On Poetry and Working-Class Joy
Friday, 14 June 2024 09:59

On Poetry and Working-Class Joy

Published in Poetry

As odd as it might sound – given the present state of the world – this article is all about joy. Before anyone starts to wonder who I am and what I’ve done with Fran Lock, I’ll explain: I began working on this article as I usually do, scrolling the rolling news and noting its reception and appearance in the comments and creative output of my friends and fellow poets. Which stories strike people as particularly vivid? Which seem to demand or incite that deeper investment of attention, an artistic response as opposed to a visceral gut reaction? Lately I’d noticed that art – mine and others’ – had stalled at this blank wall of awfulness; that there was something about this particular social and political moment that seemed to preclude the possibility of meaningful poetic response.

This feeling began for me with the coroner’s verdict that two-year-old Awaab Ishak died as a direct result of prolonged exposure to black mould in his family’s flat in 2020. It began with a rage that felt quite literally unspeakable. When I say ‘unspeakable’, I am evoking two distinct silences: the first is the silence of being unheard. It is the silence of the “other” whose voice does not register on the instruments and apparatus of the state. It is the silence of Awaab Ishak’s parents before their social housing provider. “We shouted as loud as we could”, they said, but they might as well have been screaming in space. Too poor, too brown, their words carried no weight, transmitted no sound. The second silence is the silence that results when articulate language crumbles in the face of our rage and sadness; when miseries proliferate faster than our ability to name them. It’s a defeated silence. It’s the silence we retreat into when we know that to speak would be a waste of breath. It’s an inability to catch our breath, to organise or formulate a response. Too beaten, too reeling, we stagger from indignity to crisis to tragedy and back. The world provokes a response but denies our right to reply. It is infinitely frustrating and confusing.

Perhaps this is tactical. Not just the terrible things themselves, but the endless and malignantly rapid succession of them: iterative, accumulative, daily. Michelle Mone and her children received £29 million on the quiet from the profits of a PPE business that was only awarded such lucrative government contracts after she pushed it to ministers, an article alleges. The equipment provided by that business was deemed unfit for use. NHS staff – among them the nurses currently being denied a decent pay rise – were donning DIY PPE to protect themselves and the public while Mone posted pictures of her jet-set life on Instagram. Nauseating. But hardly unique. And a drop in the ocean compared to the 37 billion wasted on Test and Trace under Boris “Partygate” Johnson. Energy bills have quadrupled. Over two million people are using foodbanks. Tenants face eviction. I watch footage of police brutality. I see images of our dying planet. I engage with the news in spasms of violent anger, and I’m not the only one. Social media shows us lives destroyed and taken, globally, moment by moment.

It is overwhelming, and there is a deadening of ethical nerve that results when oppression and corruption are reduced to a litany of interchangeable instances. Calls for our compassion or outrage are so swift, numerous, and diffuse that meaningful dedication of focus and effort become a challenge; people feel bewildered and exhausted. You can’t fight it all, so you feel like fighting any of it is futile. And while injustice without redress is naturalised as the new normal, so too is our image of ourselves as helpless and victimised. Poor and working-class people become those the world happens to, at, and working-class identity is fused inextricably to sorrow and impotent struggle.

Somewhere in the midst of all this our creativity disappears. Why wouldn’t it? It seems inadequate, even indulgent to write amidst the suffering of a people, the death of a child. And why bother? What’s the point in diagnosing the problem again and again, when we already know, when it changes nothing, when we’re just – and I hear this one a lot – “preaching to the converted”? What is restored or solaced in writing? Either we end in an apolitical catharsis that lets us off the hook, discharging potentially radical discontent in a vague gesture towards empathy, or we contribute to the performance and consumption of working-class pain without so much as touching the systems responsible for creating and maintaining that pain. It's easy to discount ourselves. It’s easy to believe that our art doesn’t matter.

But it does. More than ever. Perhaps it helps not to picture our own small acts of creative resistance as purely unilateral. Although we often work as individuals, our many gestures of articulation and defiance have accumulative power, form a network of responses in solidarity with others. You can’t change everything, but you don’t have to: there are a million or more points of focus, there are thousands of approaches or methods of engagement. You are not alone, you are chipping away, in concert with others, at different facets of the same edifice, until cracks appear and the monolith falls.

Strengthening friendship and community

As for “preaching to the converted”, who says that the primary purpose of your writing is to persuade those opposed to you? Isn’t art also for strengthening the bonds of friendship or community? For remembering? For mourning? For holding space for each other? Critics on the Right are always using this one to belittle and discount Left-wing and working-class art because their experience of the world doesn’t admit to the power and importance of testimony, of witnessing. Of course we’re talking amongst ourselves, nobody else is listening. Don’t discount the power of our talk, the sheer gift of it. Listening is one of the most important things we can do for each other. We gain strength from it. We also share information and find common ground. It allows us to recognise and care for ourselves in a way that society does not and never has.

It is true that when we speak about our pain and sadness, we leave ourselves vulnerable to misrepresentation. So often working-class pain is co-opted as narrative freight by the culture industry; representations of our lives are narrowly focused and selectively edited in ways that deny us our full humanity. Here are stories of poverty, addiction, violence and abuse. But where is the music we make in the teeth of these things? Where is the love? Where is the joy? Our silence will not patch these representational lacunae, it will only ensure that others speak for and about us. And so often the making of our art, the writing of the poem, is how joy is accessed and born.

Joy is not the same thing as happiness, which is fleeting and interior. Joy is a made thing. Often, although the subject matter of our work is bleak, in the language of our texts – their wit and liveliness – they manifest models of resistance, they carve out a scene of refusal. The poems I want to share in this column enact this resistance in different ways. In Sab Lyall’s ‘I wanna live with common people like you’ the poem echoes the coda to Pulp’s 1995 working-class anthem ‘Common People’ at the precise moment when Jarvis Cocker’s lyric pivots from an ironic address to a privileged pretender to – in Lyall’s imagination – a sincere expression of care for his working-class community: ‘all-firming. Firm’ writes Lyall, which functions as both a description and celebration of Cocker’s voice, and of the community Lyall dares to image. ‘Firm’ is informal British slang for a group of (working-class) football supporters, typified in popular (middle-class) imagination by aggressive and hooligan behaviour. Lyall’s poem turns this stereotype on its head, giving a two-fingered salute to the judgement which sees any group of working-class men as inherently violent and dangerous. Her ‘firm’ is a place of solidarity and mutual support, and the ‘fist’ is formed not in an act of menace or destruction, but of cherishing and protection.

In ‘Lumpen Broadcast Connotation’ Wendy Young takes a playful, performative, and linguistically knotty approach to parody, challenging the ‘repetitive banality in querulous bollox – borne of ye olde BBC’ with iconoclastic zeal. The poem tackles the treatment of working-class and left-wing political figures by the mainstream media through the person of Mick Lynch. Young’s poem captures that sense of a hectoring and unsympathetic interview in which “questions” are used to accuse and bludgeon rather than facilitate genuine exchange. When Young gives voice to her BBC interlocutor, the speaker indulges in a monologue that forecloses the possibility of meaningful reply: a mixture of stale refrains, click-bait phrases, and irrelevant non-sequiturs: ‘What will YOU do if agency workers cross the line MISTER Lynch?/ Isn’t your social media profile The Hood from Thunderbirds MISTER Lynch?’

Often, Young’s interviewer is so carried away by their own rhetoric that their questions take on an absurdist stream of consciousness quality, delivered in one long breathless rush of words, blurring the line between private thought and public utterance: ‘Let me get on with my chauffeur driven car to work my holiday home my several annual holidays my kids in private school while I bandy about your 130K salary MISTER Lynch?’ In this way Young exposes both the ideological and self-interested underpinnings behind the speaker’s bland façade; the working-class audience of which Young is part has spotted the dodge, and more than this, they are capable of giving back as good as they get. Young’s poem relishes wordplay and pun, taking pleasure in the rude and brazen buzz of language, which she uses to lampoon her targets to hilarious effect, running verbal rings around those stolid apologists for the awful status quo. There is rage in this poem, but there is also a healthy strain of ridicule, that takes on the powerful with spoof and swagger.

‘THE WHITE NATIONALISTS ARE STONED ON THEIR OWN BALL SWEAT AGAIN’ by Paul Corman-Roberts is a State-side burlesque on a racially polarised and increasingly totalitarian vision of Christian-conservatism. It is a frightening world in a which an atavistic urge toward power and violence – ‘the blood of the vulnerable/ makes them hot with lust’ – is cloaked in the legitimating veil of patriotism. Corman-Roberts’ images are driven by a farcical and excessive juxtaposition which would be funny if we were not already living with their fatal consequences: ‘Teenage martyrs/ rifles strapped to their bibles’. The power of this poem, however, is not in its accretion of grotesque images of white conservative power, but in their contrast with the vulnerable dignity of America’s “others” – ‘God’s beautiful queers/ black and brown families in perpetual mourning’. While the image of an historically suspect ‘white Jesus’ rocking out to Ted Nugent is horribly comic, the poem’s moral bite comes from his being set against a ‘dark Jesus’ who is depicted as miserably enmeshed in the apparatus of immigration detention. Throughout the poem Corman-Roberts weaves the nebulous threads of conspiracy culture, so that the final lines depicting a world ruled over by the ‘will of invisible men/ who live in the sky’ signal not only a hazy grasp of the life hereafter, but an approximate knowledge of reality itself. ‘Dark Jesus’ is persecuted by indifferent oppressors without a will to recognise him. Yet, he is aligned in the poem with those who mourn and suffer, and in this way the poem sounds one sweet, low note of radical hope.

‘Post-Covid’ by Kevin Patrick McCann is less an expression of joy than it is an indictment of the way that joy is coerced and manipulated by politicians and by culture. From the beginning McCann implicates poetry in this exercise, introducing the ‘smooth poet to/ Chant an In Memoriam/ At fifty quid a line’, a public figure bought in (and bought off) to mediate and manage our collective experience of grief; to absorb it back into a politically expedient nationalistic script. The poet speaks on our behalf, over-writing the choppy textures of our difficult mourning with his own nicely modulated voice from which every ounce of anger has been purged. McCann’s poem has no time for this voice. His bracketed asides puncture the fluent operation of his poem, as if providing interruptions, tears, sudden glimpses into the world as it really is.  ‘Post-Covid’ is a poem that says ‘don’t take my word for it’, it is sleight of hand slowed down to half the speed to show its workings. It provides – then deconstructs – a recipe for misdirection: ‘Re-arrange the past’, ‘Invoke the Dunkirk Spirit’, ‘Slow-mo footage of crowds’ etc. It shows us how art can be used to depoliticise tragedy; to strip it of its long biography – its precedents and legacy – by providing a neat (false) resolution ‘End with happy children playing’. I offer McCann’s image of a sinister contentment as a counterpoint to the real joy we can access through working-class art and poetry. A joy that sees the world as it is but finds both courage and pleasure in fighting and writing back.

“I wanna live with common people like you”

(After ‘Common People’ by Pulp)

By Sab Lyall

The first is
a sneer, wiped
off on the back
of the hand.
The dreggy taste
of closing time.

The second is
yearning. our
fingers inch
toward the fire.
Our itch to
confirm a blue
flame.

The third is all-
affirming. firm.
The fist you form
around your key –

To live.
To live with you.
With all of you.
So common.
So rare.

 

Lumpen Broadcast Connotation – the Paxman Cometh

By Wendy Young

‘when the hurlyburl(e)y's done, when the battle's lost and won’ ... (not MacBeth Rigby)

So what if Mick Lynch gets 130K a year!?! In my workplace the pay for non-medical consultants is phenomenal – and we're informed endlessly that good negotiators and brains should be paid a good remuneration... guessing (well knowing) they get far more than Mick Lynch. Worth it just to see him make the lumpen press splutter!

Pompous lump
The spoilt lump on news channel conniving, emphasises MISTER Lynch emphatically
Proving their worth – repetitive banality in querulous bollox – borne of ye olde BBC
happenstance – coined by established – frankly bored – interrogator seeking a “straight” Tory answer

Why don't you just do as you're told MISTER Lynch?
Why don't you just stay in your place MISTER Lynch?
People going about their daily BIZ-ness MISTER Lynch?
People getting to work MISTER Lynch?
You can ridicule me all you want MISTER Lynch!

Behind this Botox facade is an older person who remembers the Miners’ Strike MISTER Lynch?
And of course those burly beastly Miners were pure selfish and out for a fight MISTER Lynch!
What will YOU do if agency workers cross the line MISTER Lynch?
Isn’t your social media profile The Hood from Thunderbirds MISTER Lynch?

Let me get on with my chauffeur driven car to work my holiday home my several annual holidays my kids in private school while I bandy about your 130K salary MISTER Lynch?

MISTER Dempsey why did you walk out of talks with the shit-shoveller – worker turned management kowtow bower? 
I ask as a once-council-house-dwelling done-gooder – worst of the bunch – part of the Press who pressures plebs – who now calls dinner a champagne lunch
Maybe even a Mone muncher!  A PPE perpetuating prick emanator! Hey, don’t bring up the “scum” remember what happened to Ms Rayner?
Awh but int she gorgeous – blonde bimbo incumbent – a “laydeee doncha know” ooh an offshore public money dumper!

Let me tell you how it is and cut the crap chat pleasing Shapps chap down to spouting media dolly lumpens:

The RMT represents flexible workers who are willing – though you flex us vex us – try to shake us your nexus – slit our throats – pay us groats – in it up your necks –

It would be helpful if you stopped spewing like barrow-boy bankers – to ignoramuses’ – our loyal supporters – it’s basically a fantasy that being said ‘Hello’ to by managers, our workers will restart their break – they serve the public 24/7 – stop dragging up old laws spreading them in treacle –
We have a skilled work force who deserve protection – a decent wage – it goes for every worker who ticket – collect – clean – shunt – tap – drive – operate – help – because people want humans not automated chastity – our Members don’t want charity – food banks – income support – just clarity – plain and simple guaranteed futures – for their well-being and families!

ALL THAT’S FINE WHOOP-WHOOP WHISTLE THISTLY SHIFTY BUM EAGER BADGERING BULLSHIT SEEKER ME BEGS – please let me break you – MISTER Lynch and MISTER Dempsey!

 

THE WHITE NATIONALISTS ARE STONED ON THEIR OWN BALL SWEAT AGAIN

By Paul Corman-Roberts

It was neocons eve last night
fight or flight now for God’s beautiful queers
black and brown families in perpetual mourning
protection gun rackets for sale
on every corner

QAnon is the new Ministry of Information
Prince DeVos smells broken glass
smells fire
the blood of the vulnerable
makes them hot with lust.

Teenage martyrs
rifles strapped to their bibles
matching uniforms
while white Jesus
rocks out with Ted Nugent

all making sure dark Jesus
knows which side of the room
to line up on
don’t get too close
to the right saviour

everything is on the table
United States of Russia
flat earth-centred cosmos
will of invisible men
who live in the sky.

 

Post-Covid

By Kevin Patrick McCann

And when it’s all over
(By Christmas) find
Some smooth poet to
Chant an In Memoriam
At fifty quid a line,
Re-arrange the past
(Johnson moved swiftly)
Invoke Dunkirk Spirit
(Slo-mo footage of crowds
All masked) morph
Surmise into facts,
Montage rainbows
(Avoid corruption)
Doorstep clapping
(Don’t mention useless PPE)
End with happy children playing:
Fade out on Our Own Dear Queen

Sabrina Lyall divides her time between Clonmel and London. She is new to poetry but is currently working on her first collection.

Wendy Young is a poet/ performer, whose publications include Living with Ghosts (Natterjack Poetry, 2015), Ooetry (William Cornelius Harris Publishing/London Poetry, 2015) and The Dream of Somewhere Else (Survivors Press, 2016). Her poem ‘The Time is Ripe and Rotten Ripe for Change’ was selected for Handbook for 2021, the anthology of the Bread & Roses Poetry Award 2020 (Culture Matters).

Paul Corman-Roberts is the author of the CLMP Firecracker nominated Bone Moon Palace from Nomadic Press (2021.)  A co-founder and co-director of Oakland’s Beast Crawl Literary Festival, he teaches with the Older Writer’s Lab of San Francisco, the San Francisco Creative Writing Institute and with the Oakland Unified School District.

Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poetry for adults, and one for children: Diary of a Shapeshifter (Beul Aithris Publications). There is also a book of ghost stories: It’s Gone Dark (The Otherside Books), and Teach Yourself Self-Publishing (Hodder), co-written with the playwright Tom Green. Ov (Beul Aithris Publications) is a fantasy novel for children. Deleted Scenes: Poems i.m. Shirely Jackson is a new e-pamphlet from Culture Matters.