Friday, August 12, 2016

Poetry Work (1999)

Book Review from the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Work: An Anthology. Edited by Dinah Livingstone with the Common Words Group, Katabasis, 1999, pb. £12.95 

Call me a philistine if you wish, but I find much contemporary poetry boring. Poets, lacking anything significant to say about change, retreat into reflective abstractions and introspective indulgence. I am not hoping for all literature to be "politically meaningful", but neither should it be precious, remote from the world and proud in its inaccessibility. Poets should seek to be understood. 

Work is an anthology by poets who clearly want to be understood. As importantly, they clearly understand what it is they are writing about. This is not an observer's view of work but the testimony of people who have themselves had to work in order to live. The book breathes experience. It is a superb collection, comprising new works by writers who have a record of publication and reputation and others who were hitherto unpublished. 

The anthology begins with an extract from Morris's How We Live and How We Might Live which serves as a political foreword to the volume, rooting it explicitly in a political recognition of how employment turns the worker into "but an appendage to profit-grinding". Poems within the anthology return to this again and again, few more powerfully than Christopher Hampton's exposure of "the leash" of wage slavery; Sandra Smith's wonderful comparison between workers and birds; and Dilys Wood's moving evocation of a miner's life. There is much more: short, sharp pieces on odd jobs such as the chiropodist by Anna Robinson and Dinah Livingstone's brilliant "assistant birdman of Regent's Park". Mimi Khalvati writes beautifully on the work of being a poet. And these are just some. There are prose pieces, including direct reports from the Hillingdon hospital workers (Asian women who were on strike for four years for refusing to take a pay cut; their employer is a member of Blair's Low Pay Commission) and an account of a young worker killed by casualisation. Ernest Fischer, whose The Necessity of Art remains probably the finest Marxian analysis of the role of art, describes how poetry began in the rhythm of the work song, itself produced by the repeated movements of physical work. So it is appropriate that this fine anthology of poetry should return to the subject of work—to its frustrations, its creativity, its rhythms and its pitiful rewards. The next Katabasis anthology will be on the theme of Home. I'm looking forward to it already.
Steve Coleman

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