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Book Review

Working Classics:
Poems on Industrial Life

by Nicholas Coles

Reviewed by:
Susan Packie


Your boss doesn't want you to read this book. It promotes the questioning of authority. It promotes thought. The poems included in this collection show real people working at real jobs. They create a tapestry of industrial life, of involvement in doing, or not doing, in the case of unemployment.

Working Classics has a long list of forerunners in the fields of literature and the social sciences. I didn't have to reach far into my memory backpack to pull out John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, Stud's Terkel's Division Street, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Herbert Gans's The Urban Villagers, and William Carlos Williams's Paterson poems, mentioned in this book's excellent introduction.

A number of literary magazines have also focused on working life, including San Fernando Poetry Journal, Processed World, Mill hunk Herald, Planet Detroit, Street Fare Journal, Quindaro, Left Curve and, of course, this journal, Social Anarchism. Poems are now found on buses and subways in New York city, and on buses in San Francisco. They don't just chronicle, but reach out to workers.

Working Classics, like the literary magazines, is made up of many voices, arranged in alphabetical order. An index of topics dealt with in the book will be of use to those who have specific interests, for example, "women working," "strikes," and "accidents." The poems reflect conditions during the first nine decades of the twentieth century. They flow together seamlessly, belying their arrangement by writer rather than topic.

The people who inhabit the poems have lint and sweat in their hair, not mousse, whether they go to work or stay at home to be there for the ones who trudge off to the blue-collar jobs. The places described come alive as if they, too, were caught up in a struggle to survive. The poems are jarring, not musical. William Carlos Williams felt that any poem that could be set to music was not a particularly good poem. They are akin to photographs with commentary, specific yet timeless, explanations implicit as well as explicit.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration may be attempting to ease workplace stress injuries, but there will still be voices crying out against unfairness, monotony, mindless labor, wasted lives, and proud voices extolling competence, in spite of aching back and pressure. However, the majority of the voices lament being "used up as smoldering rags" (James Scully, p. 215, "Enough!), workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company standing on windowsills facing nothingness, flames singeing their hair. But nobody praises unemployment, regardless of how meaningless employment might be. This isn't just a question of jobs, but of life.

Not all these voices belong to the blue-collar workers. some once were, but are no longer. Some are offspring of blue-collar workers, exploring their roots. Some are full-time authors or poets. Some worked in law, social work, the financial industry. All are deeply concerned with the plight of the worker, with general situations and individual solutions.

Of course, these work-writers were of two minds: one centered on their jobs; the other, on transforming work into poetry. They stand with, yet apart from others, observing. The poets can walk away from the machines, climb out of the mines, slip off their chains. The real toilers don't have this option. Kate Daniels, in "Self-Portrait with Politics," touches on this alienation of those who do from those who write about doing: "He [her brother] works in a factory and can never understand/why I am paid a salary for teaching poetry/just as I can never understand his factory job/where everyone loves or hates the boss like god." Otherwise, I didn't get a sense of what the subjects felt about their chroniclers. It is highly unlikely the differentiation went unnoticed. "To write about them/yet not interfere" (Chris Llewellyn, p. 156, "Sear"). Maybe the writers were such good sociologists they really were invisible, accepted as fellow laborers.

Sociology has gone the way of the statisticians and the determinists. Novelists and poets still record working life, thank goodness. Bosses will ban the book. Readers of Social Anarchism will delight in its heresy. I usually pass read books along to friends. I'm keeping this one.

 

Bibliography

Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life, edited by Peter Oresick and Nicholas Coles. 269 pp. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990. $34.95 cloth. $13.95 paper.

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