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Andy Croft 21st century poetry

THERE is a poem in Peter Raynard’s Precarious (Smokestack Books, £7.99) called How to write the working classes, taking sarcastic issue with some of the stupid cliches of contemporary debate.

“Ideally you are looking for an inbred, saggy clothed, Sports Direct, / Union Jack pale-faced male who claims he can trace his ancestors / back to Neanderthal times. They’ll have a tight-leashed musclebound / dog, with rabid flecked jaw, ravenous for an outsider’s hairy calf.

“The female of the species, will be a barely been to school, heavily / made up heavily pregnant, ciggie hanging from botoxed-lipped / slag with a neck tattoo of an ex-boyfriend, pushing a brown / skinned baby wailing its lungs out. Bonus if she’s got slightly older / multi-coloured offspring biting at her heels ... When describing their estate, use words like concrete, boarded up, / brutal, dank, bleak, unloved ...”

This debut collection from the editor of the magazine Proletarian Poetry is a book about precarious times, hard lessons and fragile lives, a study in class and a defiant celebration of British working class life.

Jane Commane’s first collection Assembly Lines (Bloodaxe Books, £9.95) also enjoys the “commonplace miracles” of the ordinary people who make the wheels go round.

The best poems recall a Coventry childhood — “between glasnost and things can only get better” — when being taught history at school was like being at a “revisionist’s tea-party,” where working class children were “treated to the crumbs from the tablecloth / of industrial-empire-death-by-numbers.”

The whole book is an elegy for a generation of “Midlands kids” who “grew up in the back seats / of the long-gone marques of British manufacturing, / Morris, Austins and Talbots, slightly crap even new’ and whose futures vanished ‘like the car plants, company overalls jobs for life, the legendary square steering wheel of a paintshop-fresh Allegro.“

Sheffield poet Stephen Sawyer has worked as a naval rating, barman, dental health worker, painter and decorator, teacher, actor and comedian. His first collection There Will Be No Miracles Here (Smokestack Books, £7.99) has a good deal to say about work and its place in our lives.

There are some great poems here about Gaza, Pinochet, Picasso, drinking with Marx in a Sheffield pub and a long poem about the Miners’ Strike.

“Mums, Dads and kids, playing / with tennis ball and dustbin lid / on summer evenings. You know / she sold her wedding ring to pay / the lecky bill? Can you hear the pit yard sing: Ol’ Man River ... Three hours baby-sitting / for a sack of beetroot. Eight pints / of homebrew for fixing an engine. Sheer weight of numbers / beating off bailiffs. Can you hear / the pit yard sing: The miners united, / will never be defeated?”

No-one writes about work better than Martin Hayes. As Alan Dent argues in the introduction to The Things Our Hands Once Stood For (Culture Matters/Manifesto Press, £6), Hayes “is the only British poet who writes consistently and seriously about the workplace.”

He is the nearest we have to the great US poet Fred Voss.

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For is a book about 11-hour shifts, sick days, lay-offs, managers, computer systems crashing and the joy of Friday afternoons.

It’s a bleak study in alienation, jealousies, frustrations and petty tyrannies, but it is also a very funny book  — see for example the Tressell-like hilarity of Beano. Above all it is a book about friendship and comradeship.

“these men I work with / who haven’t written any great books / painted any great pictures composed any symphonies / but who / just by the act of living and carrying on ... help keep the world up in the sky / the birds on wires singing the soil moist in a pair of hands the / flowers and stars burning bright with meaning with those smiles / that have no right to exist a million times more genuine and stirring / than any of those great pieces of art / could ever be.”

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