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Poetry - Andy Croft: Just As Blue

This review was written for an Acumen reviews competition in 2001. This is a slightly edited version.

Andy Croft: Just As Blue

(Flambard, 2001)

A short acquaintance with Andy Croft's poetry is bound to invite comparisons with a much better known writer, Tony Harrison. Both live in declining working-class towns in north-east England - Harrison in Newcastle, Croft in Middlesbrough; both are unapologetic left-wingers, critical of the recent direction of British society in general and of the New Labour government in particular; and both write in a determinedly accessible style using strict metre and full rhymes.

However, differences soon emerge. Like Harrison, Croft is angry at the world, but his outlook is notably gloomier. This is perhaps understandable from a middle-aged, little-read poet who, unlike his more successful peer, maintains an uncompromising devotion to communist ideals in an age where "the old industrial working-classes don't exist, except in TV soaps." His pessimism pervades the whole of Just As Blue and makes it, among other things, a fairly depressing book to read. Underpinning almost every poem is a sense of disappointment, even despair, at the steady evaporation of public and international support for collectivist ideals. Sometimes this disappointment leads him to outbursts of feeble self-pity, as when he laments the lot of the world's communists,

Who were no match for genocide,
Who fell to earth like morning dew

as if the Gulags and Tiananmen Square had never happened. At other times, he uses the fortunes of his football team as a mirror for his political gloom, saluting "hopeless losers everywhere",

Who live with disappointment and despair,
Who turn defeat into a kind of art.

Croft's writing is at its weakest when he allows anger and self-pity to burn unmediated through onto the page. Several of Just As Blue's poems read like the effluence of ten-minute fits of bile and depression, unsubjected to anything in the way of revision or refinement before they went to press. Among the worst offenders are The Mask of Freedom (a facile reworking of Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy), The Beasts of England (a lament for the end of pig rule in Animal Farm, ironically reading like a piece of Soviet propaganda of the most banal and windy kind), and Song (the nadir of the whole collection - a kind of defeatist football chant without the verbal wit).

Were one to judge Croft by these poems alone, it would be all too clear why, as he complains, he is not one whom "Arts Councils like / To publish and to subsidise". However, his main obstacle to wider acceptance is not lack of talent, and probably not even unfashionableness, but a general dereliction of quality control. The puerility of Croft's weaker work is all the more glaring for its juxtaposition here with strong, mature poems that one would almost swear were by a different writer. This writer, like his double, is a disappointed but passionate idealist, writing in easily-assimilable metric verse for non-academic readers. But poems like Grisedale, Digging For Victory and Just As Blue are deepened by a subtle lyricism that takes them onto a higher level altogether than their companions. Using images from his life as local metaphors for the ebb and flow of world politics - rain in Grisedale, foundations of a demolished house in Digging For Victory - Croft weaves sophisticated, well-paced pieces that put his strong political views into the vivid context of a subject in a particular time and place. Hence the paradox that Croft's public message is most persuasive when his voice is most private, as when he contemplates the tide of potential economic meltdown from a rain-drenched Pennine cottage:

    Inside, the clock
Slows down like rain through dripping trees.
    We pour ourselves another drink
And stare into the fire and think
    Of sinking hills and rising seas.

Equally skillful are Croft's versions of poems by Louis Aragon which close the collection. Like his best original poetry, they convey powerful political messages, not through sneering and sloganeering, but through quiet elevation of language:

I will never forget the fresh lilacs of Flanders,
    Flowers that sweetened the flesh of the young dead,
And you, the flowers of our retreat, the tender
    Roses, the colour of fire, distant and red.

If Croft could only bring himself to apply a little elitism to his own work, and weed out its weakest constituents, he might yet join Harrison in the ranks of our foremost political poets. On the other hand, perhaps he is too persuaded that in art, as in life, communists should refuse to grow taller than their fellows.

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