TONY HARRISON, a working class poet.

Born into Leeds in 1937. Son of a baker, and a proud member of the working class.

“…the baker’s man that no one will see rise

and England made to feel like some dull oaf

is smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyes

and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf”.

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He was granted a scholarship for the Leeds Grammar School at 11 and as a result he was dislocated from his background and family. The alienation from his social class and community, and from his loving and rooted upbringing had an effect on him. He went through a process of loss which implied letting go of his Leeds working class vernacular, which he experienced as class colonisation. As he explained it later, he had to confront the internal colonialism of British education, with its marginalisation of the working class by the dominant middle-class culture, a fact which elicited his anger. Harrison is very much concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of the suppression of working-class language by the educated classes. He recounts how his teachers coached him on how to speak “proper” English:

“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
‘s been dubbed by [us] into RP,
Received Pronunciation, please believe (us)
your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’

We say ‘(us) not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘Flat cap’)
my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great
lumps to hawk up and spit out … E-nun-ci-ate!”

(Them and [uz])

He borrowed from classical poetry but used his own dialect, themes and characters, all belonging to his working class backgroud. He never allowed middle-class education to engulf him and has always been proud of who he is. Thus, he is regarded as a writer with integrity whose edge hasn’t been dulled by age, and who speaks openly about a wide range of subjects.

In his poetry, controlled metre and rhyme contrast with his use of colloquial language and obscenities:

“Which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem

and taking a short cut home through these graves here

they reassert the glory of their team

This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.

Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.

One leaning left’s marked FUCK, one right’s marked SHIT

sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed.”

(V)

Upon Ted Hughes’ death, he was considered as the next poet laureate. Anxious to share his contempt for the position, the wrote “Laureate’s block”:

“…

I’d sooner be a free man with no butts,

free not to have to puff some prince’s wedding,

free to say up yours to Tony Blair,

to write an ode to Charles I’s beheading

and regret the restoration of his heir.

…”

Among so many people who try to climb up the social ladder, sweeping thier origins under the carpet, it is not that easy to find writers who stand tall and announce their proud as Harrison does.

JACK LONDON, an awesome person; MARTIN EDEN, an awesome book.

John Griffith Chaney, born in San Francisco on January 12th 1876, was the son of a traveling astrologer and a spiritualist. He worked while he was finishing his pre-university level studies and,among other jobs, he worked as a sea man, a fisherman and a smuggler.

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He was a man of action, not an intellectual, and it is said that his ideas derived from reading Kipling, Spencer, Darwin, Stevenson, Malthus, Marx, Poe and Nietzsche, lack consistency and precision: he accepted Darwinism and racism, prevalent during his time, but at the same time he was troubled that the “inevitable white man” would destroy the rich cultures of various native groups he had encountered (in the South Seas). He was a supporter of women’s suffrage and married a New Woman (second wife, Charmian Kittredge) but was patriarchal toward his 2 wifes and daughters. He was a socialist but an individualist at heart, with a drive toward capitalist success. It is said that his self-taught and uninformed reading made of him a fervent socialist and a naïve fascist (because of his belief in the übermensch), but personally I disagree and think that it is quite a biased, oversimplistic and hyperbolic view, which partly prepare the ground for some of his works (for instance the one I present below). Besides, many “informed” writers, with a more extensive scholar background, have reached similar conclusions to those of Jack London.

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Jack London lived to the full and went to Alaska to try his luck during the gold rush in 1897-8, an experience which proved a failure as a means of becoming rich, but which was fertile in literary terms, as the experience provided him with material for a collection of short stories and a background for his novels related to the “Homo homini Lupus” concept. It was during his convalescence, as he came back ill, when he started massively reading and writing. His writings deal with human survival, nature and socialist topics.

He died on November 22nd 1916, at 40 in his Glen Ellen estate, and there’s a romantic legend concerning his death. It’s said that he committed suicide because he was suffering due to his kidney condition, although it hasn’t been proved. You may get contradictory information about this fact, depending on the source. Other sources state that he died of renal failure with gastrointestinal uremic poisoning.

Martin Eden

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Martin Eden is a sturdy working class mate who has spared a young high-class woman, Ruth, from having a rough time by defending her and getting into a fist fight for her sake. She is so impressed with him, as he “saves” her, and she finds him so different to the kind of men she’s used to, that she invites him over to her house to thank him. There he meets her family and has a look at her surroundings, her upbringing and her library, above all a volume of poems by Swimburne.

He has his own intellectual curiosities and concerns even though he’s automatically regarded as an unambitious working class fellow who is not able to see beyond his limits. But as he puts it: “insularity of mind that makes human creatures believe that their color, creed and politics are best and right and that other human creatures scattered over the world are less fortunately placed than they”, which is of course wrong.

The young couple keep in touch and have long conversations, as couples do, and she seems to strive to change him. In the meantime, due to his monumental strong will, he manages to surpass his own limitations by working and studying at the same time, until he is finally able to publish (“He hated the oblivion of sleep. There was too much to do, too much of life to live”). In the process, when he’s not known and he has to support himself by his physical work, the woman dismisses his works, but then her opinion changes as he manages to publish and gain a certain renown (“Martin had faith in himself, but he was alone in his faith”).

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Then, he seems to be someone new for her, someone she can feel in awe of without feeling embarrassed; but this whole process had made him conscious of several painful truths: “Make me like those other men, doing the work they do, breathing the air they breathe, developing the point of view they have developed and you have destroyed the difference, destroyed me, destroyed the thing you love” and “He knew now that he hadn’t really loved her. It was an idealized Ruth he had loved, and ethereal creature” and that ethereal creature belong to another world, to the “bourgeois swine” who despised him.

In his journey he meets Brissenden, who also belongs to the upper-class but has somehow rebelled against it in his own way, as an individual against the masses, just like Eden has. He’s a physically weak person who lacks Eden’s will and knows it, and he strives for new thrills in life through drugs rather than through action. He’s a good friend for Eden though and they both manage to understand each other. Eden seem to be in the process of stepping into the nowhere’s land: slowly he discovers that those who once were his mates -working class people- are not so close to him now and fail to understand him, but he doesn’t belong with the bourgeoisie either.

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As an individual standing against the masses (“Herd-creatures, flocking together and patterning their lives by one another’s opinions, failing of being individuals”), even having achieved his goal, discovers that he is alone. His estrangement from Ruth, Brissenden’s death and his growing apart from his former mates, makes him become increasingly disappointed and disenchanted with life: (“I care for nothing. Something has gone out of me. I am empty of any desire for anything.”)

All this foreshadows the end:

“For too much love of living

From hope and fear set free,

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives forever,

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.”

High brow stuff and real life

It is really amazing… The level of abstraction that some minds have achieved. In those times when I feel quite down about my own mental capacities, my mind shifts to this question, drifting away from duty, as it is doing right now. I mean, how could all those theorists, essayists and scholars reach that level of abstraction if not for having their basic needs fulfilled?

In one of my previous posts I mentioned Einstein and the rules he designed for his wife, which included being spared the children presence, having any obligation towards his wife or having to clean, iron or cook at all. Sometimes I wonder, is it possible to mix daily stuff and high brow thinking in just one mind? Or, does one influence the other? What happens when one has to deal with thugs, traumatized people, bullies, cheats, busybodies, hand-to-mouths and spiritual destitutes -who are just part of REAL life – in a daily basis, make ends meet, take care of others, cook, clean, wash, put up with weird bosses and then one has to write an essay on, let’s say…, the importance of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories applied to the way an author’s identity conditions the meaning of a literary product from a diachronic perspective? Can you do that while you are thinking in your children’s timetables, your workplace deed in lieu of foreclosure, the shopping list, sexual harassment or bullying at work? How could Derrida or Lacan write those nearly indecipherable texts about whatever they are talking about?

Spleen and ideal (copy)The point is that there are innumerable societies within our society and our world and it is so different for people depending on their background… How can I feel identified with someone who seeks to be indecipherable in order to exclude the non-elite niche dwelling people? How can they get so far away from reality into their own world of concepts with no visible results in the improvement of their fellow men/women’s lives? Can we really afford to spend so much time in theoretical masturbation while there are so many things to improve at a practical level? Is it really better to spend our time enclosed in our ivory tower?

I marvel at Frederick Douglass, who learnt to read and write and became someone out of his own will power in the worst scenario possible. He, who interchanged bits of bread for literacy with poor white boys, who had to work like a mule, and was shunned, enslaved and oppressed. He certainly was not in an ivory tower and he made it and manage to help others in the process. He dealt with real life and its real issues.