A poetic rage for our time
A veteran poet and performer presents his magnum opus in the form of poetic attack on our political masters
AREVIEWED BY MICHAEL KUSTOW T THE top of this b o o k - l e n g t h poem, Michael Horovitz — jazzklezmatic poet, arts circus-master, troubadour and kazoo-minstrel — prints a roll of honour of his gods and rolemodels. From Geoffrey Chaucer and John Milton to Allen Ginsberg and Mother Teresa, the list is headed by the prophet Isaiah. And that is right, for A New Waste Land is, first and foremost, a book of prophetic wrath.
It is also a mobile picture gallery, hung with cartoons, collages and paintings; a non-stop typographical experiment; and a cry for hope. But it is condemnation that powers Horovitz’s spinning, spindly lines. The target of his rage is Tony Blair, and the legacy which, like his mentor Margaret Thatcher, he has left to us.
H o r o v i t z has built his poem on that m o d e r n i s t masterpiece, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), with its fragmented images of humanity wandering the desert of modern culture — “Who are those hooded hordes swarming/ Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth”. Like Eliot, Horovitz divides his poem into segments, spurred by outrage at New Labour’s broken promises — to nurses, students, teachers, single parents; its vainglorious monuments: the Millennium Dome, the boasting of City profiteers, the miasma of spin, life as reality television.
Above all, Horovitz inveighs against the crime of the relentlessly enterprising arms sales. Facing this onslaught on the mind and body politic, Horovitz upholds values of those identified by his hero William Blake: “All builders of true New Jerusalems & all deities that reside in the Human Breast with the Milk of Human Kindness,” as he crowns the list in his roll-call.
Horovitz is one of the Last of The Just, a Lamed-Vavnik (one of the 36 just men said by the Talmud to exist in every generation) hanging on to basic human truth and affection — especially in A Little Kite Music, the segment paying tribute to his wife Frances, a delicate poet who died at the age of 45.
Here Horovitz’s rhetoric modulates into airborne lines sweeping across and around the page like kites in the wind: “the fluttering/ lilt of a little kite/ hang-gliding by a thread/ spooled out/ from the hands of a capering child”.
But such glimpses of innocence and happiness are shunted aside by the soapbox denunciations of a man embittered at the descent of his fellow Britons into greed, consumerism and folly. Horovitz deploys his name-calling skills to the maximum, from verbal caricature worthy of Georg Grosz to gleeful schoolboy puns (“Gorge Bash and Tony Blur”).
Over nearly 500 pages, more than half of them consisting of maniacally detailed footnotes, it feels at times like being locked with a garrulous obsessive in a lift heading down to hell.
But Isaiah and all the angry prophets denouncing Israel for abandoning the True Way were also unrestrained rant- ers, hard to read. This is an “illuminated book” in the tradition of Blake, himself a great denouncer, whose words and pictures light up the meanness of his times with the blaze of Eternity.
He may pant in the footsteps of Blake, but, like two other Jewish prophets, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg (and the non-Jewish DH Lawrence, whose words thread through these pages), Horovitz is not afraid to preach. He does so in A New Waste Land with a fervour, feeling and wit that make this book a troubling, and troublesome, landmark of our literature. Michael Kustow’s biography of Peter Brook is published by Bloomsbury
Horovitz ( above) “preaches like other Jewish prophets Bob Dylan ( top right)
and Allen Ginsberg”