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Paper by Ray Brown - "Working Class Poetry"

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“Working Class Poetry
Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work”

Abstract:

“This paper examines the role of poetry in enabling a worker to bridge the gap between their soul, their work, their employer, and society. There is little opportunity for creativity in monotonous Blue Collar work. Daily routines are depressing, alienating the worker from job, employer and surroundings. The working class struggle is not only for economic mobility, but to find the means to feel human, in an impersonal work environment with no options.

Professor M. I. Liebler’s Anthology, “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams” and the words of 20th Century writers provide the foundation for this paper.”

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Paper by Ray Brown - "Working Class Poetry"

  1. 1. “Working Class Poetry - Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work” “Working Class Poetry Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work”Abstract: “This paper examines the role of poetry in enabling a worker to bridge the gap between theirsoul, their work, their employer, and society. There is little opportunity for creativity in monotonousBlue Collar work. Daily routines are depressing, alienating the worker from job, employer andsurroundings. The working class struggle is not only for economic mobility, but to find the means tofeel human, in an impersonal work environment with no options. Professor M. I. Liebler’s Anthology, “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking Out theJams” and the words of 20th Century writers provide the foundation for this paper.”______________________________________________________________________________ “You work. You work, Buddy. You work.” These are the first words from“Grandfather’s Breath”, by Ohio poet Ray McNiece.1 Work is at the very essence of human existence. Though in early Judeo-Christiantheology it is a punishment for transgressions against the Creator - toil is how we fill our lives. Ifit were not deigned by the gods, the human race would have created it to fulfill a need to satisfy abasic longing of human existence. Work is creativity - an extension of ones personality. Work isa means to provide dignity and meaning in life. Work therefore, is more than the essence ofhuman existence, it is the human condition. Pope John Paul said:"Toil is something that is universally known, for it is universally experienced. It is familiar tothose doing physical work under sometimes exceptionally laborious conditions. It is familiarnot only to agricultural workers, who spend long days working the land, ... but also to thosewho work in mines and quarries, to steel workers at their blast furnaces, to those who work inbuilders yards and in construction work, often in danger of injury or death. It is likewisefamiliar to those at an intellectual workbench; to scientists; to those who bear the burden ofgrave responsibility for decisions that will have a vast impact on society. It is familiar todoctors and nurses, who spend days and nights at their patients bedside. It is familiar towomen, who, sometimes without proper recognition on the part of society and even of theirown families, bear the daily burden and responsibility for their homes and the upbringing oftheir children. It is familiar to all workers and, since work is a universal calling, it is familiarto everyone.”21|Page
  2. 2. “Working Class Poetry - Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work” Before the industrial revolution, young workers were left with few options. Honed intheir fathers footsteps or indentured to learn a craft or trade - the only means for a modicum ofupward mobility.3 Each member of the household worked to help sustain the family unit. Philosophers and theologians have contemplated the relationship of work to the humanspirit - to a person’s soul - that aspect of ourselves that links physical and earthly existence to theeternal. Contemporary thinkers still struggle with this as the nature of work changes, with newsocial dynamics and types of work. Thomas Moore writes about the care of the soul in the workplace. Moore postulates theneed for meaning in the workplace as necessary for a fulfilled (psychologically sustainable) life.With work often “We only consider function, and so the soul elements are left to chance. …Where there is no artfulness about life, there is a weakening of soul...” 4. "Let us imagine careof the soul, then, as an application of poetics to everyday life.”5 Thomas Mertons in "New Seeds of Contemplation,"6 writes: "The requirements of awork to be done can be understood as the will of God. If I am supposed to hoe a garden ormake a table, then I will be obeying God if I am true to the task I am performing. ... He worksthrough me. When I act as His instrument my labor cannot become an obstacle tocontemplation, even though it may temporarily so occupy my mind that I cannot engage in itwhile I am actually doing my job. Yet my work itself will purify and pacify my mind anddispose me for contemplation." In spite of these lofty esoteric religious statements, earlier religious doctrines, rules andprotocols, were tailored more to ensure that the early economic engines churned - rather than inrecognition of the need to satisfy human needs.7 A surf’s role was but to serve his Master,eventually the King, a ruler who represented the deity and Its will.8 When less sophisticated,non-Christian cultures were encountered, they were considered heathens – savages. Most viewedas less than human -- beasts of burden - a tool in the world of work. Slavery was viewed as a partof the natural order.9 Indentured servitude served the purposes of class and commerce.10 With the dawn of the industrial revolution, enslavement evolved from a legal concept ofnon-compensated toil, to a concept of legalized, but minimally compensated, servitude. Mostworkers served not only those who owned the capital but were slaves to the impersonal machinesof the workplace themselves. Monotonous, routine, tedious, physically and mentally taxing2|Page
  3. 3. “Working Class Poetry - Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work”manual labor marked each day - not just the seven or eight hours which are a norm now -- but 12to 16 hour days which pushed each man to the limits of human endurance.11 Political philosophers eventually struggled with responding to these deep-seededproblems. Where a society has acknowledged the need for change, change has always beendifficult to reconcile. Slavery, indentured servitude, laissez-faire economies, had always beenposited as necessary to promote the engines that would sustain the majority of the population.12 In the late 19th and early 20th century movements took shape that directly confrontedthese realities. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,13 Karl Marx identified fourtypes of alienation in labor under capitalism: Alienation of the worker from the work he produces, from the product of his labor Alienation of the worker from working, from the act of producing itself Alienation of the worker from himself as a producer, from his or her "species being" or "essence as a species". Alienation of workers from other workers or producers” To bridge these gaps, Marxs philosophy required an upheaval in the social structure thatcould not be tolerated in most Western cultures, particular America. Change in most politicalsystems was gradual – except where it was implemented by force.14 What does the worker do while awaiting real change? Reconciliation of a worker andhis essence cannot be dependent upon the whim of politics. Each man, or a group of men with acommon identity, common enslavement, each worker, or a group of workers, motivated by thebasic enduring concepts of human nature, are forced to craft interim solutions, are driven to finda way to bridge the gap, to find meaning when their work or circumstance withholds it. Poetry played a role in fostering personal fulfillment. 15 Through the written and spokenword, often converted to song, the words of the poet are converted to memory - move the bodyand spirit – bridge the gap - promote endurance. Poetry, in the form of the time period, wasthere to help an individual make it through the work day, the monotony, anxiety and pain, help aworker endure until the last lash was received or the factory whistle blew.3|Page
  4. 4. “Working Class Poetry - Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work” Enslaved blacks and their descendants used the arts to stay rooted to a culture from whichthey had been ripped – to endure – until escape. Song, dance, storytelling, helped bridged thegap between enslavement and identity – between the chains of work and freedom of spirit. “boy, that old cracker said to me, what the hell you doing sitting down in my shade? I was real young and must not’ve known any better so I said to him, your shade bossman?..... …..now you sass me one more time, nigger,….and you see that big limb right there over your head? ……..that’s when he pulled out this pistol … I headed off into the wind…. I outrun the first piece of lead…. ….and that’s how I ended up here in Detroit.”16an excerpt from Migration Scene (1937), by Albert Aubert. Or the words of Philadelphia poet, Lamont Steptoe in his poem, “Day Worker” about hismother:“….and much of her life would be spent on her knees in white folk’s kitchens…work withher back to the sun with huge windows across her thighs, feet dangling inside, hands full of damp, wet newspaper shining the thick glass…momma…momma…after all those cold winters, after all those hot summers, after all thoseyears of your life you gave to those white people for our sake, how can it be that you could teach us how to be gentle?...17And, The Women Who Clean Fish by Erica Funkhouser:“The women who clean fish are all named Roseor Grace. They wake up close to the water,damp and dreamy beneath white sheets,thinking of white beaches.4|Page
  5. 5. “Working Class Poetry - Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work”It is always humid where they work.Under plastic aprons, their breastsfoam and bubble. They wear old clothesbecause the smell will never go.On the floor, chlorine.On the window, dry streams left by gulls…It is the iridescent scales that stick,clinging to cheek and wrist,lighting up hours later in a dark room.”18Womanhood by Catherine Anderson:“…When she enters,and the millgate closes,final as a slap,therell be silence.Shell see fifteen high windowscemented over to cut out light.Inside, a constant, deafening noiseand warm air smelling of oil,the shifts continuing on. . .All day shell guide cloth along a lineof whirring needles, her arms & shouldersrocking back & forthwith the machines--200 porch size rugs behind herbefore she can stopto reach up, like her mother,and pick the lintout of her hair.”19The worker in Gary Snyder’s poem "Hay for the Horses" is bitter, when looking back on hiscareer:5|Page
  6. 6. “Working Class Poetry - Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work”“’Im sixty-eight’ he said,‘I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.I thought, that day I started,I sure would hate to do this all my life.And dammit, thats just whatIve gone and done.’”20 The poet Martín Espada said in a recent interview: 21 "...I think it’s important to realizethat we can’t always see when poetry makes a difference.... What poetry does... is to changepeople from within. It changes the way we think and the way we feel. It changes hearts andminds. It creates a new way of seeing, of feeling the world, and that in turn changes the world....... A number of people have come to me and said, “Poetry saved my life.” Many times theseare people who have come from extreme circumstances, such as deep poverty or the prisonsystem, who have struggled with drug or alcohol abuse, or a history of domestic violence, andwill tell you, literally, “Poetry saved my life. I would have been dead without it. We can seesomething concrete happening when, for example, prison inmates are exposed to poetry, whena poet comes to visit, or their books are donated to the prison library. That’s an epiphany forsomebody out there…” Today, the sweat shops, the great blast furnaces, have evolved. The worker is enslaved tothe computer, impersonal communication, interactively evaluated by the very machines theyoperate - constantly observed by the cameras that film every step, in and out of the workplace.We carry our work – carry our workplace - 24 hours a day, within devices that constantly keepus tethered, off the clock – but not so. Statistics reflect the lack of vocational happiness.22 Computers have become thisgeneration’s machines of monotony, sapping the mind of strength, emaciating the spirit --enslaving us to the noise of electronic gadgets -- intellectual dissonance. In the midst of all this, what does today’s worker hang on to? What is there to helpestablish equilibrium – find the center of gravity – free true nature from the work which enslavesit? The nature of the contemporary workplace solidifies the role of today’s poet as an aide tohelp all vent their frustration – provide calm in a seemingly overwhelming fast paced world -bridge the gap between his work and his soul.6|Page
  7. 7. “Working Class Poetry - Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work” As Professor M. L. Lieber said in his anthology: 23 “So, from storytelling around thebackyard grill to sing-alongs in the family car to the blues, jazz, and rock music, to worker writerfestivals, to slam poetry and theater by and for the working class, we can usually start tounderstand the very important part that art plays, and has played, in the working class throughoutthe twentieth century and continues now into the twenty-first century.”247|Page
  8. 8. “Working Class Poetry - Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work”8|Page
  9. 9. 1 Ray McNiece: http://www.raymcniece.com/main.htm2 Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul, pages 38-393 Economic development of the United States by Isaac Lippincott; D. Appleton and company, 1921 – page 794 “Care of the Soul”, Thomas Moore, HarperCollins, 1993, at page 1835 “Care of the Soul”, Thomas Moore, HarperCollins, 1993, at page xix6 “New Seeds of Contemplation”, Thomas Merton, New Directions Publishing, 2007 at page 197 “Sacred Trust”, Robert Burton Ekelund, Oxford University Press, US 1996, pages 171-1748 Castles and fortified cities of medieval Europe: an illustrated history; Jean-Denis Lepage; McFarland 2002, page 249 Slavery from Roman times to the early transatlantic trade”, William D. Phillips, Manchester University Press ND, 1985 -page 1710 “Slavery and servitude in colonial North America: a short history”, Kenneth Morgan, NYU Press 2001, pages 8-1311 “Marx, Durkheim, Weber: formations of modern social thought”, Kenneth L. Morrison, Sage, 2006, page 3612 Property and prophets: the evolution of economic institutions and ideologies, by E. K. Hunt, M.E.Sharpe, 2003 page 12913 “The economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844”, Karl Marx, Prometheus Books, 198814 “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels;Echo Library, 200915 “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams”, edited and Introduced by M.L. Liebler, Coffee HousePress, 201016 “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams”, poem by Albert Aubert page 1717 by Lamont Steptoe, “A Long Movie of Shadows”, (Whirlwind Press, Camden, NJ, 1994)18 by Erica Funkhouser, “The Way We Work”, edited by Peter Scheckner and M. C. Boyes, Vanderbilt University Press,200819 by Catherine Anderson, “The Work of Hands”, Perugia Press20 From Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder, published by North Point Press. 195821 Verse Wisconsin On-Line, http://www.versewisconsin.org/Issue103/prose103/espada.html22 "Job Satisfaction." Encyclopedia of Business and Finance. Ed. Allison McClintic Marion. Gale Cengage, 2001.eNotes.com. 2006. 4 Apr, 2011 <http://www.enotes.com/business-finance-encyclopedia/job-satisfaction23 “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams”, edited and Introduced by M.L. Liebler, Coffee HousePress, 201024 “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams”, edited and Introduced by M.L. Liebler, Coffee HousePress, 2010, page xxiv

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