“Some People” is a 1988 poem by the popular Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins. She was born in Galway in 1955, being one of thirteen children of working-class parents. She left school at 14, was married at 17, and found herself in hospital with tuberculosis at 22. This enforced period of leisure was when she discovered literature and her ability to write.
Rita Ann Higgins’s poetry is hard-hitting and often savage. She uses her talent to make incisive social commentary in language that is frequently shocking, even surreal, but always vibrant and interesting. She is a poet who should be read by anyone who thinks that poetry is dull but who is also willing to have their prejudices challenged.
Some people know what it's like,
to be called a c*nt in front of their children
to be short for the rent
to be short for the light
to be short for school books
to wait in Community Welfare waiting-rooms full of smoke
to wait two years to have a tooth looked at
to wait another two years to have a tooth out (the same tooth)
to be half strangled by your varicose veins, but you're 198th on the list
to talk into a banana on a jobsearch scheme
to talk into a banana in a jobsearch dream
to be out of work
to be out of money
to be out of fashion
to be out of friends
to be in for the Vincent de Paul man
to be in space for the milk man
(sorry, mammy isn't in today she's gone to Mars for the weekend)
to be in Puerto Rico this week for the blanket man
to be in Puerto Rico next week for the blanket man
to be dead for the coal man
(sorry, mammy passed away in her sleep, overdose of coal in the teapot)
to be in hospital unconscious for the rent man
(St Judes ward 4th floor)
to be second-hand
to be second-class
to be no class
to be looked down on
to be walked on
to be pissed on
to be shat on
and other people don't.
“Some People” is a single sentence that begins “Some people know what it is like” and then offers 25 examples, most beginning “to be”, concluding with “and other people don’t”. It is therefore a very simple and directly structured poem that leaves nobody in any doubt as to what it means. The language of the poem is straight from the street and the situations it describes are those that people on the lowest rungs of the social ladder encounter all the time. Despite the grimness of the scene, the poet uses humour as well as horror to get her point across and to evince sympathy for the protagonist’s point of view.
The first “to be” hits straight home: “to be called a c*nt in front of their children”. It is worth bearing in mind that this is not the language of the protagonist but of the people doing the calling. Immediately the reader is on the speaker’s side and sharing their shock at being called such a name. The poet makes sure that the word “c*nt” sticks in the mind by rhyming it with a word that follows almost straight away (“c*nt in front”) and providing a half-rhyme (“rent”) in the following line.
Rhyme and rhythm
The poem is given structure by the repetition of words and expressions that follow “to be”. Although there are rhymes and half-rhymes at some line ends, as well as repeated words that act similarly to rhymes, the repetitions at line beginnings make the poem sound chant-like, thus giving the lines an insistent beat and rhythm that carries the meaning forward.
The first of these “rhythm” expressions is “short for”, such that the three items listed (the rent, the light, school books) are punched out like repeated blows from a fist. The effect conveyed is that these financial problems hit the person one after the after with no chance of solving the first problem before the others come along.
Waiting and hoping
Next comes a break from “to be” with the change being to “to wait”, this being the need to wait for things to happen, in terms of social welfare and health care, as one of the consequences of being short of money. The reader suspects that the poet is starting to exaggerate when she complains that it takes two years to have a tooth extracted, after having waited two years to even have it examined, and that she is “198th on the list” for varicose veins treatment, but, having no means of knowing how great these exaggerations are, the lingering thought remains that they might actually be true.
The next two lines describe the stark contrast between hope and despair for someone in the poet’s situation. The way she describes the business of trying to find a job sounds absurd: “to talk into a banana on a jobsearch scheme”, which refers to the use of bananas as substitute telephones when training potential call handling staff, but, if this is a surreal image, so is the prospect of actually getting a job, as is made clear by the poet’s repetition of the line with the only change being “dream” for “scheme”.
Out and In
The next four lines repeat the theme of the earlier “to be short for” by substituting “to be out of”, which emphasises the speaker’s alienation from the rest of the world due to her poverty. The four “out ofs” (work, money, fashion, friend) are a progression in that failure to find work leads to lack of money, hence the inability to dress attractively which in turn makes social contact more difficult.
Irony is used to good effect with a sudden switch from “to be out” to “to be in”, in that the “ins” are not hopeful opposites of the hopeless “outs” but continuations of the theme of what people on the bottom rung have to contend with.
The first “in” is “for the Vincent de Paul man”, the reference being to the Catholic charity that helps to alleviate poverty in practical ways. However, the following callers all want to be paid for something, and the poem lists the desperate excuses with which the speaker’s child is sent to the front door in order to delay the inevitable, such as “she’s gone to Mars for the weekend”, and even “mammy passed away in her sleep”.
The note of surrealism comes to the fore in this section, with the impression being given that the whole situation of poverty is spiralling out of control and into another dimension. Everything has got so bad that, as one might say, “this cannot be real”. The reference to the hospital ward (St Jude’s) in which the speaker is apparently lying unconscious when the rent man calls is itself significant, in that St Jude is traditionally the patron saint of lost causes.
The poem concludes with six short “to be” lines that are direct, to the point, and expressive of the poet’s mounting anger. She clearly hates being “second hand … second class … no class”, and the sensation of being “looked down on … pissed on … shat on”. The concluding “and other people don’t” is all that is needed to put everything into context and highlight the injustice of grinding poverty alongside the reality of relative wealth enjoyed by others (such as the callers for whom the poet is anywhere but home) whose lives include none of the indignities listed in the poem.
“Some People” works because it retains the reader’s interest by using a variety of tried and trusted methods. These include shock, humour, fantasy, anger and chanting. Every line is an example of at least one of these, and the reader wants to know what comes next. It is not a poem that many people will give up on once they have started it, and it is the sort of poem that works extremely well when read in public, especially to an audience that can relate to its sentiments. It is hard to imagine it not getting an enthusiastic round of applause under such circumstances!
© John Welford