Proletarian Poetry

Blooding the Enemy by Marilyn Longstaff

There is much, probably too much, written about class and who the working class are. But class remains important; as the great academic Richard Hoggart said back in the late ‘50s’, “Class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves…We shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.” And academics continue this work, most recently with Professor Mike Savage and team who completed a major research project ‘Social Class in the 21st Century’. They outline seven categories of class, with ‘precariat’ being defined as the ‘bottom of the pile’.

I have it easy, as for my purposes, as I see the working classes are those who lack wealth and/or power – it is a broad church; maybe not as broad as the 99% versus 1%, although that has its place (by the way, Savage et al., estimate that the super-rich now account for 6% of the population – good to know they are sharing the wealth a bit more, eh!). But I do think it stretches into areas and professions not always seen as part of the means of production. (I am certain many poets would relate to this, given their average income, and the extent to which they wield power).

One such profession I would argue is teaching. Many teachers come from the communities they work in, their starting pay is below the average wage, and does not rise a whole lot more above £40k. Yes, they are not poor by ‘precariat’ standards, but neither do they earn similar amounts to other middle class professions in finance, engineering, or health care. Then in terms of their power, or influence, they are strapped in to the national curriculum and all the measures of performance they have to meet. Yet, they know their students more than other professionals, know their needs beyond education, and are such an important part of society’s development as a whole.

Image by Simon Veit-Wilson

Teaching is tough, and Marilyn Longstaff’s poem, ‘Blooding the Enemy’, highlights what teachers, have to face, where bullying may not only be between children. “The pig king has entered my classroom/late as usual./He’s been fighting again.” I really like the way Marilyn, inverts the use of the word ‘know’ in a teaching setting. “They know/it’s my first year of teaching, know/I’m no Ursula Brangwen,/know//I didn’t show who was boss/in the beginning.’ This is familiar territory and you can feel the tension in the teacher’s words. But there is also something ambivalent in her description of the boy when they come face-to-face at the front of class. “shirt-sleeves rolled up to his biceps,/warrior’s arms coated in bristle;/a small scar on his wedding-finger knuckle,/cruel stare FULL-ON, mouth so kissable.” Who knows what this kid has been through, or what he may be countering in his home situation with these actions. But the teacher must deal with all of this within the limited means on offer.

A final example of how little influence they can have on students came from the story of a teacher from a working class background who got himself a job for six months at a private school. During his short time, he showed these sixteen year old boys of privilege a film about the assassination of a left wing activist in Greece and asked them for their response. They all felt the government and military were right in their ‘illegal’ action to kill the man. Oh, and who was the notable member of this class, we all love to hate? None other than the demonic Iain Duncan Smith, the scythe wielding cutter of benefits.

Marilyn Longstaff lives in Darlington and is a member of the women’s writing collective Vane Women www.vanewomen.co.uk. As well as appearing in a range of magazines and journals, she is the author of three poetry collections: Puritan Games (Vane Women Press 2001) Sitting Among the Hoppers (Arrowhead Press 2004) Raiment (Smokestack Books 2010). Her next book, Articles of War will be published by Smokestack Books in 2017.

Blooding the Enemy
after Ian McDonald’s black and white photograph, ‘Broken Nose’.

 

Image by Ian Macdonald*

The pig king has entered my classroom
late                     as usual.
He’s been fighting again.

And time stops as I drink him in,
savour his faint odour
of stale sweat/pigeon shit, under the Brût.

Outside the time-shift,
the rest smoulder –
ham-hand fingers fused into trotters,

solid-hunched, grunting –
these dark lords. I have nothing they want,
nothing to give them.

They know

it’s my first year of teaching, know
I’m no Ursula Brangwen,
know

I didn’t show who was boss
in the beginning – wearing those mini-skirts,
asking for trouble –

they smell my fear,
the fear of their victim,
and every week             they are waiting.

The pig king strolls to his desk,
stands, square-shouldered, to face me,
his lived-in jeans, zip straining,

shirt-sleeves rolled up to his biceps,
warrior’s arms coated in bristle;
a small scar on his wedding-finger knuckle,
cruel stare FULL-ON, mouth so kissable,
daring me.

“Why are you late? Where’s your homework?”

He has my measure,
hands me a photo of himself at the door of his kingdom
“Fancy a visit                      Miss?”

Blooding the Enemy was first published in Ink on Paper (2008, Mudfog) and then in Raiment (2010, Smokestack Books)

*Images by Ian Macdonald can be seen at http://www.ianmacdonald.co.uk/