This is a viodeo of the poem Stalingrad by Peter Blackman.
Books: Atlas For Working People
Thursday 17th October 2013
CHRIS SEARLE pays tribute to Peter Blackman, whose collected poems have just been published
Born in 1909, Peter Blackman was the son of a quasi-illiterate stonemason and a laundress in St John’s parish, Barbados – one of the poorest parts of the island.
He was given a scholarship to an exclusive colonial school by an Anglican church eagerly seeking “native” recruits to the priesthood.
Despatched to Durham University, he became a priest in 1933 and was sent to Gambia as a missionary. There he very soon discovered that black priests like himself were on a lower stipend than their white colleagues.
He protested to the Anglican hierarchy and left the church when no notice was taken.
After returning to Barbados, he re-emigrated to England in the mid-1930s and joined the Communist Party.
He also took leading roles in black progressive groups of the time such as the Negro Welfare Association, the League For Coloured People – he became editor of its journal The Keys – and the Committee For West Indian Affairs.
During WWII he helped build Wellington bombers and when it ended he began working as a mechanic for British Rail in north-west London. He was proud that as one of its few black workers, he was the only man on the shop floor who could speak and read Latin and Greek.
All through the postwar years, Blackman wrote poems with a beautiful and incisive grasp of Standard English, honed from his readings of the King James Bible, John Milton, William Blake, William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman as well as African history. He contributed articles for English journals and in French too for Le Monde and the negritude-inspired journal Presence Africaine.
He also made occasional broadcasts for the BBC until the organisation banned him during the cold war and became a close friend and travelling companion of Paul Robeson.
Yet despite the power and beauty of his writings, Blackman is one of the great neglected poets of the Caribbean during a period when the region’s poetry was reaching a fullness of expression in the popular Creole vernaculars.
Like the output of contemporaries such as the poets Edward Kamau Brathwaite – also a Bajan – the Jamaican Louise Bennett, George Lamming’s novels or CLR James’s histories, Blackman employed the instilled sublimity of the standard language. Yet it was the language of the coloniser and was frequently dismissed as such.
Even so, during the poison of the cold war, Blackman’s great poems – My Song Is For All Men, Stalingrad, London – or his tribute to the pioneering black communist Claudia Jones were passed over by the university literary elite, even though they were 20th-century paeans to human unity, peace and loving solidarity with all the working people of the world.
Blackman died 20 years ago and during his lifetime his poems were never published in collected form. That’s now been rectified with the publication of Footprints by Smokestack Books.
For Blackman, poetry was truly the universal meeting place. In 1976 he came to my cosmopolitan Poplar classroom in London where he joined in lessons with the 14-year-olds and read his poems, among them the short About London, an affectionate tribute to the city of Blake, Milton and other great writers and poets “tireless to find some common ground where men could meet.”
That was a starkly optimistic and different kind of vision to that in his 1948 poem London, which tells of a black immigrant couple arriving in the city. The wife is pregnant yet they’re turned away from lodgings they seek by a racist white landlady cuddling her pet dog.
While Blackman certainly wrote of the cruelty of the world he also created works embracing its immense human potential and internationalism, ia wide-flung diversity that would destroy all racist and reactionary barriers. “I grasp this hand wherever I find it,” he wrote in My Song Is For All Men. “Look! This is a white hand, it is my hand. I am the black man.” Such lines are deeply prophetic of the multicutural city London has become.
Footprints includes a speech by Blackman at an Art Against Racism And Fascism event held at the old Half Moon Theatre, a converted synagogue in Stepney. A rousing evening, it numbered in its audience composer Alan Bush, who had set parts of My Song Is For All Men to music, dockers’ leader Jack Dash and Robert Wyatt, Soft Machine’s singer and ex-drummer, who was to record Blackman reading his great poem Stalingrad on the flip side of one of his records.
Blackman emphasised that his poetry was written about and for ordinary people. “We do not pay enough attention to our exploration of the ordinary,” he said. “Yet it is of such stuff as we that human society is made. What we must try to do is get at the ordinary and out of the ordinary we bring excellence without elitism … The ordinary people, the men and women who go to work every day – out of them comes excellence.”
Blackman saw this every day too in his Willesden workplace and all over the world in his unbridled imagination. His poems are like great verbal atlases of the working people of the world, expressed with moving and beautiful wordscapes.
Read Footprints and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Footprints is available at £7.95 from Smokestack Books, http://www.smokestack-books.co.uk and there is a launch event for the book at 6.30pm tomorrow night at the Institute Of Race Relations, 2-6 Leeke Street, London WC1, telephone: (020) 7837-0041.