Fran Lock writes in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness, and includes a strange and rich poem taken from her forthcoming collection with Culture Matters, In Need of Saints.
For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives… As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. – from Poetry Is Not a Luxury, by Audre Lord.
Each time I read the above the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and my pulse sprints just that little bit quicker. Sister Outsider, the collection of essays and speeches in which I first encountered “Poetry is Not a Luxury” was published way back in 1984, and yet its radical message has resonance and relevance that still outstrips most of what is written in defence of poetry today. This is both a testament to Lorde’s legacy as an activist and a writer, and a slightly depressing comment on the state of poetry and poetry discourse in the twenty-first century.
Almost by accident, over the last couple of years I’ve found myself an increasingly vocal participant in this discourse. My own erratic contributions have centred around the myriad ways in which working-class participation in poetry is policed; the ways in which our exclusion is engineered, our voices and ideas homogenised, defanged and defused. I’ve written at length on the importance of recognising our right to poetry; that poetry is ours, its art emerging of necessity from the economic conditions in which we find ourselves, from this climate of precarity, apprehension and threat. Poetry’s mode of production is fitted for lives mired in unlovable labour, anxiety and deprivation. It’s portable, it’s cheap, it communicates in flashes and fragments, moments or phrases pulled from the true. It functions as both an expression of and an escape from all that besets us. It is radiant and necessary.
You’d be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t, by the number of people who take issue with this definition of poetry. Can you eat a fucking poem? A friend of mine asked. Is poetry going to feed the meter or wash my clothes or pay my bus fare? No, of course not. A poem doesn’t belong to the same order of things as a jacket potato or a five pound note. It won’t satisfy your hunger, but it does provide a language in which to describe being hungry, in which to expose and to challenge the political and economic conditions that keep you hungry. Poetry is a resource for those without recourse. It is a space for those whose struggles and sufferings are exiled from quotidian language. It points to the deficiencies and failures of the systems that administer us. It’s the one place we get to define who and what we are, a place where we are visible, present, where our experiences enter and infiltrate English on our terms. Daily discourse doesn’t allow for this.
This is why poetry matters to me. As far as I’m concerned, this is the point of poetry. Since about 2016, as I began to refine this argument, to test its weight out there in the world, I have been lucky enough to meet with and share poetry across various cohorts of working-class writers. These experiences have been some of the most valuable and nourishing of my creative life. And yet, I find that even among my colleagues and comrades I’m continuously butting heads about what poetry is and what it's for.
The biggest bone of contention has been this notion of accessibility, specifically the notion of accessibility constructed as some kind of absolute and unassailable moral category, in violent opposition to a parallel tradition of academic elitism. I take issue with the idea that my work should strenuously enact this kind of accessibility, that it has an ethical obligation to communicate in “the language of the people”. Such an idea is disingenuous and patronising in the extreme. Poetry simply isn’t speech. Whether you’re talking about Attila the Stockbroker or J.H. Prynne, poetry is crafted, tailored and shaped; refined and heightened, larded or stripped. Poetry is deliberate, each line transmits tension, intention and meaning. To pretend otherwise is to deny the discipline in what we do, to be afraid to call ourselves artists, to effectively edit ourselves out of art. Besides which, who says that working-class people must find poetic complexity off-putting? Who says we should not be stimulated and provoked by difficulty? That our experiences and ideas do not demand and facilitate strange and complex registers of language?
To accept this is inherently impoverishing to poetry. I have come to believe that the onus should not be on working-class creators to limit their field of expression, but that access – that is full cultural participation – is better achieved by bringing pressure to bear on the institutions and funding bodies driving this perceived dichotomy to implement real, radical systemic change in the way resources are allocated, in the way that poetry is taught, and to the provision of not merely equal but fair opportunities for creative cultural contribution. Poetry isn’t accessible or inaccessible, but our current educational system operates a hidden curriculum that manipulates and limits working-class imagination, telling those from the margins what is and isn’t for them, what parts of poetry they have a right to partake of, practice and enjoy.
Staking radical political claims upon rendering individual creative projects accessible is seductive. It’s seductive because it’s easy, a kind of cop-out that avoids engaging the deep systemic and structural inequalities inherent in the publication and dissemination of poetry, and in language itself. To be poor, for example, and to be marginalised, is to find yourself everywhere described, relentlessly recorded and administered, spoken of, but never to, figuring not as persons but as problems within the apparatus, language, and collective imagination of the state. Daily discourse serves to elide or to invisibilise grim material reality; stock phrases reduce and dehumanise you; bland bureaucracy circumscribes your testimony, inhibits and restricts you. You are failed by language, by the sterile functionality of commonplace language encounters. We might be accustomed to thinking of words as tools for expression, but more often than not they mediate and mask, filter and constrain; they neutralise potential threat, they blunt language’s capacity for affective moral witness. So it is no longer enough to say I am cold, I am hungry. Those words have lost their meaning, their ability to shock people into awareness. To expose what ordinary language obscures requires strangeness and hybridity; new phrases, new ways of saying to retune attention toward human suffering.
The continual backlash against richness and complexity in poetry both frustrates and perplexes me. To be dexterous with language, to force it into strange conjunctions, is to feel a little less at its mercy; to accelerate at warp speed away from the diminishing institutional lingo of government departments, and the easy dismissive stereotyping of popular parlance. It is to escape the narrative demands placed on me by a world that has asked me every day for the last eighteen years to account for myself, my mental state and my experiences in a vocabulary unfit for the task; to dilute my perceptions, thoughts and feelings to a linear stream of commonplaces, commonplaces that have no room for creativity, inventiveness, ambiguity or élan. It makes no sense to me to use the words, phrases and formulations of the systems that harass and hound me to tackle those systems. It would bring me no joy, it would offer me no release, and most importantly of all, it wouldn’t do a thing to redress the stupid, stupefying force of those systems. We must recognise our right to poetry, to all poetry, as both writers and readers, but as working-class activists we must also pursue a radical imperative towards polyvocality, complexity and richness.
I do not mean by this that poetry has room only for baroque multi-clausal psycho-dramas, but that our definition of what working-class poetry is and can encompass be expanded to include ways of using language that deviate from the expected and accessible; that we do not decry as “inauthentic” or manoeuvre out of our communities and publishing cohorts working-class voices that approach poetry in difficult or unconventional ways. It seems to me to be untenable – and yes even “elitist” – to insist working-class creators conform to and perform one monolithic vision of working-class identity, cutting ourselves off in self-policing enclaves away from wider cultural conversations about the practice of our art. Elitist, and monstrously self-defeating. Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, and professing some kind of political bias against the beautiful, intricate or challenging is erecting a massive wall between yourself and much that is nourishing, interesting and inspiring.
If we begin by taking issue with the ways in which working-class voices are allowed to express themselves through poetry, we end by adjudicating on what are authentic and acceptable subjects for working-class poems. It is true that a great deal of what finds its way into print says nothing to us about our lives, but is that really to say that a working-class poetics is a poetics that consciously and continuously engages with one very specific material and economic reality? Is there no room in our conception of working-class poetics for poems about mountains, stars, the sea, quirks of nature, kinks in history, penguins, flowers, Carmelite lace? In denying ourselves and our poetries those things, don’t we allow their imaginative colonisation by intellectual and economic power elites, their ways of seeing and knowing the world? I don’t want to rid poetry of the view from a steep and windswept hill. I just wish that view wasn’t monopolised by people whose vision is tinted by a security and a certainty me and mine will never possess. We have so much to say about beauty, our sense of it is urgent and acute, bound about as it is by the pressures and privations of our daily lives. Say what you like about what I do, but when Fran Lock looks at a sunset you fucking know about it.
More than all of this, though, I write in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness because I believe the subjects of my poems warrant and deserve that level of attention and intensity. I’ve fought hard to bring these landscapes into print, and to defend my vision of these places and these people as beautiful and good. Most don’t look at squats and doss houses and rusty caravans and council estates and flyovers and petrol station forecourts and muddy rec grounds as sites of and occasions for beauty. They’re wrong. These were my places, my people, and they’ve just as much right to intelligent, nuanced and textured language as anything or anyone else. By this practice they are lifted and cherished. Richness is an act of remembrance, preservation, grieving, a radical act of love.
Homobonus in Primark
by Fran Lock
where will it end? the long-sleeve t-shirts
sleep, all folded over themselves like bats.
black lycra’s pirate sinew stretched to slack.
and tubes of ruined wool relax and lose
their shape. sleeves wear the gape empty
snakes. disfigured fabrics frayed in heaps.
a woman shaking out the prissy shapes
of a summer blouses. a hanger’s embittered
caress. for two pound ten! each pleat
a gauntlet of skirmished thread, rough to
the touch. it costs so little! the woman said.
impossible pasture of rags, dear god! it costs
so very much. where will it end? i stroke
the mesh, the weft, the weave, from cheviot to
chiffon-cling. grope a glut of sturdy twills.
my hands surge out across an odyssey
of cotton, serge. and batiste gowns are
grown in rows like off-white heads of
lettuce. crisp and sleek. and underfoot,
the scattered wits of covered buttons. look!
it’s in the sale! adrenaline and penny pinch.
cash canters horselessly between the heels.
hemlines. oh, i have loved the cambrics
and the calicos, the way a seam will meet
like steadfast hands in payer. i have loved
the self-important bombazines and obsolete
brocades, stood in satin-transfix running
a bolt of blue charmeuse through my hands
like a live fish. but no, not like this. no,
not this way. the woman who sewed
this blouse, this dress, her lungs are diseased
heirlooms huffing dust; her shoulders cramped
askew. not like this, a child in a stocking
of sweat with eyes as dull and flat as coins,
his name a smudge on a label. the day
that factory became a dirt red funnel
for human grief. it’s just so cheap, dirt
cheap! yes, dirt. your cambrics, buckrams
heresies. and what’s it worth, a mewling
life? how many assiduous stitches, tucked
and running? in lamé gold is interwoven -
sweet secret vein through common cloth.
as pain pursues its jagged course, in every
shirt you smooth and touch.
Note: Being the Patron Saint of tailors and businessmen, Homobonus provides an ethical exemplar for commercial life: scrupulously honest, and using his fortune to help those in need. Primark use sweatshop labour. In 2013 one of their factories in Dhaka collapsed killing and trapping hundreds of workers. At a subsequent demonstration in Dhaka by factory workers in 2015, police opened fire on grieving protestors. Primark avoided paying over 9 billion in corporation tax this year. They are still open for business. This is not okay.
Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.