Writing in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1800, Wordsworth famously advocated poetry written in ‘the real language of men’. A couple of centuries and more on, with all of our debates about the relationship between page and stage, all of our continued discussions about poetic register, all of the critical sniffiness there can sometimes be about everyday speech in poetry, how possible is it to write according to this maxim? In their now collections, Jake Morris-Campbell and David Hughes often draw on a regional vernacular, exploring the ways in which the nuances of spoken language can be used to create poetry which is movingly rooted in place, and which powerfully explores issues of identity and community.
Morris-Campbell’s first full collection, Corrigenda for Costafine Town, is an extended hymn to place, and in particular to the poet’s native North-East. One of the interesting things about this collection is the range of forms the poet works his themes through. ‘Akenside Syndrome’ combines the traditional form of a villanelle with the language of the Geordie vernacular. Where villanelles have previously offered us refrain lines such as ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’, this poem gives us an opening line which is equally memorable, for quite different reasons: ‘My voice choosing whether it knaas or knows’.
The poem tells the story of being ‘lost on campus’, of feeling out of place with a local accent while trying to find your way round a university site. The search for the library takes on a wider allegorical resonance about the nature of belonging. When the speaker seeks directions, the ‘Repairman with faded anchor and swallow / tattoos’ who offers them ‘speaks a language my Granda bawls’. What happens when we open our mouths, then, is movingly connected to the way our grandparents speak, and locates and identifies us as surely as a villanelle returns, again and again, to its refrain lines.
Other poems continue this effective working of the theme of place through traditional forms: ‘An Imposter Alights at Horsley Hill’, for example, is a pantoum whose looping refrains enact the central idea of ‘Riding the same loop / round the town you were born in’. The book also, though, shows a willingness to take formal risks and to experiment. ‘Errata Slip for a Northern Town’ is structured as a list of errata, with details drawn from gritty reality corrected by others which often seem to borrow the idealised language of marketing:
‘Midday drinkers ‘Hazy summer evenings
outside Annie McCarthy’s.’ at the Shields Riviera’
‘Seagulls screaming ‘Melody of seabirds
down Keppel Street.’ strumming the shore.’
The inventive form of this poem is taken one stage further by the fact that the book actually contains two physical errata slips, intentional parts of its design, inserted as little bits of paper at the start and end of the collection. These house two additional poems, ‘Stray’ and ‘Stay’, and this novel approach to the nature of the book as artefact, this desire to try everything possible to grapple with the subject of place, marks out this poet and this publisher as interestingly risk-taking.
One of the most significant things about place of course is the people who inhabit it, and many of the most vivid impressions the reader takes away from these poems are connected with people: the eyes of a ‘great gran, gran and mam’ which ‘roll across the centuries’ at the conduct of men (‘Before letting go of the destructive notion …’), or the way a wounded boy sees a vision of ‘my mother in a halo of stars’ (‘Wannabe’). The collection is especially good on connectedness to male relatives and the way that such connections can generate anxiety about class identity. One poem in this mode is the splendidly titled ‘Before letting go of the destructive notion of a mid-twentieth century working-class hero narrating my quarter-life crisis, indulge me to speculate how’. The poem envisages
a scene in which three
generations of Campbells walked down Langholm Road: my
grandfather leading the pack, a dozen Carlings in; my Dad
next, hair not yet thin; me at the back – expectant protégée.
The elder male relatives, the poem tells us, ‘knew the difference between crankshafts / and flywheels’, whereas the youngest member of the trio has, ‘a decent understanding of stress- / ed and unstressed syllables’. That line break in the middle of the word ‘stress- / ed’ does so much good work in giving us the way education and social mobility can render awkward familial and class connections, and the poem cleverly communicates the anxiety of being the first writer in a family line of working men by building in reflections on the attempts to write about this subject:
even now, I was chewing
over a half-decent but ultimately forgettable simile comparing
how graft hung heavy on men like them to the way cold clings
to a person entering a warm house from a wintry storm.
If Corrigenda for Costafine Town runs through a wide range of formal strategies to celebrate place and the people who inhabit it, the same can be said for the Swansea-set poems of David Hughes’s new collection Working Out. Given the way in which Wordsworth’s call-to-arms for everyday language in poetry was gendered, it seems important to mention that Hughes’s work is part of a growing movement in Wales, which includes the work of writers like Gemma June Howell, Evrah Rose, Rufus Mufasa, Des Mannay, Mike Jenkins and Tôpher Mills, aimed at making poetry a space for the real language of people.
It’s possible to see a number of similarities in the approaches of Corrigenda for Costafine Town and Working Out. Where Morris-Campbell combines a vernacular voice with the traditional form of a villanelle, for example, so Hughes combines the vernacular with the sonnet form in the poem ‘Prof’; a moving elegy. The poem is a study of a bar room character who would ‘talkbout anythin overra pint. / Knew allsorts bout politics annat stuff, / spentages chopsin, splainin wotty meant’. The use of the vernacular creates the character with immediate vividness. This means that when the poem takes on its more tragic dimension, there’s real emotive power, because the register of the language has made us so swiftly and closely connected with the character, has established him as real:
Terry tole me later eed lossiz flat
cozzeed started drinkin evvy. Ad to sleep
onner beach – anninawinter, ass nogreat.
E woz drinkin at wite cider, roughen cheap.
Someone founim drownded arfra storm.
The smashing up of the vernacular against a traditional form allows the poet to create a piece which is both earthy and human and yet, through the history of the chosen form, elevates and interrogates the subject’s complex relationship with form, boundary and place.
If Hughes is adept at traditional form, he is also open to experiment. Each section of Working Out begins with a poem from a sequence about a character called Dai the Dog. The first of these, ‘Dai the Dog’s Welshness Test: How Welsh Are You?’, is structured as a multiple-choice questionnaire. The poem takes its place alongside Harri Webb’s ‘Synopsis of the Great Welsh Novel’, among poems by Welsh writers who are able to laugh at themselves. It is also rich in tone, seeming to some extent to hold an iron fist in its velvet glove. One can imagine the poem going down brilliantly in performance in a hotel in Merthyr or the Mumbles, generating humour for those who know and are able to laugh at the identity it describes. But one also feels in the poem’s ending an astute strike against those keen to read the Welsh as purely comic and nothing more. The final line is subtle enough to serve both as punchline, as logical conclusion of the poem’s humour, and to turn the poem on its head, nudging it in a more serious direction. It seems to be aware of that crucial aspect of Welsh identity, that we can laugh at ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we should be nothing more than the butt of someone else’s jokes:
10. I am more Welsh if I come from:
(a) farming stock
(b) quarrying stock
(c) mining stock
(d) vegetable stock
(e) laughing stock
Where Morris-Campbell’s poetry is often aware of how a young male writer might relate to his older male relatives and their life patterns, Hughes’s poetry is aware of the experience of ageing, and of the relationship of the older to the young. ‘Mature Student’ celebrates the experience of returning to study, of being surrounded by the energy of the young, finding that ‘the youthful spate will carry him on, / it’s uplifting and strong, will keep him afloat’. The collection’s title poem, meanwhile, offers us a visit to the gym, a physical space which bears an interesting relationship to the industrial history of South Wales: ‘A high ceiling and high windows / make him think of factories.’ The poem brings a character in ‘his seventieth year’ into contact with ‘Youngsters [who] in their tight, bright kit / flex and strut.’ In Hughes’s hands, such a quotidian scenario becomes a way of engaging with the nature of mortality. While the session leaves the character feeling ‘Not too bad’, the poem concludes with imagery which raises the spectre of the grim reaper: ‘The one in black smiles, / consults his book, / suggests a new deadline.’
This enviable quality in Hughes’s writing, of combining the everyday with the transcendent, is especially visible in one of the collection’s most powerful poems. ‘How Else?’, an elegy to the poet Nigel Jenkins, is short and powerful enough to demand quotation in full:
I don’t think I saw him run.
Always the careful, measured tread,
a farmer marking out his land;
and on the bike, his legs would push
that same deliberate measure.
How else to get the rhythm right?
How else to find a snowdrop
or see the clouds transforming?
I love the way the language of this short poem opens out so effectively in its final sentence. The poem initially offers us observation of the way Jenkins walked, or rode a bike. But in the ending, with those images of snowdrop and cloud, everything that has come before is re-cast as metaphor for the power of Jenkins’s poetry and his commitment to his art. To turn a whole poem on its head, to pull the rug away, in a few lines, makes the writing extremely powerful.
These two collections, then, offer us lively and varied hymns to place and to the people in them. It is fitting, with a subject so big and important that, if you shake these books carefully, all sorts of things come tumbling out: errata slips, pantoums, gym membership cards, snowdrops. As so often, it is really the people who inhabit these poems, and the relationships we develop with them, which draw us back to them. A university repairman with a distinctive tattoo who talks in the tones of the poet’s grandfather, or a bicycling poet, setting out across fields. When Wordsworth famously set out to write in ‘the real language of men’, there were limits. He may not have foreseen Geordie villanelles or poems about gym life in post-industrial Swansea. But one can’t help but think that the tender explorations of connections between people in these two striking collections are fully in the spirit of what the great Romantic intended.
Jonathan Edwards’s first collection, My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren, 2014), received the Costa Poetry Award and the Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice Award. His second collection, Gen (Seren, 2018), also received the Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice Award, and in 2019 his poem about Newport Bridge was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. He lives in Crosskeys, South Wales.