Joe being interviewed by an unknown journalist at the Great Railway Exposition 1980.
Joe Smythe was a poet who lived in Manchester. At the time of the above photograph he had just written a book of poems commemorating 150 years of the Manchester to Liverpool railway.
He was often described as the 'railway poet' by a lazy media always looking for a cultural shorthand.
It was a phrase he disliked intensely.
Joe understood the politics.
He discussed aspects of this stereotyping whilst suffering a short writer's block/overload in the excellent Third Shunt.
The above items are used with the kind permission of North West Film Archive at the Manchester Metropolitan University and the BBC.
Sorting through some papers recently I found the Commonword published postcard below with one of Joe's poem's Small World that evokes a long lost - but not forgotten - Manchester. Illustrated by Pico aka David MacDonald.
Meanwhile back to the story.....
To my knowledge Joe had 5 books of poetry published in his lifetime and numerous others included in magazines and papers. They are:
Viva Whatsisname! Platform Poets Publication 1979
The People's Road London, National Union of Railwaymen. 1980, Poems on a Railway theme published for The Great Railway exposition 1830-1980
Fire Dance pub. Iron Press 1984
pub. Commonword, Manchester, 1986. What should poetry address itself to in
the 1980s ? Joe Smythe gives his own answer to the question in this new
collection of recent work
The Search for Joe Smythe.
I've been thinking for a while about writing a biography of the poet - and my friend for a few short years - Joe Smythe. He was born in 1934 in Manchester and worked, when I knew him, as a railway guard at Victoria Station and on occasion I understand at the Ardwick goods yard.
Joe was a working class poet. In his poetry he confronted the issues of his time with a humour that accentuated its bleakness. He nudged us into awareness of those issues, causing us to recognise with surprise, truths we already knew, or thought we knew.
In 1986 Commonword's Ivor
Frankell ventured an insight in his
preface to Liberation Soldier, Joe's fourth book of published poetry :-
"There are poems of all kinds here, written in styles that draw on the one hand from popular tradition in the form of songs and ballads, and on the other from a considerable range of modern English, American and European poetry. Here too, the poems embody Joe Smythe's resistance to any kind of oversimplification either of poetry or the of the writer's relationship to his or her work. He has freely borrowed forms, idioms and images from whatever suits his particular purposes.
These poems challenge and entertain equally, providing both the pleasure of the familiar and the strangeness of the new; they are the result of an approach to poetry which seeks to reclaim it from esoteric isolation and bring it into contact with the lives of the people from whom the author, and his subject matter, derive."
In my mind I can picture Joe beginning to shift uneasily, take out another cigarette and light it.
He was never comfortable with any attempt to categorise or pigeon-hole his writings. He liked to cultivate an air of mystery - preferring to let his poems speak for him rather than embark on long explanations on their behalf.
When he did attempt to talk about the creative process as in the Author's Foreword from Liberation Soldier writing in 1984 the strain is obvious in the formal and stilted language he chose:
"Poems are not made they are discovered. They are discovered in the life of an individual and a society and are given shape through the social, cultural and the political conditions, the atmosphere of the age.
Poems are also discovered despite the atmosphere of an age.
To describe and catalogue poetry is not my business.
In the long run, poems that can be pinned down, that can be reduced to a prose transcription are non-poems. On the other hand, poems which perversely defy a prose transcription, poems which are written as tactical camouflage in the strategy of theoretical literature, i.e. art-elitism, are the non-poems of a capitulating culture.
So much for my non-cataloguing aspirations.
What I have sought to do in Liberation Soldier is to discover a body of poems which satisfies one prime need and three secondary needs. The secondary needs are the need to articulate my perception of this age, through my particular circumstances; the need to fill the shape of my discoveries with a poetry that heightens, gives substance to my perceptions; and the need to communicate, to add my perceptions to the perceptions of others.The primary need is the need to discover, work and shape a poetry which will speak to everybody but is not reducible by anybody.
So why these needs? Answers would have to be looked for in biography, not only in descriptive biography but also in psychological biography, neither of which, paradoxically, has any bearing on the temporary or eventual standing of the poems biography discovers."
Joe & Sheila enjoying a glass of wine in Rufford Road, Whalley Range 1981
However there are some assorted autobiographical jigsaw pieces that Joe offered in the introductions to his books of poems. On the rear cover of Fire Dance (Iron Press 1984) he described his domestic circumstances in a matter-of-fact though characteristically poetic manner:
"I am worked, wived, childrened and fifty. Such is the life. I've had a more interesting time in the poems. There I am and there I'm dateless."
And two years later in the author's foreword to 'Liberation Soldier' he is even more contemptuous of the search for the key to the writings through biographical details:
"Frankly, biography is bullshit. If I'm anywhere, I'm in these poems."
Joe & John at the Great Railway Exposition 1980
Joe goes on to declare his creative purpose through a poem:
"Not wanting to be buried in a book,
nor in the dusty hands of future schools
I dedicate these verses
to escaping children everywhere.
Not wanting to be understood
for the sake of being solved, or salved,
I've juggled these verses
from brightly coloured, migrant birds.
I also sing
arias from rifled opera
goosing the prima donna."
Joe thanking the NUR for his commemorative medal (below) and the time off to write his book of poems -The People's Road at Museum of Science and Industry 1980
Commonword Writers' Workshop was set up in 1977. They were one of a number of embryonic regional and metropolitan writers groups that made up the loose-knit Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. Emerging and flourishing in the late 1970s and early 80s they provided an alternative network for writers from non-middle class backgrounds to meet - usually on a weekly basis - to read and share their work with one another. To support each other, to get and give feedback.to feel connected and on occasion held recitals to larger interested gatherings.
In the North West of England it was a decade that saw the birth of Voices magazine in Manchester and down the East Lancs Road the creation of the Liverpool 8 and Scotland Road writers' workshops.
Their main purpose of all these groups was to give a voice to the culturally ignored - predominantly working class, people of colour, the disenfranchised and disabled, the employed and jobless, men and women to allow them to express themselves - their lives, hopes and ideas.
Essentially to give them the means to tell their own stories.
Commonword were quick to recognise the voice of a mature and self-assured talent - by this time Joe was in his early forties. The result was "Come and get me" published in 1979. Joe's sleeve notes for the book display his humour, skill as a wordsmith and self-depreciation in equal measures.
"These verses are a voice scarred with too many cigarettes, too much cheap wine, too many raw mornings in too many railway sidings. A remembering voice, a scrapping-the-bottom-of-the barrel voice, a street-rough bung-'em-in-anywhere voice.....
If there is any poetry in here, regard it as a happy accident: if art is what you're after, ask for your money back, better still, give me to someone you don't like......
These verses are devious animals with designs on your purse or person, whichever is more attractive..
These verses.....that's enough for honesty, for twenty five pence what do you expect?....Joe Shakespeare?"
Recently I've been interviewing a few people who knew him - including family members . However it's a slow process and I've yet to find out the date of his death from a heart attack - sometime in the early 1990s. The more I find out the less important such life history minutiae seems to matter. Joe would doubtless agree wholeheartedly.
So we will find Joe in his poems and writings and as a friend I'm happy with that pact from beyond the grave hence I've shelved the biography idea.
Instead I've decided to put my efforts into trying to get Joe's work to a wider audience. Especially as a number of the books are now out of print and difficult if not impossible to get hold of.
I'd like to put more of Joe's poems online having recently discovered the Voices website where some of his work can be found already.
I would be interested in hearing from anyone who might want to help with this project.So please get in touch if you are interested in this project.
Joe's work is well overdue a reappraisal.
You can see him performing one of his poems filmed on the set of the Tea Machine in 1979 here.
Joe Smythe - the actor - playing the part of Ben the Shop Steward and sharing a laugh between takes with fellow writer Mike Rowe in the Tea Machine
On a recent visit with Mike Rowe to the Central Reference Library Archives we discovered an article about Joe in their from the 28/7/1980 edition of the Manchester Evening News that is of interest