Poems of Working Class Lives by the New and Next Generation Poets

As part of this project I seem to be developing, I will be giving a paper at the Institute of English Studies conference: “New to Next Generation 2014: Three Decades of British and Irish Poetry” on March 13th (come along). I am on a panel entitled Promoting an Inclusive Poetics (I should be careful what I wish for). So as part of developing the paper, I thought I better get to know who the ‘Generation’ poets are.

I have featured four of the Generation Poets on the site so far – from 2014: Hannah Lowe, Kei Miller and Helen Mort; and one from 2004, Patience Agbabi. None from 1994 as yet.

In line with my belief that all poets have written a poem of working class lives, I am going through the poems (at least the ones that are available online at this stage) of each Generation poet to find out if there is any truth to my belief. So this first instalment is a selection from the 1994 ‘New’ Generation – I have looked at eleven of them so far, there are others such as Don Paterson and Kathleen Jamie I know I will find poems from, but there are still a few that I haven’t found one for (e.g. Glyn Maxwell, Lavinia Greenlaw), though I haven’t lost hope.

1994

Moniza Alvi: The Country at My Shoulder is about Moniza’s country of origin, Pakistan, the poverty and gender divide there and how it weighs heavily on her identity.
the women stone-breakers chip away/at boulders, dirt on their bright hems./They await the men and the trucks….I try to shake the dust from the country,/smooth it with my hands.’

Simon Armitage: Clown Punk is very much a poem about identity, of how for some it changes, whereas others may believe it remains the same as exemplified in fading tattoos.
don’t laugh: every pixel of that man’s skin,/is shot through with indelible ink;/as he steps out at the traffic lights/think what he’ll look like in thirty years time.’

John Burnside: Nightshift at the Plug Mill tells of the monotony and boredom of work and where it can take your imagination.
‘Four hours into the dark I’d fall asleep/for seconds, then wake to the scream/of gears, as the belt started up.

Robert Crawford: Declaration is a satire on Scotland as a stereotype of drunken dysfunction but promises to improve by its own independence.
My name is Scotland. I am an alcoholic./Sexism runs through me as through a stick of rock…All I want now is my dignity back,/To stand on my own unsteady feet,’

David Dabydeen: Slave Song. In a ‘Guyanese Creole’, the poem is a moving song of defiance by a slave to his owner.
Tie me haan up./Juk out me eye./Haal me teet out/So me na go bite…Bu yu caan stap me cack floodin in de goldmine/Caan stap me cack splashin in de sunshine!’

Michael Donaghy: The Natural and Social Sciences. An American visits a coastal part of Ireland to observe the locals at work and play, with humorous effect.
A man is loading a wicker basket/With small, complicated pink crabs./”Have we missed it,” we ask, “the tide?”/And he, with sincere assurance,/“It’ll be back.” ‘

Carol Ann Duffy: War Photographer. A photographer reflects on the wars and horrors he has seen and the effect this has on the readers, those who are in the pictures and the life he leads at home.
In his dark room he is finally alone/with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows/The only light is red and softly glows/as though this were a church and he/a priest preparing to intone a Mass.’

Ian Duhig: Site Specific Poem. An rollicking English rogue’s tale of drink, drugs, and late night driving down Roman roads.
‘O, your rolling English stoner rolls another as he drives;/he’s feeling like he’s on Cloud Nine, he thinks he has nine lives;/he’s snorted coke, he smoked some crack, which really did the trick/the night he went to Manchester by way of Millgarth nick.’

W.N. Herbert: Can’t Spell Won’t Spell. Another poem that challenges the stereotype of what it means to be Scottish. And this one’s in the vernacular, rhymes, and is funny.
‘Wir not a singul naishun and therr’s not a singul tongue:/we talk wan wey gin wir aalder and anither if wir young;/we talk diffrent in thi Borders than we dae up in thi Broch;/wir meenisters talk funny when they skate oan frozen lochs.

Mick Imlah: London Scottish. A sombre poem about a regiment of rugby players, many of whom were killed in the First World War.
All sixty volunteered for the touring squad,/And swapped their Richmond turf for Belgian ditches/October, mad for a fight, they broke too soon/On the Ypres Salient, rushing the ridge between/’Withshit’ and Messines. Three-quarters died.’

Jamie McKendrick: Sky Nails. A person’s first day on the building site and the pranks that are played on him.
That first day, to break me in,/my hardened comrades/sent me scampering like a marmoset/from the topmost parapet/to the foreman’s hut/for a bag of sky nails.

The first thing that sticks out from the 1994 list is a preponderance of Scottish poets and poems. They tend to challenge the vision of Scotland being dysfunctional and dependent, or having an identity imposed upon it; and given that some of these poems were written some twenty years ago, they are very prescient.

This theme of identity as it relates to country is also addressed in the poems by Moniza Alvi and David Dabydeen; they are two very different poems, but both reflect the poverty, discrimination and harsh conditions of developing countries, both today and in the past. Moniza also makes us think what it means to have more than one identity and for me, challenges the notions of patriotism and the state. To a lesser extent this is also addressed by Michael Donaghy, but he satirises a more idealistic view of what a local community is.

Simon Armitage’s poem also looks at identity but from the perspective of the individual over time; the punk may remain the same, but how has the narrator changed, have they gone back on the principles they once had when they were young?

There is a common approach when it comes to the vernacular, as has been done elsewhere on the site by, Liz Berry, Kei Miller and Kay Buckley. I really like the use of local dialects and slang; there is simple poetry in the way many people speak to each other in this way. The inimitable and funny Ian Duhig, who although describes the criminal elements of the ‘lower classes’, also does this with great wit and rhyme.

Carol Ann Duffy and Mick Imlah both cover the issue of war, of the casualties, whether from the United Kingdom, or those appearing in the photographs of war reporters. As I have written before on the site when reviewing The Hundred Years War:  Modern War Poems, war is a rich territory for poets and disproportionately affects the working classes.

Then there are two poems of work, looking at them from the opposite ends of the scale; the dark monotony of John Burnside’s nightshift, to the humour of workmates winding up a newbie by Jamie McKendrick.

Overall, I am pleased that there is a healthy mix of humour, satire, and solemnity about the poems, and as with all good poems, much to think about.

That’s it for now. The conference is in two weeks, so I will be posting a couple more lists on the Generation poets. Watch this space!

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