Voice, structure and working class women in poetry

Webber Street is a collection of poems written using archival materials that discuss the history of the social-housing estate on which I live. It is part of a practice based PhD. The poems come from a mixture of sources, including oral history, photographs and letters of complaint. This paper discusses ways I have developed of bringing my spoken voice and my poet’s voice closer together, and the discussions I have had with neighbours, other poets and academics along the way about history, language and our collective narrative.

I wanted to do two things: to tell the story of the estate and its tenants and to explore and develop my own voice as a working-class London woman poet. I had been developing a way of writing that allowed a broader language palette for me and my ancestors than that which the western canon usually allows. A London woman can be crude or faux naïf and that extraordinarily narrow range does not either present or represent us. There are two different issues: one is that of my literal spoken voice; the other the fact that I am trying to develop the aesthetic quality of my poet’s voice and needing to find ways of doing that while still being true to my vocal identity and those of my neighbours. This essay starts with a discussion of my voice and my progress, as a working class woman writing in a medium dominated by middle class voices, towards finding ways to present it. It then talks about the housing estate community and the poems that explore our individual and collective voices.

 

Keywords: Poetry – Class – Voice – Dialect – Accent – London – Social History 

Webber Street is a collection of poems written using archival materials and memories that discuss the history of the social-housing estate on which I live. It is part of a practice based PhD that I am doing at the University of East London. The poems come from a mixture of sources, including oral history, photographs and letters of complaint. This essay discusses ways I have developed of bringing my spoken voice and my poet’s voice closer together, and the discussions I have had with neighbours, other poets and academics along the way about history, language and our collective narrative.

The collective narrative, that of our estate, is as follows. The estate was built in 1903. It was the last estate managed by Victorian housing pioneer Octavia Hill and her ‘lady’ housing managers. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners (later Church Commissioners) were the landowners and landlords. They had come under criticism in the previous 20 or so years for allowing slum dwellings on their land. They had owned land in the controversial East London slum ‘Old Nichol’. Landowners tended to let their land to builders, as lease holders, to build whatever they wanted. In the worst areas, such as ‘Old Nichol’, those developers sub-leased and sub-let, hence a long chain developed between the landlord and the person paying the rent that made improving living conditions next to impossible (Wise 2009).

Here, in the area of North Lambeth that surrounds London’s Waterloo Station, the situation was not quite so dire. Octavia Hill, going round with the rent collector, described the pre-existing ‘slum’ as ‘satisfactory and human’ (Hill 1933: 45). That might be a good epithet for us. We are the ‘satisfactory’, the ‘not too bad’. We are the estate that the scariest children in the area, the ones from the ‘rough streets’ called ‘posh’ and attacked with sticks through most of the first third of the twentieth century. Our children had to defend themselves with bin lid shields. We are a ‘lace curtain’ estate (Chamberlain: 1989), respectably working class and bound to the local area with a shared sense of history. We are other things as well: complicated – given as much to aggression as to kindness, good storytellers, people with other histories on our shoulders, citizens in a wider world, people with a future as well as a past.

In approaching this book, I wanted to do two things: to tell the story of the estate and its tenants, and to explore and develop my own voice as a working class London woman poet within the English poetry scene. I had been developing a way of writing that allowed a broader language palette for me and my female London working class ancestors than that which the western canon usually allows. A London woman can be crude or faux naïf and that extraordinarily narrow range does not either present or represent us. Here there are two different issues: one is that of my literal spoken voice; the other the fact that I am trying to develop the aesthetic quality of my poet’s voice and needing to find ways of doing that while still being true to my vocal identity and those of my neighbours. This essay starts with a discussion of my voice and my progress, as a working class woman writing in a medium dominated by an almost ‘standard’ English middle class voice, towards finding ways to present it. I then talk about the housing estate community and the poems that explore our individual and collective voices. I am aware that work on language and class has been done by many American poets and others throughout the Anglophone world, but I want to concentrate on a poetry scene and poets that have been easily accessible to me throughout my years as a working poet, rather than poets I have come across in the last few years as an academic.

 

Writing London’s Female Voice

When you start out as a writer, those who encourage you talk about ‘your voice’, meaning aspects of tone and written diction that make you distinctive. It is there both in your raw drafts and your developed writings. When I had been writing and attending poetry workshops for under a year, others started to say I had ‘found my voice’. Gradually, I became uncomfortable with this voice, because I began to notice that whenever I used demotic language it was usually problematic for the reader, who at this stage of my writing life was usually another poet workshopping with me. These other poets were nearly always also using demotic language although in more middle class voices. It seemed that if I voiced a narrator as a London working class woman and she said something interesting or intelligent, people would say ‘she wouldn’t say that’, or if I voiced her as being more true to perceived type, fellow workshoppers would question the point of it; ‘where’s the poem?’ was a typical comment and sometimes the speaker would be described as having an ‘ugly’ voice. Even within the rhythm there were problems. Iambic metre is said to be the pattern of natural speech in English, with a pattern of stressed and unstressed alternate syllables in a rising rhythm – de DUM, de DUM. But for Londoners, as for some other urban accents, the stress patterns fall differently to that. Londoners’ speech is sometimes trochaic, as is London itself – a falling rhythm – DUM de, DUM de. London speech, when it is more energetic and impassioned tends to fall in uneven triplet feet. For example ‘Everso…’ (DUM de de) ‘whatsaname’ (DUM de DUM), ‘muvver tongue’ (DUM de DUM). As Edward Kamau Brathwaite said, when referring to the rhythms of ‘nation language’, ‘The hurricane does not roar in pentameters’; (1986: 10), and nor does the cold wind that whips the city grime up and around our aching legs. In other words, I realised that there had to be a different way of thinking about poetry to present or represent the voices of working class women in London.

I felt that my writing was stuck and that I was being false to an important aspect of myself, that of my birth class, and an equally important aspect of my speaking voice, that of my more energised and impassioned self and my own equally valid music.

 

Eliot’s Lil

After I had been writing for over a decade and had been featured in several ‘new voice’ anthologies, American poet Alfred Corn came to London and taught a course for the Poetry School on urban poetics called ‘Poet and the City’. During this course, Corn presented a reading of T S Eliot’s ‘A Game of Chess’, which is the second canto of The Waste Land. The first half is voiced by an unhappy and slightly self-conscious educated woman. The second half takes place in a pub. It is an overhead conversation voiced in London working class accents about a woman called Lil who is perceived by the others as behaving in a way likely to damage her marriage. In the narrative, the reader is told that Lil has had an abortion and the medication necessary to ‘bring it off’ (1940: 33) has led to her losing her teeth and although her husband has left her the money to have dentures made, she has not done so. The thing that bothered me was not so much in the text itself but that all except for three of the 15 or so participants thought that the text was ‘laugh out loud’ funny and that Eliot had meant it to be so. The three of us who did not, and who had found the whole exercise of listening to it through the laughter of the others extremely difficult, were all from working class backgrounds and had enough knowledge of our own history to know that having dentures was not so you could appear in your own real life seaside postcard, but was a regular part of managing dental expenses for working class people prior to the National Health Service in 1945.

The women who laughed, although they were middle class, were all at university in the late 1960s and 1970s. In addition, all 15 of us were early to mid career poets, rather than beginners, so it is arguable that they ought to have been more aware of the textual nuances present. I can see nothing in the text that makes me think Eliot was intending us to laugh at Lil or her tormentors. The three of us that had not laughed discussed our discomfort at the laughter within the session and the debate that ensued was enlightening. It was felt by those that had laughed that the accents themselves were the prompt for laughter; that all cockney women in literature are there as light relief. This was profoundly disturbing and reminded me of an incident a few years before in another workshop when a young middle class woman had told me ‘You sound like a comedian!’

 

Writing the Working Class Voice

In the literary canon, working class London women tend to have comic roles. They are crude like Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly or faux naïf like Mrs ‘Arris (Gallico 1969). Ian McMillan and Tony Harrison have observed that the role of Yorkshire men in literature is similar. ‘Uz’ being the ones ‘Shakespeare gives the comic bits to’ (Harrison 2006: 107). Hence, I had thought perhaps one answer was dialect poetry because it has a tradition and canon of its own and uses perceived languages of working class people.

Although I am a Londoner, my parents were from Lancashire. As a child I was introduced to Lancashire dialect poetry. My grandmother liked a writer called Tom Fowlds, whose comedic outpourings featured in Bury Times every week. She also liked poets from the Industrial Revolution, especially those active during the ‘Cotton Famine’ of the 1860s, such as Joseph Ramsbottom, Samuel Laycock and Edwin Waugh, who responded to their situation with consciously political voices.

The connection between these poets and the politicised working class in Industrial Revolution Manchester led to a dialect poetry for Lancashire that was less sentimental than most. Victorian dialect poetry came out of folkloric tradition and was usually recited in public spaces in the same way as ‘folk’ songs were sung. As the 19th century continued, recitations in dialect became part of the urban entertainment scene. In Music Hall, songs and poems were largely humorous or sentimental. However, the more politicised audiences of Manchester or ‘Cottonopolis’ and its surrounding areas had different expectations. They wanted and celebrated a poetry that represented their lives. Some poems still featured humour, such as Laycock’s ‘Sewin’ Class Song’ (Hollingworth 1977: 109), but they were largely political poems that explored poverty and exploitation. These poems were a fundamental part of my childhood poetry and gave me an understanding of a potential working class poetics.

By the turn of the 21st century most contemporary poets using dialect were Caribbean poets, writing in what Edward Kamau Brathwaite termed Nation language (1986: 5-6), or Scottish poets writing in Scots. Both Nation and Scots are languages, not dialects, but they both have dialects within them. Hence, Brathwaite’s Barbadian Nation is different to Fawzia Kane’s Trinidadian Nation, just as Doric Scots is different to Orcadian. In December 2000, I read with a poet called Helen Clare, from Bury, the same place that my father was from. She read three poems in what she described as ‘a modern North Manchester dialect’. I recognised the tone and energy immediately. I asked her about these poems and she said she was trying to express that voice without resorting to the apostrophe, which can often stand in for a perceived missing unit of sound. For Clare, her dialect poems (2004) are about contemporary experience in her own geographical community. Jacqueline Gabbitas from the East Midlands (2007) and Liz Berry from the West Midlands (2014) are two of several English contemporary poets who are also working with language in this way and I have been discussing these issues with Gabbitas and with Barnsley poet, Ian McMillan, amongst others. These ‘issues’ of voice and history, for most poets using them, boil down largely, but not exclusively, to questions of identity and voice.

 

Voice and North Lambeth

My own journey into dialect poetry came through pondering history. My masters is in Public History from Ruskin College, hence my training sits within the tradition of radical history. I discovered, when working at Lambeth Archives as the local history librarian, that Annie Urquhart was the first tenant of my flat in 1905. I began to think about her and decided to write a poem discussing what she and I could see from our shared living-room window. I researched what was in our street in 1905 by looking at a Post Office directory and street renumbering file. When I sat down to write that first Annie poem, which was published in my collection The Finders of London (2010), I wrote it like any other – there was a moment of stillness followed by flow that I did not consciously interfere with. It flowed out in a form of dialect or ‘accent’ poetry. I had not intended it, but once it was then so it was. Of course it was a first draft and there were many other drafts along the way, especially while I was trying to figure out how to represent a London glottal stop to my satisfaction. I needed to find a punctuation mark that represented its presence as a relatively subtle sound. I looked at a variety of symbols that linguists and other languages use to demonstrate that. The choice of backward, upside down and un-dotted question marks in square brackets that linguists use were too heavy and too hard to reproduce on my own computer to be of use to me. The okina, the Hawaiian glottal stop, is a nice elegant mark – ‘ – a reversed apostrophe and relatively easy to use, however it represents a particular sound, which is a harsh back of the throat glottal stop and so not really any good for representing the London stop. Poetry has a very small but international readership, so you could easily wrong-foot a reader familiar with that symbol. In the end I found a symbol that is part of a computing language and also bears a resemblance to the Arabic letter Alif, which when topped off with a Hamza can form a glottal stop. An Arabic glottal stop also tends to be a stronger sound than the London one, but as it is only similar to it, not exactly like it, I did not think that was problematic. My glottal stop is a pipe or vertical line and looks like this: |. By the time I had decided on the symbol, the rest of the poem had taken shape. This was my first experiment with my own voice as a London working class woman and is addressed to the woman who first occupied the flat in 1905.              

Annie, tha li|e is bri|e na, tee time, Sun dee.
The au|umn sky, sa’clear i|ad brayk yurart. (2010: 23)

In the post-publication reflection after The Finders of London, it became clear to me that there was a distinct project that I had already begun. One poem, ‘The Flats’, is filled with the voice of ‘my neighbour’. This neighbour is, in fact, several people whose voice is generalised to make them sound like one person, a kind of Greek chorus neighbour. I moved onto the estate in 1981. This makes me an ‘incomer’. Local older residents define being a ‘local’ as ‘going back at least three generations.’ This is extremely unusual in London, where everyone is, almost by definition, an ‘incomer’. My mother grew up in a small rural town and loved London for that; you could not ‘not belong’. This separation between ‘incomers’ and ‘locals’ began to change with our collective defeat, as a community, by property developers. Waterloo, being beside the South Bank of the Thames and close to so many arts and transport amenities became such a target for developers that even social-housing landlords were tempted to sell their tenants out. The battles that ensued and the sense of loss created a closer unity between us late 20th century incomers and the locals and gave me a sense of ‘permission’ to step closer in to the stories and language. 

In 2006 I had been working within my own community as poet in residence to our local shopping street. This was part of a South Bank Centre project called Trading Places and was part of that year’s Poetry International program. Kwame Dawes came to perform a piece he had written from the words of older women from Sumter, South Carolina. Wisteria: Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country consists of poems or songs made from oral history texts from working class Black women who lived out their young lives under the Jim Crow laws. My quest, as part of this project, was also semi-historical; I was searching for old phrases, sayings we no longer use, such as ‘Charlie’s dead!’, which means your slip or petticoat is showing, a colloquialism made redundant by 1970s fashion of deliberately showing an inch or two of petticoat (a la Laura Ashley). It is a phrase that many believe was rooted in the English civil war (McAlpine; BBC). I had a strong memory in my early 1970s teens of an older woman whispering in my ear ‘Charlie’s dead!’ and slipping away virtually unseen. It was a half-said thing, a whispered thing, conveying discretion and shame in a period that was challenging both those concepts for women. Hence, at the time I had found it amusing – a little peek of petticoat and a little peek at social history.

The project idea had come to me because I had thought that one key to finding my voice as a working class woman might be found within colloquialism. Women older than me in my geographical community are frequent users of colloquialisms. They have a common set of these that they almost all use and that are similar but different to common London colloquialisms; in other words, they are local variants. For example, the East London phrase ‘think I come up with the banana boat?’ is expressed locally as ‘think I come up with the vinegar boat?’ There are lots of websites that discuss the origins of colloquial phrases, but none of them have the vinegar boat phrase, which makes the claim for localisation a strong one. Another phrase I collected was ‘Red hat, no drawers’, which was claimed as the local variant of ‘Fur coat, no drawers’. However, according to numerous sites, including one that specialises in Birmingham’s history (birminghamhistory.co.uk), this is a general English phrase that dates to post-war prostitution. Under The Street Offences Act of 1959, open soliciting for the purposes of prostitution was made illegal and so prostitutes allegedly wore red hats to be ‘discreet’, although that also sounds wrong for a number of reasons. When I carried out the Trading Places Used Phrases survey, most people said it was a local variant owing to the Bankside red-light area around ‘Cardinal Cap Alley’, however that was a centre for prostitution from early modern times and as the focus for leisure drifted west towards the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and the theatres of the Strand and Covent Garden in Georgian times, so did the prostitutes. So, it seemed more than a little odd that a phrase talking about a cultural scene that had not existed for at least 200 years should contain within it the answer, especially as one of the centres for prostitution that had overtaken Bankside’s was in Waterloo itself. At the time of the building of the estate that I live on, 1903, Waterloo still had a large population of independent prostitutes and a number of small brothels – according to the Booth poverty reports (Booth B363).

The project involved collecting and interrogating the phrases. Collection tins were set up in local shops. People were invited to fill out a form with their phrase and then below a dotted line (so that it could be separated later) give the meaning. I then visited, with sound artist Jim Carey, the participating institutions and various other friends and neighbours, to get their individual translations. What was completely surprising to me at the time was the extent to which those interpretations were different. Two of my contributors were women, close in age, who were life-long friends. They often use colloquialism in their conversations with each other, so presumably, they believe they both know what they mean by those phrases. They were both raised by women who shared a language aesthetic. They are both called D….. and they both have older sisters called P…

I asked them both (but separately) what they understood a number of phrases to mean. For ‘Red hat, no drawers’, D.D. initially used another colloquialism to define it, cloaking it further, saying it means ‘a woman who is no better than she should be..’. She then said it is ‘someone with loose morals’. D.G. on the other hand said ‘it means the person telling you that is not very nice, they like to judge people when they don’t know the first thing about them’. It is, of course, possible to explain this difference in interpretation as one of ‘personality’ or of different life-experiences. However, when you say something to someone and you are expecting that they understand you, you do not usually expect that their definition of that phrase will include a judgement against you as the speaker. Another phrase (not a local variant) that was seen as different was ‘Black as Nugent’s (or Newgate’s) knocker’ D.G. said ‘it’s if your face was dirty, you mum’d say you was as…’ D.D. said ‘it’s if something (a situation) was bleak’. Those are very different definitions. I had been invited to lead a workshop on the subject of translation and colloquial phrases for a translation conference in Munich, where a poem of mine that featured a lot of colloquialisms had been translated by three students, and I had been considering how difficult this was as an act of translation. It never occurred to me that these phrases also present a challenge of meaning to those of us that use them, in our daily lives. I was discussing this with poet Malika Booker. She believes this is an unspoken understanding among those using these phrases and is part of their beauty. She cited a case of having asked an aunt what it meant exactly to describe someone as having teeth that made them look like ‘a dog eating wedding cake’. The aunt said ‘Have you ever seen a dog eating wedding cake’, Malika said, no, she had not. ‘Well’, said the aunt, ‘when you do, you’ll know’. In some ways, this flexibility, whether intentional and understood or not, makes colloquialisms the perfect material for poetry to unravel to try to find greater depth within a particular voice. The metaphors, or other tropes, within the colloquial saying itself, become heightened and poeticised and therefore form a good stepping stone for a poet looking to refine her own literal speaking voice.

 

Form and Material 

The poems for Webber Street have sprung from a number of sources. Photographs, letters to the landlords held in the Church of England archive, oral history interviews conducted in the past and archived or conducted by me for this book, and other archival materials such as rent books, directories and maps. The poems that are about the more impressionistic features of the flat itself, architectural and perhaps ghost poems, and those that discuss my own memories, were written in my usual fashion of letting the words come and then letting a form develop from that. I have tended to write a contemporary lyric poem, either with a soft half-rhyming formal pattern or free verse. I rarely lineate in the first draft, allowing the form to suggest itself in the act of listening to it. However, with this material, some of these poems arrived with their own constraints. Some poems in Webber Street have necessitated using modernist forms that either the found text or something else suggested. One example is a poem written about a photograph of a 1935 Jubilee Street Party. It was taken from above and the lines of bunting cut up the picture creating a sense of cubism. The poem replicates this sense of fragmentation with a regular triplet rhythm and by sectioning off themes in the picture such as women, men, children and food.

There is not enough space in this essay to properly discuss more than one poem, so I am going to concentrate on a relatively formal sequence poem called ‘Us, at the Seaside’ (2017). It was written in response to a very small photograph. It is a Box Brownie photo – approximately 1 ½ x 2 ½ inches, in landscape format. It is of a party of women on a beach on a trip to the seaside, an estate outing, organised – according to the scrawl on the back – as part of the 1935 Jubilee celebrations. There are two rows of women, three who are sitting on deck chairs in the front and four more behind them, standing. As the poem develops, it refers to another seaside photo with a line-up of women and children paddling in the sea. I cannot tell whether this is the same outing or not, as the only woman in both pictures is wearing what looks like a different dress, although the second dress could have been for beach wear only. The estate, however, had a tradition of outings and it’s likely that this trip was annual, so it could have been a different occasion.

It is a tiny picture about something that, at most, happened once a year, so I wanted a short form for it. Sonnets suit the kind of complicating discursive structure I had wanted to enable me to discuss the joys of brief pleasures as against the everyday hardships, but even they seemed too big. So I chose a Hispanic form – the Decima, a ten line form, which can be used in the same rhetorical way as the sonnet. I had wanted a ‘form’ as I didn’t think (from my own memory of them) that these women would have been modernists or appreciated free verse that much. In fact, the first decima refers to the fact that all (except the oldest woman) are wearing hats that, by 1935, have not been fashionable for at least a decade, so possibly did not value modernity that much at all. It was important to me that these women should feel ‘honoured’ by the piece. These women of various ages, who were mothers of young children in 1935, were in their sixties and seventies when I came to the area in 1981. A number of oral history projects took place at that time that got a good response from the ‘locals’. (Subsequent projects have sometimes struggled with this as they have been run by organisations seen as ‘outside’ and viewed with suspicion.) A number of people were encouraged to write their own short autobiographies, usually pamphlet length. These were published by the SE1 People’s History Project, which operated from the Waterloo Action Centre. I knew a number of women of this age group very well. We never discussed poetry. They talked with a great fondness of childhood memories of the tail end of Music Hall in Waterloo. One woman remembered being placed on stage one Saturday night, by her father, and singing ‘She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage’ for a rapturous, if drunk, audience. The poetry that came as part of music hall, as previously stated, consisted of comic ballads. Hence, I felt the women would prefer the poems to rhyme. There was a compromise here; I, personally, rarely like or write poems with strong, single syllable, full end rhymes. I prefer subtlety, and in the end, I gave myself my own way.

I chose a sort of ‘crown’ for the overall form, in honour of the hats. It was a simple crown, just taking the first line of each of ten poems to make an eleventh. It is voiced by one of the women, unnamed. There are two points at which the poems slip into a stronger London voice with glottal stops. This is not an alternate voice, it is simply a more energised voice. Simon Kovesi, in his lecture  ‘‘‘O wot ‘orrid langwidge!” Working-class literature from John Clare to James Kelman’ (2016), problematises text that does this because he sees the part of the writing that is in standard English as being the part that ‘speaks like us’, that represents the middle class reader, and the vernacular writing as being the bit that makes fun of the working class characters. I found this argument disturbing, for two reasons. Firstly, why is the reader necessarily middle class? Secondly, is vernacular text always readable as an insult to working class characters?

My concerns on that first point come from the fact that my working class parents were readers and I read from the age of three. I am a descendant of a man who helped form the first working class subscription library, in the lead mining village of Leadhills, in Scotland. However, my sister and most of the rest of my family are dyslexic and although it is not a given, they do not like reading for leisure. It is clear to me that, prior to compulsory schooling, I would have been the one that read the Bible and newspaper to the rest of the village. That is how I place myself historically and socially and it is how I see my audience. My imagined reader is another naturally literate person, and they will, if they like my work, read it (or these days recommend it) to others. In that respect, my writing process often takes a communal turn.

I have had a long relationship with the first person plural pronoun, ‘we’. ‘We’ is often regarded as problematic in lyric poetry because it invites the reader to be a part of a text that they might feel resistant to. Writer and Creative Writing Lecturer, TaraShea Nesbit, has said ‘Like many first-person plural novels, Otsuka's "we" creates an in-group that pushes against an out-group’ (2014: n.pag.). The resistance I have come across to ‘we’ in poetry workshops has exclusively come from middle and upper class participants. I have listened to their concerns and taken them on board but in the end have been unable to part with the pronoun. As Nesbit goes on to say:  

In various novels, the ‘we’ pushes against the military state (We), the family elders (We the Animals), corporations (Then We Came to an End). In The Buddha in the Attic, ‘they’ are initially the husbands the women have yet to meet, but a stronger other emerges, white America: ‘We settled on the edges of their towns, when they would let us.’ (2014: n.pag.)

My ‘we’ is always either a class conscious statement or a geographically communal one and yes, that does shut out some readers but it lets in others whose voices are more traditionally excluded from the canon, especially the English poetry canon, and that is my project, my ‘poetry manifesto’ if you like. I will find a voice to present myself and my community and not all readers will like it, but not all readers like the same things.

I am not the only poet doing this. This brings me to my second problem with Kosevi’s position. This just does not stand up to scrutiny in contemporary poetry. Yes, the English and, to a lesser extent, the wider British canon have used vernacular writing to belittle working class characters, but a large number of poets, such as the aforementioned UK poets using dialect writing – Liz Berry, Malika Booker, Jacqueline Gabbitas, Tony Harrison, Ian MacMillan amongst others – are using vernacular language to discuss our local cultures and their peculiarities. Many of us are influenced to some extent by Caribbean and Scots poets’ (and also perhaps other Anglophone traditions’) adventures with texts that were both serious and playful. So, whilst it was a matter for concern that readers might read ‘Us at the Seaside’ as having two voices, one of which was privileged and one of which was not, readers of contemporary poetry, hopefully, have enough examples of work that presents a different reading of accent and dialogue. It is for me then to trust that the reader will at least make a good attempt to ‘get it’, if I make a good job of presenting our voices as accurately as I can.

Most forms of literature and art have accepted a wider range of voices than lyric poetry has and it seems truly odd that including voices of working class women in the lyric poem is at all radical now. It is as if we are still having to enact a kind of ‘poetry of witness’ to everyday experience, simply because we are not from a middle class suburb and our experience of life is other than the canon understands. I hope that this is an overstatement, but my impression, as a prolific reader of contemporary English poetry, is that in fact the situation is getting worse. Younger poets seem ‘posher’ than ever and at most London based poetry events I feel increasingly exotic. As Raymond Williams said, ‘Culture is ordinary’ (1989: 3-18). By this he meant that there is as much beauty and wisdom in working class lives as in ‘high art’. This is all I am attempting to do: to try to find a place in the canon for my work and for the stories of my community. 

 

Works cited: 

 

Arnold, B 2011 ‘My Dad’s Old Sayings’, Birmingham History at http://birminghamhistory.co.uk/forum/index.php?threads/me-dads-old-sayings.34719/ (accessed April 2017)

Berry, L 2014 Black Country, London: Chatto and Windus

Booker, M 2013 Pepper Seed, Leeds: Peepal Tree Press

Booth at LSE, https://booth.lse.ac.uk/notebooks/b363#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=5&z=-84.7229%2C0%2C2503.4457%2C1489, p. 5 (accessed April 2017)

Brathwaite, E K 1986 Roots, Havana: Casa de las Americas

Chamberlain, M 1989 Growing Up In Lambeth, London: Virago

Clare, H 2004 Mollusc, Manchester: Comma Press

Dawes, K 2006 Wisteria: Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country, Los Angeles: Red Hen Press

Eliot, T S 1940 The Waste Land, London: Faber & Faber

Gabbitas, J 2007 Mid Lands, London: Hearing Eye

Harrison, T 2006 Collected Poems, London: Penguin

Hill, O 1933 Octavia Hill’s “Letters to Fellow-Workers” 1864-1911, London: Adelphi Book Shop

Hollingworth, B (ed.) 1977 Songs of the People: Lancashire dialect poetry of the industrial revolution, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Kovesi, S 2016 ‘”O wot ‘orrid langwidge!” Working-class literature from John Clare to James Kelman’, Oxford Brookes at https://lecturecapture.brookes.ac.uk/Mediasite/Play/a5d5e0396d5d48b7aa42819ac4e078261d (accessed April 2017)

McAlpine, F 2013 ‘Six Innocent Phrases and their Morally Suspect Origins’ BBC America at http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2013/04/six-innocent-phrases-and-their-morally-suspect-origins (accessed April 2017)

Nesbit, T 2014 ‘We can do a lot: the rise of first-person plural narration’  The Guardian at  https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/may/14/first-personal-plural-narration-novels-stories (accessed April 2017)

Robinson, A 2010 The Finders of London, London: Enitharmon

Robinson, A 2017 ‘Us at the Seaside’, Long Poem Magazine 17

Williams, R 1989 ‘Culture is Ordinary’ in Gable, R (ed.) 1989 Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialsim, London: Verso

Wise, S 2009 The Blackest Streets: the life and death of a Victorian Slum, London: Vintage