On Punctuation, Politics and Poetics (Part 2) by William Wall

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William Wall B&W (Liz Kirwan).jpeg

William Wall

In Part 1 of this article, I outlined my reasons for not punctuating my poems and glanced, towards the end, at the presence of politics in my work. Here I’d like to enlarge that glance a little.

A long time ago I took a decision to make politics and political theory a significant part of my work both in poetry and prose, or rather I decided to stop avoiding it. I laid out my reasoning in an article called ‘Riding Against the Lizard’ (2009) which was first published in the late and much-lamented The SHOp magazine and which can be read on my own website at http://www.williamwall.net/ewExternalFiles/Riding%20Against%20The%20Lizard.pdf.

At the time poetry, as written in Ireland, showed very little evidence of engagement with politics. Now, I’m glad to say, there are many poets who take politics head on, but at the time it was considered ‘bad form’, a little too Left, a little strident, distasteful. It was difficult to find places to publish poetry that was overtly political, (and, in fact, it is still not welcome in certain quarters). Heaney’s liberal balancing act was the model, whereas Montague’s Rough Field was considered an intemperate aberration. My own position (as argued in that essay) was a simple one: we are all citizens and as citizens we are obliged to engage with the political in whatever way we can, otherwise we resign it to those who can wield it with power. A poet has no special dispensation to be outside of the political. Maintaining a strategic silence is not particularly brave or admirable.

Naturally, there is some truth to Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (though that can be read in two ways), but equally, abandoning the field of politics entirely will certainly make nothing happen. What’s more, the old adage that ‘silence means consent’ is completely true, at least in the political as opposed to the personal sphere. If writers do not engage with politics in whatever way they can then writers are assumed to be happy with the status quo. And just to remind ourselves – the ‘status quo’ is a permanent housing crisis, a healthcare system that can barely cope in a bad winter, overcrowded prisons, gross dereliction of duty with regard to the climate and a politics that is driven by the ideology of the vulture fund.

So my decision to ‘be political’, in reality a simple decision not to exclude my political views as unfit subjects for poetry, brought with it the imperative to render political thoughts in ways that are accessible. At its most ironic there is a poem called ‘A Riff On Marx’s Theory of Surplus Values’ which goes:

the philosopher makes ignorance

and the poet makes silence

the priest makes sinfulness

and the criminal makes the criminal law

The last line of the verse, a refrain in fact, is a quotation from Marx. By contrast there is a longish sequence called ‘Via Antonio Gramsci’ which moves between countries, places and ideas with fluidity and which an Italian critic called ‘un modo di ragionare in forma di poesia’ (a type of reasoning (or argument) in the form of a poem). It has, as an irregular refrain, the words ‘someone singing bandiera rossa/sotto voce’ (Bandiera Rossa is the Italian Communist Party marching song). The poem considers the rise of neofascism in Europe and links it with early Italian and Irish fascism and ‘fatherland’/‘mother Ireland’ imagery, the whole undercut by irony and personal or familial connections such as:

better my sons

freewheeling after midnight

down Tottenham Court Road

or watching the bankers

                        waving fifties

                        at the G20

face to face with the police cordon

and the simple structural

violence of the state

Here, I think, the narrative requires no punctuation. Each line carries a ‘unit of sense’, a clause in the story, and the closing lines contain a classic leftwing view of the role of the police – the enforcers of the state, the visible expression of the state’s structural inequality as expressed by the G20 meeting in London in 2009 which drew enormous protests at a time of economic crisis.

At a more direct level are poems such as ‘The Ballad of Lampedusa’ written in Sicily at the peak of the refugee crisis (unless we say it is continually at peak) and at the same time that Syriza in Greece was struggling with the EU and Wolfgang Schauble in particular:

a cold storm throws foam and stones

on the coast of Sicily

            a grecale blows

            nothing to hinder it

between here and the Peloponnese

and I sit by a window translating

a poem about people drowning

            half-way to Africa

            almost in Tunisia

            in Lampedusa

Or the poem ‘Ghost Estate’ which was considered safe enough to be on the Leaving Certificate course (and ultimately on the exam paper), about the economic crash of 2008 and the proliferation of so-called ‘ghost estates’ around the country. That housing crisis is still with us in one form or another. The refrain is from an advertising hoarding I used to see regularly at the time. The last two lines are intended to suggest that we have been ‘sold out’ by our politicians, or that the ‘first republic’ (thinking in French terms) has been sold out:

Ghost Estate

women inherit

the ghost estate

their unborn children

play invisible games

of hide & seek

in the scaffold frames

if you lived here

you’d be home by now


they fear winter

& the missing lights

on the unmade road

& who they will get

for neighbours

if anyone comes anymore

if you lived here

you’d be home by now


the saurian cranes

& concrete mixers

the rain greying into

the hard-core

& the wind

in the empty windows

if you lived here

you’d be home by now


the heart is open plan

wired for alarm

but we never thought

we’d end like this

the whole country

a builder’s tip

if you lived here

you’d be home by now


it’s all over now

but to fill in the holes

nowhere to go

& out on the edge

where the boys drive

too fast for the road

that old sign says

first phase sold out

(c) William Wall

Author photography (c) Liz Kirwan

Read Part 1 of this article here.

About Smugglers In The Underground Hug Trade:

Surprised by how few literary references exist for the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic of 1918/19, William Wall made a conscious decision to document the experience of ‘the strangest year we have lived’. In a poetic journal, Wall captures the roller-coaster of emotions from the first terrible days in Italy to the highs and lows of the lockdown in Ireland, culminating in the frightening increase in numbers at Christmas 2020.

But this is not just a book about the plague: the author turns to nature, to love, to his beloved Cork coast and sea-swimming for solace. There are many tender memories, moments of personal inspiration, humour and hopefulness—the whole suffused with an acute awareness of the historical context. There have been other plagues and pandemics, the poems say, and we have survived: we will survive this too.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

William Wall’s most recent collection of poetry is Smugglers In the Underground Hug Trade (Doire Press 2021). He is the author of six novels, including Grace’s Day and Suzy Suzy (New Island, Dublin and Head of Zeus, London), This is the Country (Sceptre), longlisted for the Man Booker Prize; four collections of poetry; and three volumes of short stories. He was the first European winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature (2017) and has won many other prizes including the Premio Lerici Pea (2021) in Italy, the Virginia Faulkner Award, The Sean O’Faoláin Prize, several Writer’s Week prizes and The Patrick Kavanagh Award. His work has been translated into many languages and he translates from Italian. He holds a Phd in creative writing from UCC and is Cork’s first poet laureate.

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