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Identity Poetics: A Century of Englishness

Christopher Madden reads the latest anthology edited by John Greening and Kevin Gardner, and the new poetry collection by Aaron Kent.

Order Aaron Kent’s new poetry collection

Contraflow: Lines of Englishness 1922-2022, Ed. John Greening & Kevin Gardner

Every anthology poses two fundamental questions: ‘Why this?’, and ‘Why now?’ For John Greening and Kevin Gardner, the editors of Contraflow: Lines of Englishness 1922–2022, the simple answer is their previous anthology: Hollow Palaces: An Anthology of Modern Country House Poems (Liverpool University Press, 2021). Although Englishness and country houses are interchangeable themes, national identity is particularly forbidding as a theme. (I am writing this a week after fascist thugs chanted ‘England till I die!’ in so-called protection of the Cenotaph on Armistice Day.) Avoiding too many raised eyebrows, the editors proactively mix it up in this latest volume: ‘Lines of Englishness’ implies multiple versions of identity rather than a monolithic image, whereas ‘Contraflow’ suggests Englishness is far from the fixed, linear construct recognised by the populist imagination and the political status quo.

The editors attempt to juxtapose perspectives and jumble canons by turning back the clock. In ‘Angles of Entry’, the first section, the contraflow principle is established by ten poems – one per decade, embracing the book’s hundred-year survey. First up is Zaffar Kunnial’s ‘Foxglove Country’, published in the 2020s, in which identity progresses by way of three letters: ‘Xgl / a place with a locked beginning / then a snag, a gl / like the little Englands of my grief’. Cannily, Contraflow’s entry-point is an entry into language. It is also a kind of post-colonial reckoning, ‘the opening / of Gulliver whose shrunken gul / says ‘rose’ in my fatherland’ moving towards ‘the gulp, the gulf, the gap, the grip / that goes before love.’ Englishness, this implies, is a labour of love. Testy and unforgiving, it is more infinite deferral than binding guarantee.  

A Wake-Up Call

The backbone of the book is comprised of sections organised by theme and by decade, heralded by a poem-messenger from the past or future. As a curatorial principle, it takes some getting used to. Choosing theme over chronology would have emphasised contrasts, not weakened them. A constant oscillation between decades would more fruitfully disrupt the reader’s chronological sense and certitudes regarding literary history. Contraflow is merely a standard survey in reverse. This extends to what Harold Nicholson, quoted in ‘A Conversation about Englishness’, the de facto introduction, would call the book’s ‘resonant continuity of tone’. Unsurprisingly, the chosen themes such as ‘Keep Calm’, ‘All Change’, ‘And Be Merry’, and ‘Securities’ yield little beyond the standard English lyric.

Rebecca Watts’ ‘Daffodils push through in the mild first days of January,’ certainly registers how far poetry and history have travelled since Edmund Blunden in the 1920s. As the title states, the seasons are awry. The poem’s last line may be in the subjunctive mood, but its wake-up call should still make readers queasy: ‘the blip of green or yellow breaking up black / soil, perhaps not making it’. Erratic weather foretells doom not only for us and the land but also for the pastoral. ‘There runs the quick perspective of the future’, Stephen Spender writes strikingly in the 1930s of the development of the National Grid, ‘So tall with prophecy: / Dreaming of cities / Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck’ (‘The Pylons’). Wryly pastoral, Spender offsets the onslaught of technology with an image of nature’s dominance, something increasingly less available to Watts a hundred years later.

Century of Decline

Contraflow is alert to England’s past century being manifestly one of decline. A delusional, post-Brexit nation continues to struggle with its waning power and influence on the global stage. Hannah Lowe’s troublingly controversial ‘The Only English Kid’ reads post-imperial anxiety into a classroom discussion about Englishness.In it,the ‘all treacly-cockney, rag-and-bone’ John (Johnny English?) is somewhat pitted against Aasif, who ‘mourned the George Cross banner swinging freely / like a warning from his neighbour’s roof, / the subway tunnel sprayed with MUSLIM SCUM’. Lowe’s speaker declares the benefactor of their sympathy at the beginning, and not even the volta of this mendacious sonnet alters that stance: ‘poor John would sit there quietly, looking guilty / for all the awful things he hadn’t done.’ That ‘mourned’ somewhat underplays the Muslim teenager’s over-exposure to threat, making the teacher’s protective response to John’s demeanour excessive by comparison.

Why Ask?

Similarly, the speaker in David Constantine’s ‘The Morning After’ informs a non-native neighbour of a woman on the bus who ‘just wants to be with her own kind, thank you very much’, and that their father ‘didn’t round up the Mau Mau / To see the country overrun like this’. The poem’s closing sentence is a classic example in English poetry whereby ambiguity is harnessed to mask simplistic assurances: ‘Don’t mind me asking, neighbour, / Where do you call home?’ For many, home happens to be where we lay down our head. Why ask? In Imtiaz Darker’s ‘Hung’, a politics of infinite hospitality begins in the skies (‘twelve floors up, nine clouds down’) and ends with feet firmly on the ground: ‘The world set out below us grows / closer every day. This has become / our neighbourhood, / these our neighbours.’ In the case of any metropole, the realism of identity is always already multicultural.

The editors unfairly berate themselves for the book’s relative lack of regional representation. Adrian Henri’s irreverent if creepy ‘Mrs Albion You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter’ takes the Blakean on a magical mystery tour, decentring London’s visionary laureate and a female minor in equal measure. The poem is in need of revaluation – some might say certification. Norman Nicholson’s ‘The Pot Geranium’ overrules England in favour of the global. Nicholson, the editors inform us, rarely ventured beyond his Cumbrian roots, but the poem’s otherwise claustrophobic image of a sick child’s confinement grants non-bodily freedom: ‘It is the Gulf Stream / That rains down the chimney, making the soot spit; it is the / Trade Wind / That blows in the draught under the bedroom door.’ Connectivity – before media technologies, that is – is borne of nature.

The English are stubbornly convinced that landscape speaks the mother tongue. Landscape is topographical fact, not a blank canvas for ideology. ‘My ways are circumscribed’, Nicholson’s bed-ridden speaker self-consciously declares. Intriguing, then, that he casts himself far and wide to regain a sense of self. Like the anthology housing it, the poem somehow refuses to say ‘This, and only This, is England’.

You can order Contraflow: Lines of Englishness 1922-2022, Ed. John Greening & Kevin Gardner (Renard Press) here.

Order Aaron Kent’s new poetry collection

The Working Classic by Aaron Kent

For Aaron Kent, the indefatigable founder-editor of Broken Sleep Books, such assertions of monolithic identity are symptomatic of middle- and ruling-class power-making. Broken Sleep, and now The Working Classic, his second collection following Angels the Size of Houses (Shearsman, 2021),seek to redress the class dynamics of the UK publishing industry. As a working-class writer, Kent advances the cause of those whose material conditions continue to make cultural production as a living and a way of life something only other people can afford. In this way, he takes the temperature not only of contemporary poetry in the UK, but arguably of Englishness itself (brought up in Redruth, Cornwall, he now lives in Talgaregg, Wales).

An Evolution

The Working Classic will not be the poet’s last word on the subject. Even so, the poems, fictional interviews and essays that comprise this restlessly inventive volume mean it has reached a definitive stage in its critique. The book is guided by the conviction that a recognisably working-class presence in literature has yet to arrive, and turns the personal evolution charted throughout The Collected Pamphlets (Broken Sleep, 2020) into a sustained political performance. As the epigraph from John McLean demands, ‘Rise with your class, not of out of it’. Kent unequivocally signals that his creative lifeis a pre-emptive strike against mistaking social mobility for such an arrival: ‘fuck it, if the upper class can use my voice to put me two steps back and themselves two steps forward, then I’ll just buy into it and be me. You know?’ (‘Aaron Kent, The Art of Poetry No. 101’; italics original).

What of the Book’s Own Tongue?

Access to ‘Literature’ and its ‘Institutions’ persists as class privilege. Inevitably, exclusion begets contempt. In England, class alienation is as much linguistic as materialist. From the reigning sovereign to auto-correction, English itself is less democratic than top-down. As ‘Edna T. Ande’ states in one of the fictive essays, Kent’s response is ‘rooted in the deep fundamentals of a working-class dialect, one of accent and indifference to proper, enunciated English’. Similarly, John Greening refers in Contraflow to the‘secret codes and passwords [that] are another aspect of Englishness: knowing how to pronounce Magdalene or Cholmondeley’ (‘A Conversation about Englishness’). Perhaps the working class has no one but itself to blame for its oppression, and that with ‘a determination to speak the proper tongue, and maybe less moaning they might get somewhere’ (‘Review of Aaron Kent’s The Working Classic, Reviewed by Dane G. Brunt’). But as one speaker avers almost in rebuke, ‘I ain’t got the time to care / about no double negatives, or not’ (‘The Moon is Being Arrested for Non-violent Protest’).

What of the book’s own tongue? Kent’s short lines have a razor-sharp clarity: ‘Those men are fucking / in the gym again’, (‘Glorified Gym Etiquette’); ‘I, a working-class / scumbag, live with the / wreckage of her hate’ (‘Guess What? I Hate Thatcher’). This is no less the case than with the book’s surrealist turns. ‘[T]here’s a broken glass jar / so dark that I can weep into its echo’, the speaker admits in ‘This house is a box in a city of boxes’, the title alone upholding dream-world phenomenology over the real. And as is to be expected for such a self-reflexive collection, the base materials of a poem are frequently scrutinised: ‘the waves like ice cream, / the waves like a place to stay forever. / As an adult all is illusion’ (‘It would take so little from one side of the world to the other’). Similes lay the groundwork for extra-dimensionality in a poem, even if this speaker seems undecided about their efficacy. The only fact is that the real cannot be guaranteed; fluctuations between one state and another, on the other hand, is a given of human experience. 

The Boundary

The Working Classic frets about boundaries: classes, subject-object, outside-inside, literary genres. ‘My words just / remain / black glittering lines / outside of me’, we are informed in ‘Excessive Daytime Sleepiness in Stroke Survivors’. It is a mistake to think, though, that the fictive reviews and essays unduly interrupt the poems, confusing rather than questioning those boundaries. Kent blasts criticism and poetics apart, unifying the book’s formal contradictions by means of the fictive. Apostrophe is naturally at home in the poem, much less so in other discursive genres. In The Working Classic,class oppression as self-alienation is negotiated via shifts in apostrophic address: ‘Sickly sweet, I should have said / that I am sometimes a song’, the first-person voice of ‘To be unknowing as though to be a ghost’ comments about their lyric status. And then: ‘I should have asked you to come / at me with a gun in my mouth’. It is aptly unclear whether the second person is another subject or the speaker reverting to themselves. Either way, the cessation of lyric performance is violently implied, which Kent extends to the barbed rhetoric of the interviews and essays, the poet anxiously swinging between himself and himself. Such is the manifold self-loathing of the working-class writer: that figure who seeks and finds only to discover that belonging evades them. 

You can order The Working Classic by Aaron Kent (the87press) here.

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