Fran Lock writes about our potential to develop and publish a new kind of poetics, where solidarity and community can be fostered in moments of lyrical, dialectical tenderness. Above image by Imtiaz Dharker, from Witches, Warriors and Workers
We are living through a strange and difficult time for poetry; for all of art, obviously, but for poetry in particular. Poetry is being asked to hold a great deal: to offer consolation and catharsis, to express some kind of universal human experience; to speak truth to power. Everywhere people are 'turning to' poetry. Everywhere it is harnessed for its connective potentials, mobilised by emerging radical movements, or instrumentalised as inexpensive pseudo-therapy.
At the same time the position of poetry – and indeed of poets – with respect to the wider culture feels increasingly pressured and precarious. Coronavirus has thrown this precarity into sharper relief, but in truth it has been with us since the Tories took power in 2010 – certainly since Michael Gove's disastrous educational reforms of 2013, which routinised and shrunk the teaching of English in schools, and produced a 'conveyor belt' curriculum in which sustained analytical rigour, expressiveness, context, and empathy were marginalised in favour of rote learning, and the relentless memorising of disconnected 'facts.' Ofqual's recent, unprecedented, and bizarrely out of touch decision to make poetry 'optional' at GCSE level is just the latest in a long line of such manoeuvres.
In 2019 senior management at the South Bank Centre's Poetry Library floated the decision to introduce a fee of over £30 a year for all new members. This announcement was met with such a wave of protest that management were forced to retreat, offering members the opportunity to 'consult' on other options for ensuring the future of the library. These options apparently included another form of paid membership, seeking corporate sponsorship, or asking better-off patrons to make donations. Fast forward to 2020 and the South Bank Centre confirms that over two-thirds of its workforce are liable to lose their jobs. At the time of writing, the Poetry Library is closed, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
All of which speaks volumes about the state and the status of poetry in this country. There is a piece of received wisdom that suggests the Tories' policy towards particular branches of the arts is indicative of inattention or disregard, but this is not so: the signature gambit of power elites has always been to marginalise or underfund cultural activities to such an extent that only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo can afford to participate. Poetry, as an artistic medium, is the perfect mode of production for those 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. In other words, poetry is one of the few cultural forms that the working class and the economically deprived are able to independently access. It energises and moves us; it is a way into discursive space for those who are abjected from, and censored or misrepresented within wider political discourse. It is a site of infiltration and resistance, a scene of solidarity, a space in which connections are made and communities are fostered.
Editing out working-class voices
To penalise or discourage this vital form of working-class creativity is to deal violence to those same, nascent communities. This is cynical, deliberate, and strategic. To reduce the teaching of poetry – or drama, or history, or art, or music for that matter – to a loveless tick-box exercise is to prevent working-class students from fully apprehending the long continuum of their own oppression. It is to limit their access to currents of dissenting thought. More importantly, it is to deny them the language in which such thoughts are often formulated, weighed, and reasoned; the language in which working-class critique and resistance are so vividly broached. It is to deny them something beautiful within themselves: craft and discipline, the pleasure of making. To rob poetry both of context and of joy, is to say to working-class students 'this is not for you', 'this cannot, and did not, come from you'. It is to reabsorb something radical, dangerous, and engaging back into the self-serving myth of bourgeois literary production: a white, male, classically educated poetic canon. It is to edit out working-class voices from future poetic cohorts.
This tactic is inseparable from the funding cuts that ensure inequality of provision and of access. It might well be true that some free resources and opportunities exist for young people, but 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. The Tories are trying to engineer us out of art young at a young age. The struggle to live and to define yourself as a poet is, for working-class people, often a demoralising and exhausting experience. We force our way into culture against grim economic disparity, lack of early stage support, and the expectation that we are incapable or unequal to our art. Sadly, this expectation is often fostered in us as children or young adults until it takes root within ourselves.
Never doubt that culture is the medium through which the covert work of ideology flows. It is also the space in which such ideologies can be countered and contested. It therefore serves the right to position art and literature as optional extras, as 'luxuries' or afterthoughts, outside of and irrelevant to the power dynamics of capitalism. If they can convince a generation of working-class students that poetry does not matter, that it has no bearing upon their own lives, they can prevent them from recognising and reclaiming this important source of collective strength. If they can silence us, the current generation, by making every ambition to further ourselves and our reach untenable, by draining us of creative mental energy, then they have won on two fronts. They have cut off that important conversation with our own traditions and aesthetics before it has begun. We must not let that happen.
Despite the Tories' best efforts poetry is increasingly popular with disadvantaged young people. When governments close educational avenues to art, the spontaneous and shifting networks of solidarity engendered by new media often provide us with an alternative route. As creators and publishing cohorts we can facilitate and extend this access by making work available for free to those who cannot access it any other way. By disseminating art and poetry widely online, through websites and publishing operations such as Culture Matters, we can help to wrest the balance of power away from traditional publishing cliques. Sharing work amongst ourselves challenges the implied audience for poetry: by removing artistic production from its elite haunts, and from the hierarchy implicit in traditional models of pedagogy, we can talk directly to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas. If there is no arbiter to mediate between artists and audiences, then the conversations that matter to us survive and proliferate long after their 'moment' in mainstream culture's perpetual 'cool-hunt' has passed.
This matters enormously: working-class poetics is driven by innovation, by a relentless determination to use every available poetic resource – the metaphor, the simile, the epigraph, the aphorism; the pun, the joke, the slang expression, the advertising slogan – to further the reach of our art. In this, our work forms a textual counterpart to the resourcefulness and pressured improvisation required from us in daily life. Material necessity provokes experiment and originality, and these acts of repurposing, jerry-rigging, cobbling and borrowing are the substantial and integral features of our writing.
We learn early how to stretch what we have, how to take the unlovely or the shoddily made and turn it into treasure, nectar, sustenance. This something-from-nothing-ness is the alchemical labour of all true art. It is also the stuff of working-class survival. The conditions of working-class existence exert a peculiar power over the rhetorics and aesthetics of our poetry, but more than this, they can be deployed by poetry as a transformative tool, one that has the potential to renegotiate terms of social and political as well as artistic encounter. Our voices matter, in all their urgency, multiplicity and difference.
The cry of the poor
I have been thinking recently about the imperative for art and poetry to heed and to express 'the cry of the poor'. I have been thinking about listening, to ourselves and to each other. It is only through sustained attention to the granular particularities of working-class experience that socialism – that any radical project of social change – can succeed. Poetry makes space to accommodate that polyvocality; it accounts for our diversity while providing an arena in which our common struggle may be apprehended, talked through and felt.
What is 'the cry of the poor'? I will tell you what it is not. It is not the undifferentiated din of feral abjection. It is that pulsing, plural music under the skin of working-class life. To be poor is to live at the mercy of language, but it is also to be fed by several streams: conflicted registers, switching codes, many modes of speaking and saying, in celebration and vigour as well as exhaustion and despair. It is for your ways of seeing and saying to be sharpened to a cutting edge. We, who are never 'at home' in language or in culture, who can never look to culture to see glowing rose-tinted reflections of ourselves, feel within its precincts, a deep discomfort. The 'cry of the poor' speaks of and through this discomfort. It offers both a challenge and a rallying cry. Making space for this cry is not just about bearing witness to suffering, it's understanding that the cry is also testimony; that if enough of us are speaking, the cry becomes collective rebel yell.
I am writing at a time when radical presses are urgently alive to this cry. Culture Matters has published a series of anthologies reflecting a diverse array of working-class voices. These anthologies seek to account not merely for individual struggles, but to map the points of commonality and divergence in our varied experiences under the multiple oppressions of late-stage capitalism. Anthologies uncover our hidden affinities, fostering class consciousness and expanding our potential networks of solidarity.
Working with Jane Burn on the anthology of contemporary working women's poetry, Witches, Warriors, Workers, provided a precious and very practical mechanism for nurturing a sense of community. The vision that emerged from this work was one of collective struggle and mutual achievement; the indisputable fact that that none of us ever rise alone. The anthology provides a space in which to enact the sorority and class consciousness it dares to imagine.
This is a mighty thing. To acknowledge and to relate to each other as creators feels powerful and timely. Heeding the 'cry of the poor', is also to understand that we are not merely subject to the cruelties and caprices of power, but that we can meaningfully and collectively carve out space to challenge them. Poetry is ours, by right and by necessity, and we must do all we can to keep that knowledge alive.
To that end, the two poems I would like to introduce are by working-class women who, in different ways, bear witness to the complexities and sorrows of working-class life, but whose deftness and vibrancy of language inform a work of militant cherishing. The care and control these poems evince is a care and control that is seldom afforded the poets as citizens and subjects. The poems that contain this care function, then, as small units of resistance. Against alienation, exhaustion and fear they erect a moment of lyrical, dialectical tenderness.
I am Road, I am Mother, I am a Better Person Now, I am Failed
By Jane Burn
So I have this ache (suddenly) to run. Don’t go thinking I’m fit, that I flow
like a river. I just got sick, sick of the sight of myself, sick of the unpleasant
feeling of flesh. I have dreamed this cumbrance away for after all, I am only
a frame of weeping bits. I have spent too much of this elongated time
on my back (imagining sky), wishing my grody molecules would buzz
into the air, away like flies, like a bluebottle cloud. When was the last time
I properly slept? I get rid of portions of the dark – scald my corneas
on some book, blink on grit. Fail to feel the words go in. Forget
what I have read. Masturbate. Not because I’m thinking sex. Because
I have to find something buried in myself, like trying to remember
when I was last alive, like trying to get to the beat in a dead bird’s breast.
I just want to find some sign of now, some flicker of life. The rest of the time
I turn like a bundle of sticks, go numb, think or don’t think, turn the cogs
on morsels of the previous day, or let the coils of my brain be void.
My eyes swell like storm drains, my ears keep primed. When I hear the dawn,
I cry for the squandering of another night. I want to clamber out of this skin.
It weighs me like wet wool, a flaccid coat. Thirteen weeks of fear
have kept me to the confines of this home and I have crept like a fat automaton,
fridge to stool, rug to window, hall to bathroom, cupboard to bed, have pacified
my family with mountains of bread. I have filled my mouth and eaten my way
into pain. I want my bones. I want myself to carve her bright way back.
So I say to my son let’s run. I don’t say let’s run away from ourselves.
I think I broke for good. All I can think of is how many shitty things I did
or said. I didn’t know is no excuse and now I do, I see that my tongue
has been a knife, a cudgel, an evil fish. Every day I spew for fear and wait
for a hand on my shoulder, remember too much the shove in the guts,
fist on my cheek, a rip in my cunt. I kneel beneath an accusation of sky,
say please help me, help me please for I have almost had enough
of this kind of life. Smile, smile, smile, smile, smile. Smile and think
of the phone number that the clinic gave for such vile emergencies and I
(will not) have not phoned it because they did not remember how I said
I hate talking on the phone, would rather scratch my arm-skin off. I’m sorry.
I’m trying to make amends. So me and my son, we run. I found a road
where hardly anyone goes – past the church ’cause nobody has any time
these days for God – besides, all their doors are locked, so suffer your sin
in silence. Them that need some wine and wafer genuflection, I guess
just go without. Past the Shrine of the Two Marys – oh, how I have
worshipped their crumbling prayer, their sad relics, their pietà of mist,
their concrete knees. At least this Lockdown, somebody got round
to painting them fresh again, hung baskets of flowers on each side,
like pendulums keeping time. I stagger past and wish for selfish things –
MaryMothers, make me thin, MaryMothers, I’m not that person anymore.
MaryMothers, put out the pains in my head. In front, my tall son.
Me behind, running upon the long cast of his shadow, like he’s
getting away and always forever I’m failing to catch him up.
Packing Two Gold Necklaces
By Hibaq Osman
When there is talk of warriors
rarely do they mention the keepers of secrets
or how whole cities have been moved
under the cloak of night
what tiresome work it is
to carry lineage
which is to hold
your great grandmother and great grandchild
in one hand
and a tasbeeh in the other
you say insha Allah, God will free us
and prepare for the unknown
When there is talk of warriors
the bustle of kitchens is omitted,
but recipes are strategically altered
in new weather
on new lands
isn’t a sword just a knife
that has been repurposed?
Which is to say you have made do
behind the curtains of sons
and into the long memories of your daughters
whose minds are a maze of language
that cannot translate
Nobody will speak of what you left behind
to carry us forward,
least of all yourself
Allahu aclam /
God knows best
Jane Burn’s poems have appeared in many magazines. Her poems have regularly placed in poetry competitions both national and international. Her pamphlets include Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen, 2015) and Tongues of Fire (BLER Press, 2016), and her collections are nothing more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams, 2016), This Game of Strangers (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2017 co-written with Bob Beagrie), One of These Dead Places (Culture Matters,2018), Fleet (Wyrd Harvest Press) and Remnants, co-written with Bob Beagrie (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019), Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020). In 2018 three of her poems were nominated for the Forward and Pushcart Prize, and Jane is a joint winner of the 2020 Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite.
Hibaq Osman is a Somali writer born and based in London. Her work largely centers women, identity and the healing process with a focus on the often hidden, nuanced aspects of our experiences. Her debut poetry collection, A Silence You Can Carry, was published with Out-Spoken Press in 2015. In 2017 she released her online poetry chapbook the heart is a smashed bulb.
Witches, Warriors and Workers: an Anthology of Contemporary Working Women’s Poetry is available here.
The Children of the Nation: an Anthology of Working People's Poetry from Contemporary Ireland is available here.
Onward / Ymlaen!: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Contemporary Wales is available here.
Almarks: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Shetland is available here.
A Kist of Thistles: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Contemporary Scotland is available here.
This article is being jointly published by Communist Review.
Fran Lock Ph.D. is a some-time dog whisperer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks, most recently 'Raptures and Captures', published by Culture Matters, the last in a trilogy of works with collage artist Steev Burgess.