One of the paradoxes of the ‘great literary works' is that very few of them are about work.
Work, in the endless lists of ‘great' novels and stories, is something that happens off stage while the characters get on with the business of leisure.
The great poets too, almost always fail to write about work. When they do (as, for example, in Wordsworth's ‘ Solitary Reaper ') the poem is invariably about anything but the ‘work' performed: perhaps the sensibility of the poet, the simple and mundane beauty of the scene or the great metaphysical conceits that the labour triggers . Important concerns no doubt; but they are not about the labour itself.
Australia 's most prominent poet, Les Murray is sometimes considered to be a voice of the rural working class. Let's see how he represents the people he writes about.
Driving Through Sawmill Towns
In the high cool country,
having come from the clouds,
down a tilting road
into a distant valley,
you drive without haste. Your windscreen parts the forest,
swaying and glancing, and jammed midday brilliance
crouches in clearings . . .
then you come across them,
the sawmill towns, bare hamlets built of boards
with perhaps a store,
perhaps a bridge beyond
and a little sidelong creek alive with pebbles.
The mills are roofed with iron, have no walls:
you look straight in as you pass, see lithe men working,
the swerve of a winch,
dim dazzling blades advancing
through a trolley-borne trunk
till it sags apart
in a manifold sprawl of weatherboards and battens.
The men watch you pass:
when you stop your car and ask them for directions,
tall youths look away—
it is the older men who
come out in blue singlets and talk softly to you.
Beside each mill, smoke trickles out of mounds
of ash and sawdust.
You glide on through town,
your mudguards damp with cloud.
The houses there wear verandahs out of shyness,
all day in calendared kitchens, women listen
for cars on the road,
lost children in the bush,
a cry from the mill, a footstep—
The half-heard radio sings
its song of sidewalks.
Sometimes a woman, sweeping her front step,
or a plain young wife at a tankstand fetching water
in a metal bucket will turn round and gaze
at the mountains in wonderment,
looking for a city.
Evenings are very quiet. All around
the forest is there.
As night comes down, the houses watch each other:
a light going out in a window here has meaning.
You speed away through the upland,
glare through towns
and are gone in the forest, glowing on far hills.
On summer nights
ground-crickets sing and pause.
In the dark of winter, tin roofs sough with rain,
downpipes chafe in the wind, agog with water.
Men sit after tea
by the stove while their wives talk, rolling a dead match
between their fingers,
thinking of the future.
In my reading, Murray does not get around the problem of being an observer. Much of what goes for reports on working class life are really reports written from the outside.
This is a problem which afflicts many of the ways our society remembers itself. Workers and work are under- or badly represented in all media and forms. Significantly, the reality of work is also often absent in works of general history.
History books usually tell the tale of the deeds of the great men and, occasionally, the great women. With this truism in mind, Bertolt Brecht wrote the poem “A Worker's Questions while Reading”.
Questions from a Worker Who Reads
Who built Thebes of the Seven Gates?
In the books stand the names of kings.
Did they then drag up the rock slabs?
And Babylon , so often destroyed,
Who kept rebuilding it?
In which houses did the builders live
In gold-glittering Lima ?
Where did the bricklayers go
The evening the Great Wall of China was finished?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Were there only palaces for the inhabitants of much-sung Byzantium ?
Even in legendary Atlantis
Didn't the drowning shout for their slaves
As the ocean engulfed it?
The young Alexander conquered India .
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Without even a cook?
Phillip of Spain wept when his fleet went down.
Did no one weep besides?
Frederick the Great won the Seven Years War.
Who won it with him?
A victory on every page.
Who cooked the victory feast?
A great man every ten years.
Who paid the costs?
So many reports,
So many questions.
Brecht's poem might be read as call for working class history
But we might also infer a call for a Working Class Poetry.
For many Working Class Poetry is a contentious issue
- Some critics see it as an oxymoron. Poetry is a middle class vocation; how can poetry be working class?
- Some see no point in singling out a working class form of poetry or culture generally
- Some accept the term but say that it is a form of writing that is almost inevitably poor; only rarely does a good working class poet emerge
Let's look at some working class poetry
1. Kerry Watson
- Reveals the underside to Brecht's poem – a narrative poem about a man who drives buses and his private-school educated daughter
- A poem about class shame
- The business shirt is ‘normalised'
- I read this poem quite personally
A poem by a working class person
- About a working class family
- Addressed to ……?
- Is it for the working class?
- What is the effect of the poem?
2. Mick Searles
While the Watson poem revealed one working class identity formed by family, Searles reveal 19 different kinds of working class identity.
Writing at Home
A poem about the Romantic notion of an artist in a garret. Compare with Lionel Fogarty's 'Tired of Writing' or Dylan Thomas's ‘In my Craft or Sullen Art'.
What is the effect of the poem? What does it seem to argue?
Another working class poem about collective domestic environment
I've got a hole in one
Brickies Labouring is:
going through five pairs of boots in a year
and having the taxman not believe you
because he gets eighteen months
out of his golf shoes.
Humour. Compare with Macintosh and Watson's TAB poems.
And it gets so . . .
And it gets so
that you can't wash your hair
because on raising your arms above your head,
and you curse
and stroke towards the heart
like a swimmer,
aiming for the oil terminals
among the rocks
(no matter which way, industry has you)
So you have to bend in worship
and wash it in a blue plastic dish,
and like the bottom of a battered pan;
there is the fools gold;
pieces of brick dust and diamonds of sand
for your wife.
Self mocking but quite a beautiful poem that turns labour and its effects into the objects of art (unlike the solitary reaper). The first-person advantage.
Rescuing working class history. Dismantling the idea of the good old days
These poems all have in common:
- the attempt to reveal another, suppressed reality
- telling it like it is
- humour or gallows humour
- the more or less explicit suggestion of an alternative political reality
Another way to think through the term
- By the working class
- About the working class
- For the working class
- In the interests of the working class