The Poetry of Working Class Lives: Opening a Door to a More Inclusive Poetics. By Peter Raynard for New Generation to Next Generation 2014: Three Decades of British and Irish Poetry, conference at the Institute of English Studies, London. March 13th 2015
‘Poetry is not the inconsolable wail of the only child. It can be the hum of the neighbourly voices in the meeting hall. To be welcomed in, all you need to do is open the door.”
These are the closing words from Fiona Sampson’s book on contemporary poetry: Beyond the Lyric. But the challenge facing any poetics of inclusion, is how to get people to open the door in the first place. However, as the Warwick commission report on the Arts recently showed, it is not only a problem for poetry.
Poetry and Working Class Lives
I came to focus on the poetry of the working class lives in two ways. Firstly, when I started writing poetry as a dare by taking a module run by Malika Booker as part of an MA in Creative Writing; she showed us poems from William Blake, to Martin Espada, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Inua Ellams, and Karen McCarthy Woolf.
The second entry point was a dissatisfaction in the way in which the working classes were portrayed in the media and arts: in novels, plays, TV programmes and films, stories involving working class people are portrayed as ‘horror stories’ or ‘fairy tales’; The most common depictions are the lumpen, feckless, racist and criminal underclass of ‘Shameless’, ‘This is England’ ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Lionel Asbo’, complemented by the narratives of escape via the salvation of a supposed middle-class life such as with ‘Educating Rita’ and ‘Billy Elliot’.
I am not denying that many of the stories are true, or based on true stories, as they often come out of social realism. But it is an issue of balance.
Before I talk more about the poets and poems from my project Proletarian Poetry and how it relates to the Generation poets, I wanted to say a few words about class. Today’s debate about what is working class, tends to be skewed away from work, towards those out of work and claiming benefits – in modern day terms the underclass, or pejoratively, Chavs. Marx called them the lumpen-proletariat, although in his definition he also included academics.
Then there is a debate about who is working class – is John Prescott or a lottery winner from a council estate, for example still working class. These are important and sometimes not-so-important discussions. But for my purposes, I take a rather straightforward definition when considering poems to include on PP – working class lives are about those people who either have little money and/or have little power. And in terms of theme I draw on Emily Dickinson, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.’
Proletarian Poetry was a term given to a genre of political class-conscious poetry during the 1920s and 30s in Harlem, by a group of African American poets, most notable being Langston Hughes. His poems conveyed the hardship and discrimination facing black people during that time and given recent events in the US, are sadly still relevant today.
I began the project last September and have featured forty poems from well, and not-so-well established poets. I chose to focus on the poem, not the poet as to do the latter would be exclusive as well as impossible; for example, I wouldn’t feel comfortable checking whether the poet calls their evening meal their dinner or their tea, and of course it doesn’t matter (it’s tea by the way).
There is a tradition in poetry of the poet as witness. Shelley describing the Peterloo Massacre, to contemporary poets such as Dan O’Brien or Next Generation’s Adam Fould who write about war via a reportage and historical record.
I have included a number of poems about poverty and discrimination, as I’m not trying to gloss over the difficult lives many people face, such as in the Landays of Aghan Women and Bewketu Seyoum’s In Search of Fat. They rummage/every mountain, stone and huddle-huddle,/search in the soil, search in the sky./At last they find it, piled up on one man’s belly!”
But there are also tales of everyday life, such as in Debris Stevenson’s Quality Street about a family outing to the seaside: “We struggle over the orange and pink Quality Street./Whilst Mum and Dad, one cod, one kipper, sit/on the pier, touch knees, tear open sachets/and eat quickly for fear of sand.”
The working class is not an homogenous group as portrayed by the media and this is a strong theme in a number of the poems; In Kim Moore’s My People, she starkly (and I think bravely) addresses the heterogeneity, history, and contradictions, of a class of people who are either lionised, patronised, or vilified by the media and politicians. “There are/many arguments among my people. Nobody likes everybody./In the time of slavery my people would have had them if they/were the type of people who could afford them, which they/probably weren’t. “
In Dean Atta’s I Come From, he is more directly auto-biographical but just as poignant in describing his diverse background, and does so with food, which is a bonus: “I come from shepherd’s pie and Sunday roast/Jerk chicken and stuffed vine leaves/I come from travelling through my taste buds but loving where I live.
Family history is a theme covered in many of the poems with a number about grandparents; in Speechless by Jacob Sam-La Rose, he talks of his grandfather, a policeman back in Guyana, and how he treated Sam’s mother, who had a voice like ‘ripe Jamoon wine,’ with a ‘strong arm’
“before unveiling her voice one evening
in front of the family. Her father stayed silent then,
but he’s Police Sergeant on the Demerara’s
west bank, with a sharp, black serge uniform
and standards to match. And I’d like to know how
the cogs and wheels turn in his head”
One example comes from Karen McCarthy Woolf’s Hoxton Stories. I love the fact that although her grandfather was a white working class man from East London, her verbatim poetry of his stories, was published in Modern Poetry in Translation, Dialect of the Tribe.
What you haf to imagine is a nah-sty, stinky
little street, with loads o’ people, tinkers,
dockers, barra boys the lot, all living a dire
tedious existence. We never ’ad a care
in the world though poverty was rife,
because we was kids and we lived a life
in these tenement houses, flat top roof
tenements. Three rooms up top, three rooms
in the middle and three rooms down with a yard
where all you had to do was go to the kahzee.
There are a number of poems about working class women, such as Liz Lochhead’s Photograph, Art Student, Female, Working Class, Kay Buckley’s Seams about a mother/daughter during the miner’s strike, and Anna Robinson’s Portraits of Women – East London 1888, about the lives of those killed in Whitechapel and Katrina Naomi’s For Eliza. Also women and work, such as Kate Wise’s Fairytale and Hilaire’s Nightlight Wicking at Prices. Quick with the hot needle/to pierce each nightlight,/deft at threading the wick,/swift to lam it in the tin –/totting up as I go until/I’m counting nightlights in my sleep.
Work appears on a regular basis. Whether in poems describing working conditions, changing patterns of work and employment and work and play as in Joolz Sparkes’ Hollywood comes to Holloway and Mute by Jo Bell about a brass band. “This is strong music: music turned on lathes/by men who don’t lament,/who speak by fighting.//This is working music; our call to prayer,/our call to sing our ordinary story/in a fierce unasked-for jubilation.
And there have been poems about butchers (Roy Marshall’s Meat is Murder), bookmakers (Joey Connolley’s How the Bookmaker Feels about the Dogs), gamblers (Owen Gallagher’s The Pay Poke), roofers (Billy Letford’s Wit is it?), taxi drivers, working class writers (Catherine Graham’s I Beg to Apply for the Post), academics, such as Walter Rodney (Malika Booker’s Lament for the Assassination of Comrade Walter Rodney), capitalists (Rishi Dastidar’s Diagnosis: Londonism), and most recently Martin Luther King as a postman (Another Life by Jill Abram).
As well as featuring the poems, I also write a personal commentary, which tries to set context with a bit of humour. For example in the postie poem by Jill Abram, I talked about a friend who when asked in an interview why he wanted to be a postman, said because my uncle owns the pub across from the depot.
Place and the vernacular are important to many of the poems, Liz Berry’s Birmingham Roller, Paul Summers’ North, Helen Mort’s Last Orders for Chesterfield and Imtiaz Dharker’s Living Space.
But there are many crossovers in terms of themes in many of the poems.
Finally, a portrayal of the working classes wouldn’t be complete without the lovable rogue, as in 2004 Generation Poet Patience Agbabi’s the Devil in Cardiff (The Friar’s Tale), who I featured on the site in December. This comes from latest collection Telling Tales, a reworking of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. ‘…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.” As with Kate Tempest, and others in the past, the re-telling or re-shaping of classic texts for a contemporary setting and reader, adds greatly to a poetics of inclusion.
A Word about Lists
Before I talk about the Generation poets and class I wanted to make an observation about the list as it relates to inclusiveness.
There will always be critics of lists, whether it is the best 100 novels of all time or nominees for the Oscars. The Generation Poets list is no different. Reading through some of the reactions to the list I was taken aback by the level of hostility towards it. There may be a point about the hype the potential for the List to be exclusive. But I do think that the Generation idea is one that can open doors for people outside of poetry. As long as such a list isn’t seen as definitive, it can be a good thing to have such reference points.
We should also not forget what it means for the poets themselves to be recognised, to be included. I couldn’t think of a more poignant response to being listed than from Melissa Lee-Houghton:
“When I got the news I felt my life had changed. I had no strange or stupid ideas about becoming part of the ‘Establishment’ or achieving ‘fame’ or rubbing shoulders with influential people or any fucking bullshit like that. I honestly felt as though, if I didn’t survive the oncoming depression I would have achieved something beyond anything I dreamt possible.”
I would also say that the poets on the list have many achievements behind them; poetry is a long apprenticeship.
The Generation Poets and Working Class Lives
I really enjoyed going through the list of Generation poets in search of poems of working class lives. I have a belief that every poet has written at least one such poem. And so to the not-so-new-now New Generation of 1994.
I don’t mean to do a mock demographic audit but the first thing that sticks out from the 1994 list is the preponderance of Scottish poets and poems. My father is from Glasgow, so I hold no quarry.
The poems tend to challenge the vision of Scotland being dysfunctional and dependent, or having an identity imposed upon it; Robert Crawford’s Declaration is a satire on Scotland as a stereotype: ‘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,’
And given that some of these poems were written twenty years ago, it is amazing how prescient they are and how deep the wound is.
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. In Alvi’s The Country at my Shoulder,‘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.’ The poem also makes us think what it means to have more than one identity and challenges the notions of patriotism and the state.
And Simon Armitage’s The Clown Punk also looks at identity but from the perspective of the individual over time.
The vernacular and use of slang is evident in many of the poems, and you’ll be glad to hear I will not try to mimic the Scottish or Caribbean version. But slang appears in Ian Duhig’s Site Specific Poem, who although describes the criminal elements of the ‘lower classes’, he does so with great wit and poetic tradition (and it’s a true story!). ‘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.’
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.
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 new worker with Sky Nails by Jamie McKendrick. ‘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.‘
2004 Generation Poets
The poems from a selection of 2004 Generation poets also cover war, family (the strong-minded grandparent), religion, homeless, the bailiffs, the poacher, the sad drunk, the aforementioned Robbo, and the scurrilous estate agent in Sophie Hannah’s ‘You won’t find a bath in Leeds’, ‘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.’
There is a sombre tone in those by Robin Robertson, and Catherine Smith and there are poems which make us think differently about religion (Jean Sprackland’s Holy), about farming and war (in Owen Sheers’ Mametz Wood), and about work (in Paul Farley’s Depot) ‘Here are the bays, where dustcarts spend their evenings,/where grit summers, dreaming of Januaries,/and barriers mesh, likes deckchairs off-season.
Finally, there is humour as in Leontia Flynn’s Vibrator, which although undoubtedly is a cross class instrument of pleasure there is reference to working class lives, when she can’t find her device when moving home. ‘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.’
2014 Next Generation
So far three poets from the 2014 Next Generation, have appeared on Proletarian Poetry.
Helen Mort’s Last Orders for Chesterfield; gives us a panoramic view of the town as she makes her way back to her childhood home:
beside the taxi rank,/the waiting drivers don’t look up/or step aside to let me pass./Animated by a story/one of them’s rehearsed all night:/The lass he rescued out at B’oser/picked her up without a scrap of clothing on. Lover’s tiff,/he says, the slapper was locked out.
Kei Miller’s This Zinc Roof; takes a ubiquitous object and makes you see it in a different way:
This clanging of feet and boots,
Men running from Babylon whose guns
Are drawn against the small measure
Of their lives; this galvanised sheet; this
Corrugated iron. The road to hell is fenced
On each side with zinc
And then Hannah Lowe’s Dance Class, which tells of her childhood and the challenge of fitting in with the other kids as perceived by having a Father of mixed heritage
After, in the foyer, dad,
a black man, stood among the Essex mothers
clad in leopard skin. He’d shake the keys
and scan the bloom of dancers where I hid
and whispered to another ballerina
he’s the cab my mother sends for me.
Of the other poets in the present Generation, there is Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients, “The gods are in the betting shops/the gods are in the caff/the gods are smoking fags out the back/…the gods are at the doctor’s/they need something for the stress/the gods are in the toilets having unprotected sex.”
Emily Berry’s The International Year of the Poem, where poems are depicted as having a powerful influence on world events: “In Kyrgyzstan a poem with a 6.6 magnitude killed sixty-five. George Bush was almost struck by poems.”
Sam Willets’ poem, Stroke City (Derry 2001) describes a visit he made to the city and the troubles reflected in its landscape: “Outside the shops, my friend Paul,/Bogside-born, says Look at the floor:/the pavements overlaid solid/with pale coral, ivory, dove grey/chewing gum. Welcome to the city of the grinding jaw.”
Luke Kennard’s Nut Factory takes a surreal look at the factory production line. “The unshelled peanuts pour down the flue/like a throng of ecstatic bald men, dancing/I put my hands into the flue and raise them/I let the peanuts fall over my head/I place a nut between my teeth/It tastes of pencil lead.”
Daljit Nagra’s Growing Up in a White Town, is similar to Hannah Lowe’s experience of being a child with parents from a different culture and country. “She never looked like other boys’ mums… “That’s why/I’d bin the letters about Parents’ Evenings,/why I’d police the noise of her holy songs,/check the net curtains were hugging the edges,/lavender-spray the hallway when someone knocked.”
Towards a Poetics of Inclusion
I want to finish with a comment on the current state of poetry in terms of its inclusiveness.
Forgive me for raising the spectre of Jeremy Paxman’s critique of poetry when judging the Forward Prize. Although positive about the poems he read as part of the judging process, he did also wish that poetry, “would raise its game a little bit, raise its sights”, and “aim to engage with ‘ordinary’ people much more”. Putting aside the term ‘ordinary’ there is a challenge there which goes to the heart of the poetics of inclusion.
But I believe Paxo is judging poetry on an out-of-date perspective because the prizes they awarded this year, to Liz Berry, Kei Miller, and Stephen Santus reflect diversity and accessibility for beyond those considered for the prize.
Today, many more people are opening the door to poetry. Performance poetry has helped, rap battles, with the likes of Mark Grist getting near to five million hits on Youtube. The growth in regional and theme-based Laureates is a good example of how such a position makes ambassadors of poetry, who then go into schools, run workshops in libraries, Stanza groups and other poet-driven initiatives that promote inclusion like the 52 project, run by Canal Laureate, Jo Bell. Then of course there are open mics, online magazines, competitions, which all offer ways into poetry.
Inclusion is also shown in the amount of poetry so freely available. Just look at Poetry Magazine, which has 30,000 subscribers but also millions of hits on its site where the poems can be read. Almost all of the poems I have included for this paper can be read online; admittedly I did this because it was the cheaper option, but it does show how you can make your own poetry playlist.
I know that sales figures aren’t the be-all and end-all of a poetry book, but poetry can sell. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, An American Lyric has sold over 40,000 copies in the US and Penguin is about to reignite its publication of poetry by publishing it here. The Staying Alive Bloodaxe trilogy has been very successful and its Essential collection will be the first poetry book given away on World Book Night.
And performance poets are beginning to turn up on the page. George the Poet, Anthony Anaxagorou, Hollie McNeish, Mark Grist are all publishing their poetry. Tony ‘Longfella’ Walsh, who after ten or more years performing poetry in venues from Glastonbury, BBC, to working men’s clubs, published Sex and Love and Rock n Roll, in which he prefaced with his Manifesto, which sums up the poetics of inclusion in an inspiring way:
“I’ve learned that it’s not about classical versus contemporary poetry, it’s not about page versus stage, it’s not about rhyme versus free verse….For me it’s about communication – between poets, between poetries, with other artists and with new and strengthened audiences. It’s about passion.”
And this is echoed in John Burnside’s preface to the Next Generation 2014, when commenting on his alumni; “I certainly did not see the first twenty NewGen poets as having very much in common artistically, (which surely was an indication of some pluralism at least). The one thing that united us, or most of our number at least, was a passion for the art that we had chosen to practice.”
Lorca believed that whenever he spoke in front of a large group he thought he had opened the wrong door, and I have to admit that part of me had that fear coming here today, but I think that is a fear many people have about poetry. I used to think that poets were a bit like the notorious Millwall fans who are known as the Lions; they sing, to the tune of Rod Stewart’s Sailing: “No-one likes us, no-one likes us, no-one likes, we don’t care”.
But I was wrong, about the poets at least. I have had nothing but a positive experience engaging with poetry and poets. I know that doesn’t solve the problem of how to open the door in the first place, but if we begin to show that poetry, like working class people, is not homogenous, that it covers different forms and different themes, that poets come from all kinds of backgrounds and foregrounds, then we can begin to open all the doors of poetry; not only Fiona Sampson’s with the hum of neighbourly voices in the meeting hall, but also the howl of impassioned voices in the concert hall, on the telly, in the pub, and in the schools and Universities. In many ways, it is about taking the poetry to the audience, to their manor. And as Ian MacMillan says, “that’s where the Next Generation poets come in, pushing at a half open door and gliding into a noisy and exciting space.”
Poets really like that door metaphor. Thank you.