Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Football, the working class, and Marx: a 'tweet' from Kendrick Smithyman

There has been a protracted discussion about the pros and cons of the Fifa World Cup under my last post, with football fans of various political stripes battling against rugbyheads, hardline anti-sport hippies, and advocates of an alternative World Cup uncontaminated by corporate dollars and world-class talent.

A couple of weeks ago, during a different debate on this blog, Dave Bedggood suggested that writers have nothing to fear from the new technology of the internet age. According to Dave, poets would do well to learn how to express themselves in tweets. I thought Dave and other veterans of the debate about the World Cup might enjoy this poem by Kendrick Smithyman, which manages to deal with football, Marxism and the future of the working class in the space of the average tweet:

Dialectic

Marx was wrong.
The quantitative does not become
qualitative. Have you ever seen
a dealer's window full of TV sets
reporting an English football match?

Negation is not negated.


Smithyman scribbled the poem down on the 20th of May, 1969, while he was spending six months in Britain as the guest of the English Department of Leeds University. 'Dialectic' did not appear in Journal 69, the section of Smithyman's Collected Poems which describes his English adventure, but it did survive on a piece of loose paper in the great man's archive, where I discovered it last year. I'm urging Brett Cross to allow me to include the poem in From the Private Bestiary, the annotated selection of Smithyman's unpublished poems which I am bringing out through Titus Books this year.

I'll post an interpretation of 'Dialectic' when I have time, but I'd be interested to see what some of the readers of this blog have to say about it. Is the poem deceptively simple, or is it just, well, simple? And does anyone have an idea what game might have been playing on English televisions on or just before the 20th of May? According to my five minutes' of research on the internet, the English football season was well and truly over by then, with the FA Cup final, in which Manchester City beat Leicester City, having been played in mid-April.

21 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

hiw can a hippy be 'hardline'?

3:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry meant 'how'

'how?'

3:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Smithyman was a snob. Figures. A lot of poets are.

7:40 pm  
Blogger Sandra - too heavy to stand on a soapbox, but undeterred said...

Well I love it. Whether that makes the poem, or me, simple or a connoiseur I cannot day.

8:43 pm  
Anonymous Old Scrumpy said...

It's a tin-ear poem - ie not a poem.

10:11 am  
Blogger dave said...

It may be a poem but like most tweets its banal. Doesnt negate Marx.

11:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harsh words about a great New Zealand poet, Scrumpy.

Ted

11:42 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I'm not sure what Smithyman (if it is Smithyman and on something made up) means here - but "he" (the author) is wrong. Unless he is being ironic - or deliberately ambiguous -as he often is - and that isn't always bad. He misunderstands that Marx's point is quiet subtle. The effects of mass production are connected to the way in which modes of production affect the social relations of society and hence cause a change of changes. These are large or small, good and bad.

These lead to the phenomena of thesis, antithesis and synthesis , which in itself is not simplistic concept but involves a constant ongoing process of change and interaction at all levels of society and also in the larger class and historical sense.

Smithyman was never convinced of Marxism. In tutorials (English, 1968) I recall his bemoaning that R A K Mason (the Communist poet) had got involved in politics. This had destroyed his poetical abilities and production as a poet. This was Smithyman's view and my own at the time (I was, if anything in politics, very pro capitalist at that time.)

But he was NOT interested in Marxism then - Heidegger was (then) his hero.

12:39 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The poem itself is quite weak.

12:40 pm  
Anonymous herb ex-SAL said...

heh...what Smithyman is saying surely is...that the English working class is not revolutionary.

See, dialectics predicts that quantitative changes will create qualitative change. Enough straws...and the camel's back will be broken. The law of punctuated equilibrium works in a similar way in evolutionary theory. In England capitalism has developed...but revolution has not come. Workers are more interested in new technology (TVs) and in mindless sporting contests (just like the ones used to divert the Romans) than in making a revolution. Unfortunately for this poet's prediction the English proletariat entered a period of high militancy shortly after the poem was written! Dialectics will bite you in the arse...

So why is this poem hard to get? Even if you don't agree with the poet you must understand the poem. Or...do youse all need to study up on your dialctics?!??!

herb

3:03 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

" herb ex-SAL said...

heh...what Smithyman is saying surely is..."

Surely? There is no other interpretation? You mean you read it that way.

"...that the English working class is not revolutionary. '

Where does he say that?

" See, dialectics predicts that quantitative changes will create qualitative change."

Yeee..es...maybe...hmmm


" Enough straws...and the camel's back will be broken. "

No camel or straw is mentioned in the poem.

"The law of punctuated equilibrium works in a similar way in evolutionary theory."

You mean this statement (if true, you don't amplify on it) is coded into the poem? Great cryptology!


" In England capitalism has developed...but revolution has not come. "

Well we all know that. But was that what Smithyman was saying? I cant see it in in text of the poem.

" Workers are more interested in new technology (TVs) and in mindless sporting contests (just like the ones used to divert the Romans) than in making a revolution. "

Where is this stated by Smithyman?


'Have you ever seen
a dealer's window full of TV sets
reporting an English football match?'

Does he mean that the window is "reporting" the or "an" football match? So have I ever seen a window full of TVs reporting on a football match? It would be rather Pythonesque? Does he mean such a thing would be an example or quantitative to qualitative change (the TVs becoming in intelligent and speaking even without power on?)

Or is this a very common experience seeing TV sets commenting...rather a strange thing if a TV set is commenting ... (Smithyman lived in NZ so he would not have seen so many "rooms full of TV Sets (in England) reporting on anything (whether they were powered up or not).*

My answer is - never. Never have I seen this phenomena he talks of, as such, if that is what he means. (Particularly as I have never been to England.) With the addition that he means there is an actual commentary (not by the sets but by people "inside the sets") going on - which he omits in this rather short and confused poem.... and he is asking if we have ever seen this strange phenomena (which might be truly marvelous if the TV sets were making the commentary themselves, and would almost indicate some kind of "magical dialectic...) ...knowing that to be very unlikely?


" Unfortunately for this poet's prediction the English proletariat entered a period of high militancy shortly after the poem was written! "

Did it, the poem is not dated, and this is not stated. And most people wouldn't know anything about that if it is relevant.

" Dialectics will bite you in the arse... "


So dialectics is a kind of dog?

" So why is this poem hard to get? Even if you don't agree with the poet you must understand the poem."

MUST we? It seems ambiguous and quite obscure as if dashed off without much thought (to me). I have no idea what it is all about.

" Or...do youse all need to study up on your dialctics?!??! "


We might do, [but "dialctics" (what is that?] to understand one little poem? Smithyman could have written, an essay on the subject and defined his terms etc...

As it is it seems he can sort of point to Marxism, seemingly attack it, yet maybe not attack it, and..well..whatever it means it seems he is having his cake and eating it... and it is not a new fact that sport is a diversion.

But whatever the politics expressed it is a weak poem, confused trite and ambiguous for the worst reasons (ambiguity can be of great value and use in the high art of poetry.)

As I say, a weak poem.

*Or is he lurching here into surrealism?

9:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HEY YOU PRICKS THE WORLD CUP IS GETTING BORING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
DO SOMETHING RICHARD!!!!!!!!!!!!!
FUCKEN A

There was a lot of debate yesterday about the lack of goals in the World Cup so far, with some posters suggesting it was nothing unusual. Well, it is. There have been fewer goals in South Africa after 14 games than at the same stage of any previous World Cup:

1930 - 46
1934 - 54
1938 - 60
1950 - 42
1954 - 71
1958 - 31
1962 - 30
1966 - 35
1970 - 35
1974 - 32
1978 - 37
1982 - 40
1986 - 28
1990 - 30
1994 - 29
1998 - 28
2002 - 33
2006 - 27
2010 - 23

10:06 pm  
Anonymous P0werOfD00M! said...

The highest scoring team at a world cup doesnt always win it. In 1994 Russian player Oleg Salenko was the highest scorer despite Russia not making it past the group stage.
Russia has a violent and bloody history.
Perhaps the world cup is missing Saudi Arabia who have been known to suffer heavy defeats at the hand of Germany.
Both Germany and Saudi Arabia have long violent histories.
There is speculation that the sound of the vulvuzela is drowning out communication on the field and making he teams less adventurous. On the other hand it can be argued that any distraction caused by this Sout African instrument would result in lapses of concentration and mistakes - which there has been no shortage of. Indeed, if you take out the own goals and goalkeeper blunders you are left with an even more bleak picture.
South Africa is a country with a history of appaling violence and apartheid.
Perhaps the good Father who art in heaven can be brought down to earth again by Maradonna. Between them they were good for five goals in 1986.
Both Argentina and the kingdom of heaven are violent entities with a history of violence, fascism, and child molestation.

10:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why Marx would prefer baseball and American football to soccer

LONDON - The contrast between Europe and America has been back in the national conversation lately, as shocked conservatives look at the recent wave of government bailouts and warn of "European-style socialism" coming to the New World.

Behind that reaction is the basic assumption that Europe is a giant welfare state and America is the land of free-market opportunity, where achievement reaps rewards and failures are quickly discarded.

But not so fast. Americans, it turns out, are already pretty comfortable with socialism. You don't need to look further than professional sports, which you'd expect to be the most rough-and-tumble, winner-take-all arena of our national landscape.

Sports both reflect and embody a culture. It's impossible, for example, to understand Italy and its politics without knowing a lot about soccer and the game's relationship to Silvio Berlusconi - the prime minister and former owner of AC Milan, who converted the team's football chant into a name for his political party. Even the leisurely lawn sport of boules can tell you a great deal about France and the symbolic importance of village life.

So if we look at American sports leagues, we'd assume they would be a hard-boiled analogue of our free-market philosophy - a version of on-field Darwinism. Instead, we find, if not exactly a worker's paradise, a safety net impossible to fall through.

When it comes to big-time sports, it's Europeans who are the real free-market meritocrats - rewarding success, leaving failure behind, and letting every man fend for himself. By comparison, American professional sports is organized as a giant welfare state, where wealth is shared, luxury spending is taxed and passed to the poor, and even the weakest are never allowed to fail.

The contrast is most striking in football. To many abroad, the National Football League is America. And the NFL is about as redistributive an enterprise as one can imagine - a living example of "share and share alike." The league's revenue-sharing provisions mean that its massive television revenues go into a huge pot, which is handed out evenly regardless of success - the bigger, successful teams essentially subsidizing the smaller failures. There are also salary caps, and scheduling and draft mechanisms that empower the poor at the expense of the rich - all in the name of equality, otherwise known as "parity."

In basketball, the NBA has a salary cap and a draft similar to the NFL. Even old-fashioned baseball has a luxury tax that distributes money from high-payroll teams to the less free-spending ones.

In contrast, as British soccer pundit Gabriele Marcotti has pointed out, it's the Old World's game of soccer where it's every team for itself. European soccer is a multibillion dollar sport, and its clubs are powerful symbols of national and regional identity. And the medium in which they operate is a virtually unfettered free market. With little meaningful central control from the game's governing bodies, owners are free to spend and sign players as they wish - and often do, driving themselves straight into debt and the poorhouse. It's the rich who thrive - unlike here, where a losing squad like Tampa Bay or the Boston Celtics can ride the system straight from nowhere to the top.

10:49 pm  
Anonymous herb ex-SAL said...

ha ha richard thanks...for proving my point. you have no idea what revolutionary dialectics is. in the seventies you would be exceptional now you're normal amongst the self-proclaimed left crowd. so...

do you want to learn something or be a smartarse?
yes I'm herb...ex-SAL...

but do you even know what those letters stood for?

12:22 am  
Anonymous mike said...

In terms of these discussions, is there not a kind of irony in the recent strikes by South African workers (bus drivers and stadium security guards)? Perhaps the World Cup publicity has empowered these workers to an extent. But as Al Jazeera says:


These events highlight the frustrations of South Africa's poor who feel they are not benefiting from Africa’s first-ever world cup. South Africa has some of the biggest wealth disparities in the world. Some workers' unions have threatened to bring the country to a standstill during the month-long football tournament if their demands are not met.

Ttemba Maseko, a government spokesperson, said "People will and must be allowed to raise their issues but we will not tolerate anybody either threatening and disrupting the World Cup.

"It's not going to happen and I can assure you let alone our security services, ordinary South Africans will not allow anyone to spoil this party."

http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2010/06/2010614171457174463.html



I particularly like that phrase "we will not tolerate", which has quite sinister implications in the South African context.

12:09 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes it sounds paradoxical the US sport is more "socialist". But there are some evil people in the European and Italian sporting world. Italy seems particularly evil -the Calabrian Mafia is very powerful even in Australia and throughout the world.

I enjoyed seeing the game NZ v Croatia and the last minute goal.

But there is a case for a boycott - the poor and the workers and peasants (labourers on rubber, tea, or coffee plantations, or workers in gold and diamond factories or mines in SA (only to mention a small section of it all) factories by and large the world are exclued from the benefits of sprt and other things.

Despite the unctuous waffle Mandela talks (and the hypercritical and dementia-ridden antics that Bishop Tuttu-dress gets up to) - they are too old and stupid now and have sold out for safety and comfort and money - the people of SA are still quite poor and exploited by Imperialist Industries who ultimately reap billions from SA's resources.

We need revolution to bring down these people siphoning the money and everything that fundamentally belongs to the people of the world.

We need to support and African worker and Peoples movement against the World Cup Soccer Farce and against Imperialism. I like sport but I no longer watch the Olympics - it is another muck ball of greed and cause of division. Very little of this sport stuff benefits the workers and the poor people of the world.

1:34 pm  
Anonymous mike said...

Not wanting to contradict myslef too much, I must admit it is sometimes hard not to get emotionally caught up in these big events like the world cup and the Olympics.

Perhaps they represent the most tangible version of McLuhan's "global village" idea. Knowing that much of the world is watching means there is a feeling of being at one with humanity, united around an expression of skillful play.

I suppose this is part of the ideology of these events, or rather it is what they want to capitalise on, but this doesn't mean these feelings of "imagined community" aren't real. If only for a few fleeting days.

1:46 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

" herb ex-SAL said...

ha ha richard thanks...for proving my point."

What was your point?


"... you have no idea what revolutionary dialectics is. ..."

No? Well, enlighten me. But Smithyman seemed to have even less idea of what it was...I was attempting to elucidate Smithyman's rather confused poem -now I admire much of his work (although he overdoes the obscurity a bit much I feel) - but this fragment is not very good, and, as I say, is weak. That is my issue here.

" in the seventies you would be exceptional "


Exceptional in what way - My height? My sex appeal? My hobbies? My knowledge of politics?

" now you're normal amongst the self-proclaimed left crowd. "

I'm normal! That's a relief!

"
so...

do you want to learn something
or be a smartarse?

"

I'm open to learning - do talk on.


" yes I'm herb...ex-SAL...

but do you even know what those letters stood for? "

Well , lets see - "Herb, the ex Salivator ? " " Herb of the Rumpty Tumpty Revolutionary Salvation Army Band" "Herb the Ex Sailor (with unwanted but not undesired bandy legs)" " 'erb la sperme salade..." ...."Herb the Wanking Dwarf of Madville."?

Please enlighten us all we are all so excited waiting for you response! I mean, WE, are all so ordinary...and we misunderstand dialectical materialism

1:47 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

" herb ex-SAL said...

ha ha richard thanks...for proving my point."

What was your point?


"... you have no idea what revolutionary dialectics is. ..."

No? Well, enlighten me. But Smithyman seemed to have even less idea of what it was...I was attempting to elucidate Smithyman's rather confused poem -now I admire much of his work (although he overdoes the obscurity a bit much I feel) - but this fragment is not very good, and, as I say, is weak. That is my issue here.

" in the seventies you would be exceptional "


Exceptional in what way - My height? My sex appeal? My hobbies? My knowledge of politics?

" now you're normal amongst the self-proclaimed left crowd. "

I'm normal! That's a relief!

"
so...

do you want to learn something
or be a smartarse?

"

I'm open to learning - do talk on.


" yes I'm herb...ex-SAL...

but do you even know what those letters stood for? "

Well , lets see - "Herb, the ex Salivator ? " " Herb of the Rumpty Tumpty Revolutionary Salvation Army Band" "Herb the Ex Sailor (with unwanted but not undesired bandy legs)" " 'erb la sperme salade..." ...."Herb the Wanking Dwarf of Madville."?

Please enlighten us all we are all so excited waiting for you response! I mean, WE, are all so ordinary...and we misunderstand dialectical materialism

1:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

most boring world cup ever

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/davidbond/2010/06/goals_at_a_rare_premium_as_exc.html

5:57 pm  

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