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BRITISH-IRISH-POETS  August 2012

BRITISH-IRISH-POETS August 2012

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Subject:

Re: Fortnightly monthly

From:

Peter Riley <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

British & Irish poets <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 2 Aug 2012 11:07:12 +0100

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text/plain

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Ah but--

If you are "middle-class" does it follow that the poetry you write  
will be "middle-class poetry"?  That is the standard modern or Marxist  
view, I suppose, of the inescapable assimilative process of social  
position or wealth, -- your class totally infuses your mind, but I  
think grave doubts are possible.  Is Wordsworth's  poetry "middle- 
class poetry"? The (urban) middle-class didn't on the whole like it  
very much. What class was "men" in the phrase "the language of men"?  
when I was younger we believed in the concept "déclassé" and were  
later revealed to come from various middle or lower class strata which  
we never thought about.  How would you class Douglas Oliver's poetry  
now? (Not DO., but DO.'s poetry). Or John James'?

Meanwhile, six large volumes have recently been published --
John Goodridge (editor), Eighteenth Century English Labouring Class  
Poets 1700-1800. 3 volumes, 2003
John Goodridge (editor), Nineteenth Century English Labouring Class  
Poets 1800-1900. 3 volumes, 2006

This enormous collection constitutes something like 10 percent, at a  
guess, of the published poetry under these headings. The authors are  
agricultural labourers, carters, weavers (especially weavers),  
artisans of various kinds, etc. (Burns and Clare are more-or-less  
omitted because already well in-print (though Burns is actually not  
very well available because of disregard of the song music)). So there  
was an enormous amount of activity, whether more or less than activity  
elsewhere I don't know.

  The bulk of this poetry is, I would say, clearly "middle-class", and  
a lot of it is modeled on people like Wordsworth and Thompson. It is  
predominantly provincial / northern. Chartist poetry is strong among  
it but not all Chartist poets were labouring class. I find there is a  
lot of admirable writing here and a great variety, which comes open to  
you if you stop worrying about locating exceptionality, though that  
quality is not absent. Most people educated in Eng Lit, like me,  were  
taught to seek and trust only exceptionality, and that that  
constituted the history of it.

PR





On 2 Aug 2012, at 10:17, [log in to unmask] wrote:

> That's not quite true, I'm afraid. Protestants had a thing about  
> books, and printers were both working-class and occupationally  
> disposed to some kind of literacy. I think E.P.Thompson could be of  
> assistance on that. Certainly the Corresponding Societies that  
> people like Francis Place figured implied the existence of reading  
> working classes. While all those Bible quoting millenarians of the  
> 17th century civil upheavals were presumably not relying on someone  
> to read for them. Would you consider John Bunyan middle-class? Even  
> before Clare and Blake there are people like Stephen Duck or Anne  
> Yeardesley or John Taylor the Water-Poet while a lot of those  
> Elizabethan playwrighting poets came from poor backgrounds, Marlowe  
> or Ben Jonson for instance.  Even Spenser seems to have been a  
> journeyman clothmaker's son. While others like Donne or Pope had  
> Catholic connections which made them just as socially ambiguous as  
> poor scholars. While I don't feel I need to go into detail about  
> those from the upper reaches: the Sidneys, Herberts, Shelley, Byron,  
> Wyatt, the Cavalier poets etc etc.

That's all true, and I really neglected that dissenting tradition.  
Besides, your list makes evident that the terms of middle-class etc  
are dynamic through the centuries, it is not that easy to box  
individual poets away. But multiple exceptions as there are, I still  
suppose that the bulk of literature (not the good stuff, just the  
bulk) has tended to be produced by e.g doctors, parsons, teachers and  
their non-working daughters, but not by grooms and milkmaids and wet- 
nurses and miners. But perhaps this is partly a myth, perhaps the  
literature itself has often denied its more interesting origins in  
order to wear a coat of gentility?

> In fact I feel a terrible itch to rewrite your last  'it's a  
> reasonable assumption that the body of English poetry that's been  
> written down exists despite the work of middle-class authors' but of  
> course I'm not going to do that as it would be a terrible thing to do.

Well, I almost wrote something like that myself. If the bulk of poetry  
and its readers is characterized by middle-classness, then the things  
that stand out often reflect some unusual imput from elsewhere. The  
labouring world that most writers know so little about (in my view)  
has been one of the great reservoirs of new vitality through the  
centuries. That would explain why, as Jamie says, its not often that a  
writer gets kudos just for being middle-class, because that's just the  
dull norm position.

(It's now come into my mind that Chesterton wrote in praise of  
Browning's South London lower-middle-classness, rather in the tones of  
J.G. Ballard praising the exoticism of suburbia; obviously that kind  
of praise depended on finer distinctions than the broad triple band of  
Cleese Barker and Corbett.)

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