As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present Fran Lock talking about poetry. Image above: Rag Town Girls Do Poetry, by Steev Burgess
Why Poetry Matters
by Fran Lock
Hello everybody, my name is Fran Lock, and among other things, I am a writer and teacher of poetry. What this means in practice is that I have a lot of conversations with people from all walks of life about how they “don't get”, are bored by, or “can't stand” poetry, and then I do my best to convince them that poetry is in fact relevant, exciting, necessary; even potentially radical. And I generally start by explaining to people that the aversion they feel is understandable, and that it's probably not their fault. It isn't the fault of poetry either.
As with so many other things in life, I blame the Tories. Specifically, I blame successive generations of Tory governments, who have used so-called educational “reforms” to routinise and shrink the teaching of English in schools, producing a loveless conveyorbelt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and are really not encouraged to develop any kind of lively conversation with and about literature. Michael Gove did a tremendous amount of damage as Education Secretary in 2013, and I think Ofqual's recent decision to make poetry optional at GCSE level is part of this same ongoing process: of hammering arts education in general, and poetry in particular. And I've taught in all kinds of places, from women's shelters and prisons to universities, and something that has always struck me, and that I think is really telling about what the Tories have done to education in this country, is that while my degree students, who have the highest levels of formal education, are the most knowledgeable with regards to terminology, and to different kinds of poetic technique, and who are maybe “better read” in terms of “the classics”, it's my students who have had the least contact with formal education who are the most excited by and the most original and vivid writers of poetry.
So, when I'm talking to people about why they feel suspicious of or maybe hostile towards poetry, I try to suggest that the attitudes and perceptions we have about it are coloured by the way it has been presented to us. It has been fed to us in this way for a reason, and that is absolutely deliberate and absolutely ideological. I get angry about that because I spent a large part of my own childhood and adolescence believing that poetry wasn't for me; that poetry belonged to some mysterious higher realm called “culture” that was somehow above criticism or reproach, and which had nothing to do with the likes of me. And nobody ever bothered to tell me any different. My ah-ha! moment came when, quite by accident, I came across a recording of the poet Ciaran Carson reading his poem 'Belfast Confetti'. Here was someone like me, who sounded like my friends and family, talking about something that we knew, and something that mattered to us. I realised in that moment that I had been lied to, that I'd been edged and engineered out of something that felt really important. I asked myself who that served, and I'm still asking, still arguing that poetry matters, that it belongs to us.
Poetry, as an art form, is practically tailor-made for those of us who are poor in resources and in time. It does not require specialist tools or training. It is portable and cheap. It can be practised anywhere. Poetry can be short, and memorable. You don't need to spend hours wading through text to arrive at the point. It cuts through bullshit to reach our rawest nerve. In other words, poetry is one of the few cultural activities that working-class people, that prisoners and homeless people, and people living in poverty are able to independently access and produce. It's also one of the few places where working-class voices, accents and grammar are allowed to creep into culture, where it doesn't matter if you're not talking “proper”, where slang and patois and dialect and swearing are all up for grabs. When my students are made aware of this huge toolbox they have at their disposal, they get really energised by poetry; it gives them permission to enter that space, it lets them know that people like us are welcome to the party.
Poetry is such an immediate and intimate thing: it energises and moves people, so it's potentially incredibly powerful both socially and politically. Restricting the access of working-class people to poetry early on in life is all about denying us that power; it is about trying to reabsorb something radical, dangerous, and engaging back into the self-serving myth of middle-class literary production: only posh people make art. Only white, male, classically educated people write poetry.
This tactic, it seems to me, is inseparable from the funding cuts that ensure inequality of both provision and of access. Elites will always try to marginalise or underfund any cultural activity to such an extent that only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo can afford to participate. And when they do invest, they tend to invest in the kinds of cultural activities that automatically exclude working-class people. For example, literature is underfunded by ACE in proportion to ballet, opera, theatre. Poetry is underfunded again with respect to literature. While it might well be true that some free resources and opportunities exist, and that some funding is available, these opportunities are hedged at best, either because they are solely concentrated in Greater London, or because nobody is there to guide young working-class people towards them, or because the process of accessing these opportunities is Byzantine. I've known so many working-class women in particular give up half way through applying for ACE funding because they don't have the time or the energy to spend making sense of a system that seems designed specifically to alienate them
The Tories don't want us writing poetry; they don't want us recognising and reclaiming the spoken word as a source of collective strength; they don't really want us participating in culture at all. Culture is the medium through which the work of ideology flows. It's also a place where those ideologies can be met and challenged. Publishing operations such as Culture Matters, Lumpen Journal, and Proletarian Poetry have really taken up that challenge, to make art and poetry more widely accessible and available. Because we do not need some Oxford posh-boy to tell us what's “good”. We can write about our own lives to, with, and for each other. And there are many fine poets who are publishing through operations like Culture Matters, and Smokestack Books, and Lumpen, who are writing about working-class life and labour with directness and heart, proving that we do have a seat at the table, even if we've had to fight to get it.
Nothing worth having was ever given freely, was it?