Well, here we are, back again. I feel as though I’ve been away on a virtual training course, and you’ve had the supply teachers in. So I’m delighted that none of us has lapsed into bad ways, and you’re all smart and bright. Ties tied and shirts tucked in. Lovely.
As you know, if you did your homework (course you did), I’ve been bothering about polarisation, binary thinking, either/or, North/South, them/us. I suppose it starts where most of my ladders start, with Tony Harrison.
‘All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
‘s been dubbed by [As] into RP,
Received Pronunciation please believe [As]
your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’
‘We say [As] not [uz] T.W.. That shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘flat cap’)
You can tell the Receivers where to go
(and not aspirate it) once you know
Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes,
[uz] can be loving as well as funny.
I love that last line. Loving as well as funny; subtle as well as blunt. First time I heard him read this poem I was struck by the anger at the decades-old personal insult, and only secondly about the attack on cultural appropriation of Culture. The Capital C is intentional here. The class-based appropriation of Literature and Poetry. Harrison describes the poem as a slow-burning revenge on one of his teachers at Leeds Grammar School in the early 50s. The school of eloquence went on my bookshelf alongside E P Thompson’s The making of the English working class, Marsden and Jackson’s Education and the working class, Richard Hoggart’s The uses of literacy; those OU Foundation Course books for Industrialisation and culture and novels like Gaskell’s North and South, and Disraeli’s Sybil. All of them exploring the memorable phrase of Burke (quoted by Harrison in another of his poems): a dreadful schism in the British nation.
Back then I was young enough to remember being made to feel inarticulate and clumsy when I went to Cambridge for a scholarship interview, very conscious of my accent as well as of my clothes. (Ah, that Italian style suit and grey winkle pickers). But old enough to believe that some sort of battle had been won, that comprehensive schools would soon be the accepted norm, that public schools and grammar schools would naturally die, and that cultural relativism would replace a narrowly defined idea of High Culture and its ownership by a self-sustaining elite. Well, what goes round comes round, I realise 40 years later. Here we are in 2018 seriously supposing that Rees-Mogg and Johnson could be Chancellor and PM!
I suppose that in various ways I’ve been made complicit. As in delivering a curriculum for trainee teachers which required them to ensure that children were competent in Spoken Standard English….I don’t have a problem with that, in as much as I value the ability to shift easily and at will between S.E. and the various dialects I’ve adopted as I moved around northern England. What was harder was to break down the deep-rooted belief that SE and RP were somehow inseparable. The idea that Standard English could be spoken in any accent was something fiercely contested by many of my students; matter/water full rhymes? you’re having a laugh. But no, I wasn’t. And I’m not. It’s curious, isn’t it, that it never seems to apply to Scots or Irish or Welsh accents (or at least, to ‘educated’ ones. Dylan Thomas, Heaney, MacCaig, Lochhead et al). American ones, too if it comes to that. Of course, if you’re American you might tell me that a Tennessee or West Virginia or Mississippi accent is low-status. Which goes to prove some sort of point.
In the 1960s all sorts of artists, writers and actors seemed to rise out of the north. Not all from working class backgrounds, but enough. It seemed revolutionary at the time (as though D H Lawrence had never been) and novels and films were set in Northern cities and pit villages and towns. They called it ‘Realism’. So why does this Norman Cornish painting seem somehow cliched, predictable? Initially he may have been taken on board by established culture in the way of a John Clare…like an idiot savant, or Alfred Wallis…naif. It’s interesting that so many of these coalfield paintings show men on their way to or from work. Why from the back? So you see where they’re going, I suppose. The thing is, though, that these painters painted the world around them. IT was what they saw and knew. As it was with Lowry. When Zola wrote about miners and their world it was shocking. The thing is, you make art, if you make it honestly, about the world you really know. I’ll let that hang.
What’s the point I’m making? I’ve probably got side-tracked…probably by chucking North/South into the list of binaries at the start, and then not focussing on another element of Harrison’s poem, namely, that’s not afraid of rhetoric. And also that it’s not afraid of being accused of having a chip on its shoulder. Which it does…that’s why he wrote it. But that’s not all it is. Why am I bothered? Because I suspect I’ve got a chip on mine, and I want to be open about it.
Twice in the last couple of years I’ve been told directly and indirectly in workshops that some of my writing doesn’t cut the mustard…not because it’s technically deficient but because (in one case) my ‘voice’ is predictably ‘northern’; Hovis advert, was the phrase that stuck. The problem appeared to be that if I wrote about the landscapes and people of my past I could not avoid nostalgic sentimentality and that my ‘voice’ gave the game away
because (in another case) I’m too rhetorical, that no-one comes to poetry to be lectured or argued at.
I try to imagine the same folk applying similar criteria to poets who want to explore their own sexual history, their gender, their colour. Still, what I’m doing is laying down markers, because I firmly believe there’s a North/South divide in poetry…or perhaps I mean there’s a London/everywhere-else-in-England divide, and maybe that it’s sustained from both sides. We like ‘sides’ in English culture, don’t we. I think that there are stereotypes out there of ‘northern poetry/voices’ and I think there’s part of the poetry world that doesn’t like the kind of rhetorical voice that poets like Steve Ely (for instance) speak in; a world that thinks that poems about, say, the destruction of industrial communities and their cultures aren’t really up to snuff. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? possibly. Am I totally wrong about this? You’ll let me know. If you’re still listening, that is. You’re right, it’s time for today’s guest and polished gem, Mr Ian Parks., who is from the north and writes about it. As did Ted Hughes. The mistake is to think that’s all there is to it. So let’s meet him, shall we.
Ian is the only poet to have his work published in the Morning Star and the Times Literary Supplement on the same day. Born in 1959, the son of a miner, he went on to teach creative writing at the universities of Sheffield, Hull, Oxford, and Leeds. His collections include Shell Island, The Landing Stage, Love Poems 1979-2009, [uz can be loving as well as funny] The Exile’s House and, most recently, Citizens. He is the editor of Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry, was writer in residence at Gladstone’s Library in 2012, and Writing Fellow at De Montfort University Leicester from 2012-2014. He currently runs the Read to Write project in Doncaster. His versions of the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, If Possible, will be published by Calder Valley Poetry in 2018. What a track record! Let’s start with a poem I asked him for after I heard him read it recently in Huddersfield. The title’s apt.
The Great Divide
She looked at me and saw the bitter streets
where I was born – the valley floor that offered
no escape, the Chartist cobbles hard rain
rained upon – and everywhere a sense of failing light,
streaking the uplands, making a theatre of them as it did:
the unrelenting grimness of the north,
its chapels, pit-heads, slag heaps, union halls,
processions through the darkness, millstone grit.
A great red furnace blazing from the Humber to the Sheaf
fought-over, misbegotten, stratified.
She looked straight through me to my father’s eyes
black-rimmed and smiling after a long shift
and as she gazed a cross the great divide
I let the balance of the landscape strain and give
as if the world itself was undermined
and felt – not pity at the thought of it – but anger first, then pride.
[from Shell Island (Waywiser 2006)]
It’s a poem that has all the elements that well-meaning folk have tried to steer me away from; there’s one line in particular that might be seized on and waved at me as a warning
the unrelenting grimness of the north (and all its standard accoutrements).
But that would be to ignore the passionate, almost biblical, vision of:
A great red furnace blazing from the Humber to the Sheaf
That’s the moment that pulls me in, because it’s not just ‘visionary’ ( a great red furnace of struggle and immense creativity, a mighty forging) but also, in my memory, a real landscape that you might have seen from Pennine gritstone edges where Chartists and other early socialists would meet, the valleys and plains of Lancashire and of the West Riding, all in a fume, and the failing light streaking the uplands ‘making a theatre of them‘. It’s real and a dream simultaneously, a poem where resentful anger and pride tug in different directions. And it’s a poem about love.
In an interview with The Ted Hughes Project, Ian explains the place, the people and its landscapes …the juxtaposition of pit rows and farmland that Lawrence wrote about, that poems like this grow out of.
I think it’s worth quoting a goodly chunk of it. He was asked:
What’s it like to be a poet from Mexborough?
“That’s a question I often get asked. I’ve always wanted to be a poet and my Mexborough roots are deep. I was born in the front room of the house I now live in – a stone-fronted terraced house on the main road through town that used to serve as the registry of births and deaths. I often think of the Mexborough people who passed through it to register births, marriages, and the deaths of men killed in pit accidents.
There was no poetry in my family. As far back as anyone can remember all the men on both sides of my family were miners. Mexborough was defined by mining and, to some extent, still is. Although the town was predominantly industrial when I was growing up, all I had to do was to lift my eyes to see the fields and woods that surrounded it; and a wooded valley with a river running through it remains the inner landscape of my dreams. To get from the town to the countryside you had to use the ferry over the Don, and one of my earliest memories is of being pulled across the river to the other side. As I grew up that journey became symbolic, passing not only from town to country but also from control to freedom, from prose to poetry.
From an early age, I was aware that the place where I lived had a rich and textured past, a past that was very much alive in the present. Looking back, I think the presence of the railway had something to do with me becoming a poet. The main line ran just past our house, and I used to lie awake listening as the trains rattled off to destinations east and west. That opened up the possibility of elsewhere, so important to the imagination, and to poetry too.
I lived in my imagination – a rich inner life fed by the sights and sounds of the town around me, the people of Mexborough and the broadness of their vowels. Coal arrived on the doorstep by the ton and women in scarves still scoured their windowsills.
I went to Mexborough School and soon became aware that Ted Hughes had attended too…and another poet, Harold Massingham…….. The importance to me was that two poets – and two excellent poets at that – had attended the same school, walked the same streets, and made the fabled crossing over the ferry.
I think, on reflection, it’s fair to say that Mexborough made me the poet that I am. After living a lifetime in different places all over the country, circumstances have brought me back to live in Mexborough. The vitality of the people, the relish for language, the landscape of my childhood, and the invisible connections to the past are still there. The trains still criss-cross my dreams and the poems, inexplicably, keep coming.”
And here are two of them. I asked for Gladstone’s Axe, because the backstory of Ian’s residency at Gladstone’s library is fascinating, but more because of the connections he makes between two utterly different lives
Something apocalyptic in the way
he took it to the root of everything,
striding the grounds of his Welsh estate
impervious to the rain and felling trees.
He solved The Irish Question between blows,
the last trunk creaking, crashing down
when he was in his eighties, close to death.
The statues and the paths are overgrown.
It’s in the room below me where I sleep.
On rain-dark mornings such as these
When all I hear are misused words
Like freedom, trust, austerity
I want to break the intervening glass,
remove it from its velvet case,
grip it tightly with both hands
and without reverence or restraint
go out into the waiting world
and do some felling of my own.
[from Citizens (Smokestack 2017)]
I like the fierce directness of it; and I like the the fact that when Burke wrote about a dreadful schism he was writing about the problem of England and Ireland. Who’d have thought a residency like this would discover an affinity with Gladstone of all politicians.
One more, before I tidy up for today.
That strange lull between Christmas
and the start of the New year
when nothing ever happens except rain.
Head down I cut across the square –
the Black Prince pointing from his horse,
his torso awkward, swivelling
with water streaming down his armoured back.
On the platform, counting down
my last train stood, about to leave.
Coloured lights strung the periphery
or hung suspended from the massive tree.
I felt a tugging at my sleeve
and saw a ragged, half-familiar face
under the lights, pressed close, the sack
of some grey cowl around his neck
but fading quickly into the crowd
like someone sinking in the sea
wide-eyed and looking up to find some hope
but finding none and letting go,
holding on just long enough
to say Don’t you remember me?
[from Citizens (Smokestack 2018)]
The apparent plainness of this and it’s stripped-down observation draws me, the reader, into a strange meeting, poised between then and now, on the threshold of leaving. The place is studiously real, but what happens in it is disturbing and dreamlike. Haunting. There are little discords that snag. A sack under the tired Xmas lights that’s a grey cowl. The face in the rain might be dream or a drowning refugee. Why can’t the poet remember the face? Why can’t he help? It’s a poem that bothers me and won’t let go. I think that’s what poems should do. At least some of the time.
Thank you, Ian, for the poems, and thanks to the rest of you for staying with me. Next week’s post will be entirely non-contentious. See you then.
In the meantime, if you haven’t already done so, check out Ian’s books. You can find most of them on Amazon. Or do it the hard and ethical way.
A Climb Through Altered Landscapes (Blackwater, 1998),
Shell Island (Waywiser, 2006),
The Cage (Flux Gallery Press, 2008),
Love Poems 1979-2009 (Flux Gallery Press, 2009)
The Landing Stage (Lapwing, Belfast, 2010).
The Exile’s House, (Waterloo, 2012)
ps. Roy Marshall interviewed Ian for his blog. August 2013. Check it out.