Ruth Jennison | “A Whole New Set of Stars”: Poetics and Revolutionary Consciousness

William Kentridge | Drawing for Felix in Exile, 1994


Current political conditions and conjunctures are making possible a serious reconsideration of the histories, forms, and political urgencies of twentieth and twenty-first century, left anti-capitalist poetry. The end of the Cold War has been registered in transformations of poetry and the scholarly work that attends to it at what can only be described as a glacial pace. Part of this is generational—Marxists are only beginning to repopulate the universities from which they were expelled during the McCarthyism that has re-branded itself as liberal hegemony. Likewise, poetry, so long kept restricted to the hermeticism of New Criticism, and taught largely in order to confer cultural capital rather than encourage philosophical or political thinking, has been slow in its own transformations. The severance of poetry from the public sphere, aside from its appearance in the periodicals of the petty bourgeoisie, has meant that poetry, no matter how socially engaged in its contents, is only now just renewing its relationship to the social laboratory more broadly, and to street struggle in particular. Poets are finding an emerging new readership unstained by either the planetary binaries of the Cold War or the dormancy of direct action.

A political conjuncture in our present has opened the transom for a preliminary view of the relationship of poetry to a category that is re-emerging as politics begins once again to happen in the streets that category is consciousness. A triangulation of the following events and tendencies structures the shape of this conjuncture: (1) the unstitching of the idea and practice of communism from the history of state capitalism, (2) the increasing inability of social democracy to deliver even minimal protections, and (3) the global spread of the punishing austerities of a capitalism whose precipitous decline has been met with widespread and multiform resistance. In what follows, I argue that pace, the long-standing tradition within literary and critical theory, aligns the categories of (especially class) consciousness with the novel form; poetry too generates landscapes of language and meaning that explore and encode the forms of thinking particular to revolutionary, anti-capitalist consciousness. Fredric Jameson’s observation that consciousness cannot be represented suggests our investigation focus on the forms of thinking that characterize the emergence of revolutionary subjects. Consciousness here is not of the Cartesian sort, nor is it simply the speculative contents of “subjectivity,” but refers to the subject’s relationship to the capitalist totality, her “situation” if indeed we follow Jameson’s suggestion that “consciousness and subjectivity are unrepresentable; only situations of modernity can be narrated,” even as we will object that narration is not the only mode of addressing that situation.1 In what follows, revolutionary consciousness is defined by (1) its antagonism to that totality of situations we understand as capitalism and (2) its orientation to the overthrow and replacement of that situation- system with a society where labor and social production and re-production are freed from the regime of the value-form and the exploitation that accompanies that form. We will call this replacement communism, with the understanding that the contemporary condition of possibility for the concept’s re-birth after the Cold War is precisely its ecumenical character, in which post-revolutionary models of social life are the subject of debate and desire, not prediction or a program previously authored. Indeed, what we will find is that revolutionary consciousness and the forms of communist poetics are intimately related; they are both assembled relations to, rather than representations of, the capitalist totality against which they constellate and the post-capitalist future toward which they point.

Here we will not reach conclusive answers to the venerable debate about how revolutionary consciousness emerges, nor settle the related constellation of questions that have surrounded the relationship between class consciousness and its transformation into revolutionary consciousness. What interests us below are the ways in which poetry strives to make this form of thought and praxis legible to itself, through the reader who may or may not be an actant on behalf of her emancipation.

Poetic forms encode and amplify the many ways in which the subject positions herself, and others, within and against the capitalist world system. These mediations, which we will investigate in works by American and British poets Langston Hughes, Kenneth Fearing, Gwendolyn Brooks, Keston Sutherland, and Sean Bonney, organize themselves around the thinking of totality, time, and history. We will explore specifically how these poets map the global production of socially necessary labor time, as well as political futures yet unborn. Underwriting our investigations will be a close attention to the combined and uneven ways in which these temporalities overlap amongst the collective spaces and peoples in a pre-communist world. Anti-capitalist poets have different strategies of engaging with multiple synchronic temporalities than do writers in other literary forms, strategies that are both inherited and transformed over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

These strategies include the use of one or both of the following formal elements:

  1. nested tropes, where one figuration generates multiple historical waypoints, often pointing to a place beyond itself and/or

  2. paratactical assemblages of particulars that require the reader to produce the mediating connective tissue between seemingly unrelated objects, places, peoples, and historical events. The use of such assemblages designates a form of thinking a global map of the endlessly transforming constitution of socially necessary labor time. Furthermore, the use of asymmetry of scale and temporality in such assemblages emphasizes the developmental unevenness that underwrites global capitalism and the processes of value production under its rule

Significantly, none of these forms initiate or require identification with an individual character or social actor, and even a readerly identification with a specific collective is not required, even if it is often convoked. Forms of thinking vastly via these interconnected particulars, as opposed to identificatory parables, resist the atomization of identity politics and encourage a subject conscious of its emplacement in a global fabric of value producers as well as those expelled entirely from, or unadmitted to, the realm of value production through the compounding increase of unemployment.




Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1969 book Riot assembles spaces and actors to create a textual, political, spatial map of Chicago during a riot. Interspersed between portraits of the rioters’ collective activities, Brooks presents an array of ideological responses to uprising. While separated by history from the Depression-era poems we have been thus far engaging with, I want to suggest that Brooks’s poem elaborates and refines many of the above poetic strategies for engaging with and encoding revolutionary thought and action: the transposition of revolutionary energies into tropes saturated with multiple temporalities and the paratactical arrangement of voices and particulars to summon unseen connections. To these the poet adds a commitment to the anti-lyric, where the reader is encouraged to explore, establish relationships, and situate themselves and their political positions among and/or between the various ideological valences of the social totality.

Riot is presented in three parts: Riot, The Third Sermon on the Warpland, and An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire. The first section begins with the perspective of John Cabot, a white ruling class man described as “all whitebluerose below his golden hair,/ wrapped richly in right linen and right wool…”; he finds the riots terrifying forces of nature and understands himself to be the object of the rioters advances “… they were coming toward him in rough ranks. / In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud.”5 The first section concludes with his death in “smoke and fire/ and broken glass and blood” (10). Brooks eschews identificatory modes in this section, instead beginning her poem with the voice of the white supremacist, executed—the poem fantasizes—by militant Black rioters. In the second section, Brooks braids together the voices of various ideological positions on Black liberation and the riot form: the Black Philosopher offers three commentaries and The White Philosopher one cliché. The Black Philosopher’s positions include: (1) an ambiguously condescending pedagogical warning that the rioters’ aims are narrow; they are too distracted by immediate desires (“You do not hear it who mind only cookies/ and crunch them.”) to muster the ability to produce their own cultural forms (“the blackblues”); (2) a moral opining that “black integrity” alone would eliminate race altogether; and (3) the converting of the riot into a punctual act whose ending is submitted to pundits’ saccharine commemorations: “There they came to life and exulted, / the hurt mute. / Then it was over. / The dust, as they say, settled” (20).

The poem’s ventriloquizing of these philosophers emphasizes their removed dismissal of the riot, their refusal to acknowledge the riot as a political form, and their vast distance from the street. For Brooks, the struggles of the street, and the poem’s encoding of those struggles, provide a form of thinking that supersedes philosophy-as-ideology. Riot documents the often wildly varying responses to militant revolt. Riot, is, like each of the poems above, a poem concerned with the question of political consciousness; in a sharpening and refinement of this concern, Brooks pays special attention to unevenness of political consciousness within the Black community. Some “young men” loot in a manner that resembles curation: “They will not steal Bing Crosby but will steal/ Melvin Van Peebles…”; some other “little rioters” also do not rebel with legible demands, “knowing no Why,” and glean from the riot the solar illumination of Black culture itself “go steal in hell/ a radio, sit and hear James Brown/ and Mingus, Young-Holt, Coleman, John/ on V.O.N. / and sun themselves in Sin” (14); still others, like “Peanut,” who provides discipline for his gang, the Rangers, “will not let his men explode,” instead they “pass the Passion over” (18), negotiating a disciplined remove from the not-yet-coherent energies animating the riot. In this way, Riot’s riot is an extremely complex political and economic affair, composed of militants, observers, expropriators in the name of pleasure and Black arts, and victims of the “Law” “sirening across the town.” The poem is not one that documents an easy unity of struggle, nor does it seek to lead the rioters in a certain direction; it dwells instead in the time of immediacy and illuminates corners of political consciousness that are shaped by utopian energies. For example:

West Madison Street.
In “Jessie’s Kitchen”
nobody’s eating Jessie’s Perfect Food. crazy flowers
cry up across the sky, spreading
and hissing This is
it. (12)

Political desire structures the actions and animates the voices of the “crazy flowers.” When they “cry up” they create an amphitheater of expressive utopianism (“cry up against the sky”) and negation (“hissing”) spreading at once both upwards and laterally. “This is it” describes the political temporality of the riot itself; “This” names the event that sutures the future to the immediate present, and “is” announces with the assurance of a fact that the riot is both a statement of rebellious immediacy and a total and permanent refusal of the existing state of affairs.

The final section of Riot, “An Aspect of Love, Alive In The Ice and Fire” brings the reader into a room where two lovers share a morning and soon depart, returning themselves, and us, to the street. What are we to make of this sudden turn to dyadic intensities? What is the relationship between the figure of the lovers and the revolutionary energies that churn in the preceding pages? In “Denouement,” Fearing deployed figural turns and synesthetic transformations to represent the form of revolutionary consciousness and its long view of history in the face of defeat. Riot addresses a different political constellation; its most ebullient moments insist on the utopian energies that the rioters set ablaze. The political temporality of the riot—the now of unmet needs and of sedimented histories of exploitation and desire denied plus the future in the now—is also the temporality of Riot’s conclusion. The final section offers a figuration of loverlyness that enacts precisely the riot’s compression of now and future time:

In a package of minutes there is this We. How beautiful.
Merry foreigners in our morning,
we laugh, we touch each other,
are responsible props and posts. A physical light is in the room.
Because the world is at the window we cannot wonder very long. (21)

The transformation of the lovers into a self-identified “we” has a beginning and an end. Like the political form of the riot, the couple’s transformation aligns the numerous in a wondrous symmetry with historical time, or “in[to] a package of minutes,” where their unity is both ephemeral and “beautiful.” Being “foreign” to one another does not prevent intimacies but rather height-ens the convivial, unexpected physical solidarities and erotic togetherness. The “touch” between the lovers evolves into another figure: “responsible props and posts.” Transformed into architectures of commitment and support, the lovers appear as principles of revolutionary comradeship just as much as they appear as romantic partners. Then, a volte: the “world” calls from outside, rupturing the membrane that protects their togetherness. In this moment, their alignment with time becomes its opposite, and a profound discrepancy emerges between the lovers’ intention and intimacy and the “world” at large. Like the riot, the utopian energies are truncated by a “world” which the rioters cannot yet call their own, even as they loot back moments of pleasure in common. It is this hostile world of white supremacists, state forces, capitalism and the various philosophers that exist to maintain things as they are that prevents the riots from a utopian unfolding, that is: becoming their own future. The lovers now encode the separation of the rioters from one another:

You rise. Although
genial, you are in yourself again.
I observe
your direct and respectable stride.
You are direct and self- accepting as a lion in African velvet. You are level, lean, remote. (21)

The lover is no less impressive in his or her distance. S/he is “in yourself again,” and the speaker is now but an observer of this now “remote” and simply “genial” lover, who is nevertheless described as “direct and self-accepting as a lion/ in African velvet.” Both a force of nature rendered in purple flowered softness and in possession of focused intention (twice “direct”) and self-assuredness, the lover-as-lion does not understand singularity as weakness. Rather, Riot’s conclusion presents the lovers’ congress, like the riot, as an occasion for shifting and porous comportments, each with their own bodily, political, and aesthetic modalities. But even as the speaker documents the persistent and fluid strengths of the lover, s/he still longs for the intensities of previous social intimacies, which is now explicitly named as “Camaraderie”:

There is a moment in Camaraderie
when interruption is not to be understood. I cannot bear an interruption.
This is the shining joy;
the time of not to end. (22)

The poem re-enters the time of the riot, and the romantic dyad’s erotic liaison has become a “moment in Camaraderie” which is defined by its refusal to submit to a logic that allows for “interruption.” This refusal is both universal on the part of those engaged in “Camaraderie” and it is also particular to the speaker, who “cannot bear an interruption.” The transformation of “Camaraderie” into a proper noun suggests political alignments that are somewhat more specific than the apparently coincidental nearness of persons under the conditions of the riot; the proper noun presses toward a consciousness, and a corresponding political form of co-operation that would persist beyond the moment, in the “time of not-to-end.”

The most flummoxing line in this passage is surely “when interruption is not to be understood.” Understood rather than, for example, “accepted” or “permitted” or “allowed” signals that there is a moment during the riot when the interruption of and suppression by all of the racial capitalist forces massed against it are illegible to its participants; the ruling languages and ideologies are no longer forms of knowledge-domination of the oppressed. In this way, Brooks’s poem implies that un-knowing, and with that, no longer “understanding” is just as much a property of revolutionary consciousness as more familiar capacities, such as totalizing and historicizing. This is one of the poem’s great contributions to a poetics of revolutionary thought and action. When the oppressors’ “interruptions” of struggle fall into the category of non-knowledge itself, and illiteracy of their ideologies is the first step toward building transformative forms of knowledge. During this interlude figurations of uninterruptable “Camaraderie” supersede the “understanding” of the philosophers, and through its formal unfoldings, poetry produces a kind of split between consciousness and knowledge, and in so doing opens up a new way of thinking the subject’s revolutionary negations. The poem concludes with the re-integration of the lovers with the street:

On the street we smile.
We go
in different directions
down the imperturbable street. (22)

The lovers, like the rioters, cannot live in “the time of not-to-end” with its utopian futurities. They separate on the street, which has been restored to calm. The poem leaves open the question of to what degree the riot has transformed social relations; are we witnessing a smile between co-conspirators who separate on the street in a guerrilla-militant deception about their once and perhaps future unities and rebellions? Or is the street more than just placid, but now inhospitable to disturbance, dulling “Camaraderie” into polite smiles? The tonal ambiguity reflects the unknown political directions that might unfold in the time of after-the-riot. In its explorations of the time of the riot, the riot can be a moment that does, and does not, end. The poem illuminates the constellations and contestations of ideas among rioters, and among the intelligentsia, while refusing to pass judgement like the “philosophers.” Indeed, by some contrast, Riot produces a space to explore the structure of a consciousness striving militantly beyond bourgeois knowledge and the oppressions it legitimizes.



In studies of texts from previous moments of capitalist crisis and the eruption of resistance, I have been arguing that radical poetry possesses unique and specific formal strategies to encode transformations and expansions of political consciousness. In our current political horizon, communists and anti-capitalist organizers are once again returning to one of the hardest and most pressing questions that revolutionaries can ask: what is the character of the political consciousness of those people who would benefit from the overthrow of the capitalist system? This question appears spectrally around times of political and economic crisis; there are periods when the left believes it has answered this question, but contradictions and unevenness in mass response to the unraveling legitimacy of capitalist exploitation and white supremacy revive the problematic with regular historical recurrence. The methods for exploring this question have varied widely over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. When revolutionaries have an organic relationship to those people they seek to organize with, this answer is usually sought through direct conversation, co-participation in struggle, and the shared production of political and cultural organs. When the left is emerging out of a period of relative dormancy—we might reasonably make the argument that the last militant fire was temporarily extinguished in the late 1970s, its methods for detecting the political consciousness of any social sector rely on far more mediated data than direct contact. When communists begin reconnoitering with society in general, they confront initially contracted opportunities for assessing the uneven and contradictory landscapes of political consciousness. Thus begins a rush and flurry of developing metrics that are not born of porous relations and struggle with the layers of society most crucial to an anti-capitalist project: charts, graphs, neo-economisms, and so on. In these metrics, a certain consciousness is derived from various patterns and manners of employment and unemployment, consumption statistics, and polling data. From these highly mediated sources, there arises ascriptions of an individuated and fragmented consciousness to society at large, and, in some cases, an abandonment of the category of political consciousness, revolutionary or otherwise, for the arid climes of the value-form, or the processualism of certain iterations of communization theory, where the question of consciousness is subsumed by the transformation that is already happening and is all in the doing; this latter approach has a cousin in celebrations of spontaneity.

New formulations and approaches emerge when anti-capitalists seek out less-mediated, and more direct, strategies for assessing, building, and/ or changing political consciousness. Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling” anticipated what has become a debated asset in the inventory of political consciousness: the rise of social affect as a category of social analysis. Radical poetics offers us a way of thinking “feeling” and “affect” that is part of a general renewal of intimacy between communists and the political consciousness of wider concentric circles within the social totality. The following excerpt, from Keston Sutherland’s monumental The Odes to TL61P, which are about and not about the ordering code for a no longer manufactured Hotpoint dryer, addresses what the poem finds to be almost infinite categorizable anti-capitalist affects and feelings. After a “Selah,” Sutherland writes:

Giddy detestation of senior liquidity
managers, strong aversion to strategy consultants,
deep disgust at lead auditors, growing impatience with industry relations directors, spasmodic shrinking from financial modellers, rational fear of property loss adjusters, slight suspicion of corporate accountants, psychedelic distrust of branch compliance officers, agitated antipathy for growth managers, ancient nausea at contract administrators.6

The poem continues in this manner for another dense page and a half, weaving a web of vast and endlessly precise descriptions of antipathy, dismay, distrust, and melancholy directed at the various antipathies toward capitalism, including “happy hostility to high yield analysts,” “unschooled coolness on arbitrage traders,” “nuclear abhorrence of continuity managers,” and “waning displeasure at heads of decision support” (329–330). Published in 2013 and written in the shadow of the Arab Spring, mass student protests in the United Kingdom beginning in 2010, the movements of the squares, and the global resurrection of militant tactics, including blockades, occupations, and strikes, Sutherland’s poem charts with filigreed detail the contours of proliferating feelings which we might understand as functioning within the uneven transitional landscape between affect and consciousness.

The Whitmanian catalogue of feelings dwells in anticipation; the subjects in possession of these enmities operate in excess of affectful responsiveness, but their pre-revolutionary feelings are disassembled and uneven, directed in a shambled, rageful way at the various and infinite functionaries of capital, the state, and its institutions. To argue that poetry is feelingful is hardly controversial. To argue that poetry offers a political laboratory where it is possible to begin to rebuild the sophistication of how revolutionaries explore the intensities, limits, and contradictions of popular political consciousness is also to argue for poetry’s historical role in exploring something like emotions. In this workshop, poetry provides a tool urgently suited to the contemporary, where it is vitally important to understand how political affect and revolutionary consciousness appear to ceaselessly blend, retreat, advance, turn into one another, and in the right amalgams, produce action against immiseration.



Sean Bonney’s Letters Against the Firmament offers a rich site to conclude our exploration of the relationship between poetry and political conscious- ness. Published in 2015, Letters takes as one of its point of departure the riots that followed the police murder of an unarmed Black man, Mark Duggan, in London. As Bonney writes, “I make a fetish of the riot form”; the text indeed churns around present day and historical riots, celebrating them, and finding in their geographies spatial and temporal systems of resistance. Letters allows us to see how the forms and concerns of the revolutionary poets of the last century continue to occupy those of this century, but with significant transformations in their deployment and political valences. While the methods and themes of poetic mediation of revolutionary energies have been many, for the purposes of our conclusion, we will examine only two within Letters: (1) poetic figuration as a way to represent that which is not directly representable, including revolutionary consciousness and utopian desire; (2) a special focus on the multiple and uneven temporalities that constitute a form of thought adequate to a revolutionary perspective.

Letters shares with Fearing the practice of thinking totality through figurations that are cosmic in their proportions, but in contrast to the earthly metaphors receiving the “light from a star long cold,” the firmament itself has been colonized by capitalists and regimes of surveillance and control, creating “a whole new set of stars. Astrology completely rewritten. It’s like they’re the sun and the moon, or the entire firmament, a whole set of modernized, streamlined filaments.”7 The poet wonders, in these conditions, after the riot, before the next one, and hemmed round by a fully territorialized cosmos, “could we write a poem that (1) could identify the precise moment in the present conjuncture, (2) name the task specific to that moment, that is, a poem that would enable us to name the decisive moment, and (3) exert force in as much as we would have condensed and embodied the concrete analysis of the concrete situation. I’m not talking about the poem as magical thinking, not at all but as analysis and clarity” (141). These poetics are part of answering “the most urgent question [which] is to create a new communication on all levels of the practice…” (141) Totality remains, as in Fearing’s vision, thinkable through planetary-sized figurations, but the task of the poet under current conditions is less to write into a utopia, or preserve the historical record of struggle, but to “name” and “create new communication” adequate to the situation of the interregnum where “there is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound – we live inside it like fossilized, vivisected mice. Turned inside out, tormented beyond recognition” (13). Bonney’s, like Sutherland’s, work differs from the poets of the revolutionary surges in the previous century primarily because it is birthed in, and engages with, a historical terrain where revolutionary consciousness rarely exists under the sign of an established revolutionary program, party, or strategy. Where their antecedents spun figures out of the revolutionary movements of their present, contemporary anti-capitalist poets writing at the beginning of a new wave of radicalization chase to close the chasm between their forms and the unpredictable movements, riots, and occupations that surge and retreat, often before they can generate new languages themselves. This passage from Letters simultaneously addresses questions of poetic language, political consciousness, and multiple temporalities. Here these temporalities are first those of revolutionary movements and formations:

You’ve got one track, call it antagonistic time, revolutionary time, the time of the dead, whatever, and it’s packed with unfinished events: the Paris Commune, Orgreave, the Mau Mau rebelion. There are any number of examples, counter-earths, clusters of ideas and energies and metaphors that refuse to die, but are alive precisely nowhere….” (116)

This “antagonistic time” exists against another temporality, composed of ideological routine, state power, and the grinding realization of value:

And then there is standard time, normative time, a chain of completed triumphs, and net of monuments, dead labour, capital. The TV schedules basically. (116)

Poetic language itself is generated at the contact point of these two temporalities:

And when a sub-
rhythmic jolt, call it anything, misalignment of the planets, radio-
active catastrophe, even a particularly brutal piece of legislation,
brings about sudden realignment of revolutionary and normative
time, meaning that all metaphors – like scurvy – come back to
fucking life, creating a buckling in the basic grounding metaphor
of the entire culture, where in that metaphor, to again misuse
Hölderin, becomes a network of forces, places of intersection,
Places of divergence, moments when everything is up for grabs. (116–117)

The task of revolutionary poetics is to create:

A map, a counter-map, actually, a chart of the spatio-temporal rhythm of the riot-form, its prosody and signal-frequency. A map that could show the paths not taken. And where to find them, those paths, those antidotes, those counter-plagues. (117)

These lines record a searching commitment to detecting the form adequate to the time of the revolt; they also gesture at the limitations of that revolt, in its “paths not taken.” Convergence and contact (“intersection”; “moments”) generate a metaphor, a figure, out of the lack and weakness of existing language, which buckles under the pressure of revolutionary time upon normative time. The dream of the poet is to somehow be both chasing the new forms of consciousness produced by new “clusters” and to also be ahead of them, guiding us “where to find” the revolutionary “antidote.” Here we see the long shadow, the return with a difference, of the politics and poetics of the historical avant-garde, recovering from the temporary eclipse of the communist possibility that divorced poetics from both revolutionary thought and popular struggle. Both behind and ahead of the revolutions and revolts of our time, both sharing the streets with insurgents and profoundly isolated in their cultural production, contemporary communist poets are stretching out of the interregnum, toward a vision as yet unknown, accompanied by comrades whose consciousness is only emergently legible to them.




  1. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (London: Verso, 2002), 57.


  1. Gwendolyn Brooks, Riot (Detroit: Broadside, 1969), 9.
  2. Keston Sutherland, Poetical Works, 1999–2015 (London: Enitharmon,
    2015), 329.
  3. Sean Bonney, Letters Against the Firmament (London: Enitharmon Press,
    2015), 109.



palgrave macmillan 2019

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