John Cornford: Poems Background

John Cornford: Poems Background

John Cornford’s most anthologized poem is “Full Moon at Tierz” No poet ever wants to have their entire body of work boiled down to just one single expression of their talent, but the inescapable truth is that if you get “Full Moon at Tierra” then you get Cornford. Of course, it probably goes without saying that not everybody is going to be equally equipped at getting that definitive demonstration of everything that makes the body of Cornford’s work equally well worth the effort to understand.

"Raise the red flag triumphantly / For Communism and for liberty."

The closing exhortation of “Full Moon at Tierz” is manifest evidence of the expanse of the chasm that separates the genius of Cornford from those who will never get him or, even worse, refuse to try. Just in case you somehow miss the allusion, the poetry of John Cornford belongs to the niche which has become the single most overlooked, forgotten, denigrated and unappreciated of the 20th century. Cornford was at the vanguard of the briefly popular body politic of poets who put forth their creative energies into the production of literature that partly served the purpose of forwarding the message of their political ideology. An ideol0gy for which the term “briefly popular” is almost too grand a description. The Communist poetry which flourished to its heights in the 1930s before, ironically, the rise of fascism became the political ideology destined to send it to its doom was a demonstration of the highest order that the aesthetics of politics is not pure oxymoron.

Cornford was one of a number—the word many would be highly misleading—of young poets whose attraction to the social progression of society that communism promised became the equivalent of daffodils and Greek myths for generations who preceded them. The 1930s was a turbulent decade which revealed that the evolutionary thrust of progress could create both the best that the human mind was capable of conceiving as well as the indulging in the most deviant practices the body can withstand. Such a world was bound to breed cynicism and pessimism at the way things have been done and the way things are, but also incredibly optimistic joy at the possibility of what could be. Within such a mindset, little room existed for the affairs of the heart that have traditionally been the concern of poetry. As he peered through the veil of consciousness informed by those traditions slowly falling by the wayside, writing about such things as love and romance seemed at best an extravagance at worst a corruption of the intellect. Because, of course, if everything that had been taken for granted about the one’s perspective on the world had been distorted by capitalist ideology, then surely everything taken for granted about love was distorted as well.

Cornford and the other Communist poets could only have viewed love poetry as a corruption of their talent when they looked around and saw not beautiful daffodils or urns or even the halo of a loving heart within another person staring back, but instead the dark storms of fascism gaining strength and power and influence. The poetry stimulated by the anxiety engendered by this threat that appeared to be unseen by too many for their comfort has been estimated as little more than propaganda by critics. Is the poetry of John Cornford propaganda? Yes, of course they are. “Full Moon at Tierza” is quite nearly the poetic equivalent of Picasso’s “Guernica” in terms of artistic expression inspired by the fascist threat in Spain. Is “Guernica” propaganda? Yes. Is “Guernica” also Picasso’s artistic masterpiece? Yes, if only arguably to some. Cornford’s poems can be accurately termed propaganda as art…or art as propaganda. Neither terms diminishes the other and that is part of what makes Cornford’s early, shocking death fighting for his beliefs against the fascist forces in Spain so tragic. To imagine what might have been had he lived—or had appropriate measures by international governments been taken before the figure behind the shadow of fascism had a chance to be revealed—is to imagine Cornford’s evolution as doing for literary propaganda what the Soviet Futurists did for visual propaganda.

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