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This article is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

Democratic Rags
On the ‘democratic’ in contemporary poetry
Alex Wylie
‘These days power has to dress up in democratic rags in order to get what it wants and to keep what it already possesses.’
        — Andy Croft, ‘On the Poetry Industry: Stripped Naked by the Flames’, PN Review, 45:5, May–June 2019

If democracy is indeed a lie, as Errico Malatesta claimed, then it is a lie we tell ourselves. Sold to ourselves as entrepreneurs, self-developers, influencers, advertising is our propaganda – precisely because we deny the possibility of a democratic propaganda as a kind of contradiction in terms. And if ‘the truest poetry is the most feigning’, as the clown Touchstone remarks in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, what are we to make of a ‘democratic’ poetry in the light of Malatesta’s claim? Through this Malatestan-Shakespearean lens, there appears a strange double bind at the heart of a self-avowedly democratic poetry: democracy is a lie that works on the basis that it is the truth, and poetry is a truth that works on the basis that it is a lie. From this (admittedly contrived) point of view, one might suppose there to be an ambivalence, or even a cognitive dissonance, at the heart of an aggressively propagandised ‘democratic’ poetics.

Writing this in the third year of the ever-deepening democratic crisis in the UK effected by the EU referendum – a crisis anything but democratic in practice – it seems like an opportune time to say something about how notions of democracy and the democratic have pervaded UK poetry over the last few years. I mean by this much of the ...

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