One thing many of us love about small-press poetry is that unlike most textual production, it’s not written under the weather eye of capitalist power or for material gain. The same generally goes for non- or pre-professional academic writing, so there’s at least one area of commonality for the dissertation-poem, an infrequent fusion whose Western origins nonetheless stretch back at least to Aratus and Nicander.
As a dissertation, this book excerpts in detail from a small number of classic studies: David Lockwood’s The Blackcoated Worker (1958) on the culture and politics of clerks; Geoffrey Mortimer’s The Blight of Respectability (1897) on respectability and villadom; MacKenzie and Silver’s Angels in Marble (1968) on working class conservatives; Ken Worpole’s Dockers and Detectives (1983) on popular reading; and especially Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957) on the effects of manufactured mass culture.
What links them all is a loose thesis about the role of the humanities and social sciences among the British working class and lower middle class, focusing particularly on the success of Pelican books – cheap, authoritative non-fiction sold in Woolworths – in enabling them (us) to infiltrate the cultural preserves of the rich. The acquisition of such knowledge is premised to be a factor in a more progressive politics, not least through better resistance to the ‘unintelligent/ Margarine’ of ‘tabloids’ butter-/ Substitutes’ and other mass-media.
Considered as poetry, the book starts with a great Howl-ish impetus, bewailing the ‘death throes of a culture’ replaced by ‘vast flatscreens as altarpieces of faith’:
O this period of ectopic proletariat, common people
Misplaced in multiples of patchwork overlaps from cash-
Strapped and poverty-trapped working poor to tip-of-
The-slagheap grasping aspiration […]
Subsequently it modulates to a mélange of quotation, opinion, skilful précis and generalising description, all spiced with the constantly arresting phrasing (‘stepladders of pipedreams’, &c.) that’s one of the book’s principal pleasures. The layout mimics the didactic epics of its genre’s origins: twenty-five stanza-less Roman-numeralled ‘books’. Line-ends are at page-width limits, and there’s little attention to prosody.
As a genre-mix, a number of distinctive characteristics are evident. The lack of titling, paragraphs and even full stops make its chains of argument significantly harder to follow, an unusual approach for a politically engaged work. The semi-colons and ellipses give a provisional feel to its statements. The absence of referencing means the extensive quoting is troublesome to verify. Repetitions in phrasing and aperçu (‘Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’’ sensibility; Hoggart as Hogarth…) suggest line-level inattentiveness at final edit, adding to the impression of urgency or hurry. The thin bibliography reflects its constricted scope: readers looking for pointers towards contextual perspectives (Bourdieu? Williams? Hall? Home?) or towards more in-depth analyses accounting for regionalism, gender, imperialism, technology or workers’ reading ‘against the grain’ (extracting pleasure from popular entertainments while remaining sceptical about their ideology) must find them elsewhere.
The book ends by noting the reappearance of the Pelican brand and by hoping for a new ‘aspiring readership’. For all its difficulties, the importance and interest of its topic alone should recommend it, even if ultimately it only sends you back to (re-)reading its sources. On the other hand, it might inspire you towards the OU, the WEA, FutureLearn, a New Pelican, or other good small-press stuff from the brilliantly radical Smokestack.
Guy Russell 13th July 2022