Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Blood And Lead' By James Fenton

James Fenton
James Fenton
Blood and Lead

Listen to what they did.
Don't listen to what they said.
What was written in blood
Has been set up in lead.

Lead tears the heart.
Lead tears the brain.
What was written in blood
Has been set up again.

The heart is a drum.
The drum has a snare.
The snare is in the blood.
The blood is in the air.

Listen to what they did.
Listen to what's to come.
Listen to the blood.
Listen to the drum.

James Fenton’s declamatory exhortation in short, forceful rhyming quatrains wears the appearance of a simplicity which is ingeniously betrayed on second and third readings. The sometimes catastrophic distance separating words from deeds is explored in a complex adjustment of phrases and double-meanings, whose strata, in subtly different iterations, layer to create a brute escarpment of propaganda and populist will.

For the hypnotic rhythm of the poem is itself mimetic, describing the relentless march of a political machinery whose arch pronouncements render death and conflict in the seductive jargon of order, clarity and patriotic direction. Fenton’s admonishment plays neatly round the edges of suggestion: the ‘snare’ of the drum and the scent of blood in the air are both cautionary tale and incitement to arms. The relentless drumbeat of blood and lead, of evisceration and murder, makes of the narrator’s crushing sense of inevitability – ‘What was written in blood / Has been set up again’ – an irony of tragic proportions.

James Fenton’s fine poem has a curious contemporary currency – our failure to learn from history was never more conspicuous, or pressing.

‘Blood and Lead’ is taken from Penguin Modern Poets: James Fenton, Blake Morrison, Kit Wright.