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ISSUE 5

The Poor House Fugitives: Self-Taught Poets and Poetry in Victorian Britain edited by Brian Maidment (Carcanet. £9.95) 374pp  

'The following trifles are not the production of the Poet, who, with all the advantages of learned art, and, perhaps, amid the elegancies and idlenesses of upper life, looks down for a rural theme. with an eye to Theocritus or Virgil Unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing Poet by rule, he sings the sentiments and manners he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language.' (Burns' preface to the 1786 Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect)  

Following the book's critical success, Burns Published a second edition in Edinburgh the next year, now styling himself 'a Scottish Bard, proud of the name, and whose highest ambition is to sing in his Country's service'. Asking the 'Noblemen and Gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt' for their patronage, he explained the source of his 'Genius'  

'The Poetic Genius of my Country found me. as the Prophetic bard 'Elijah did Elisha - at the plough; and threw her inspiring mantle over me She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my native Soil, in my native tongue I tuned my wild, artless notes, as she inspired.'  

Between the Kilmarnock and the Edinburgh editions there lies the history of working-class writing in this country. In the first preface you can feel the sense that every late, amateur and working-class writer has of 'catching up with literary forms that seem to belong elsewhere, to others, that seem to speak more naturally of different experiences than theirs. But if Burns was writing from a strong sense of exclusion, an irritation with alien and artificial literary forms, he also recognised and understood their power, by the second edition this has become a kind of measured deference, as Burns successfully re-invented himself in their terms.  

Anyone who has ever worked in Adult Education will be familiar with the attitude, that uncertain balance between defensiveness and defiance that 'Literature' still inspires in so many people today. It is a voice caught between education and experience, form and content, ambition and achievement, between writing and getting published Compare this season's poetry lists from the London publishing houses with the poetry published in local newspapers. works' magazines, parish magazines, small-presses, trades union journals, and you would not know they inhabited the same literary culture And in a way they don't The fact that so much of the poetry that came out of the Miners' Strike in the early 1980's was written in nineteenth-century popular verse forms may have strengthened the claim that it was a struggle to defend a sense of community. but it also made it feel like a defence of the old against the new. From John Clare's struggles with punctuation to the suspicion with which most people still regard poetry that doesn't rhyme - this is a cultural history that badly needs telling.  

And this excellent book is a good place to begin, helping to tell part of this history for the second half of the last century It is a wonderful anthology, one that will prove indispensable to both teachers and students of nineteenth-century literary and political history a delightful selection of long-lost working-class poets like Elijah Ridings Robert Nichol and Joseph Ramsbottom. as well as more familiar names like Ebeneezer Elliot, Thomas Cooper, Joseph Skipsey and Samuel Bamford. (Though as Brian Maidment acknowledges. the book's geographical coverage is uneven, and the representation of writers from the North East is especially disappointing.)  

But the real value of the book is Brian Maidment's thoughtful presentation of the poems. the organisation of the book around a series of very useful distinctions. He rejects the term 'working-class writer' in favour of 'self-taught writer' a cultural rather than a political model which enables him to do justice to the sense that most of these writers had of themselves and their work. Maidment places the poets within the literary traditions which they tried to adopt or adapt He is as interested in the ideological questions behind the choice of literary form as he is in the ideological content of the poetry.  

So although there are plenty of Chartist and Radical poems here, they seem suddenly less interesting than what he calls 'Parnassian' poetry. Often derivative, technically over-ambitious and politically naive this 'Parnassian' verse was nevertheless often able to engage with wider social subjects - and with a wider social audience - than more popular, Post-Romantic, militant forms ever could. Not all Chartist poetry was as radical in its literary expression as it was in its politics and not all 'Parnassian' poetry was as conservative in its politics as it was in its literary allegiances  

The book's careful organisation gradually unfolds into a discussion about the relationship between these different kinds of self-taught writing and the response of middle-class, metropolitan literary culture. This is partly a success story, a good example of the movement from exclusion to incorporation, of the way 'Eng Lit' has been continually invigorated from 'below', the walls of the canon constantly breached from 'outside'.  

But Maidment also shows just what these self-taught poets were up against, from the Olympian scorn of Byron to the well-meant muddle of Southey and Kingsley. It is in the end of course a history full of disappointment and defeat, the story of the expulsion of these self-taught poets from the walled gardens of cultural privilege and authority (for years most of these poems were available only in the GDP and the Soviet Union) . It. was a historic defeat, which, coinciding with the dramatic expansion of literacy, established the caste-system of British poetry for the next hundred and fifty years - on the one hand the published poetry of a few which no-one reads, and on the other the unpublished poetry that most people write. They are untouchables to each other, one too 'modern' the other too 'old fashioned ' an incompatibility revealed when - to the fury of the poetry-circuit - last year's National Poetry Day discovered that 'If' was the nation's most popular poem.  

Which is why this anthology has a more than academic interest. Consider the arguments of Charles Fleming. a Paisley hand-loom weaver on 'The Difficulties of Appearing in print':  

'we have a suspicion notwithstanding all our boasting about the republic of letters... that the conductors of the periodical and standard literature of our country wish to have nothing to do with that large section of the community who have to toil, but in the shape of purchasers ... lucky indeed is the individual who escapes betimes under the deep silence of sovereign contempt, and that, too, by journals that profess the most catholic spirit, that pretend to scorn everything selfish and sectarian, and which were called into existence to defend the many from the tyranny, contempt and arrogance of the few.'  

This is as true now as it was in 1850. Most people writing poetry on this Island are as estranged from the forms of New Gen poetry as much as they ever were from heroic couplets. Despite the undoubted recent expansion of the franchise, the republic of letters remains a meritocracy, not a democracy; the more sassy you are the more votes you get Show-biz prizes only give greater authority to a set of unspoken 'standards' which makes the present Poetry Review more canonical than at any time in its history As long as the walls of privilege and cultural authority are there. all poetry is stunted by growing in their shadows Our best poets know this - consider the grudge' poetry of Tony Harrison 'busking for the enemy Douglas Dunn learning to drink tea with the King's son, or Bill Herbert's The Cabaret McGonagall:  

'Fur ivry Rabbi that proclaims  
anither Booker crisis.  
some Jockstrap's gettin stiff ed wi cheques  
remember pets win prizes

A few writers of every generation have successfully climbed the walls, the point, however, is to pull them down.

   

Martin Crimp: Attempts on her Life

  The return of the well-made play, the fear of whatever may drive away audiences, the universal pandering to the tastes of the majority, the requirement that art be easily comprehensible, the sheer economic need to bring in punters means that a play as unusual as Martin Crimps most recent is certain to attract sniffy criticism. Sure enough he was accused of elitism, of writing what audiences couldn't understand. But this is a perfectly comprehensible piece of work for anyone willing to use a small portion of imagination. Praise is due first of all for Crimp's writing. By comparison to some of the drivel which passes for dialogue on the English stage these days this is excellent. The play is captivating simply by virtue of the horse-power of the writing: well-toned. sturdy, athletic. Crimp wrings out sentimentality and the kind of cheap playing on the emotions of the audience of which there is far too much lust now The stringency of the writing is also his stringent view of life, explored here through the "character" of Anne who we get to know through evidences but never directly.  

Crimp structures the play around seventeen scenarios each touching on Anne's life from a different perspective. He instructs that each scenario should be played out against a "distinct world-a design-which best exposes its irony" The beauty of the play is that through its consistent ironization it offers persistently shifting meaning of just who Anne is, just what she does, believes, hopes for. belongs to, betrays. just what she might be capable of is never clear. This is Crimps attack on character in the conventional sense. It is an exploration of Annes potentialities as much as what is realised. It suggests that her identity is made up, partly by the view of her of all those who know her. She is probably too multiple to be real yet at the same time. by her very multiplicity she seems more real than characters who are defined by what is consistent. I believe that Crimp is suggesting here that we are all far more multiple than we think, that we are capable of the kind of extremes of experience which constitute the backdrop to the play. What is Anne. a terrorist, a freedom fighter, a psychopath, an altruist, an artist. a porno model, an adulteress. a dutiful daughter 2 We think too much in mutually exclusive categories and employ a morality based on appearance and cliché. And the result of this is that when the categories in which we have put our faith break down, we are bewildered. disorientated and prone to react in extreme ways for which we find the cheapest justifications.

On the other hand, perhaps Crimp is giving us a warning about the disintegration of selfhood in the modern world. Anne is required to play so many roles that she finishes by being no-one, a cipher The world changes so rapidly and institutions wield so much power over individuals that if we try to adjust we lose any sense of self.

The voices that speak of Anne do so with dismay, pity, tenderness lust. horror, love, manipulation Though the play makes no concessions to conventional drama. pushing beyond the innovations of Beckett or Pinter in its form. it succeeds in relating what takes place on the stage to the world beyond it far better than many a straightforward play Without plot, central theme or characters in the usual sense, Crimp manages to evoke the moral, emotional, social and political atmosphere of the modern world extremely successfully. And the play assumes an international dimension as some of its lines are translated into African or European languages and its references shift from one part of the globe to the other. How different this from those plays that withdraw from the wider world into some small community, usually one that can be thought of as quaint, and draw their effects from claustrophobia and a somewhat cheap condescension to the characters ! Crimp permits no such luxury to his audience. He doesn't flatter for a second. There is a sense of the tragedy of lost innocence which runs right through the heart of this play. There is a sense too of being taken on a tour of the culture we have made for ourselves in all its violence. arrogance. contusion. cheapness and misery It is this which makes the play so honest and like all honest works of art though its message is not palliative it helps us to make sense of what we are. Like Anne, perhaps we all have in us something of the psychopath and the saint. Perhaps we can all victimize others as easily as we can be victims.

Crimp is a real writer and this is real drama. It is one of the most innovative plays to appear on the English stage in years It questions all the easy assumptions about what theatre should be. But it is not, as some have suggested, elitist and beyond the comprehension of any sympathetic, intelligent theatregoer Remember what the critics said about The Birthday Party and watch out for Martin Crimp. He has the courage to go where his imagination leads him and may well turn out to be one of the most important British playwrights of his generation.