Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal;

bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." - T.S. Eliot

One of my favorite poems by the American poet Robert Pinsky is a poem called “Shirt.”


The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms   
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

I think this is a really wonderful poem which manages to highlight the double-edged nature of modern labor -- how it is both necessarily dignifying and profoundly alienating -- by focusing on a single, ordinary piece of clothing. Pinsky uses the binding force of the literary device of anaphora to weave the painful, proud history of labor in America into the fabric of this poem: the legacy of slave labor, the terrible fire at the Triangle Shirt Factory that lead to some of the first workplace safety regulations, and the generations of immigrant workers who made America’s economic ascendancy possible.

In this poem, Pinsky also ties the act of making poetry to more supposedly simple labor of making a shirt with his references to Hart Crane and George Herbert. The George Herbert allusion is particularly fitting. Herbert is notable for his intricate rhyme schemes and famous for writing “pattern poetry,” in which words were placed on the page to make a picture. In sewing, a “pattern” is the original garment from which other garments are copied. Pinsky’s connection between George Herbert and Irma, a clothing inspector, emphasizes the similarity of pattern-making across these two disciplines.

So I found it both surprising and apt to discover yesterday that Pinsky’s whole poem itself was clearly cut from an earlier pattern.

This week’s issue of the New Yorker includes an article by Adam Gopnik on the economic theories of Adam Smith. Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is the most famous and influential economic treatise ever written and is the foundation of all modern economic theory. It has long been on my list of books to read, but I’ve never gotten around to it.

In his piece, Gopnik writes, “To illustrate his central thesis about ‘the division of labor,’ and to illuminate the play between large and small in economics, Smith began his book with one of the great virtuoso pieces of mock-epic writing of the period. He took a single worker in England and meditated on the number of different occupations and laborers involved in dressing him.”

Sound like a familiar theme? Wait until you see the actual quote from Adam Smith…

The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production…To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brick-maker, the brick-layer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the mill-wright, the forger, the smith… without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated.

What we have here is the very pattern after which Pinsky’s poem is modeled: not only are the themes the same, but the literary device of anaphora, the wide-ranging vision, and even the central image of the shirt are all the same. The poem itself is a work made possible by the labor of earlier writers, working in diverse fields, brought together by a master craftsman. Adam Smith, I feel sure, would approve.

I think Pinsky is one of those poets who actually do a terrible job in reading their own poems. Pinsky’s poetry is actually quite humble, witty, and humane, but his readings are always, to my ear, awfully pretentious and portentous. But for curiosity’s sake, here’s a video of Pinsky reading this poem. Beforehand he makes a few comments which are interesting in light of the poem, but the poem itself starts somewhere around 2:55.

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