Monday, August 06, 2007

Eric at 90

Today's Scotsman has a 'happy birthday' interview with the British left's greatest living historian and worst ever political strategist. You have to admire a man who can look that geeky and still write a best-selling history of banditry...

Along with Dorothy Thompson and John Saville - two of the people I had the pleasure of meeting during my research trip to Britain in 2005 - Eric Hobsbawm is one of the last surviving former members of the Communist Party Historians Group, an outfit that flourished in the years between the end of the Second World War and the invasion of Hungary in 1956. Working together in the tense atmosphere of the early Cold War years, these brilliant young men and women created a new and very much improved account of Britain's past - 'a history from below' - that eventually entered the mainstream of academic and public discourse. Even today, in the aftermath of the postmodernist counter-revolutions of the '80s and '90s, it's hard to study the English revolution without contending with Christopher Hill, and the spectre of EP Thompson* still haunts historians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, not to mention scholars of subaltern history in India.

Here's a melancholy thought: how much has Eric Hobsbawm written since he reached seventy, an age that Edward Thompson never made? How much have we lost to Legionnaires' disease and the several other strange maladies that combined to kill off the most remarkable member of a remarkable group of historians?

*Alright, technically Edward was never actually a member of the group - in the late '40s and early '50s he still fancied himself as a poet, and hung out with the Party's organisation of writers, along with the likes of David Holbrook, Jack Lindsay, and Randall Swingler - but he earned his stripes retrospectively, by forging close associations with the likes of Saville and Hill, and taking up some of the main thematic threads in their work. Certainly, the common belief that he was a member of the group doesn't seem too unjust.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the other hand:

Regarding working class poet active in working class communities,

I would also recommend you look at 4 San Francisco poets--Sara Menafee, Carol Tarlen,
David Joseph, and Jack Hirschman--who participated along with Food Not Bombs
in illegal feedings of the homeless in downtown San Francisco.

Poets Sara Menafee and the late Carol Tarlen both went to jail for
illegally feeding the homeless.

All four poets wrote brilliantly about their participation in the feedings
and also Tarlen wrote about her time in jail. Jack Hirschman, who is
now Poet Laureate of San Francisco, has his wonderful poems about the homeless
struggle avialble in his book "Frontlines: Selected Poems" (City Lights Press).

For account of the life of Carol Tarlen, read my piece "Death of a Poet" on
Pemmican online. I think Sara Menafee also published a book with her homeless
poems, and David Jospeh wrote a brilliant long poem about the homelesss struggle
which just won a compeptition for North Beach, San Francisco poets and is
reading in two San Francisco readings


10:53 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

It's paradox but a lot of overtly political poetry is almost inevitably bad (political poets specialise in inanities and cliches and bombast) - Thompson's poetry was atrocious - yet he is great thinker and activist and a historian, and his book on the History of the Working class is a must read. Mr Hobsbawm is terrific - alert it seems and just the right mix of skepticism and some idealism - still is somewhat hopeful.

I will check some of those poets.

The one and only time i went to eth U.S. (NY really if that can be called the U.S.) I went to restaurant in NY and the food was so cheap - and there was so much of it I took away a bag and was in Broadway wanting to give it to this homeless guy but I saw a cop and thought I might be put away for 20 years ...

That was 1993 - I remember meeting some homeless people and they even had their own newspaper...interesting. I wasn't "into" politics I was in the throws of the 'Postmodern counter revolution'
- I am still somewhat - also a bit wary of excessive Utopianism..a dash of cynicism and a sprinkling of nihilism keeps me alert...

It takes courage to go to jail for humanitarian actions.

11:57 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...


Your obit is very good but I couldn't get to the poems the links didn't work
But from what I can see Carol Tarlen and others like her deserve more - she was far from being a tub thumper as far as I can see - and the quotes you give indicate she knew what she was doing with poetry - as a political poet has to work very subtly - but this is sad:

"Her attempts at having her work published in a full-length book of poetry were repeatedly rejected, but she did have her work circulated widely in magazines and anthologies. She was marginalized in the Bay Area literary community for being working class...."

I know that happens - the Accos and the Bernsteins and Sillimans etc of this world don't like uncomfortable truths put to them... (although they purport to be 'political' at the level of the signifier and so on - and there is something in that - but that is their limit - and (Silliman in jails) did a lot of active stuff - but they are all now in cushy jobs and hiding in plush rooms, or peering from haberdasheries, or scrivening, stinging, and eeking out dubius Blogs or whatever; or taking long sabatticals from Uni)..they - many of them have become quite right wing and heartless...

"As the years went by and her diabetes and heart disease worsened, she lost her blonde beauty; in her fifties she walked stoop shouldered, making her even more marginalized. She knew it. Well, Whitman was marginalized. Dickinson was marginalized. They knew it, too.."

Dickinson was marginalised more by the fact -sure it was partly that she was a woman - that her poetry was revolutionary in style and in content or the style-content was so new and remarkable if not disturbing to people at the time - it is great poetry but I think just about everyone at the time - when had they seen her work - would have been non-plussed (perhaps some would have appreciated it greatly) - she only sent to a few publishers then hid her poems away...she marginalised herself -

But Carol your friend sounds like an extraordinary person, political activist, and poet. I will do some more googling -

Maps would probably let you do an issue on his Blog here about those days in San Francisco (politics /poetics/poverty and so on) - it would make a fascinating Blog entry. The Bay Area - I remember there was some excellent poetical and political people came from there - I used to read Bay Area (political) literature (here in Auckland) when I got it in the 70s -

Kind regards from NZ, Richard

12:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Julia Stein's Death of a Poet link is here

Her blog is here:

10:38 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I got some connects to Stein (relative of Gertrude?) … and others via the eternal Google but thanks for the Blog link.

BTW if there is any one from there interested give Maps a massive rev up I [he is probably spending too much time at his special hamburger savaging bar where poor Skyler has to endure his meat devourings – or he is reading a huge tome on some New Obscurity he has unearthed – or dabbling in alchemy])

This is an excellent poem, a mix of the political, the surreal (common to South American poets so this is appropriate considering the dedication) -

Believe In My Hands (Which Are Ending)

For Silvio Rodriguez of Cuba

at the end of my hands
is the face of a child
whose right eye is planted
in the center of her pale cheekbones

At the edge of my fingers
pacing beneath a movie marquee,
is an old man in a red cap on whose
shoulder blossoms a picket sign.

The rain he stands in defines
the limits of my hands. Still,
I trust in the slick wet pavement
where my body ends,

but where my imagination
explodes into white carnations.
I believe in thick, black dirt
that sifts through my closed fist.

I believe in the child whose
deformed face is a luminous moon.
I believe in the hot sun where
a revolution was named for a poet.

I trust in the mystery of future.
which is always beginning.

By Carol Tarlen (1943 –2004)

Here is some more info on the Working Class poet (take note Comrade Maps!!) – who struggled successfully, with some unhealth, and while looking after her children to pass an MA – take part in activism for clothing workers – to also write interesting poetry which is not simplistic socialist realist hogwash but is pretty good as far as I can see –



From the Editor: Carol Tarlen’s description of herself for a journal I was involved with in the early 90s Cc From Nowhere, where the first three of the poems below were previously published, went as follows: ‘Carol Tarlen is a clerical worker at U.C. San Francisco, a member of AFSCME Local 3218, a left-wing sort of anarchist, and a bad-tempered pacifist. She writes poetry, fiction and essays.’ Carol’s work was published in an anthology Liberating Memory: Our Work and Working Class Consciousness, and journals like Pemmican Press and Classics. She was politically active in the League of
Revolutionaries for a New America, a group whose members couldn’t quite grasp [the point or use of her work?] but which included some of my favorite San Francisco poets: Jack Hirschman, Sarah and Jorge Argueta, as well as Carol and her husband David Joseph. Carol was feisty, seemingly tireless, she always said she was exhausted [hmmm – people like that one avoids like the plague. But no doubt else she was a redoubtable person], whenever you saw her, and she had endless reserves of contempt for the stupidity of rulers and endless reserves of compassion for the underdogs of the world. Her life and described in an excellent obituary by Julia Stein in the current issue of Pemmican Press. She died [text missing – my error using my copier wrongly]this June and this is a small tribute to her enduring inspiration.

Another poem is titled:

While watching the clock at work,
contemplate the end of entropy

[I like the paradox and inventiveness of this title – and as I have had about 40 factory jobs in my life –many watching the clock I know the feeling!]

Thanks to Julia Stein – Grandmaster Maps - you ‘should’ perhaps put a link to her Blog on here.

1:45 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks for sharing that with us Julia. I liked the description of Carol Tarlen as a 'bad-tempered pacifist'!

1:24 pm  

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