Friday, July 24, 2009

Sensitive and meaningful

Although -- cough cough -- some of my dearest friends are poets, and I'm a fairly keen reader of poetry, I have no tolerance at all for spoken word poetry. None. My essential problem is with the poetry voice. I have found myself for various reasons (none of them to do with personal enjoyment) at many poetry readings over the years, where the poet -- who five minutes earlier may have been imparting a scurrilous description of a mutual enemy, or likewise something quite normal -- takes the mike and suddenly starts declaiming in the poetry voice, coming over all sensitive and meaningful. On what was possibly the most memorable such occasion I have attended*, they did it in the Russian language. большое and до свидания, as we Russians joyfully say!

However, in my usual spirit of easy-going glasnost, as it's Poetry Day in New Zealand today, I thought I would share a few verses of my favourite-equal New Zealand poem**, James K. Baxter's Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works, written following his dismissal after three weeks' indifferent work at the Chelsea Sugar Refinery in Auckland in 1969. This poem contains the two greatest lines in the history of New Zealand poetry. (I imagine it will be apparent to the sensitive reader which lines I am referring to.) I have found the sentiment expressed in them a particularly useful maxim for working in public art galleries.

Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works

Oh in the Stonegut Sugar Works
The floors are black with grime
As I found out when I worked there
Among the dirt and slime;
I think they must have built it
In Queen Victoria's time.

I had the job of hosing down
The hoick and sludge and grit
For the sweet grains of sugar dust
That had been lost in it
For the Company to boil again
And put it on your plate;

For all the sugar in the land
Flows through that dismal dump
And all the drains run through the works
Into a filthy sump,
And then they boil it up again
For the money in each lump.


When the head chemist came to me
Dressed in his white coat
I thought he might give me a medal
For I had a swollen foot
Got by shovelling rock-hard sugar
Down a dirty chute.

But no: 'I hear your work's all right,'
The chemist said to me,
'But you took seven minutes
To go to the lavatory;
I timed it with my little watch
My mother gave to me.'

'Oh thank you, thank you,' I replied
'I hope your day goes well.'
I watched the cold shark in his eye
Circling for the kill;
I did not bow the head to him
And so he wished me ill.


The men who sweep the floor are men
(My story here must end);
But the clerk and the slavedriver
Will never have a friend;
To shovel shit and eat it
Are different in the end.

James K. Baxter

* The launch of the excellent Landfall 213, edited by Jacob Edmond, Gregory O'Brien, Evgeny Pavlov and Ian Wedde.
**The other best poem in NZ literature is of course Jenny Bornholdt's
'Then Murray Came'.


Anonymous said...

Ah yes the poetry voice. I love the "Classic NZ poets in performance" book but some of the voices still shock me.

stephen said...

I love those lines as well, and have muttered them to myself as I quit various jobs, possibly with less justification.