Simon Armitage, the poet laureate, was undoubtedly wise when he declined to pen a poem to commemorate the UK’s exit from the European Union on the intended “Brexit day” of 31 October. He perhaps preferred to save his ink for national occasions that are a bit more pinned-down. This enraged some Brexiters to the point that they regrettably decided to pen their own attempts, with the Spectator’s blog even promising to publish the best. I found revisiting the deathless verse of Brexit party MEP Lance Forman particularly pleasing on Thursday, as the light poured in from the window overlooking my garden which, like the rest of the nation, remained resolutely part of the European Union: “October 31st / Is when we burst / Out of the EU’s grip / No ifs. No buts / No backstop cuts / We leave the sinking ship”.
When Brexit will happen is anyone’s guess, but we can certainly have a stab at how Armitage feels about it, because he made a Brexit-themed film poem for Sky Arts. In it, he describes Kent as “exposing its fat little cock to the east”, which I think is rather good.
I myself have had a mistrust of jingoistic verse since our English teacher used Roger McGough’s poem Why Patriots are a Bit Nuts in the Head, from the summer 1967 issue of International Socialism, as one of the counterpoints to Rupert Brooke’s snivelling ethnocentricity in The Soldier (“If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England”). When it comes to state-of-the-nation poetry, I find ambivalence much more appealing.
I’ve sought much consolation in poetry recently. It can illuminate where political commentary sometimes falls short. It examines with precision while screaming tabloid headlines cite unnamed sources without question. It aids empathy, and distils emotions in ways that vividly encapsulate a moment in time.
When I read Vidyan Ravinthiran’s TS Eliot prize-shortlisted The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here, a book of sonnets for his wife, I gain a glimpse of the life of a mixed-race couple living in the north, and how it must have felt on that day in 2016, standing at Durham station. “We glance from face to face / guess how each voted,” he writes, in the poem Brexit, before saying that, “It seems to me my Facebook friends down south are mad / at finding themselves, all of a sudden, a minority / in their own country”. The morning after the referendum, I awoke to the sound of a woman hollering, “We’ve taken our country back!” That evening, the poet Anthony Anaxagorou was in an Uber, though there is nothing in his poem of the same title – from the collection After the Formalities – itself to suggest the day, we learn it in a footnote. He writes: “to our right / a van pulls up / two men / motion / to lower / windows / in rain / he does / we do / go home / home / go home / laughing / up / a storm / front”. In a 2017 special issue of Poem, edited by Fiona Sampson, collecting women’s responses to Brexit, I read in One of Every Two how Nazneen Ahmed felt: “I step onto the bus more warily today. I keep my head down. I feel my heart beating double time in my chest.”
Poetry sales have been booming of late, aided by new audiences offered up by the internet and its shareability through social media platforms. Small presses are flourishing, spoken-word poetry can go viral. The uncertain times in which we live must surely also be a factor in poetry’s newfound popularity.
The Midlands-based poet Jane Commane’s collection, Assembly Lines, tells of life in the post-industrial towns of the Midlands, those so-called left-behind communities. Her poem UnWeather is a response to the referendum result, about language and its origins, how it pilfers and overlaps, “mackled together with flints and flaps”. “Each leaf of English borrowed from / a starry European library of tongues, / library card now revoked,” she writes.
“Poetry seemed the only way to explore and comprehend the complexity of Brexit and the referendum result – but also to process some of the emotions around it – fear, anger, grief,” Commane tells me. “Poetry is a way of working things out and, because it can contain the kind of contradictions and multiplicities that our more oppositional political and social discourses often can’t, with their binary choices of yes/no, for/against, leave/remain, it’s also space in which language helps us to find a form of truth for ourselves; a way of naming and containing what often feels uncontainable or incomprehensible.”
The Brexit debate is one in which we are again and again presented with apparently simple narratives, easy answers to a complex problem. Yet poetry offers no such easy answers, and perhaps slightly paradoxically, that’s why it can be comforting. As Commane suggests, it’s a way of processing, even if we never come to a clear conclusion. In a polemical climate, this is especially appealing.
Of course, there is pleasure and catharsis to be found in defiantly political poetry, too, such as Luke Wright’s The Panel, a blistering diatribe written in 2014 that foreshadows Brexit with furious accuracy, or Hollie McNish’s Mathematics. Spoken-word poetry lends itself well to politics, and the anger of it can be cathartic. Indeed, a mass sort of catharsis took place at Glastonbury in 2017, when Kate Tempest performed People’s Faces and audience members were moved to tears. “Was that a pivotal historical moment we just went stumbling past? / Well, here we are, dancing in the rumbling dark,” says Tempest. But there is hope there: “I can feel things changing / Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking”.
It’s nearly three and a half years since the referendum on leaving the EU. In that time there has been so much poetry written as a real-time response to breaking news – the website New Boots and Pantisocracies and Nick Asbury’s Realtime Notes being just two examples of this poem-a-day method. From The Brexit Book of the Dead by Rishi Dastidar to Over Seas, by Ed Lvker, and Great again, our island nation, by Martha Sprackland, Brexit has seen responses by poets from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life, from all over the country and beyond. In her poem, Sprackland writes that “the pound slumps like a drunk. I’m scared of division, scared of men”. I’ve felt that fear, many of us have, but poetry can be a kind of antidote.
“The country’s / lonely with itself and howls / for something, like a dog gone old / in the head,” writes David Clarke in The Vision of Albion. Poetry is not the solution to that howl, but it helps.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist