Politik der Lyrik #3.1 – Mob und Mab (Sean Bonney)

In Politik der Lyrik by Praesident1 Comment

(englischer Beitrag / english contribution)
On October 2, Sean Bonney and Catherine Hales appeared in Vierte Welt for the 3rd installation of Politik der Lyrik. Sean gave something like a lecture (see article below) reading that attempted to salvage a latent potency hidden in the youthful birth-moment of Romanticism to imagine a way out of the death-bound trajectories of the present moment, inflected specifically by the current situation in Tory England. Tying together Shelley’s figure of Queen Mab with the situationist style slogans of the 80s group, King Mob, he argued for poetry a kind of hallucination and dreaming that performs a public critique of capitalist subjection.

Catherine Hales decided to take Sean’s thesis on directly, questioning the relevance and effect of such public agitation in one’s capacity as a poet. Arguing that poetry’s subversiveness is at the level of language, it deciphers the signs of power, rather than setting agendas. She also questioned the tendency of ‘the political’ in poetry to implicitly refer to a leftist politics, therefore risking a kind of echo chamber, preaching to the converted (full text).

In the discussion that followed, this idea of preaching to the converted and creating open spaces for debate became a topic of discussion, perhaps too much. We also discussed the relation of violence to writing, in terms of content, expression, for the experience of the reader.

Sean Bonney books include Happiness, The Commons and Document: Poems, Diagrams, Manifestos. His work has been translated into several languages, and he has performed it at occupations, on demonstrations, in the backrooms of pubs, in seminar rooms, on picket lines and at international poetry festivals. He lives in Walthamstow, East London.

Queen Mob / King Mab: The Great Silence is Full of Noises

an essay by Sean Bonney

i. Notes from an Apocalypse

It seems brutally pertinent to speak on Romanticism in the context of our own era, an era that seems characterised by desperation, despair etc. The songs that Shelley was able to imagine have been transformed by history into shrieks and screams. Shelley speaks from the beginning of a historic arc that we are at the end of. His contemporary Hegel said that “it is not difficult to see that ours is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era” (p6) – it is not difficult to see that ours, while perhaps equally a period of transition, is a death-time. The utopian futurity that Shelley so wonderfully spoke of is now, it seems, only available to us via delusion and madness. Robin Kelley talked about the difference between African-American Surrealism and its more bourgeois European counterpart: he pointed out that rather than the “marvellous”, it engaged with “hell, the tragic, the abyss . . . the multiplicities of Madness, the nightmares, the terrifying hallucinations embedded in the collective black unconscious” (Kelley 353). Any poetics that would seek to recognise its roots at least partially in the utopianism of romanticism must – if it is to be honest, if it is to look at our current historic constellation with clear, sober senses – must be able to recognise that abyss as our general, collective condition.

But Shelley’s Queen Mab, the ecstatic spirit of revolutionary utopia – in a poem that later came to be called ‘the bible of the Chartists’ – contains within itself a darker and more sinister aspect. For Shelley, the fairy Mab is on the surface a gentle and dubiously eroticised spirit of inevitable utopia. A couple of centuries previously, in Romeo and Juliet, the inspiration is one of fear:

Her wagon spokes made of long spinners’ legs;
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams;
Her collars, of the smallest spider web;
Her whip, of cricket’s bone, the lash of film;
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid. (Romeo, 1-4)

The bones of crickets, a gnat, a worm. She will sneak into the dreams of the wealthy and make their mephitic dreams of domination come true. But the joys of the rich are the devastation of the poor. She is for Shakespeare – however much he may be indifferent to it – the purveyor of plague, the ecstasy of the Ebola virus. Of course, Shelley’s Mab is also a bringer of destruction:

Low through the lone cathedral’s roofless aisles
The melancholy winds a death-dirge sung:
It were a sight of awfulness to see
The works of faith and slavery, so vast,
So sumptuous, yet so perishing withal!
Even as the corpse that rests beneath its wall.
A thousand mourners deck the pomp of death
Today, the breathing marble glows above
To decorate its memory, and tongues
Are busy of its life: tomorrow, worms
In silence and in darkness seize their prey. (QM 9, 103-113)

And while this is not a destruction as the result of a privatised, aristocratic joy but a destruction that clears the way for collective liberation, it still involves fire and murder and devastation. Shelley cannot avoid the Blakean “devil”, the power of Hegelian negation, the roots of the mythology of “fairy” as inhabitant of or messenger from the land of the dead, caster of spells, enchanter of the living, spirit of revolution only in so far as that revolution is, as Bloch called it, “a crossroads where the dead come to meet”. The forces of revolutionary destruction, for Shelley, “whisper strange tales in the whirlwind’s ear” (QM 9, 102). These missives from the land of the dead are inaudible, at first incomprehensible to even themselves, as when Milton’s Lucifer finds himself and his demons robbed of language, a language transformed into a “dismal, universal hiss” (PL X, 508). The convulsions implicit in Shelley’s work are the sound of this hiss becoming audible, and comprehensible. In “Laon and Cynthia” – am early version of a poem called “The Revolt of Islam” which, strangely or not, is often left out of editions of Shelley’s work – the spirit of liberty and revolution speaks in a “language whose strange melody / might not belong to earth.” (L & C, 1: 289/90). In Queen Mab, this “strange melody” is quite explicitly the inaudible cries of the victims of aristocracy. It is the voice of the mother driven mad, her “shriek / of maniac gladness” (QM 6, 119/20) at the slaughter of her children. It is the “shriek of penury”, the “deep curses which the destitute / mutter in secret” (QM 3, 34 – 36).

These “deep curses” are the pivot on which the seizures of history operate. They push us forward into a time when the rich can no longer ignore the demands of the poor, even as those demands move out again from language and into actual revolutionary violence (and the horror of our own time is the way in which the ruling class have again found ways to ignore those demands, to make them once again inaudible: in some ways we have suddenly found ourselves in an era that is prior to Shelley). But as “curses”, they also push us back into the deep past, into imaginary time, to the origins of poetry in incantation, in charm, in spell and in curse. Somewhere within the content of what the destitute “mutter in secret” are the cadences of the poems of the Bardic traditions, those poems that so terrified Caesar with their rumoured combinations of words that had the power to kill kings. And these curses, the content of revolutionary language as dream, are at all moments in history potentially awoken into entirely audible, previously unspoken social demands. In his great poem “Leadbelly Gives an Autograph”, Amiri Baraka calls it “the possibilities of statement”:

I am saying, now,
what my father could not remember
to say. What my grandfather
was killed
for believing. (AB 213-4)

Baraka, speaking both as a poet and as a militant in the Black Liberation Movement, and also from a position where those two roles are absolutely indistinguishable, sees the poem as the irruption into lived time of social realities that have all too easily been hidden behind liberal fantasies of social equality. Baraka’s radicalism, after all, was to attack the racism not of the Klan, the crackers and pigs of the American south, but that of his own bourgeois, would-be Bohemian milieu. He traces the social demand back in time into the days of chattel slavery, and forward into the present moment, when all of poetry is compressed into the word “no”, and that word becomes the most powerful in the language, when all dreams of freedom are awakened, when Queen Mab stands up, her mouth full of teeth.

ii. “new faces and souls to work new damnations / rise to the surface”

On June 6th, 1780, in London, a very direct negation of official language took place: the fitth day of the so-called Gordon Riots, which had begun as an outbreak of anti-catholic violence, but at some point had transformed into class conflict pure and simple, culminated in a mob – including a young William Blake – attacking Newgate Prison, freeing the prisoners, and torching the place. That is to say, the sentences of judges, which are always the base grammar of capital, were erased, mocked, drowned out. The wreckage was signed “Freed by Decree of His Majesty King Mob”. George Crabbe described the mob as being “like Milton’s infernals, who were as familiar with fire as with each other” (KM 2, 16). A repentant arrestee later said of them, under confession, that “they only come at night”. King Mob – like the fairy Mab – is the entity that appears in the darkest dreams of the gentry; the midnight hag, its imaginary hands on their throat.

The burning of Newgate made the secret meaning of London legible. The original prison, there since the 12th Century – the one destroyed in the riots was a replacement built only a few years previously – had been built directly into the city walls, actually forming a part of one of the gates of the city. Those who entered the city from the east – like the sun – would pass through a wall crowded with prisoners, the condemned, the tortured, the already dead. Blake, in “Jerusalem”, described the walls of London as “eternal ice frozen in seven folds / Of forms of death . . . [where] The seven diseases of the earth are carved terrible” (Jerusalem 1, pl13, 15-17), and of the gates to the city as being “all clos’d up until the last day, when the graves shall yield their dead” (ibid, 11). The city, as home of royalty, the city of heaven, was ringed about with a hell whose spectres King Mob had liberated, spectres who replaced the sober vocabulary of the judges with “shouted obscenities . . . . and . . . vulgar gestures”. For a few days – or perhaps only hours or minutes (“the hour that Satan’s watch fiends cannot find”) – the language and landscape of the city had been transformed into something that could be Hell, Pandemonium, but was also the City of the Sun, maybe Fairyland, as in Blake’s sinister visions of the real guardians of the gates of London:

And sixty-four thousand Genii guard the Eastern Gate
And sixty-four thousand Gnomes guard the Northern Gate
And sixty-four thousand Nymphs guard the Western Gate
And sixty-four thousand Fairies guard the Southern Gate (Jerusalem ibid, 26-29)

That is to say, they come only at night, to stoke the convulsions of the sun. That convulsion – as anyone who has been in a riot will recognise – may last only a second, but it stays with you forever. An hallucinatory escape hatch is opened somewhere, and the sound of its being slammed shut again resonates through time. Around 450 rioters – 450 particles of the body King Mob – were arrested. Around 20 or 30 of these were tried and executed. An immediate consequence of the riots were the founding of the modern police force:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode? (Langston Hughes, Lennox Avenue Mural)

the “dream deferred” is that moment carried through time / the incantation, fear and nightmare

Almost two centuries later, in the late 1960s, a group of London art-students and anarchists formed a group called King Mob, named after what had been written on the ruins of Newgate. They had early connections with the group around the Chicago magazine “Rebel Worker”, which itself had connections with both Surrealism and the remnants of the IWW. Later, they were briefly connected to the Situationist International, though that connection doesn’t seem to have lasted very long: in any case, the style of their magazine was a lot closer to that of American art-anarcho groups like Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker and the Chicago Surrealists. Aside from putting out a fairly decent magazine their main activity seems to have been a graffiti campaign around Notting Hill. Slogans like “All You Need is Dynamite”, “Dynamite is Freedom” were put alongside utopian demands like
“Gatecrash Your Own Fantasy”, “Beware of Art”, and quotations from Romantic poets: Blake’s “The Tigers of Wrath are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction”, and Coleridge’s “A grief without a pang / Void, dark, drear / A stifled, drowsy unimpassioned grief”. This was a counter-cultural poetics as significant – given its public nature as graffiti maybe more significant – than more famously celebrated scenes like the International Poetry Manifestation at the Albert Hall etc (tho this, of course, is not to downplay the importance of that event): A scrap of “Dejection an Ode” scrawled on the side of a slum-dwelling in London carries more weight than a straight reading of the same poem. It is a statement of invisible reality, turned into a visible signature on the walls of the city. A “grief without a pang” is one so deep you cannot feel it – it is the prisoners in Newgate before their liberation, further it is the prisoners in Newgate as they are now.

The most celebrated graffiti attributed to King Mob was painted along the approach to Paddington Station, and so visible each morning to all the commuters pouring into London (thru the Western Gate) – “Same Thing Day After Day – Tube – Work – Dinner – Work – Tube – Armchair – TV – Sleep – Tube – Work – How Much More Can You Take – One In Ten Go Mad – One In Five Cracks Up”. This, dialectically, occupies the same mental space as “His Majesty King Mob”, inasmuch as it is an account of the fate of the descendants of those who attacked Newgate. It is also a great and accurate poem: its incantatory power following the same beats as the wheels of the commuter train, its content spelling out a lopsided disk of alienation where the only escape possible is to crack up, to go mad – and obviously not into the utopian madness where Queen Mab and King Mob become real, concrete citizens of the ideal city, but the madness where one disappears entirely into the spinning wheel of the city as nightmare, the city as a gigantic Newgate with a few luxury fittings, or as a terrifying clock whose alarm never rings. It describes an enclosed cosmos, an eternal and totalising present where the only way of actually becoming real – as real as Queen Mob – is precisely to cease to exist. If the heart of the city’s defining content is not to be simply an empty office chair, then it is those who have been told they do not exist, or rather those who are excluded from permitted reality who by their absence must define the city: their exclusion, their irreality, makes them the real (i.e. invisible) content of the societal cosmos.

Perhaps this is what Marx meant when he talked about the content of the revolutionary struggle, “the merciless critique of everything that exists” being the “poetry of the future”. Or what the Situationists – and King Mob – meant when they talked about the “poetry of the streets”. And what is this “future”, what is this “street”: it is everything that is left out of the “work-tube-dinner”, the audacity of the poetic imagination – the utopian insistence of a Shelley or a Blake. Their’s is a counter-time (the incantation and spell / what a hymn and the prayer become in a secular era): Queen Mab is able to reveal an entire cosmos:

The magic car moved on.
Earth’s distant orb appeared
The smallest light that twinkles in the heaven;
Whilst round that chariot’s way
Innumerable systems rolled,
And countless spheres diffused
An ever-varying glory.
It was a sight of wonder: some
Were hornèd like the crescent moon;
Some shed a mild and silver beam
Like Hesperus o’er the western sea;
Some dashed athwart with trains of flame,
Like worlds to death and ruin driven;
Some shone like suns, and as the chariots passed,
Eclipsed all other light. (QM 1, 249-263)

Like Blanqui’s visions in his cell in the Fort du Toreau, Mab reveals a universe of infinite variety – in his notes to the poem, Shelley insists that “the miserable tale of the Devil, and Eve . . . is irreconcilable with the knowledge of the stars”. Further, the miserable spinning disk of “work-tube-dinner” and so forth is also irreconcilable, insofar as for Shelley, the new revolutionary consciousness is one that can encompass the “inumerable systems”, the “countless spheres”, the “ever-varying glory” of the cosmos within a human system that, like the universe itself, is made up of infinite, harmonic difference and liberty, including liberties and harmonies that have yet to be imagined, which is to say, the liberties and harmonies that those who are excluded, made invisible by the dominant society do imagine – the dreams of the homeless, the dreams of the prisoner, the dreams of the starving.

Perhaps the common mockery the poetry of Shelley, of all the Romantics, has been subject to, is down to the way in which this system was so easily able to be transformed into the hell in which we do live (no matter how much we may be able to hide from it) – it is not hard to list “innumerable systems” and “countless spheres” of hells, (including unimaginable ones) just from a quick glance through the news. But then again, the bourgeois mockery of Shelley – I am thinking of an academic conference I attended where the keynote speaker suggested we forget the politics of Shelley, and instead simply think of him as a “beautiful lyricist” – may be there as self-defence against the fact that the dialectic between Queen Mab and King Mob is so easy, and so obvious – those countless earthly hells at any moment have the potential to split open, to transform into countless Midnight Hags perching on the sleeping bodies of the mighty. Shelley’s poem outlines a system. And while Shelley’s romanticism is one that consciously sees itself as part of the beginning of the scientific, rational era, that science, unconsciously or not, still secretly includes bardic incantation and curse: it is a system that spins beyond ourselves, and it is a system that breaks open prisons:

This is thine high reward: – the past shall rise;
Thou shalt behold the present; I will teach
The secrets of the future. (QM 2, 64-66)

(READ Catherine Hales‘ response)


  1. Pingback: Politik der Lyrik #3.2 – Was Plato right after all? (Catherine Hales) | Babelsprech.org

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