Porterloo is a unique book in the history of poetry in English.
Irish poet Niall McDevitt has seen through the English tradition of ‘courtly poetry’ and demonstrated how a self-respecting poetry need have nothing whatsoever to do with it.
The collection is an epic response to the return of the Conservatives to power in 2010 – albeit hamstrung by coalition – and the shock of not only observing how Conservatism treats human beings but of suffering it first hand. (As an immigrant who experienced unemployment and who has since ‘graduated’ to self-employment, McDevitt was among the lower echelons of the 99% whom the Tory whip was lashing.)
Other pursuits were abandoned. McDevitt began writing a new type of poetry to counteract the sheer psychic harassment he was being subjected to by Con-Dem rhetoric and legislation.
After attending a reading by the veteran Afro-American poet Amiri Baraka and particularly enjoying the sequence of political haiku called ‘Lowcoup’, McDevitt wrote a lengthy 30-page sequence of anti-Conservative haiku which he called ‘Fucku’, satirising the daily minutiae of Tory powerplay with the assistance of the invaluable Facebook page NOBODY LIKES A TORY.
The first subject he found to give a bigger canvas to was the imprisonment of Charlie Gilmour in 2010 for swinging from the Cenotaph flag. Sentenced to 16 months, Gilmour was being vilified in the Daily Mail and deluged with hatemail from its readers. As an antidote to this hatemail, McDevitt wrote an epistle, ‘Letter to Charlie Gilmour (aka ‘The Cenotaph Yob’)’, a poem in four sections which catches the mood of the 2010 riots but also meditates on one of the darkest episodes from English history i.e. the public hangings at Tyburn.
A later poem was a self-questioning celebration of the 2010 storming of the Tory H.Q. at Millbank by students protesting the hike in tuition fees. McDevitt is honest enough to examine his feelings of jubilation at hearing the news and and ask if they are unworthy. The poem was first published in the Spring edition of the radical new magazine STRIKE!
Porterloo’s title is a multuiple pun on portaloo/Waterloo/Peterloo and which alludes to the disgraced ex-Tory councillor and Tesco heiress Shirley Porter. Though her reputation was destroyed by her behaviour as leader of Westminster Council, the Conservatives continue to behave in exactly the same way, having learnt nothing from her notorious decline and fall. Once again, social cleansing and gerrymandering are the order of the day. The ‘porterloo’ imagery is sustained through the volume, from the portaloos of Tent City to the discovery of a dead Conservative in a portaloo at Glastonbury.
Porterloo thus becomes a codeword for the latest class war to be unleashed by the Tories, their first in the 21st century. In the climax to the first section of the book – called “P” – McDevitt imagines the precarious situation in which millions of people find themselves as ‘waiting to be flushed down the Porterloo’
Other poems lament social cleansing in Elephant and Castle and Camden Town, as well as the persecution of Julian Assange by William Hague and the British authorities,
Some of the satire is a Jarryesque gob-in-the-face of the British establishment. ‘Sonnet to a Monarchist’ criticises a poet who has fallen under the spell of Prince Charles. ‘Let Us Celebrate Dickens’ concisely shows up the hollowness and hypocrisy of the Dickens celebrations in 2012. ‘Thatcherism’ scourges the ‘militant mediocrity’ of Tories throughout the ages while celebrating the fact that ‘there is no such thing as mrs. t******r’.
The book is also distinguished by having a preface from the illustrious author-anarchist Heathcote Williams on the theme of ‘Insurgent Poetry’.
In contrast to the menacing ‘blue meanie’ parade of Conservatives that feature in the book, there is a bohemian backdrop of culture heroes such as Heathcote Williams, Amiri Baraka, Naomi Klein, David Graeber, Jeremy Reed, and Allen Ginsberg. The 20th Century English poet David Gascoyne is re-appraised in an essay in the appendix. What McDevitt has been taught by Gascoyne is that there is a ‘third way’ in poetry. One doesn’t have to choose between the solipsism of personal expression or the agitprop of political expression, a single poem can serve both needs.
Porterloo is personal-political poetry at its wittiest and McDevitt’s trademark shape-shifting is in evidence in the ceaseless formal experimentaion of the cycle. The art is primary, despite the political urgency.
The book covers a very important period in modern history which includes the year of the English riots and the year of the Occupy movement, but takes a long view. It will be capable of cautioning the future.
Poet Jeremy Reed has hailed Porterloo as ‘a brilliant explosive book… the best politically weaponised poetry ever’.
Porterloo is published by International Times with illustrations by Mike Lesser.
The book has been critically acclaimed in The Wolf, The Recusant, Stride, The Morning Star and was hailed as book of the year by poet AJ Dehany.