The definition of the word ‘poet’ should really just be the word geek. In looking up the definition of subversion I found it’s original meaning to be:
the undermining of the power and authority of an established system or institution.
Today, the word is commonly used as shorthand to describe art or acts that are shocking, but it’s important to remember that the shock comes from a rupture with the status quo. For example, the cyber world went nuts about these memes subverting Medieval Art. Because they are hilarious, yes, but also because they shift the idea of Medieval art being untouchable and for an elite few who visit expensive galleries and stroke their beards (real or otherwise) as they admire golden-framed portraits. This original meaning of subversion is wonderful as it ties art that does garner such reactions to a wider and more politicised purpose. Given that I’m on a quest to find ways that poetry can be used to undermine the institution of our current government and it’s slow, sly moonwalk away from democratic values (and basic human rights), subversion will be my word of the week.
Before delving into the ways we can subvert poetic form, Theresa May’s tweets and other bits and bobs to hopefully say something more meaningful – let’s whizz through a bit of Magna Carta history, specifically the hypocritical (but not unexpected) use of it to justify fun things like Empire (and consequently slavery).
Talking to Lincoln University’s Dr Philippa Hoskin last week, I learned that the tenets of freedom and liberty set out in Magna Carta, were crucial in justifying the expansion of the British Empire. English settlers who went to places like the Caribbean to make a fortune from sugar plantations and the slave trade, leant on the liberties set out centuries before in Magna Carta as proof of their colonial birthright. So whilst Magna Carta can be seen as the first document formalising freedom and justice for individual (land owning) citizens, it is also an ideological lynchpin of The British Empire, which thrived because of the slave trade. Evidently, the freedom set out by Magna Carta, was not available to everyone. Clause 29 states that
Of course, with slaves not being free people, Magna Carta did not apply to them and so they were subject to much psychological and physical destruction. Where English settlers had Magna Carta to justify their presence in foreign lands, slaves had to adhere to Slave Code Acts, which were laws written up by slave owners – and as you can imagine, bore no resemblance to Magna Carta.
In other colonised countries, such as India, although slavery was not formally present, non-European subjects were explicitly not protected by the law, and furthermore actually seen as a threat. The Aliens Act (remind you of a certain orange man’s terminology!?) of 1793 “denied non-European subjects the King’s Protection under law”. In short, Imperialists used Magna Carta to justify global expansion into resource rich lands (read more in Zoe Laidlaw’s article for British Library), and made sure to treat the people originally living on the land with freedoms equal and opposite to those set out in Magna Carta, ie none.
I’m interested in the ways such direct opposition between legal documents like Magna Carta and The Aliens act, highlights how perspective is at the heart of meaning. From the perspective of a white English landowner in the 13th Century, Magna Carta was a godsend, and from the perspective of people around the globe trying to live their best lives, it was the direct opposite.
During this week, I’ll look at the ways that artists like Yinka Shonibare, and poets like Robert Hayden, used subversion to give a voice to different opinions in the name of freedom. Using these people as inspiration, I’ll hopefully jump into new ways to generate my own subversive poems. I’m also going to try to make work out of Theresa May’s tweets – hold tight on that one, I’m not promising anything!