‘Language belongs to us, in all its complexity and richness, in all its rolling, roiling musicality’
HOORAY! At long last, “Brits have rekindled their love of verse.” According to the Guardian, sales of poetry books are booming and poetry is now “the coolest thing.”
Awesome. Even more exciting is the news that “young rebel poets” from the “underground” poetry scene like Rupi Kaur, Melissa Lee-Houghton and Luke Wright have ended “centuries of white-male dominated verse” by “breaking the mould of traditional, more elitist verse.”
The last time a “poetry revival” was announced in the Guardian in March this year, the excitement was all about Kate Tempest. This time it is Instagram poetry. How quickly our amnesiac culture discards its gods.
Of course, this is just a corporate press-release dressed up to look like arts journalism for the broadsheets. Melissa Lee-Houghton is a beneficiary of the Poetry Society’s New Gen promotion and was short-listed for last year’s Costa Prize, Luke Wright is published by Penguin and Rupi Kaur by Simon and Schuster. Not very underground.
Poetry is not cool. It is necessary. And its importance cannot be measured by the sales figures of corporate publishing houses. Anyone who really wants to read some “rebel poets” ought to get hold of a copy of On Fighting On! (Culture Matters/Manifesto Press, £5).
It’s an anthology of some of the best poems from the first Bread and Roses Poetry Awards, sponsored earlier this year by Unite and Len McCluskey writes an introduction to the book. Containing poems by some well-known names like Ian Parks, Peter Reynard, Mike Jenkins, Owen Gallagher and the US poet Fred Voss, it is one of the strongest books of poetry published this year.
Some of the poems are satirical, others ranting. Some might best be described as a kind of sad, documentary lyricism. Many are shot through with righteous anger at the way the world is organised. Others are sustained by an elegiac sense of loss for what the world could be if only we could organise it differently.
Among the stand-out poems are Helen Burke’s Dad Digging the Road, Toria Garbutt’s Subway, Jim Aitken’s The C Word (“To utter its name would bring forth/rage and fake rage and the crassest of denial”), Alan Corkish’s Join the Working Class, Emma Purshouse’s Prayer to the Public Transport System of the Black Country and Martin Hayes’s wonderful Beano, a contemporary take on the scene from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
John Wright offers an ironic psalm to private property (“The Landlord is my shepherd;/I shall not own./He maketh me to lie down in rented premises;/He leadeth me around on the three-monthly visits...And I will dwell in the house of the Landlord/For ever.”)
Steve Pottinger’s the folk who read the news asks us to imagine what the news would be like if the day came “when the folk who read the news/are people just like us,” in which “a fella in a high-vis interviews the Minister for Health... a lass on zero-hours quizzes a CEO on wealth... anchors of every shape and size... mutter bollocks to the camera/when the Prime Minister tells lies... reports on poverty and foodbanks/by people formerly known as ‘claimants’...”
In the context of the self-congratulatory dullness of so much of the contemporary British poetry scene, it’s a hugely impressive and important collection. The title poem is by Fran Lock (“we can work together. We are still/here, we can. We must, rebuild again in faith/and trust. This land is ours, we want it back.”)
Her fourth collection, Muses and Bruises is just out, also published by Culture Matters/Manifesto Press (£8). In its first half, she brings the Muses of classical mythology rudely down to earth. Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy becomes “a ferreting girl/who steals from shops, a perfidious febrile/girl who gobs off bridges, a hedging/and fretting girl, one eye on the exit.”
The second half is a prose-poem sequence, Rag Town Girls, raging, furious assertions of what it is to be a working-class woman (“Us learned the truth at seventeen, that love was made for beauty queens, and silly cows who all believe the shit they read in magazines...”)
Lock takes issue with Adrian Mitchell’s famous line about poetry ignoring most people: “Poetry does not ignore people,” she argues, “but there is a system at work designed to exclude people from poetry. People like me. People like you... Better for some if art and culture remain behind high fences in self-policing middle-class enclaves. “They’ll stuff my head with shit instead, with disposable, sneerable pop and dross... language belongs to us, in all its complexity and richness, in all its rolling, roiling musicality... Poetry is waiting, go out and claim it.”