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Can there be a modern ‘working-class’ poetry?

A Fortnightly Review of

Jim Burns
Laying Something Down: poems 1962-2007.
Shoestring Press 2007. 156pp, £11.85

Shoestring Press 2010. 46pp, £9.00

Barry Tebb
Collected Poems.
Sixties Press 2003. 274pp, £10.00

William Letford
Carcanet 2012. 80pp, £9.95

By Peter Riley.

IN 2003 AND 2005, two sets of three large volumes each of eighteenth and nineteenth century English “labouring class” poetry, under the general editorship of John Goodridge, were published by Pickering and Chatto.1 There are 129 poets in the 2500 pages of the six volumes, but even this is only a small selection of what was published at the time in this category: a database held at Nottingham Trent University, where Goodridge teaches, contains over 1400 names.

“Labouring class” is not a very accurate term, for many of these poets were very far from labourers. They included mill operatives, domestic servants, hatters, carters, postmen, clerks, artisans of various kinds including a lot of hand-loom weavers, but the movement began with rural labourers and they remained at the centre of it for a long time. Whatever the poets were it was clear that they were of a low and poor class and more than likely had received no formal education. There were no fuzzy edges to the social divisions, except those created by what little social mobility there was, and the fact that they were writing and publishing poetry at all was, at first at any rate, considered remarkable.

The market thus formed fed on Enlightenment notions of natural genius reinforced by natural virtue in displays of sobriety and piety, as in the case of the once-famous Stephen Duck (ca 1705-1756)  an agricultural labourer who was briefly a rumoured candidate for the Laureateship. In many cases the motivation for gaining literacy and taking up poetry was one of social and financial self-betterment, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, and sometimes worked until the reading public lost interest. Many came to sad ends, especially when they had been raised into the status of author and then dropped, including of course John Clare, the best and to many the only known rural labourer poet.

FOR A LONG time the standard pattern was for the poet to be discovered by an upper- or middle-class person who became a kind of patron, and introduced the poet to polite society, or to the edges of it,  and the possibility of publication, which would be directed towards a readership among the urban educated (which did not at the time mean London exclusively). But from the later eighteenth century onwards, “untaught” poets were beginning to show independence, addressing themselves to their own class and participating in radical movements, especially Chartism.

There was an enormous increase in output after 1800, and an increasing participation of the urban poor which made the newly developed northern cities and mill towns – the “manufacturing districts” –  particularly rich in poets. By mid-century the working population in places like Manchester was, except for the poorest, not only literate but increasingly organised in various self-help institutions, not to mention choral societies and rambling clubs. There were poetry clubs in places like Blackburn which formed distinctive groupings (the “Blackburn school”). The original theme, of revealing to the better-off classes the hardships of labour, remained throughout, becoming increasingly politicised, but a lot of these poets were by the Victorian period addressing their fellows.

Brian Maidment, in a useful anthology of later “poorhouse” poets2 distinguishes three categories, though individual poets could easily belong to more than one of them.

1. Chartist or radical. Popular and accessible poems for the radical press, for chanting on marches etc., exhortations to fight for improvement and justice, but also an attempt to awaken the public as a whole to the problems of labour and the market.

2. Vernacular. Poems mostly in dialect, concerning the locality and for local consumption, many of serious purport but an inevitable tone of self-mockery or outright comedy marked the majority, and could make them popular wider afield.

3. “Parnassian”. Poems in imitation of, or close to the manner of, the most admired poets among their contemporaries, especially Thompson, Goldsmith, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley. This is probably the largest category. The poets here may be accused of betraying their class in adopting a “higher” manner, but they also served the dual purpose of bringing “polite” poetry within the grasp of their own native public by relating it to their own places and experience, and of showing that this kind of poetry was not a prerogative of the upper classes, but that the underlings were perfectly capable of grasping its technique and content, and employing it for their own purposes.

The poets here may be accused of betraying their class in adopting a “higher” manner, but they also served the dual purpose of bringing “polite” poetry within the grasp of their own native public by relating it to their own places and experience, and of showing that this kind of poetry was not a prerogative of the upper classes, but that the underlings were perfectly capable of grasping its technique and content, and employing it for their own purposes.

Some might find it painful to read this material now – it depends what you’re looking for. There is a lot of educational and popular pressure on us to seek exceptionality in poetry, and if that is what you’re after it will be hard work, though it is undoubtedly there. Only four poets have risen out of this industry to become currently canonic: Burns, Hogg, Clare and Chatterton, all of whom are probably usually thought of as isolated figures, but others – notably Ernest Jones, Joseph Skipsey, Samuel Bamford and Ebenezer Elliott – are far from negligible whether recognised at large or not.

But forget the quest for the exceptional, and I find there is no hardship involved in dealing with large quantities of this verse, without reading condescendingly or making allowances of any kind. Even in the mass of substantial poems in the Parnassian division, while derivative writing is common, some of it clumsy, with a lot of artificial structures raised on commonplace thoughts, there is a sense of endeavour which is refreshing, a freedom from the hectic idealism on the one hand or sententiousness on the other, of the professional,  as well as an unhurried pace in the careful cataloguing of scenic beauty or the narration of typically unjust or pathetic stories in uncluttered verse forms. The purpose is normally moral and humanitarian, in an obvious way, leaning into a melancholy concession that a just and equitable society is still far out of sight. And the craft is not negligible; the versification can be expertly efficient even in the most ambitious forms, such as hexameter couplets or sonnet-stanzas, sometimes developed into monumental book-length poems, of which the most renowned is The Purgatory of Suicides (1845) by Thomas Cooper, chartist, shoemaker and schoolmaster of Leicester; a series of dialogues with past suicides interspersed with exhortations to the working people in 955 Spenserian stanzas, written during his imprisonment for radical activities. But from here to the simple narratives in couplets, bathetic dialect verses, homely rhymes, Chartist hymns and adapted folk songs, there is a sense of venture, however faltering, into a new entitlement.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? The only literature explicitly marketed as “working class” in the earlier twentieth century that I can recall was in prose: Robert Tressell, a bunch of novels from the Midlands in the 1930s, autobiographical writing from the East End of London in the 1940s. In all of these the writer’s origins are offered as a guarantee of authenticity. But as for poetry, from the 1890s onward the impression is that the upper classes have regained complete control, and the twentieth century development into Modernism made no difference to that.

A. L. Coburns’s 1913 portrait of Davies. Clicking the image will launch a recording of Davies reading ‘Leisure’.

The surviving recordings of poets’ voices from the first half of the century are almost all in a heavily diphthong-laden upper class accent of a kind now spoken only by The Queen. So it was with the voices of BBC announcers – Orwell pointed out that their accents made them unintelligible to the bulk of the population. But this accent too is masked by the writing hand. Poetry in this period gives the impression that education has erased all class and regional distinctions and that the written and spoken voices have become two entirely distinct things. We would hardly know where Lawrence came from if we only had his poetry, and this is true too of W.H. Davies to a lesser degree. And yet the poor, the workers, the labourers, the dialect speakers, were still there, in large quantities, and are still there now.

In the introduction to the anthology Cusp3 which she edited, Geraldine Monk says, “The poetical insurgence that began in the 1950s/60s was very much a provincial one emanating from the industrial cities of the north and Midlands.” I can’t agree with this; I think it happened everywhere, certainly in London, and if rather late in Cambridge later still or never in Oxford, which is to be expected of university towns.

What happened was not so much an insurgence as an outbreak. Very quickly, following the silence of the mid-1950s and increasingly through the 1970s-80s it became difficult to find a small town anywhere in the country which didn’t have a poetry outlet of some kind, usually a mimeograph machine. It became possible to speak again of “the Blackburn poets”. Easy and cheap forms of communication, materials, printing and distribution seemed to make it possible for “everyone” to be a published poet, and indeed there was at least one magazine, called Breakthru, which published every poem sent to it regardless.

But the main emphasis of this thrust was on the innovative, embracing every experimental or unorthodox trend that could be found, whether picked up from elsewhere or coined afresh at home, including a lot of American-influenced “beatnik” writing.  The word “breakthrough” was used a lot, though what was broken through to remained miscellaneous. “Established” poetry was scorned, often as an automatic impulse without consideration of the poetry itself. Being published by Faber and Faber was enough to damn you and in some quarters still is, including sophisticated academic poetry enclaves. The whole thing was part of the large movement of alienation which gripped British youth at the time, and on the political front led to things like The Angry Brigade.

But what about the workers?  In spite of all the breaking through and opening up, they remained obscure. The alienist polemics sometimes attacked “the rich” and adopted leftist and anarchist attitudes, but it was nothing like a workers’ movement. Any address to, vaunting or depiction of, the workers’ conditions was rare and various kinds of inherited artistic elitism flourished between the staples. As in the previous fifty years there was nothing in most of the actual poems to suggest the author’s class status. One of the principal reasons for this was the migration at this time of large numbers of young people into the countryside, especially to the hills of northern England and the south-west, buying cottages for a couple of hundred pounds and living there, many of them, on their wits. In this so-called “hippie invasion” the strata and traditions of society were thoroughly jumbled: people of upper middle-class origin were living in penury or working at menial jobs in mill towns. Meanwhile a poet from a small-town working class family and speaking with a West Yorkshire accent published his first book with Faber in 1957 and was to go on to become the Poet Laureate. The topographical appeal of much of Ted Hughes’ work was the same as that which drew all the cottage revolutionaries to the moorlands, or the sense of place they developed once there (especially, of course, Remains of Elmet of 1979).  But his focus was non-metropolitan; it was a farmer’s engagement with earth and beast while the past (i.e. the Lancashire textile industry) decayed all round him, and Hughes later drifted away into all sorts of strange and macabre imaginings. But some of the poets taking part in the small-press explosion were and remained concerned to demonstrate the realities of working class life in their work, and this included, in different ways,  Jim Burns and Barry Tebb, though neither they nor any living poet discussed here has to my knowledge ever declared himself to be such a thing as a “working class poet”.

JIM BURNS’ BLURB-writers certainly see him in this light. “He writes about life as ordinary people experience it.” (Matt Simpson).  “Burns celebrates the North, the Unions and the less privileged of the Two Nations” (Peter Porter). But Jeff Nuttall gets it right: “…a poet whose laconic style sprang from his love of a certain American mode.” This refers to the American side of the new poetry “insurgence” of the 1960s,  and especially the “beat” poets. Burns is an expert on the seamier side of American poetry and has written a lot of literary journalism  about American “beats”, and other poets, especially the neglected and forgotten, for he takes the position of underdog as a sign of promise.  With 1940s jazz added,  I’d say that his attention prior to his own generation is almost exclusively American and he has been heard to utter variations on the old American put-down of English poets as social beings caught in the web of their habits. Since both sociality and the habit-bound routines of provincial life, including his own, are prominent features of his work there is some kind of contradiction here. The freedom he found in American poetry doesn’t seem to be reflected in his home town of Preston, Lancashire.

Burns’ position is defined not by his subject matter, which is quite varied, but by his language. His form of rebellion against established or bourgeois poetry was to reduce his language to the plainest possible, shorn not only of poetical forms but also of any kind of figurative decor, in fact any signs of poetry whatsoever. A first line like “I am standing in line at the employment exchange” is entirely typical, but not because of the picture it gives, for we could find ourselves as easily in New York (“I am sitting in the Café le Rouquet…”) or Paris, London, Venice, and various other places to which he may or may not ever have been, for the speaker is not necessarily himself. In one poem he slips silently into the persona of the French surrealist poet Benjamin Péret. For while the majority of the poems appear to be local and anecdotal – it is really only the language-use which carries his attitude, which is a defiant, even puritanical (or Spartan, as in “laconic”) rejection of everything poetical in substance or manner.

This causes problems. I remember a reading he gave in Stoke-on-Tent once which ended with what seemed a fine piece of realist writing which I can’t now identify but I remember it as having a compassionate ending. Afterwards I had to ask myself why it was a poem, since there was nothing to signal to the listeners that that was what we were hearing. On the page, apart from occasional rhyming in very short poems,  there is only the lineation to make this distinction, which he is expert enough at, but does little more than keep the language flowing in conversational rhythm. In 1967, Grosseteste Press published a collection of what he called prose pieces (rather than prose poems) called Cells, which to me is among his best work, partly because the question about what constitutes a poem doesn’t arise. But it is not included in the collection and not listed among his books. The imprint indicates, though, how seriously he was taken in the early days by the Cambridge Americanizing avant-garde, especially Andrew Crozier, part of whose quest was for the elimination of poeticisms. I believe he is a popular performer of his poetry and I can see most of his poems going down very well in that situation, for they are mostly succinct, annotated anecdotes with an ironic flavour which is clinched in a paradoxical ending. The realism is rarely without humour, mocking himself or society or people at large.

But this realism, insofar as it involves showing the world what it is like where he comes from and in his experience, places a heavy emphasis on forms of dereliction and social deprivation, very far from any of the joys of life, and the plain language easily becomes brutal. His discourse quite relishes banality, commonplace sentiments, cliché, cynicism, deadpan emptiness. There is nothing you could call political to offer hope of redemption from a basically depressing picture, in the complete absence of thought about causes. The workers he speaks to (normally unemployed) live a cultureless existence. Love is a matter of furtive extra-marital affairs. Academics, artists and Marxists are dismissed offhand as bourgeois interlopers. All this increases as the years pass, but the author always seems to be somewhat distanced from it all – it is not quite now, ans you feel it is deliberately put on. Increasingly it is a fairly aggressive gesture towards a genteel world which is not identified:

Street Scene

Two women fighting in the street,
rolling around, skirts high on legs,
and watching them a crowd of men,
making jokes and urging them on.

You can sense the tension in the air,
And guess what the men want to do
with the women when they’ve finished
clawing at each other. It isn’t nice.

No, it isn’t at all nice. Did we need to be told that? And what are we meant to learn from the whole thing? That this is what it’s like out in the working class wilderness? If so, I don’t believe it. Does he imagine that things like this don’t take place in middle-class circles?  He should live among Cambridge ex-public school boys. But it is obvious what it’s for – it’s a recent poem and the American influence seems to have shifted from “beat” or Ginsbergian to Charles Bukowski, and it is a flexing of muscle. As in Bukowski, the deadpan reportage displays the poet’s own tough-mindedness, and there is almost a didactic purpose in pushing the reader’s face into this sort of thing. Quite a lot of the later poems behave like this and unfold in less violent but equally depressing scenes of urban hopelessness, most of which feel manufactured to me rather than experienced. In this he sometimes feels quite close to Larkin but less meditative, even if he does say in a more up-beat poem about his parents,

Still, drunk or sober,
I never disliked my father,
and always thought that the poet
who said that your parents
make a mess of you
was talking  poet’s nonsense.

It’s rather pleasing that he didn’t go chasing the reference and getting the quotation right, in fact his version shows him modestly avoiding an in-your-face verbal vulgarity in which Larkin indulged at his worst.

Generally his long poems are more interesting, if with a tendency to careless endings. Scenes and accounts are allowed to unfold unhindered and a complete picture becomes possible. But I quote a short early poem to show how he can be calm and reticent to a purpose, and with features of lineation, rhythm, and sound that clearly qualify it as a poem.

A Way of Looking at Things

My son can see a man’s face
in the remains of the chicken!
Figures appear on the walls,
and (strange this) there are
cities in the fire.

Last night I saw him looking
at me. No laughter on his face.
No word spoken. Just a long
thoughtful look that I
pretended not to notice.

Whatever they have in common environmentally and however they may share a wish to demonstrate working class realities to the world, Barry Tebb is a complete contrary to Jim Burns. Reading them side-by-side makes you realise things about Burns which are not obvious on the face of it – that he is really a refined poet, a strict stylist, that the close-to-minimal language is not documentary but programmatic, that we can never with complete confidence identify the “I” as the author – in fact that the poems are spoken by some kind of ventriloquial demotic spirit who does not want to depict anything, but to cast fragments of a lost and perhaps fictive world in front of us, spells to banish delight in anything but the text, its detached and cynical obduracy.

TEBB IS ABOVE all congenial and expansive. The poems are rough-hewn, profligate, but intense and entirely first-person, in fact the Collected Poems is a running disoriented autobiography – it is his voice, his life, his opinions, his perceptions, his laments from beginning to end. Not that it is unsophisticated – he displays a wide acquaintance with modern poetry including French, and is obviously well read in many departments. It is a product of the sixties, not in the sense of bohemian experimentation, but in a sense of poetry as poetic at every move,  and an authentic authorial voice is liberated into a free-running discourse ranging from lyrical ecstasies to angry tirades.

Like the work of many poets of his generation there is a presiding melancholy, which in his case is attached to his despair at the destruction of his environment, the streets of working class Leeds where he was brought up, though he declares himself never to have been really working class because the family had no roots there. Poems with this tone are interspersed variously among other occasional and lyrical poems, including far too many complaints about the power structures of the poetry scene (but some sharp and entertaining encounters with local officials – apparently he was known to the local poetry-promoting staff as “the dreaded Tebb”), but it dominates what I think is his principal achievement, Bridge over the Aire, a poem in six books, each book a sequence of short poems of very varied import, which occupies the last eighty pages of the book.

This is principally a lament for a lost childhood sweetheart with a constant re-visiting of former haunts, both urban Leeds and the stone cottage up on the moors, always with a sense both of personal failure and submission to a destructive policy of development. But what makes it engaging (and so different from what Jim Burns might have done with a long poem, not that his aesthetic would have permitted such expansiveness) is that there is no sense of narrative relevance in operation. These mostly short and short-line poems may depart into almost anything, it seems, but without losing sight of the accumulating purpose.

This freedom allows him to spread, rather than follow, his narrative, and to include all sorts of frivolous moments, childhood erotica,  detached descriptions of places, as well as some items which seem to have no bearing on the main issue. The personal narration expands effortlessly into something wider as it progresses. One moment leisurely nostalgic glimpses –

Middleton Woods took me by surprise
Drying the tears of my eyes one Saturday
In late August, in fields of carnations
Below the faience tiles of Kirkgate Market
Dahlias and chrysanthemums, pink and maroon,
The lemon yellow sheen of the sun.


Next a seeming irrelevance—

John Dion, I prefer
Wordsworth’s daffodils
To your’s, they are
More rare and far
Less dear.


and suddenly a kind of poetical credo—

I want a poetry
Bitten back from the tongue
Or spat like phlegm
Into the fire back
In a language that has
Metamorphosed through
Centuries of speech  Burned into a tree
Bark and exposed to
Weathering like stones
In hillside farms.



and back to Leeds in a little outburst of ancestral tropes–

By the Hilton Hotel
I sat down and wept:
They were burning the sleepers
Under the rusting crane
Making a pyre so hot and red
I thought the very air had bled


Bridge over the Aire stands comparison with Barry MacSweeney’s Pearl as a poem of lost hope focused on a childhood affection. It has less sense of a demonic force tamed by fondness, less desperation, but gains a kindred sense of redemptive memory.

The poetry world has not treated Barry Tebb kindly. He is still his own publisher, calling his press The Sixties Press “in disgust at the state of poetry publishing in England” and the book shows its amateur provenance in such things as an almost complete absence of page design – all text just runs on until it reaches the bottom of the page, and the very long sequence at the end doesn’t even get to start on a new page – and a liberal scattering of misprints such that at times you feel you can’t trust the text.4 But as a “neglected poet” he is in good company in twentieth-century British poetry.

NEITHER OF THESE poets matches well with the categories of “labouring class poetry” in earlier centuries. I suppose both could be “Parnassian” in writing from down-under in contrary versions of late Romanticism. But there is no sense of a working class being addressed, or even existing – they both stand as individuals. Burns sends us snapshots of mostly dismal environments and life styles which seem things of the past if they were ever real, and don’t add up to a whole; they remain fragments like shards of prehistoric urns, valued for their sharp edges. Without saying so, Tebb laments what has been called the “emptying of the north”, the drainage of cultural value to the south-east as a result of social mobility and laissez-fair economics (a lot of institutional reparation for this has taken place in the last twenty years, some of it far too late) but centred on the self, with no sense that he speaks for or from a kindred body of any kind.

When the Scottish poet William Letford comes along the categories seem to revive but then crumble to dust. Bevel is his first book and he is by profession a roofer, a fact which is made much of in the publicity for the book and his successful reading tours. He writes directly of this and other facets of a working environment, and some of the poems are in what I take to be a Glaswegian dialect, so he should be “vernacular”. But it becomes complicated when he is a roofer with an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, recently back from a residency in an Italian village, poems from which are included in the book.

Letford does not lament anything, beyond the kinds of misfortune a young man is liable to in a place like Glasgow (being head-butted, etc.). There is none of the bitterness and regret which in different ways haunt Burns’ and Tebb’s poetry, there is no sense of belonging to an oppressed or disregarded category of humanity. In fact, there is quite often a sense that he’s enjoying himself and this includes the way he evidently takes delight in handling language, not as an elevated poetical idiom, for the terms are mostly quite plain and the substance mundane, but distributed on the page in a variety of different ways with a sense of game-playing. Most are short and carefully crafted pieces without punctuation so that the words shape the syntax themselves.:

We are

inside the kick
and crunch of colour
where autumn’s taken its
dagger and opened up a vein

so the pavements aren’t so grey
our heartbeats are not so
bleak and this kiss holds
more than warmth
and blood

The metaphors are strangely violent but strangely unthreatening, and here as in a number of other poems he shows a determination to push the sequence of thought and image beyond the obvious or mundane requirements of the scene (I refer to the last line).  Possibly a metaphysical streak occasionally suggests itself.  His repertoire of informal patternings seems determined by the ambience of each piece rather than imitative experiments (though the name of Edwin Morgan occurs to me as a possible precursor). Sometimes the lay-out is bizarre.  This poem—

coffee-shop window

only children brave enough

to return my stare

is a perfectly measured haiku in exactly the haiku manner of so many modern orientalising poets, though why each of the three lines has to be printed alone in the middle of a page I don’t know. Some pieces are not much more than novelty items, or bits of whimsy, but we are again and again brought up against a stroke of sharp observation which is actually a verbal skill, an ability to carry the reticent, detailing lines to the heart of the matter by the right and often unexpected image which clinches it.

Winter in the world

The old lady struggles, footsteps careful, leaving shuffle marks in the snow. No
shopping bag, so maybe it’s church, or maybe not. Perhaps she is out for a walk
because she can, and the night is spare, and she is undiminished and harder than

You can’t call this “slight” just because it stays with the particular and offers no political or philosophical gestures, nothing shouted from the hilltop. The terms “because she can”, “undiminished”, “harder than bone” carry implications and, the last in particular, an irony which doesn’t diminish the subject. It could not be true to say that in these poems, which are almost entirely restricted to particulars, there is no culture, and no history. Centuries of developing poetical language lie behind them, and the whole story of the entitlement of the workers to subtle and sophisticated poetry.

There is no focus on the workers as a class at all, but there is on working, and a certain defiance in the freedom with which he disposes his poems as suits him or as he finds the world, which reminds me sometimes of the defiance with which Clare pursued the particulars that interested him rather than agree to the more “philosophicall” writing that his patrons would have preferred.

THERE ARE PLENTY more poets who could be enrolled as working class heroes, if we don’t look too closely, both avant-gardist and mainstream (as it gets called). There are poets from the north-east – Tom Pickard and the late Barry MacSweeney, with their culturally aggressive stance (though the latter’s working class credentials are doubtful) and the aggressive but populist Tony Harrison from Leeds. There’s Michael Haslam, who forsook the middle-class and his Cambridge education to live in west Yorkshire on the edge of the moors, almost in the footsteps of Ted Hughes; he too has worked as a roofer and at many similar jobs, and writes a densely sound-conscious personal poetry in quite Shakespearean rhythms. And of course the likes of Simon Armitage, who has gained immense success by trading in northern laddish energy and reductions of literary classics to low-grade understanding. In all these the “class” element is largely irrelevant or fake.

The quest ends inconclusively. But anyone who thinks that all these problems, depictions, complaints or particularities concerning the working class and its poetry have outlived their validity and that the category no longer obtains could do two or three things.  Firstly, get a job as a roofer (Letford gives good advice on how to cope with this – “know which way to fall”). Or visit any of the depressed and poverty-stricken areas of Britain. There is plenty of choice. The former coal towns of the valleys north of Cardiff would do well. Just stand there and look around you, or try to buy something other than a packet of cigarettes or some low quality comestible.

Or just stay at home and note the tone of comments from our metropolitan authorities, such as James Campbell of The Times Literary Supplement, who, in the middle of a recent account of one of Jim Burns’ books, remarks,  “Mr Burns, who lives in the unlikely setting of Cheadle, Cheshire…”

Cheadle on the map, lower right.

Cheadle on the map, lower right. (Image: Rural Roads)

Cheadle is a commuting suburb south of Manchester, a large spread of fairly uniform house rows, which perhaps still has daily morning and evening interminable traffic jams, known locally as “the Cheadle crawl”, on the Manchester road. How could a poet possibly bear to live in such a place?

Blatant snobbery from the south-east is far from extinct.

Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Also: From the Fortnightly‘s archive: Martin Armstrong on the tramp poetry of W. H. Davies.


  1. Eighteenth Century English Labouring Class Poets, 1700-1800, general editor John Goodridge. Three volumes, Pickering and Chatto 2003.  Nineteenth Century English Labouring Class Poets 1800-1900. Three volumes (same editor and publisher) 2005.  See also British Labouring Class Nature Poetry 1739-1837 by Bridget Keenan, Palgrave MacMillan 2008.
  2. Brian Maidment (editor) The Poorhouse Fugitives: Self-taught poets and poetry in Victorian Britain. Carcanet 1987.
  3. Shearsman Books 2012. Cusp is a collection of statements by poets mostly from the north of England, including me,  on how they first became involved in poetry and were liberated by innovation. It is issued as a challenge to the hegemony of London and Cambridge in the advancement of new poetry mid-century.
  4. In the poem “I want a poetry…” above, probably “Burned into tree” should occupy a separate line, since it is not Tebb’s habit to introduce upper-case initials for common nouns mid-line, but it is printed as shown here.
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