Poems of Working Class Lives – 2004 Generation Poets

Following on from my previous post on working class poems by a selection of the 1994 Generation Poets, is the second instalment as part of my paper for the upcoming Institute of English Studies conference on March 13th-14th in London.

Below are ten poems from the 2004 alumni of New Generation Poets, that have been selected in terms of whether I could find a relevant poem online or not.

2004 Generation Poets

Patience Agbabi, The Devil in Cardiff. I could have taken a number from the wonderful reworking of Chaucer, in Telling Tales, but here is the lovable rogue Robbo, who previously appeared on the site.
…non-stop to Hell! Dying for a pint, he is./Only serve tea down there, and bloody biscuits …/Bitter for me … He’ll be back here/in less than a month, though, bet you a fiver,/they’ll be beggin’ him to go./Get an ASBO from Hell, Robbo.’

Paul Farley, Depot. A magical, mysterious place where the objects of the street are housed (dustcarts, lampposts) and where street cleaners know more than you might imagine.
Here are the bays, where dustcarts spend their evenings,/where grit summers, dreaming of Januaries,/and barriers mesh, likes deckchairs off-season.’

Leontia Flynn, The Vibrator is a undoubtedly a cross class instrument of pleasure but there is reference to working class lives in this funny poem and that’s good enough for me.
Oh nice surprise for next week’s settling tenants, four Polish men paid peanuts by the hour – for in Belfast too The Market holds its sway.’

Sophie Hannah, You Won’t Find a Bath in Leeds. Take some viewings of what’s on offer from a sleazy estate agent in Leeds (but it could be anywhere really).
He showed us a flat near an abbatoir/Then one where a man had died/Then one with nowhere to park our car/Then one with no bath inside.’

Tobias Hill, Repossession A witness account of a visit from the bailiffs when the tenants are away, and what happens when they return.
They frogmarched metal shutters from the van/and bolted down the door and windows/Then they were done and the van was pulling/away into the rain, which smelled of tides/the rime blown thirty miles from Southend.’

Maurice Riordan, The Poacher. A father jumps a five bar gate to poach a duck, as his son grapples with the ethics of his father’s actions.
…from the hide of the burning whin/he shoots the duck — the drake, that is./Tonight he’ll grace our father’s plate./No harm done since with the spring/the hen returns to the boggy ground/to breed there with a different drake.’

Robin Robertson, The Park Drunk. A sad tale of a man in a snow covered park drinking to forget his past and to get to his end as peacefully as snow.
And so he drinks for winter/for the coming year/to open all the beautiful tiny doors/in their craquelure of frost/and he drinks/like the snow falling, trying/to close the biggest door of all.

Owen Sheers, Mametz Wood, how farmers still unearth the remains of a Welsh Infantry at the Battle of the Somme.
For years afterwards the farmers found them –/the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades/as they tended the land back into itself.//A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,/the relic of a finger, the blown/and broken bird’s egg of a skull,’

Catherine Smith, Biting Point. A touching poem about a man who takes his granddaughter for a drive and shows how a happy life can be found in how much you know about your car.
Thirty years dead and still curmudgeonly/my grandfather is driving me through/the fog-number streets of Crystal Palace/at five a.m. He’s in the plaid dressing gown/he wore to die in and he’s shaved/badly, flecks of dark blood stippling his chin.’

Jean Sprackland, Holy.  A saint does not have to be ‘pure’ in order to help the sick and poor in this passionate poem.
No-one however, speaks of the child I bore/by the Priest at Millau where I continued my work./I wish you to know how first I guided his hands./I was a torrent he rode like a raft. I surged/beneath him and leapt at last.’

The poems of this selection of 2004 Generation poets cover war, family (the strong-minded grandparent), religion, homeless (and soon to be homeless), the lovable rogue (and not so lovable rogue in the estate agent), the poacher, and the sad drunk. There is less in the way of personal identity (whether in terms of nationality or social mobility) than the 1994 selection or the use of the vernacular. But they tend towards the narrative form.

There is certainly humour in Patience Agbabi and Leontia Flynn’s poems, but also a sombre tone in those by Owen Sheers, Robin Robertson, and Catherine Smith. Finally, there are poems which we make us think differently about work (Paul Farley’s Depot), religion (Jean Sprackland’s Holy), and farming (Owen Sheers’ Mametz Wood), which is always a good thing.

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