Alan Morrison on
111pp, Flambard Press, 2009
The patterned language of the real
Long-standing Middlesbrough-based poet – and Smokestack editor – Andy Croft’s latest collection, Sticky (a play on the Russian word stikhi, derived from the Greek word stikhoi, meaning ‘lines of words – or soldiers’), is another formally accomplished and riveting read from this most openly political and refreshingly internationalist of poets. The book comprises nine sections, incorporating output from various community commissions, as well as newer pieces and some compelling longer poems. A typical Croftian mixture of humour and gravity, runs seamlessly through a paper landscape of hard-bitten frankness, gritty wit and deeply felt political conviction, which is never too forceful to seem rebarbative, and wreaks of a very earthy, lived-in intellectual sediment that makes it stand far apart from callow agitprop. This is indeed a key thing with Croft: somehow you know that what he’s saying is what he truly thinks and feels, on subjects as challenging - and occasionally macrocosmic – as class, Iraq, the North/South divide, prison, radical history, folklore, poetry politics, Russian travelogue, Labour history, Communism, Bertolt Brecht, Randall Swingler, and other socio-anthropological nuances. In short, Croft, like many poets worth the title, doesn’t flinch from the ‘difficult’ subjects and more often than not, the ‘difficult’, hard-won truths.
On first reading, I was instantly struck by a series of ‘miniatures’: small pieces in which the wording is precisely chosen and brilliantly married with natural-feeling rhymes and rhythms (Croft is, demonstrably, a master of the iambic pentameter, both in rhyming and blank verse – no mean feat). ‘Rotunda’, (the barbed) ‘How Do You Spell Heroin?’, ‘A Question of History’, ‘Not So’, and the perfectly clipped ‘Red Ellen’, are all consummate poems in a variety of sonnet forms, rhythmically precise, carefully worded, and again with a very naturalised rhyming, which reads effortlessly (one or two of these are reproduced in the poetry section of this site for your edification). Equally beguiling are the slighter anapaestic lyrics, mostly on the theme of ‘Southwell’, that seem to be in an invented form of extended limerick, which one might canonise as 'Croftian Limerick' (one or two of these I’ve also reproduced, with the author’s permission, in the poetry section).
But for me, on a closer reading, it’s in the longer poems of this volume that Croft strikes some true poetic gold of hard-hitting insights, tantalising metaphor, and some occasionally Audenesque, even Shelleyan (re ‘The Mask of Anarchy’) aphorisms, that break out on the page bright and urgent as wheals of social conscience on the readers’ behalves. In the wistfully titled ‘There Was a Spirit in Europe’ (as Croft reliably informs me, based formalistically on Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard’), apart from some beautiful sensory images such – ‘The garlic breath of spring’, ‘thin-ribbed valley sides’, ‘slow monasteries and urgent waterfalls’, and the very assonance-rich ‘fields still scorched by months of snow’ – we get some startling lyrical passages:
Where women still leave apples for the dead,
Inter red-pepper-phallused dolls to bring
The rain, and wear the martenitza thread
To bind the Easter rituals of spring.
Their chiselled names now filigreed with moss,
The five-point star’s an ivy-fingered hand
Reproaching the cold future with the loss
Of what we are ashamed to understand.
We get as well, historical-Left didacticism, in which Croft specialises, regarding this poem’s subject:
Frank Thompson, British Major, SOE,
A Wykhamist, a linguist, poet, Red,
A scion of the English bourgeoisie
Who found in Aeschylus the road that led
Him here to try to set the world ablaze,
To prove the new was stronger than the old
And almost won...
Croft is one of the few poets I know of who can deliver so much information so readably. The Audenesque aphorismic sensibility, for me, is most striking in the following two beautiful consecutive stanzas:
Who died for truths that no-one now believes,
Whose posthumous denunciations lie
Upon this woodland grave like fallen leaves –
First national hero, then a British spy,
Now Soviet agent. Winter’s cold estate
Requires a hard forgetting. So the truth
They knew at Marathon, the Sceaen Gate,
Becomes a frozen elegy of youth.
And the final stanza to this highly accomplished poem, to me, verges on the Shelleyan:
The ploughed field disinters the quiet god,
The sharpened sickle cuts the harvest wheat,
The prisoner has to face the firing squad,
And victory’s just a name we give defeat.
‘Echt’ is a wittier though no less purposeful piece, a tribute in part to Bertolt Brecht (one of Croft’s poetic heroes), taking in a bit of contemporary poetry politics along the way with its allusion to ‘brass-necked’ poetasters who think they can emulate the German past-master:
These days we like our poets classy,
Ironic, risky, edgy, sassy,
Experimental, wired and cool –
A poet that’s worthy and/or serious
Won’t get you laughs when you’re on stage
Or win you prizes on the page...
The drab pinstripe politics of modern day ‘social democratic progressives’ (my inverted commas), in all its nauseous a-historicism, is expertly mocked in some much-needed polemic:
And anyway, it’s so outmoded
When words like ‘Class’ are obsolete
(Although we are still incommoded
By beggars sleeping in the street);
In other words, we’ve had enough
Of all that stern and dreary stuff
About the poor – it’s so last season
And so Old Labour – we’ve moved on.
Exactly, but to where? To a culture of frivolous self-denial, that’s where, and Croft isn’t afraid to say so in a subtly Socratic form. Croft also offers another great barbed poke at a certain breed of contemporary poet in ‘A Russian Diary’ with:
‘We are not Pushkin!’ they protest,
As if one poet is only blessed
And creativity is rationed
And art is someone else’s job,
Like fishing through the ice-bound Ob.
I love this sort of syllogistic polemic, here using an Us and Them, Marxian class paradigm which betrays merely the lack of poetic ambitiousness in those types of (largely academic-style) poets who venerate all talent to the past-tense, tarring everyone else with their own self-perceived mediocrity; a superb use of the Class dynamic at the expense of post-modern poetic cynicism, and the self-defeating dogma that the only good poets are dead ones; the irony being that many of those belittled while they’re alive may very well graduate into greatness once they pass into posterity (the perennial bugbear of trampled artists). In the meantime, the Establishment pelts the less threatening talents with prizes (their mortal consolation for a cloudier posterity? Certainly that’s been the case with many of the Laureates – although it would be as severely erring of any obscure poets to believe entirely in some vague promise of posthumous recognition, just as most of the poor – always with us – have been historically duped by the old ‘camel through the needle’s eye’ outlook to surrender passively to circumstance).
‘Jet-Lag in Barabashkagorod’ is something of a departure from the formal norm of Croft’s oeuvre, but is no less successful, and perhaps points out a further intriguing path that he might explore more in future collections. This poem, apart from its surreal images intended to evoke the fuggy dreaminess of jet-lag, provides some wonderfully bizarre lines as ‘The mullet-king’s daughter/ Was loved by a cheese with a male character’, also demonstrates a slightly more experimental, free-flowing, loosening up with language and image, most noticeably in the first stanza:
As the poem comes into land I can feel myself
Slipping beneath the sleepy waves
Of the obsidian sea thousands of feet below us.
A voice coughs like a saw through the ice
In the middle of the lake.
Or is it a fly I can hear in my ear
Buzzing zzh little baby
As it crawls across the page
Like a line of rude starfish
On the bottom of the obscene river?
Quirky and diffuse stuff, in-keeping with the subject of the piece, but yet another angle on Croft’s varied talent. The inclusion of words such as ‘obsidian’ and ‘obscene’ is a nice touch in echoing the actual name of the river, Ob. But there is also a serendipitous, or a conscious, double-play, by describing a river as ‘obscene’: its transparency as a body of water, both literally in its substance, and metaphorically in its natural purpose, is brought into a new perspective when combined with such an offbeat adjective. This poem, as an experimental breather, is hard-won: having extensively demonstrated now his mastery of poetic forms, Croft has now earned the accomplished craftsman’s right to start breaking some of the rules (as opposed to many who attempt breaking onto the page by breaking rules they haven’t yet mastered).
‘The Ballad of Writing Gaol’ is a witty longish poem hailing from Croft’s residency in a prison (not as an inmate naturally, but a poet-in-...), a pastiche, in tone and form, of Oscar Wilde’s famous elegy to man’s destructiveness towards love, which proffers one of the best and most aptly punning lines I’ve read for some time:
...you can write in solitude
From bang-up to unlock
(And there’s so many poets in Seg
It’s known as Writer’s Block.
Croft makes some pertinent points as to poetic craft in the caustic ‘Form’:
A common music whose appeal
Is that it speaks to everyone,
The patterned language of the real
That’s usually written by Anon.
But who can tell the reason why
A promise made so many times
It’s polished as a well-worn lie
Sounds more convincing when it rhymes?
This deep-felt egalitarianism in all spheres, but most particularly society and poetics, accidents on its profoundly moving crescendo in these four lines from ‘Team Strip’:
We strip down to a uniform
Of tattooed muscle, fat and hair,
The unembarrassed, classless norm
Of sweaty maleness anywhere.
‘Either or Eyether’ plays on the difference between North and South pronunciations of words and place names, ingeniously played on by the symbiotic end-rhymes. In a similar vein, the epic commission poem ‘A Theory of Devolution’ (another killer pun) is a hilarious, self-deprecating satire on the Southern stereotypes of an Andy Capp-style Northerner. It contains one fine example of what I hereby canonise ‘Croftian Rhyme’, which is basically apostrophised rhyme, where some end-rhymes are possessive nouns chiming with non-possessive plural nouns, as in ‘Nietzsche’s’ and creatures’. Croft boldly employs this unusual technique in many poems in this volume, and it comes off, as a sort of informal formalism (as does his defiant tendency to Northern vernacular compression such as ‘we’ll see November fourth’ in ‘A Question of History’). This poem’s discourse on a ‘tragedy of dodo-like proportion’ concludes on another excellent aphorismic quatrain:
The past will always lay its hairy hand
On futures that it cannot understand
So long as we let monkey fears perplex us
From windy Hartlepool to sunny Texas.
The last line no doubt another welcomed jab at the anthropomorphically-challenged George ‘Dubyer’ Bush (I can’t help thinking that the former ‘missing link’ of a president should have been brought more graphically in for deserving a rhyming kick in the ‘solar-plexus’).
Croft also gets more rapturous applause for his very timely critique of contemporary conceptual art, mantled by a timeless aphorism from Blake – ‘When Nations grow Old. Arts grows Cold./ And Commerce settles on every Tree’. I quote the first stanza in full:
What verse-form better than ottava-rima
That model of tradition and technique,
To celebrate the opening at mima
Of major British artists’ work last week?
That wasn’t, by the way, an erotema
(A question with no answer – from the Greek),
If too much craft can make an art that’s heartless,
It’s also true too little can be artless.
Yet again, Croft says it all clearly, directly but with a certain style, and some un-obfuscated didacticism to boot. Great to see Sticky get stuck in on the likes of the Stuckists (sorry, I couldn’t resist the vaudeville). Reading polemical poetry like this, my feeling is that its unpretentious and directly communicative versification is far more satisfying in hitting the nail on the head, crucially with the punch of strict rhymes, than a more diffuse and oblique free verse poem could be. Ironic, in many ways, that a significant number of the more openly left-wing, polemical, radicalised poets of today, such as Croft (also, Alexis Lykiard; the Red Ink poets; and many of the Smokestackites), almost instinctively marry their political fire with fairly strict rhyme and form, and rhythm – possibly because the more ‘serious’ poetic topic demands a more permanent, stately structure to truly stamp its message, cogently, in the reader’s memory? Something that free verse, in all its laissez faire, can’t capture as authentically.
For me, the book ends on its true tour de force, the vitriolic ‘Letter to Randall Swingler Part III’, which is a seriously good long poem, worthy in parts of Auden, expertly sustained by its ottava rima form and not outstaying its welcome. This ‘little epic’ (if that’s not too oxymoronic a term) is a perfectly pitched closing polemic to a thoroughly riveting collection, containing so many strong and timely epigrammatic commando assaults on the canting hypocrisies of New Labour’s Britain, contrasted with Old Labour’s historical blacklisting of suspected Communists (with the inevitable titular juxtaposition of the loaded surname ‘Blair’ between Eric (George Orwell) Blair, and a certain latter day, infinitely less talented or worthy, Tony) that I’m compelled to quote some in full below –
We now know Eric Blair was naming names,
Providing lists of Reds (including you)...
Embarrassing, of course, but no-one blames
A Blair for doing what he has to do
(Or democratic States, when fighting Terror,
For murdering civilians in error.
Like sleepless Argus with his peacock-eyes,
Or Cerberus, the watch-dog of the Dead,
This hundred-headed Hydra never dies;
Try cutting off a head and in its stead
More poisonous heads sprout forth, like bigger lies,
And so the monstrous tongues of falsehood spread,
What Bakhtin might have called a pseudo-glossia,
Until they constitute a dodgy dossier.
Because those flabby liberties of ours
Were out of shape, they’ve lately been massaged.
Since the assault on those Manhattan towers
The secret state’s considerably enlarged;
No doubt the State will find that these new powers
(Six weeks’ detention without being charged)
Will come in handy fighting girls in burkas
Or striking low-paid public-sector workers.
The poem is also buoyant with Croftian ‘apostrophised’ Rhyme, one superb example being:
It’s hard to say if this mendacious burble’s
More suited to Pinocchio or Goebbels.
It’s in the following three stanzas that this poem really packs its punch against the class-betrayal of New Labour and Presbyter Brown’s current parsimonious dogma on worthy and unworthy privation:
These days it seems our government’s at war
With those whose cause it used to once profess,
Re-branded as the undeserving poor,
A drain upon the hard-pressed NHS...
This is an especially timely comment in the wake of the new arbitrarily discriminating proposals of a new (hypocritically titled) National Care Service. More full-on polemic follows, of a type that desperately needs to be spelt out, as it skilfully is, in no-nonsense verse:
In such an age of salivating snobbery,
Democracy now wears an Eton boater
And Freedom’s code for economic robbery.
The delicacies offered to the voter
Are either bare-arsed sleaze or bare-faced jobbery.
Equalities a dream that gets remoter.
When talking of the have-nots and the haves
The working-class is now known as the Chavs.
Well put and much in need of saying – after all, that contemporary peccadillo of social stereotyping which has gone completely unnoticed by our culture of political correctness, the term ‘Chav’, even if of any validity other than its ostensibly vicious and Malthusian-tinged prejudice, is a vague social labelling whose apparent members are arguably the pure result of the social ghettoising typical in a divisive and abusive capitalist system, that actively heaps its own junk culture on those without sufficient educational armour to withstand its banal assaults. So if ‘Chavs’ really do exist, tooth and nail, they are the product of the very society that chooses such a heartless acronym to identify them. Croft goes on to elucidate the semantics, for the uninitiated, while aptly swiping at the white-wine-tippling, Toynbee-esque commentators of the ‘progressive’ nationals:
That’s ‘Council House and Violent’ in the slang
Of columnists who earn a lot of dosh
By writing Jeremiads which harangue
All those they think require a decent wash.
This exceptional piece concludes on a moving winding-down in gesture to the posthumous recipient of Croft’s correspondence:
Of course there’s no point writing to a ghost,
The correspondence closes when we’re dead,
And all we ever leave behind’s at most
The memory of the stupid things we’ve said,
A bulging file of intercepted post,
Remaindered like a book that no-one’s read,
The failures which in living and in art
We cling to till we know them off by heart.
I strongly urge anyone to get stuck into Sticky, if you value accomplished form, inspiriting spot-on polemic, humility of tone and, above all, topics far more important and compelling than the average mainstream remit of sex and canapés. That Croft, too, is not only sincerely of the Left, but also unreconstructed in his beliefs, is also a refreshing and essential ingredient to what his gritty yet also strangely comforting voice has to offer us, something more generous-spirited, sincere and enduring than the paler, undergraduate-style, ironic and sassy satirical cynicism currently fashionable. In terms both of poetic subjects and immaculate attention to poetic forms, Croft’s giant social voice, declaiming in an almost stately commonality, is the nearest we have to a true Laureate of the North.
In a painfully pedestrian, prize-besotted poetry scene, riddled with ego-trips, one-upmanship, and Social Darwinian metropolitan parlour games, a collection like Sticky gives us both poetic and moral hope. In such a ‘sticky’ climate, all I can say is thank God for Comrade Croft.
Alan Morrison © 2009
To order Sticky by Andy Croft visit www.inpressbooks.co.uk