There are not enough portrayals of working class females in literature. What there are, often tend to be of escape from a repressive class or one of discrimination when trying to be part of another. I was therefore struck by the title of Liz Lochhead’s poem, “Photograph, Art Student, Female, Working Class“. It is both intriguing and to the point, which I think always makes for a good title for a poem.
I don’t think the poem is wholly based upon the model, Twiggy (she was 17 in 1966, not 18, was dubbed the ‘face of 66’, but didn’t go to art school), but in some ways that doesn’t matter; the young woman in question represents many from her background at the dawn of women’s liberation in the 1960s. The poem was written for Carol Ann Duffy‘s Jubilee Lines anthology. where 60 poets wrote a poem for each year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; Liz’s year, whether chosen by her or not, was 1966.
The poem is a historical photograph in itself, capturing the young woman’s journey into a man’s world of sexism, where words such as ‘chick’, ‘Dollybird’, ‘bit of fluff’ are thrown at her but she has not yet the language to reply. However, with the publication of seminal books such as Germaine Greer’s the Female Eunuch, ‘women’ll have the words for this kind of stuff‘. There is biting satire and irony throughout and the poem turns on ‘that’ photo; “An image so typical it’d capture time so perfectly.” Before ending by turning Dylan’s words into, “How does she feel? … To be waiting for the a-changing times to change?” Although the poem is resonant of Liz’s own background, she has said, “This poem isn’t a self-portrait, although I too was an art student in this period.”
There is much hope and expectation in the poem but I feel a sadness that although the times have a-changed for women, I don’t think they have a-changed that much. You only need to look at the gender balance of corporate boardrooms or school playgrounds for the evidence. It is however, worth noting that at the moment, all of the UK’s national/regional poet laureates are female; Sinead Morrissey for Belfast, Gillian Clarke of Wales, Carol Ann Duffy for the UK, and of course Liz for Scotland. And there a number of others such as Jo Bell (canal laureate), Aisling Fahey (young laureate of London), and Patience Agbabi (previously of Canterbury in 2010).
A Reading of Photograph, Art Student, Female, Working Class
And keeping with one theme of the site – the vernacular – here is Liz reading her poem, ‘Kidsong/Bairnsong‘. Brilliant!
Liz Lochhead was the Scots Makar, Scotland’s Poet Laureate. She became the Makar in 2011 after the death of the inaugural laureate, Edwin Morgan. Liz is a world renowned poet and playwright, and as Anne Varty wrote, ‘her work is that of one woman speaking to many, and one person speaking for many’. After studying at Glasgow School of Art she taught at art schools in Glasgow and Bristol while working on her poetry. She is a Fellow of Glasgow School of Art, an Honorary Doctor of Letters of Glasgow University, a Fellow of RSAMD and of Glasgow Institute of Art, and is an Honorary President of the Scottish Poetry Library. Her poetry collections include The Colour of Black and White: Poems 1984-2003 (Polygon 2003) and A Choosing: Selected Poems (2011). Her plays include Tartuffe (Polygon 1986), Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (Penguin 1989) and the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award-winning Medea (Nick Hern Books 2000).
Photograph, Art Student, Female, Working Class
Her hair is cut into that perfect slant
– An innovation circa ‘64 by Vidal Sassoon.
She’s wearing C&A’s best effort at Quant
Ending just below the knicker-line, daisy-strewn.
Keeping herself in tights could blow her grant
Entirely, so each precious pair is soon
Spattered with nail-varnish dots that stop each run.
She’s a girl, eighteen – just wants to have fun.
She’s not ‘a chick’. Not yet. Besides, by then
She’ll find the term ‘offensive’. ‘Dollybird’, to quote
Her favourite mags, is what she aspires to when
Her head’s still full of Honey and Petticoat.
It’s almost the last year that, quite this blithely, men
Up ladders or on building sites wolf-whistle to note
The approval they’re sure she will appreciate.
Why not? She did it for their benefit, looks great.
Nor does she object. Wouldn’t think she has the right.
Though when that lech of a lecturer comments on her tits
To a male classmate, openly, she might
Feel – quick as a run in nylon – that it’s
Not what ought to happen, is not polite,
She’ll burn, but smile, have no word that fits
The insult, can’t subject it to language’s prism.
In sixty-six there’s plenty sex, but not ‘sexism’.
Soon: The Female Eunuch and enough
Will be enough. Thanks to newfound feminism and Greer,
Women’ll have the words for all this stuff,
What already rankles, but confuses her, will seem clear
And she’ll (consciously) be no one’s ‘bit of fluff’
Or ‘skirt’ or ‘crumpet’. She’ll know the rule is ‘gay’ not ‘queer’,
‘Ms’ not ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ – she’ll happily obey it
And, sure as the Pill in her pocket, that’s how she’ll say it.
This photo’s saying nothing, is black and white, opaque.
A frozen moment, not a memory.
The boyfriend with the Pentax took it for the sake
Of taking it, a shot among many others, randomly,
To see how it would develop. Didn’t imagine it’d make
An image so typical it’d capture time so perfectly.
How does she feel? Hey, girl, did it feel strange
To be waiting for the a-changing times to change?
Originally published in Jubilee Lines – 60 Poets for 60 Years, edited by Carol Ann Duffy (Faber, 2012)