rhymes dropped in the ghettos of Los Angeles and Paris, the poetic impulse continues to flourish as a popular culture when it is entwined with music. But poetry, as words on a page, or a screen, is not, not in the English speaking world anyway, what it used to be. People still read poetry, including, it seems, a lot of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī in the United States. There are always people writing good poems, and there is certainly still a small audience for good poetry. But there does not seem to be a contemporary poet whose work is understood in the Anglophone world to carry the aspirations of a nation in the way that Mahmoud Darwish was widely associated with the Palestinian cause, Pablo Neruda with Chile, Federico García Lorca with Spain, Nâzım Hikmet with Turkey, Yannis Ritsos with Greece, and so on. The poetic sequence that was inaugurated by Walt Whitman, in which the poetic imagination was central to the formation of a certain kind of striving for a modern national identity, seems to have come to an end. Today the idea of a poet reading to a stadium, as Neruda could do from 1945 to 1971, seems like a stray and rather quaint thought from a lost world.

And while, say, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the First World War, the Spanish civil war and most anti-colonial struggles are all closely associated with certain poets or poems, the popular association between the event and the poem also appears to have been broken. It was Bruce Springsteen who composed an album that spoke to millions of people in the United States about 9/11, but no poet emerged with the same weight and consequence in relation to this event.

It is also true that while the poem was central to political movements like Negritude (with Aimé Césaire being the great figure in this poetic sequence), and, closer to home black consciousness, (Mafika Gwala, Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Mbulelo Mzamane, Chris Van Wyk and an abundance of others) and the struggles of the 1980s (Alfred Themba Qabula, Mzwakhe Mbuli etc.) as well as the feminist movement (June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker and, again, an abundance of others) there is no longer the same strong connection between insurgent demands for a full and equal place in the world and the poem.

Moreover we no longer have poets like Arthur Rimbaud, Constantine Cavafy, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Charles Bukowski who became well-known, famous even, outside of the tiny literary ghettoes to which poetry is often confined today, for sculpting their own lives in certain directions and affirming certain ways of being in the world. The poet is no longer, not for a mass audience anyway, a lodestone.

And while William Shakespeare continues to shape some of the English we use today, and we still make good use of T.S. Elliot’s primary contribution – the introduction to written and global English of the very useful term ‘bullshit’ – it is not clear that poets still shape our language in any meaningful way.

You can certainly pick up Leonard Cohen’s often delightful Book of Longing (2006) at the mall, and Roberto Bolaño’s collected poems, The Unknown University, was received as a literary event of some weight in 2013. But although both Cohen and Bolaño started out as poets they didn’t cultivate a mass audience with their poetry.

Today, any poet declaring, as Percy Shelley did in 1821, that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” would probably be assumed to be at the crest of a manic episode and warned to stay off Twitter until the lithium kicked in. It is not entirely surprising that in The Age of the Poets, a recently published collection of philosophical essays on literature and philosophy, Alain Badiou, never shy to make affirmative declarations (some of which are blindly masculinist and Eurocentric), announces that “the age of the poets is closed”. In his view it ran (in France) from the Paris Commune, in 1870, until 1960.

Nonetheless, for Badiou, the poem, “as diction of being” or “the song of thought”, is not now passé. On the contrary, it is, he insists, inherently rebellious in that it is “an exercise in intransigence (…) defeated in advance [by] (…) the democracy of audience ratings and polls”. This seems fair enough, as does his declaration that “the poem is a halting point. It stops language in its tracks and prohibits its squandering in the vast commerce that is the world today”.

Badiou also examines what Plato called the “ancient (…) discord between philosophy and poetry” and Plato’s decision to welcome the geometers through the front door of his academy while expelling the poets via the back door. Mathematics, the taking of strictly numerical measure, is, Badiou suggests, an act of desacralization, while the poem is, following Rimbaud, always an “alchemy of the word”, that, in Badiou’s own terms, can “enable a coming into presence that was previously impossible”. Perhaps it is this that has tied the poem so closely to the emergence of new nations, struggles on the part of various groups of people to take an equal place in the world, new forms of affirming individual lives as art and new innovations in language.

The Age of the Poets also includes an essay on Poetry and Communism. Here Badiou argues, largely with reference to communist poets like Brecht, Darwish, Hikmet, Neruda, Ritsos and others, that “there exists an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand ‘communism’ in its primary sense: the concern for what is common to all”. There are some obvious problems with the essay. For a start, he inexplicably leaves Aimé Césaire out of his list of great communist poets. His affirmation that the Spanish Civil War mobilised “all the artists and intellectuals of the world” on the side of the republican forces doesn’t take into account a poet like Roy Campbell, who grew up in the Dargle Valley in what is now the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, speaking Gaelic and Zulu before he learnt English at school, and went on to offer his services to Spanish fascism. And Badiou doesn’t say anything in this essay about two other poets who loom large in his personal canon – Fernando Pessoa, who must be the second most famous person to have been educated at Durban High School, after, of course, Hashim Amla; as well as Wallace Stevens, neither of whom was in any kind of way a communist. He also leaves Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot, both fascists whose contribution to modern poetry is undeniable, out of his discussion. There seems to be a degree of wish fulfilment in the argument.

There is not, as Badiou would like to believe, a profound tie between the poetic impulse and the communist idea. But there is a great tradition of radical poetry and the publication of John Berger’s Collected Poems will be read in light of that tradition. Berger, described as a “Prague Spring Marxist”, was never, to his credit, a member of any Communist party. But he has always been, in the sense of the term that exceeds the bureaucrats and would be-bureaucrats that have tried to capture the name given to the aspiration for a society that is both free and equal, a communist. For this reason he has, unlike most of the European intellectuals of his generation who invested their hopes in a repressive state rather than an emancipatory idea, been able to sustain his radicalism through ’56, ’68 and ’89.

Berger’s achievements as a writer – art critic, novelist, ethnographer, essayist and more – and as an intellectual are extraordinary. He carries the sort of moral weight as a writer that poets seldom attain today. Always working outside of institutions, and often working collaboratively, he has sought to democratise engagement with art, and explore what his biographer, Andy Merrifield, calls, borrowing from Simone Weil, the “gravity and grace of human existence”. Berger, who has nurtured a particular admiration for Hikmet’s poetry, Gabriel García Márquez’s novels and Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy, has always insisted that an intense engagement with the particular is the route to the universal. His various kinds of writing all approach the particularity of lived experience in the context of the great forces of history with seriousness and sensitivity. His politics have always been grounded in a respect for the everyday lives of everyday people rather than an investment in dogmatic abstractions. His prose is more or less the exact opposite of that which can be found in, say, the pages of The Socialist Worker.

Berger’s writing has followed, although not always in strict chronological order, the great shift from peasant life to migrant labour and the factory, to the urban world in which, as a character in his novel Lilac and Flag, speaking from his deathbed, tells his father “There are no jobs except the ones we invent”. In a poem from the early 1990s, included in this collection, he offers a metaphor, one that he shares with a great poem by Oswald Mtshali from 1971, in which the worker is squeezed of his life as the juices are squeezed from a lemon. But a more recent essay brings spatial exclusion into sharper focus than exploitation: “The essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens”. His close attention to the ways in which modes of life, domination and resistance are changing is not always characteristic of the left, certainly not that part of the South African left that remains grounded, above all, in the political imagination that emerged from the moment of 1917. This willingness to take changing realities seriously may account, to some degree at least, for the nature of his early enthusiasm for the Zapatistas. They have, he wrote, “changed the syntax of political discourse”.

Although Berger has often slipped poems into his work, and he’s also translated Césaire and Darwish, he hasn’t published a volume of poetry before. But we have had some sense of how he understands the possibilities of the poem. Ten years ago he wrote that the promise of the poem is “that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.”

The poems in this collection were written between 1952 and 2008 and are grouped thematically rather than chronologically. In the main, the immediate impression of this body of work is that it is often quite austere. The work is serious. For Berger “Writing / crouched beside death / we are his secretaries”. When the words sing, the elevation into musicality is hard won. And unlike the communist poetry of, say, Neruda or Darwish, Berger’s poems do not abound with a sense of plenitude, ripe for the taking. In most cases, these are poems of everyday life. When Berger does turn to what appears to be the directly political, as with a poem on a firing squad, the poem, offered as a universal image, provides access to an emotion rather than any political injunction.

Under the stars the bereaved

imagine they hear

a dog howling too

on the edge of the world


In another poem he writes that:


When a prisoner is shot

the sparrow

flies out of his eyes


There is only one poem in this collection that would be an easy fit in the communist canon as we know it from the last century.  It is a poem written for Orlando Letelier, a Chilean radical, murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s agents in Washington in 1976. Here there is certainly something of Neruda:


Before the fortress of injustice

he brought many together

with the delicacy of reason

and spoke there

of what must be done


But this poem is not at all typical of the collection. There are nature poems – some of which have lines that would make Li Po take note: “the night / with its wings of spruce / flees the mountain”; “Slowly the small hours draw / dawn from its scabbard”; in late [European] October “the forest burns / with the sunshine / of the whole vanished summer”.

In this excerpt for a poem titled Ladder precise description, clear and only lightly adorned, sings the reader into an image of spring.

the seeds have flowered

into the colours of the world

and two butterflies white

like the notes of an accordion




climb the blue sky


Forest is equally immediate in its power, able to evoke sensory experiences that are not explicitly named:


Each pine at dusk

lodges the bird

of its voice

perpendicular and still

the forest

indifferent to history

tearless as stone


in tremulous excitement

the ancient story 

of the sun going down


There are also poems of peasant life.  When the potatoes fail, Berger writes, “the plough has no meat / and men starve like the great bear / in the winter night”. As the sun rises in winter, “The morning stove is dead and / silent as the wood / of the frozen trees”. A women, at the end of her day’s work, drops her scarf on the floor:

On a knotted scarf

among printed flowers

a working day

has written its dream.


And there are poems of migrancy and the new rhythms of the industrial world where, perhaps, there is a refinery “flaming continually / against the hills even on the days of funerals”. This is, for Berger, a world that is fundamentally disenchanted.


on the nightshift

the wind is breathless

for the skies too

have silicosis


In the factory “cold is the pain of believing / warmth will never return”. In the city, darkness:


has been stolen in a sack

weighted down with a pebble

and drowned


there is no longer any dark


In Amsterdam, the migrant, new to the European winter, remembers that he “held the fingers of one hand / cold sticks of ache / in the palm of my other”. Some time back, Lesego Rampolokeng wrote, of Johannesburg, “dreams come here to die”. Berger’s vision of the passage of migrants carrying their lullabies and poems into cities of walls, cities without jobs, is equally bleak.


We carry poetry

as the cattle trucks of the world

carry cattle.

Soon in the sidings

they will sluice them down


But the most consistent theme in this volume is that of the word, of language. The first part of this collection is titled Words. The first poem in this section, and in the collection as a whole, ties the word to the life force of a mother:

Her breasts

              like doves

                     perch on her ribs


Her child sucks the long

                white thread

                     of words to come


In the next poem:


The tongue

     is the spine’s first leaf

forests of language surround it


This interest in the power of the word is present in every part of this collection. There is, for instance, this elegantly crafted and quite beautiful poem, on migrant labour:

Migrant Words

In a pocket of the earth

I buried all the accents

of my mother tongue


there they lie

like needles of pine

assembled by ants


one day the stumbling cry

of another wanderer

may set them alight


then warm and comforted

he will hear all night

the truth as lullaby


When Berger turns to love he writes that:

Later in the peach stone’s

Red hammock

We’ll lie in the halved fruit

The knife our two names


In Viva Voce (Living Voice), one of the few overtly political poems, he writes against those who succumb to the idea that history can only unfold in one direction. We encounter:


One who dreams deeply

of mountains

speaks the next day

with the voice of a bureaucrat 


There is also the person – who pretty much anyone with a corporate or political boss knows all too well – who “barks at meetings / in the name of necessity”.

These poems will not be read in a stadium. No nation or people or movement will claim them. But their affirmation of the living voice stands firm in this world of constant noise and information, this world of the constant deceit of corporate and political language, as a carefully crafted attempt to bring experience into language that often rings with the clarity of the bell forged by a master. They certainly offer a ‘halting point’ that ‘stops language in its tracks and prohibits its squandering in the vast commerce that is the world today’.


Main Photograph: John Berger in conversation in Strasbourg in 2009 – by Ji-Elle

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