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Getting by with a little help from poetry

Former leaders of the Labour Party and Unite the Union, Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey, are allies who share a love of poetry.


Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Garry Knight /Flickr. / Creative Commons License.

Sean Sheehan


Their book presents a selection of poems and describe how they came across each one and the impact it had on their thoughts and feelings.

Contributions also come from friends, including film director Ken Loach, actors Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh, poet and author Michael Rosen.

The result is not only an inspiring book of poetry that should be in every home but also an opportunity for readers to get behind the public profiles of two prominent socialists and learn something about how their politics developed. McCluskey, observing how a work of art can be appreciated without having to be fond of the creator (he likes Dali’s work but knows the painter became friends with Franco), begins with  Rudyard Kipling’s “If”.

Misogyny and racism were not foreign to the poet born in India in the days of the Raj, but McCluskey has a family reason for liking the poem and, besides, there are lines in it that he finds applicable to Jeremy Corbyn:

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken. / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.

Growing up in Liverpool, where Irish influences are important, McCluskey remembers the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland and supports a united Ireland – so his liking of “The foggy dew” is no surprise.

Nor is his acclaim of Shelley’s “The masque of anarchy” and its stirring call for the downtrodden to “Rise like lions after slumber… Ye are many – they are few.”

He selects “Do not go gentle into that good night”, by Dylan Thomas, noting how he is trying to persuade his eldest son to recite it at his own funeral.

Corbyn’s internationalism finds expression is his selection of poems that include “In Jerusalem” by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and “The negro speak of rivers” by Black American Langston Hughes.

Len McClusky. Photo by Garry Knight / Flickr.  Creative Commons License.

Some he selects will be new to most readers, like Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz’s “You foolish men”. Sor Juana was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish colonial officer and an Aztec woman who wrote on the rights of women and in “You foolish men” castigates the arrogance of men and their hypocrisy.

The plight of refugees is the subject of “Home” from Warsan Shire’s anthology “Bless the daughter raised by a voice in her head” (2022).

Shire was born in Kenya but grew up in London and her experiences give gravitas to her poetry, as in the poem’s opening: ‘No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark….You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.’ “Poetry for the many” ends with a poem by Corbyn himself, written on a train home after a trip to visit the refugee camp in Calais.

“Poetry for the many”, by Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey, is published by OR Books.


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