Mainstream publishers are vampires. From 19th century collectors of folk verse who butchered working class prose to suit their own idea of the English vernacular (more cottages, more geese, no swearing, no sex), to the megaliths of modern corporate publishing, Penguin and Harper Collins; who, opening the rusty gates to cultural legitimacy, make a nice buck from new authors eager for readers. That’s the 90:10 deal. Plenty for them, pittance for you.
These parasitic practices go back to the start of capitalist history (you guessed it!) when cultural form became both a commodity and method of control.
In the late 18th and early 19th century the celebrated Cecil Sharp gathered thousands of folk poems and songs, discarding those that didn’t suit his dour taste. He then sold his stolen, sanitised stock back to the public in an effort to move the working people away from ‘coarse music halls’ and onto a conveniently docile (and much duller) version of working-class culture.
Working class writing continues to be both mis and under-represented in the poetry canon as well as in present day literary scenes despite its bounty. Finding inspiration in the everyday, in struggle, in dreams of a better and fairer world, the development of a distinctive working-class culture in the 18th and 19th centuries marked the growth of class consciousness. For the first-time large numbers of poor people were crammed together, living, working, eating; and, when they could, making music, poetry and art that was truly their own.
The new labouring class drew on a rich oral tradition based in rural ways of life, where most of the people working the land were illiterate. Folk songs and ballads with no individual authorship made sense of English life, covering everything from the changing of the seasons, love and sex, to partying, peasant risings and the enclosure of peasant land;
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine
(17th century rhyme against enclosures)
From this bedrock a poetry of the vernacular emerged as two ways of life collided in the furnace of emerging industrial capitalism. The dreadful working conditions of the former peasantry, the loss of common land and community, love of nature, and the destruction of environments all inspired this work.
Mary Colling was a domestic servant born in Tavistock, Devon in 1804. She wrote of rural life and particularly of conversations between flowers, who she fancied spoke to her. Her work came to the attention of Anna Eliza Bray, a well-to-do historical novelist. Anna assisted Mary in getting her work published, Fables and other descriptions in verse was printed in 1831. The book included letters by Anna, which take up more than half the text. Some of the letters are correspondence between the two, and Anna removed specific mention of them being friends, most likely not wanting to be too closely associated with a lowly spinster. She also offers some bitchy asides, as when introducing the poem ‘Birth of Envy’;
These petty attacks of envy and malice might have given birth to the following poem…. The writer is an uneducated servant in a country town who had read few books and little very little poetry… that she has mingled in no society whatsoever capable of improving her taste…
Despite the positive response to her work and attention from such big literary cheeses as Wordsworth, Mary was never to publish another book. After spending time in an asylum she died in obscurity of dropsy at her parents’ home aged forty-eight.
Such brief successes and subsequent falls from favour are familiar trajectory for the working-class poet. John Clare’s poems published in 1820 carried the opening inscription;
the genuine productions of a young Peasant, a day-labourer in husbandry, who has had no advantages of education beyond others of his class.
The publication of his work was made possible by the poet laureate of England from 1813 – 1843, Robert Southey. Southey was fond of work by those he called; ‘the poets of low life’ but exclusively promoted that of writers who expressed contentment with their class position; the humble, deserving poor.
John Clare’s first publication was a success, and he went on to publish three more collections. His idiosyncrasies in language, spelling, and punctuation, were “corrected” by editors in early versions and he was never able to reproduce his early success. The audience that could afford to buy his books was not the same audience that would understand the blend of country experience and literary allusion. His later work was accused of vulgarity; poems such as My Mary, written about Clare’s first love, a parody of William Cowper‘s poem;
Who, save in Sunday’s bib and tuck, / Goes daily waddling like a duck, / O’er head and ears in grease and muck? / My Mary
Clare too ended his life in the asylum, in Northampton where he died of apoplexy. His reputation was later revived as one of the great nature poets of the 18th century.
Both these writers entered the fray of bourgeois cultural imperialism. Went from darling playthings of the literary bourgeois to death in a mental institution. Later their work was ‘re-discovered’, praised for its eccentricity and authenticity.
Their representation of themselves as poor, lowly, humble, common, of nature, content, honest and simple was novel to the upper and middle classes. At a time when the reality of their class was eight-year olds working 12-hour days and going hungry, odes to the idyllic simple life of the contented poor must have provided some comfort against the emergent reality of urban poverty and it’s accompanying death and destitution.
Perhaps the main problem for Mary and John was that their work wasn’t being consumed by people of their own ilk. Compare the experience of poets picked up on the romantic benefactor train and dropped off at station destitution; to the that of those who were part of the chartist movement, in which poetry was an important part of political expression.
Gerald Massey worked twelve-hour days for a shilling a week in a silk mill in Tring from the age of eight before joining the Chartists in 1848. His poems were distributed in the working-class newspapers and Chartist chronicles which were widely printed and read back in the day before publishing was consolidated into a corporate monolith. He authored a number of collections; The Ballad of Babe Christabel and Other Poems (1854) encouraged a healthy hatred of the aristocracy and monarchy;
O gather thy strength up, and crush the Abhorrèd,
Who murder thy poor heart, and drain thy life-springs,
And are crownèd to hide the Cain-brand on their forehead:
O let them be last of the Queens and the Kings!
While Gerald Massey’s life wasn’t idyllic; his family was still beset by mental illness and poverty, his work was presented as was true to him and was well chronicled and regarded by people who could relate to the content in a heartfelt and deeply political way. He also wasn’t subjected to the deep injury of a helium rise to fame with its subsequent lonely descent.
In more contemporary history there have been a number of independent presses and co-operatives working against the distortions of the publishing machine. FED; ‘Federation of Worker writers and Community publishers’, was a national organisation founded in 1976 that brought together the activities of a number of community publishers such as QueenSpark in Brighton. Commonword and Gatehouse in Manchester.
These organisations were often also involved in local direct action, running writing groups, producing community newspapers and books on local history such as Who Was Harry Cowley? About the legendary antifascist Brighton chimney sweep, and Who Feels it Know it, a collection of stories written in a mixture of Caribbean and Manchester dialects.
At a time when identity has become a key nexus ‘working-classness’ can become it’s own currency. While the down and out routine is nothing new, the authenticity that has become synonymous with being poor is ever more desirable in a society of fake news, fake friends, fake democracy, and fake solidarity. It’s an identity that can be cashed in on, worn like a silk suit spun from trauma, the first line of a bio. It’s pretty much the intro to John Clare’s book;
the genuine productions of a young Peasant
The trap here is then playing out your ‘working classness’ like a pantomime routine. Spun in the big money machine and out other end, a distorted product.
An arena where the publishing industry might do well to look is road rap 2020. Artists like Potter Payper making top ten without a vampiric record label hanging off their necks. It’s real talk; growing up in poverty in the UK, and all that that entails, hunger, trapping, going to prison, coming out and going back again.
The audience for it is big, but much more egalitarian in its spread; those making, distributing and consuming this music have much more to do with each other than the Eton-educated editors at Harper. Platforms run by people in it for the love not the money, an ecosystem for the fair(er) production and distribution of working-class art. It’s not utopia but there’s lessons there, number one: Pirate radio not Penguin.
With consideration to these cultures, and self-consciously as a continuation of the work of organisations such as the FED Lumpen publishes the writing of working-class and poor writers in a quarterly journal. We are a cooperative operating away from the hierarchy of the publishing industry and are not interested in reproducing the exploitation inherent in that model. We pay everyone for their work and on books the profit share is 80:20 to the author.
As much as we want working-class and poor people to have their work published, we also want to encourage a community of reading, writing and sharing, which isn’t based on profit-making practices. Cultural violence is nothing new and of course it isn’t just the working class who have been subject to it (the work of women, the whole cultural output of the black community).
Self-representation is the only remedy to this. Our work is an effort to move towards that. A day when art is not capitalised, when the Tate is just a quivering pile of soft ash, when penguin is just a bird that isn’t struggling in a too-hot planet, and poems and stories can be shared without being marketed and flogged like fish at the market.
With this is mind we have recently begun publishing small books of poetry. These are designed to give cheap and easy access to the writing of poor and working-class people. At a three quid a book it’s the most poetry bang for your buck you can get.
The first in this series is a collection of my own work, eighteen poems considering such everyday tragedies as bottled water, treadmill machines, addiction and loneliness.
I will very soon be joined by fellow London-born poet Jake Hawkey, whose razor-sharp poems will be published by us on 23rd November and are available to pre-order now.
We take open submissions from anyone who identifies as being working-class or having experienced poverty and happy to work with people on developing their stuff.
The shrub and the mushroom By Mary Colling One morning, as a mushroom's head Was raised above its grassy bed, Thus said a shrub which near it grew: Good morrow, sir, and how are you? ” The mushroom thus replied: You brat, I pray suspend your saucy chat ; No more such things to me rehearse; Go with your equals and converse.” The shrub then answer'd , “No one cares , Though mushrooms give themselves such airs; You seem yourself to over - rate; I hate to hear an upstart prate! Then, since you make so much ado, Dear bless me, sir, and what are you? To ask but this may be more right, Where was Sir Mushroom's state last night? ”
A Cry of the Peoples by Gerald Massey
Like a strong man in torture, the weary world turneth, To clutch Freedom's robe round her slavery's starkness; With shame and with shudder, poor mother; she yearneth O'er wrongs that are done in her dearth and her darkness. O gather thy strength up, and crush the Abhorrèd, Who murder thy poor heart, and drain thy life-springs, And are crownèd to hide the Cain-brand on their forehead: O let them be last of the Queens and the Kings! By the lovers and friends we have tenderly cherisht, Who made the Cause soar up like flame at their breath, Who struggled like Gods met in fight, and have perisht In poverty's battle with grim daily death: O, by all dear ones that bitterly plead for us— Life-flowers tied up in the heart's breaking strings— Sisters that weep for us —mothers that bleed for us— Let these be last of the Queens and the Kings! Sun and Rain kindle greenly the graves of our Martyrs, Ye might not tell where the brave blood ran like rain! But there it burns ever! and heaven's weeping waters And branding suns never shall whiten the stain! Remember the hurtling the Tyrants have wrought us, And smite till each helm bravely flashes and rings! Life for life, blood for blood, is the lesson they've taught us, And be these the last of the Queens and the Kings! Ho! weary Nightwatch, is there light on the summit? Yearner up through the Night, say, is there hope? For deeper in darkness than fathom of plummet, Our Bark thro' the tempest doth stagger and grope! "To God's unforgiven, to caitiff and craven To Crown and to Sceptre, a cleaving curse clings: Ye must fling them from deck, would ye steer into heaven, For Death tracks the last of the Queens and the Kings!"
I Am By John Clare
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows, My friends forsake me like a memory lost; I am the self-consumer of my woes, They rise and vanish in oblivious host, Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost; And yet I am! and live with shadows tost Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, Into the living sea of waking dreams, Where there is neither sense of life nor joys, But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems; And e'en the dearest- that I loved the best- Are strange- nay, rather stranger than the rest. I long for scenes where man has never trod; A place where woman never smil'd or wept; There to abide with my creator, God, And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept: Untroubling and untroubled where I lie; The grass below- above the vaulted sky.
Dorothy Spencer is an editor at Lumpen: a quarterly journal of working-class writing. Dorothy published a book of poems: See What Life is Like.
You can order Lumpen Journal here.