Back to Leftside
Forward to Leftside
by Humphrey McQueen
Capitalism corrupts. That corruption takes many forms. There are the bribes paid by property despoilers into the coffers of the ALP. There is an economic order which spurs the human need for possessions onto greed. It can end in rottenness, or just by going soft.
Capitalism corrodes. The relentlessness of its barbarity deadens our revulsion at each new horror. The power of capital to defeat our best endeavours hardens the heart against hope. Prelates and professors assure us that the monstrosities televised as ‘the news’ are clips from an eternity of ‘human nature’.
Jim’s selection confronts the worst. Nothing human is alien to his account. But he shows how ‘human nature’, whether as propaganda or in practice, can be twisted by the needs that capital has to expand.
In his poems, he cauterises corruption with caustic, speaks bitterness to defend a certain gentleness, counters the corrosion with images from a grace which gathers pawpaws, the goddess Diana, the moon and global greenhouse. He fashions his North Country rambles into phrases until we, too, are ‘watching skylarks fall out of a fading sun’. He thrills at each great-grand-bairn, swells to the recollection of his grandmother and to the warmth of a friendship formed in childhood with Mike Haywood. Jim has the gift for friendship, and for comradeship.
A comrade is anyone who steers us away from the corruption and the corrosiveness. Many of us rely on Jim to remind us of the best and the worst, just as he relied on his workmates, as he puts it, ‘hearin’ and listenin’. At meetings, activists listen because we know that his politics are cut from experience tempered by thoughtfulness, qualities which pervade his writing. His concern for finding the best way forward in action appears in the insistent questioning that structures several of these verses, a device, which, from his fingers, eludes the rhetorical to reach incisiveness.
Throughout, Jim’s voice is of a class and of a region. His spelling is part of his inventiveness. As Ben Bowyang put it: if ‘rong’ doesn’t spell ‘wrong’, what does it spell? We can ask the same of Jim’s ‘boozh-wah’. His variant conveys a contempt that ‘bourgeois’ does not allow. Literary critics indulge Ezra Pound for such mintings.
Jim’s politics will offend the aesthete more than do the atrocities he confronts. ‘Social continuum’ and ‘lah-zay-fare’ are as much a part of his being as is his watching snow fall, manning a picket, or absorbing democratic leadership from his job delegate, ’Owd Norm. Take the flint of speech away and the steel will not spark.
The author of one of Jim’s favourite books, A Scots Quair, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, reminds us of how often the regional reader must translate standard English idioms. Here is a chance to return that courtesy.
The regional accents of many British immigrants are a neglected point of discrimination. Politicians chase votes from immigrants whose first language is not English. Governments fund programs to preserve those heritages within a multi-cultural Australia. The academy accommodates π-ο from his Greek, and indigenous deadlys. What is done for the Glaswegian or the Geordie? This neglect is one of the hidden injuries of class.
Another is the neglect of working-class bards. Turn the pages in old trade union journals and you discover verses which merit attention beyond the dispute that sparked their composition. Rarely will their authors see their work between a set of covers, and never in commercial anthologies.
Hence, what is unique about Jim’s selection is not that a butcher has written poetry. Shakespeare’s dad was a butcher – which is why the boozh-wah-zie invented the Earl of Oxford as the author of his plays. What is unusual about Jim’s poetry is its appearance as a book. His comrades have taken charge of its publication, supported by his old union.
Let’s dare to generalise from a handful of volumes of verse dealing with proles. In the early 1990s, the Food Preservers Union in Tasmania sponsored Bruce Roberts to write poems around the struggles at McCann’s vegetable packers. His Captive to the process (1992) spotlights how much can be grasped by someone from outside the iron cage.
Some delay awaits the worker who becomes a poet. Jeff Goodfellow got started only after injury put him out of the building game, Jennifer Maiden once she had left the factory floor for the university, Jim Sharp since he was made redundant. It is as if the grind that supplied their content prevented its expression. Poetry workshops in prison give inmates the time to write that they would not have under the hard labour imposed by the market.
Until made redundant, Jim was, in effect, illiterate. Then, he read, and, from there, he wrote. Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts gave him the word for what he had been through: alienation. In his poems, Jim has written over that estrangement. Throughout, his writings strive for a world which realises William Morris’s conviction that creativity is the form of work suitable to human beings.
The dialectical materialist Mao asks where correct ideas come from. His answer is ‘social practice’: the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific investigation. Is there no by-way to correct ideas through poetry? Was the Philosophical Idealist Plato correct to treat poetry as the enemy of the truth?
No art can compete with science. Yet, poetry offers insights through its intimacy of form with content, the effort of finding the right word, the shaping power of stresses to a line. These techniques take poets further into what they observe, carrying response to a fresh level of perception. The aesthetic dimension imposes its own discipline on knowledge.
Jim explores that process when he shows us that the gun-boner is not the worker who wields his knife faster than others. Rather, the gun-boner is the worker most skilled at sharpening the knife. Success depends on the work before the cut. Next, in ‘Hand-held tools’, he leads us through more than the self-education of one person. We enter into an appreciation of social labour developing across a lifetime as it remakes both teller and tale. We see the child’s hand scattering seed, a butcher wielding a knife, and now the poet with his hand-held electronic dictionary.
Whetting his expressiveness on the everyday, as in ‘the waitress’, Jim recognises a significance in what appears to be little more than alienated labour. His own translation from illiteracy into art speaks to his trust that all of life might be transformed through the self-emancipation of his class.
01 March 2010