One of the most zealous advocates of the Canadian blue-collar poem over the last thirty years has been Tom Wayman, who has authored and edited several books of poems and prose limning the quotidian realities of labour. But the Squire of Appledore’s contribution has been one of quantity, rather than quality. Wayman favours rather drab tenets of “clarity, honesty, accuracy of statement” over “difficulties or mysteries generated by tricks of language or poetic form.” He labels his “industrial poetry” as a mature “adult literature,” as opposed to the juvenile escapism and blind denial more commonly available in the poetry section. What’s important is not so much the manner in which a story is told, but the mere fact that certain people are telling it on paper. Not surprisingly, this quasi-Marxian denigration of the creative impulse in favour of prose fact has generated a great deal of poetry that is the literary equivalent of Metamucil, promoting regularity while demoting taste buds.
The poetics of Wayman and his ilk, for all their populist pretensions, are basically snobbish. As Ken Babstock put it in a recent Globe and Mail review, the “materials, experience and contexts [of blue-collar work are] too often trod upon by a well-intentioned but ultimately condescending verse-style that seems to assume workers can’t handle any syntax more complex than that found in an elementary-school book.” Fortunately for readers of Canadian poetry, a number of talented poets have opted to pitch Wayman’s protestant prescriptions and have produced fine work poems that are apt to find friends in faculty and factory alike.
Peter Trower, though not well known east of BC, is one of our most potent poets still writing. His obscurity can be blamed largely on being pigeonholed as a “logger poet” (Trower toiled twenty-two years in the woods and in a variety of other industrial jobs). This does justice neither to Trower’s talent and range, nor to the inherent drama and worth of his subjects. Trower integrates traditions of popular balladry (especially the rhymes of Robert Swanson), savvy knowledge of modernist poetics, atavistic Anglo-Saxon proclivities for alliteration and compound metaphors, and all the strange diction of the logging camp into a poetry that is smart, gutsy (often gut-wrenching) and elegiac. A selection of his best work from 1969 to the present is now conveniently available in one volume: Haunted Hills and Hanging Valleys, from Harbour Publishing. This book should establish Trower as the king-feller of Canadian letters that he is.
A bevy of younger poets across the country have in recent years published compelling on-the-job verse. In both his first book, A Tinker’s Picnic, and his most recent release, An ABC of Belly Work, Peter Richardson includes a handful of poems inspired by his work as an airport ramp worker, as well as by other odd jobs. Though his primary mode is anecdotal, and many of his poems can be enjoyed as yarns, Richardson doesn’t tell simple stories, but digs up the metaphoric connections between labour and art, as in “Ground Equipment Recital,” where
It isn’t just a question
of time, but noise.
The sound takes on a second
inside your ears,
while all the time
it is building like a chorus
inside your stomach,
vibrating along your chest wall,
thrumming inside your voice,
until, hours later
—when you’re sitting, say,
admiring the way light
falls between two buildings—
it surfaces in your hands.
Here the manual work of baggage handling and writing elide. Richardson is also one of the cleverest punsters to have emerged in recent poetry. In “Standby,” he juxtaposes “automated / baggage sorting terminals” with the anatomy of the male reproductive system (the setting is the poet’s vasectomy), setting up double entendres on terms like “feeder belts” and “wing-shaped bandaids.” The doctor’s name is Carrier—an apt metaphor—and one isn’t quite sure at first what the speaker’s referring to when he says that he’s “grateful for pinpoint accuracy, / for the proper use of materials / that lay close to hand.”
Ken Babstock, whose Mean won the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award in 2000, writes stylishly poignant work poems. In “Deck. It’s a Deck.”, he nails down the details of rough carpentry and the alienation of workers with sharp, economic syntax and diction, without resorting to the pedantic preachiness he deplores:
Wet lime-stink of backfill—excavation—
boulders drilled, split with a sledge, and hefted
like ballast up over the edge.
a foundation. Posts and beams, planed
smooth, plumbed, and bolted to—fixed
like monoliths on some island
knoll—then the screams
of a SkilSaw; a quiltwork of tongue-and-
groove sheathing, seams staggered, then
glued. Lengths of bevelled
decking laid crosswise
and screwed. It’s what I accomplished. For wages.
The craft in this excerpt is dazzling, virtuoso stuff, as the patterns of internal rhyme, alliteration and assonance mimic the building process, right down to the staggered seams of the sheathing. And notice how, in the last line quoted, the speaker’s accomplishment is sandwiched between “screwed . . . For wages.” Babstock knows how to serve his Marx sideways, and his technical skill in no way murks the clarity and immediacy of this poem.
Joe Denham displays similar precision in the sequence “Night Haul, Morning Set,” a pitch-perfect suite of sixteen sixteen-line poems about his time as a commercial fisherman on the West Coast. Like Trower, Denham exploits the specialized vocabulary of his trade to its fullest potential, his poems stocked with terms like “hauler,” “set,” “pike pole,” “davit” and more; terms obscure to the layman but which need no explanation because they are props in vividly realized scenes. And like Babstock, Denham presents the sometimes bleak plight of the worker obliquely, drawing subtle lines of connection between the life of prey and predator. In one poem, rain gear is “[s]tiff as a crustacean’s carapace”; in another oneiric piece, the speaker “crawl[s] the sea floor, crustaceous” and is then violently hauled up to the surface; in another, the poet reflects on his subordinate role in the piscine economy while gutting a squid:
I bring the glinting blade down and
cut the blue-grey guts away, catch
my reflection in the steel-shaft
mirror: guilt-wracked, gut-sick
for two bucks a pound, fish feed,
tako sushi on Robson Street.
These poems display a wealth of dramatic tension, metaphorical vaulting, verbal dexterity and formal wherewithal. They present work not as a cardboard template for ideological grandstanding, but as a complex and fully realized verbal world.
Adam Getty steps this complexity up a notch in his debut collection Reconciliation. Getty works in a slaughterhouse in Burlington, Ontario, and many of his poems deal, if not directly with his work, then with the social conditions of the urban worker and the city’s homeless. But his verse displays an intense study of poetic form and the history of Western civilization, as well as an acute awareness of his immediate surroundings:
. . . Long nights in the library at school
looking for what was human, divine, and finding only
the ancient terraces where huge catches of fish
were scaled or the ruined accretion of slag piled high
by blackened hands now unknown: did their names
sound some tone of greatness, were some called
Solon, Pericles, Sophocles? These unmourned
seemed my tradition, digging canals in Uruk, raising pigs
in the wind-blown fields on Sumatra, improving
the knife north of the Pyrenees, gathering cassava
near the holy city of Ife—how little your Ifes, Catal Huyuks,
Delphis, Jerusalems, next to the ones who made life possible,
who still do. Looking up from my study, I felt Milan had been orphaned,
Poland invaded, while I had wandered through dead countries.
(“The Maid of the Mist”)
This excerpt from a seventy-seven-line tirade of a poem—whose sophistication and angry grace make Wayman’s poetry of accurate statement seem as pale as it is—signals a more significant accuracy about the nature of man’s exploitation of man and problematizes academic notions of literature and civilization without sacrificing literary excellence in the bargain. This is poetry that knocks you out like a cudgel, not like a sedative, poetry that should inspire genuine sympathy in any sensitive, intelligent reader and not merely in those already in the know, either industrially or literarily speaking.
These five poets have markedly distinct voices and techniques for approaching manual labour as a subject of their poetry. What they share is a commitment to their readers and to the art of poetry itself. This commitment consists not of spoon-feeding predigested dogma in simple syntax, but of a resistance to literary preciousness and self-indulgent esoteric obscurity and an emphasis on craft and shared humanity. Their messages are stronger and far more persuasive—if more complicated and unclear, for such is life—than any heavy-handed agitprop can hope to be. As workers themselves, they respect a job well done and the work that goes into a finely forged tool or weapon.
Halifax-based Zachariah Wells is the author of Unsettled, a book of Arctic poems forthcoming from Insomniac Press. Contrary to popular opinion, he does not think he’s always right. The Zed Factor appears every second Monday.