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Poets in Overalls

ISSUE:  Autumn 1942

Poetry, like the farm, has adopted the machine. True, the poets put up somewhat more objections to it than did the farmer. At a time when even the conservative Amish were adopting reapers and binders, Oscar Wilde held that “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it,” and Robert Bridges wrote, “That science of my friends robs all the best, While I love beauty.” More recently, T. S. Eliot indicated dissatisfaction with

The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.

The fact is that bookish people still have a notion that machines are really very unpleasant affairs. People who sit in a motor car with the cataleptic rigidity of an elderly school marm out for her Saturday afternoon drive are usually given to pious pity for workmen who build and service machines. And in their approach to the machine, poets too often reveal the same skittish attitude.

William Rose Benet, for instance, upon seeing a roundhouse, is reminded of “some hydra’s lair” where “coal-black gryphons crouch and stare,” beasts whose “heavy panting wakes a sense of dread.” This particular dread is, I suspect, the dread of the unfamiliar and the unknown. Certainly a locomotive fireman would not experience it. It is a rare Pullman passenger, however, who can walk by a locomotive in a station without wondering if it might explode. He has vague recollections of having read somewhere about a locomotive blowing up—or maybe it was a steamboat on the Mississippi. He knows about such things only through the printed word. Thus he tends to endow the elderly man in the blue denim cap with slightly superhuman qualities. Theodore Roosevelt always shook hands with the engineer—good publicity, of course—but also the respectful attitude of the layman toward the worker of magic. It would disappoint the travelling public to know that driving a locomotive is probably as difficult as operating a two-horse hay rake. The engineer has more responsibility, but the skills involved are about the same. The motor car of some years ago was a much more difficult mechanism to handle well. I have seen a locomotive engineer fail miserably when it came to running an automobile.

It is precisely this layman’s attitude toward mechanisms he does not understand that appears in much of the writing about the machine. Paul Engle gives the sound advice that “The machine must not be worshipped as god or devil, nor must it be damned, save when it is misused in the deadly instruments of war. The poet must accept it as part of his world . . .” Probably most contemporary poets would accept this point of view. Beginning with Whitman, they have increasingly given us pictures of locomotives and airplanes. Their trouble is that they do not always know what they are talking about.

For one thing, contemporary writers have been overly impressed with the more showy and noisy aspects of mechanical things. They still like the iron horse better than the electric locomotive; they are more likely to write about riveters than welders. MacNeice, for instance, constantly talks about sirens.

Judged by the anthology test, Stephen Spender’s “The Express” is one of the most admired locomotive poems. Babette Deutsch praises Spender’s “keen pleasure in the beauty of machinery: the singing speed and brightness of the express-train.” Certainly that element is there in a superb rhythm; it is the sort of thing the passenger can experience. But let us see what has happened to the locomotive itself:

After the first powerful manifesto The black statement of pistons, without more fuss But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station Without bowing and with restrained unconcern.

The confusion of drivers with pistons is a pardonable error, but I wonder if the pathetic fallacy is. “Gliding like a queen” is trite enough; it is the imagery not of life, but of books. Perhaps Mr. Spender has seen a queen glide by without bowing and with restrained unconcern, but I suspect it is of Guinevere or Eleanor of Aquitaine that he is thinking. Later on “she acquires mystery, The luminous self-possession of ships on the ocean.” The poet’s attitude is reminiscent of the red man toward the flint-lock musket-white man’s magic.

In “The Express” this attitude is kept under some control. Too often, however, the poets’ machines are like Reginald Gardner’s locomotive which “simply loathes humanity.” Eunice Tietjens raises genealogical questions about a steam shovel:

He is the new birth of old Behemoth, late sprung from the source

Whence Grendel sprung, and all the monster clan.

The poet goes on to question the “thwarted monster” about its emotions, and exhorts it, “Have you no longing to be free?” Now if there is one thing especially characteristic of steam shovels, it is that they are seldom thwarted in whatever they attempt. Here we have the same sort of thing we noted in “The Express”—the use of literary imagery for the machine. The machine is romanticised into something else.

Thus for Spender, concrete pylons to support a high tension line are: “Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret,” an image which pleasantly distracts the mind from the contemplation of the machine age. It sounds a bit like an advertisement for Miss Lois DeFee, the giant queen of burlesque. For MacKnight Black, the frame of a skyscraper is:

this iron harlot With the sky between her breasts.

And A. S. J. Tessimond sees:

This piston’s infinite recurrence is night and morning night and morning night and death and birth and death and birth and this crank climbs (blind Sisyphus) and see

steel teeth greet bow deliberate delicately lace in lethal kiss

God’s teeth bite whitely tight . . .

This, as Miss Deutsch argues, may well have “the stiff angular character of mechanical motion” (pre-turbine vintage, of course), but here again the allusion to Sisyphus and the anthropomorphic imagery carries us away from the machine itself.

A significant characteristic of such poetry is that the emotions attributed to machines are usually evil. The wires that are supported by Spender’s nude, giant girls are “Like whips of anger.” MacNeice’s

chimneys row on row Sneer in smoke, “We told you so.”

The poorer the poem, the more likely it is to have this sort of thing. Untermeyer’s Munitions Plant has a regular tantrum:

The core of him is hate

Deep in his stones he waits and growls for war.

His iron bones strain to destroy; his bowels

Are grinding steel that crush the maggots he contains.

His fires are rushing anger

Every churning wheel Fed and well greased with Mood, Turns with a redder purpose— Released through passion to create Rash agonies of hate.

Even prose writers when they become poetic are guilty of the pathetic fallacy. Mr. Santayana has given us an old style ferry boat thus:

Presently the great steel lever, shaped like a cocked hat, that surmounted the ungainly craft, began to oscillate, beating like the heart of some monster in agony.

He does not give the name of this particular boat, but whether it was the “City of Hoboken” or the “Simon A. Garfinkle,” I have small doubt that its crew referred to it as “Betsy” or “Gertie.” Steam shovels and Mack trucks almost invariably have similar names—never a name of more Behemothian connotation than “Bill.” The drivers of the heaviest trucks usually go in for the kewpie doll type of embellishment. Far from thinking of their monsters as members of the Grendel clan, they regard them as household pets.

Of the poets, only Emily Dickinson seems to have caught this homely, friendly quality which the machine shares with all man’s articles of daily use. Her locomotive is a rowdy thing, not above chasing itself down hill, at once powerful and docile. Her attitude is not unlike that of the teamster toward his mules or of the truck driver toward “Betsy.” If the literary man once entered into the spirit of the steam shovel operator and the truck driver, he would talk of machines in the familiar and affectionate tone which the Anglo-Saxon poets used for their swords. For the steam shovel is not some Grendel loathing the laughter of men, hating them and destroying them. Rather it is an extension of man’s arm, yes, of his mind, too. Man is not the mere ant which the poet sees swarming about the roundhouse; he is a warrior with a mighty sword. The machine is Hrunting, Weyland’s work, a thing to be petted and cherished. But of Weyland’s art the scop knows little—for him, as for all those who cannot work with their hands, the thing smacks of magic; there is something sinister about the lame smith bending over his charcoal fire in the dim forests of the north.

Men who work with their hands have also made songs about their machines, but the locomotive of folk poetry is far different from the alien monster of bookish people. In the ballad, the engineer is advised,

This is not 98 But it’s old 97

You must put her in Spencer on time.

Presumably both the engineer and the fireman knew the idiosyncrasies of both 98 and old 97. The emphasis is on the man and his problem, as it should be. And when things go wrong, the images are not drawn from classical mythology or human anatomy; the failure was mechanical:

It was on that grade that he lost his airbrakes.

If that lacks some of the esthetic quality of more sophisticated verse, it nevertheless gives us a truer picture of the relationship of man and machine than does “God’s teeth bite whitely tight.” Casey Jones never confuses himself with Sisyphus; he is the master of his six-eight wheeler:

Put in your water and shovel in your coal,

Put your head out the window, watch them drivers roll.

I’ll run her till she leaves the rail

Cause I’m eight hours late with that western mail.

It is significant that the verse of Sandburg, a poet who has actually worked with his hands, shows little of the anthropomorphic concept of the machine. The roses and jonquils in the dining car keep steady in their cut glass vase not because of any iron hand, but because the dago shovelman, finishing his bread and bologna, goes back to work on the roadbed. Sandburg’s steel is made of “smoke and the blood of a man.” In the steelmills men die, but

They laugh at the cost

They lift the birdmen into the blue

It is steel a motor sings and zooms.

The purely literary poet on the other hand is self-conscious about his machine-age imagery. Yet like a small boy with his first cigar, he insists it is quite the usual thing with him. C. Day Lewis states that Tennyson could have described “a train in terms of something else, but he could not be expected to use one metaphorically to describe something in terms of a train,” whereas “we have learnt to understand it in relation to its environment.” But Tennyson did describe something in terms of a train when he wrote:

Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves

of change.

The grooves were merely the bard’s myopic perception of strips of iron fastened on wooden rails. The image, though faulty, is not self-conscious. Day Lewis uses a poem of his own to demonstrate how nonchalantly a modern handles machinery:

Let us be off. Our steam Is deafening the dome. The needle in the gauge Points to a long-banked rage And trembles there to show What pressure’s below. Valve cannot stand the strain Nor iron ribs refrain That furnace in the heart. Come on, make haste and start Coupling-rod and wheel, Welded of patient steel, Piston that will not stir Beyond the cylinder To take in its stride A teeming countryside . . .

Whatever one thinks of that as poetry, it is bad mechanics. Steam in a dome is silent unless released by a safety valve, which here is apparently out of order. And a long-banked fire does not get up steam pressure. Iron ribs may be acceptable poetic license, but if the piston did stir beyond the cylinder, there would be hell to pay.

The modern poet, especially if he is a leftist, rather prides himself on the use of scientific concepts, by which he usually means the teachings of Marx and Freud. That is not such a new trick either: Tennyson drew heavily upon paleontology and Darwinian biology; and, as Professor Grabo has demonstrated at length, Shelley’s “Prometheus,” “The Cloud,” and “The Witch of Atlas” are filled with Newtonian physics. Much of the imagery is in accord with Davy’s electrical theory of matter. Few readers of “The Cloud,” however, have been bothered by its scientific foundation. The material had become so much a part of Shelley’s thinking that it could not be self-conscious nor laborious.

In the element of rhythm the literary man often shows the same self-consciousness about machinery as he does in his imagery. The folk ballads about railroads have long echoed the regular thrust and counter-thrust of drivers, and the rush of fast motion without any of the elaborate devices often found in more sophisticated verse. Note how in “Casey Jones” the traditional ballad meter has been modified by means of the strongly marked caesura, and how the stressed words also accentuate the reciprocating movement of the drivers without any manifestos on the subject. Compare the more obvious and labored devices in E. E. Cummings’ translation of Louis Aragon’s “Red Front”:

The red train starts and nothing shall stop it







Any harmonica band can do the same thing, and with more gusto. And I doubt if any merely literary poet has an ear for machines as keen as the switchman who knew by the engine’s moans That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.

Illustrative of the theoretical approach to the matter is T. S. Eliot’s statement:

Perhaps the conditions of modern life (think how large a part is now played in our sensory life by the internal combustion engine I) have altered our perception of rhythms.

But what is the rhythm of the internal combustion engine? The deep-throated roar of a 1922 Mercer has nothing in common with the whisper of a twelve cylinder Lincoln Zephyr. Mr. Eliot’s figure of speech in “The Waste Land”:

when the human engine waits Like a taxi throbbing waiting

fits the taxis of 1922 well enough, but the motors of 1942 ripple rather than throb. It would be hard to demonstrate the same change in the rhythms of verse for the two periods.

For one thing, several of the newer poets are admittedly in debt to the rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who said he got his from “Piers Plowman.” MacNeice states that “An important influence on recent verse has been the Anglo-Saxon,” and cites Pound, Eliot (in “Murder in the Cathedral”) , and C. Day Lewis as examples. In other words, the poets are deriving their rhythms not so much from the machine as from books.

Here is Babette Deutsch reporting on machine-age sounds:

The contemporary hears fewer larks, nightingales, and placid streams, and more factory sirens, motor horns, grinding gears, coughing engines.

The list is significant: every one of the older sounds is pleasant ; all those of today are unpleasant. The past for her has no guinea hens, braying donkeys, or howling dogs. The book in which the statement appears came out in 1935. By that time automobile motors had long ceased to cough (the Ford became an eight in 1932), and transmissions had become silent through the use of herringbone gears (by 1933 only the Willys had failed to adopt this principle). Poets still have a keener ear for the lark than for the well adjusted motor.

It would seem then that in spite of a great deal of writing about the machine age, the poet too often maintains a Miniver Cheevy attitude toward it. Frequently, as with Eliot, Auden, and MacNeice, this is part of a snobbish distaste for ordinary people. Eliot associates trams and grama-phones with unesthetic love affairs of the lower middle class. Auden asks:

Have things gone too far already? Are we

done for? Must we wait Hearing doom’s approaching footsteps

regular down miles of straight; . . .

Or, in friendly fireside circle, sit and

listen for the crash Meaning that the mob has realized

something’s up, and start to smash;

Engine-drivers with their oil-cans, factory

girls in overalls Blowing sky-high monster stores, destroying


MacNeice turns up his nose at the amusements of ordinary folk:

There are hikers on all the roads—

Pindar is dead— The petrol pumps are doing a roaring business, Motors are tuning up for the Easter races, Building companies are loaning money to the newly married— Pindar is dead and that’s no matter.

And he speaks of: the growth of vulgarity, cars that pass the gate lodge And crowds undressing on the beach And the hiking cockney lovers with thoughts directed Neither to God nor Nation but each to each.

Presumably, noble lovers in a silken-sailed barge would direct their thoughts to God, to country, and to Yale.

The significant thing is that the poet’s dislike of his time is closely associated with petrol pumps and passing motor cars. Stephen Spender, while less snobbish than some poets, is quite as discontented:

This century chokes me under roots of night I suffer like history in Dark Ages . . .

at the corners of day Road drills explore new areas of pain, . . .

Again we have the association of machinery with the poet’s dissatisfaction. The dislike is based on esthetic grounds, for road drills used in laying sewers and water mains are one of man’s most beneficent implements. MacNeice is even more neurotic on this subject:

Our street is up, red lights sullenly mark

The long trench of pipes, iron guts in the dark,

And not till the Goths again come swarming down the hill

Will cease the clangor of the electric drill.

(He of course means a pneumatic drill.) One can hardly imagine that Chaucer when he was commissioner of dykes, sewers, and bridges would have associated road drills with new areas of pain. But Mr. Eliot’s disciples seem to have carried over his love of medieval cathedrals to a longing for medieval plumbing. People who spend much of their time in libraries are often irritable about noises.

It would be possible to cite other poets who fail to see the beauty of a string of garnet lights in the dark, or in the sheen of a well honed cylinder wall; who take no joy in the hum of a motor on a misty night; who find the noisy fun of working people rather vulgar, but Day Lewis, Auden, Spender, and MacNeice are particularly significant, both because they are among the more important recent voices, and because they accept the gospel according to Marx. They, if anyone, should be the voices of an industrial society.

Perhaps the key to the poet’s neurotic dissatisfaction with his century is not only its real iniquities, but also its machines. These he does not quite understand, and he is afraid of them. He has never run a steam shovel nor a bulldozer—probably he could not distinguish between the two. He has never been in the cab of a locomotive with Casey, nor had a drink with Sweeney. He merely looks at the latter’s ape neck and dislikes him. It is fortunate that Chaucer was not so easily repelled by the Miller’s bristling wart and the Somnour’s pimples as was Eliot by the young man carbuncular. Sweeney is after all probably the sort of fellow Shakespeare found at the Boar’s Head Tavern consorting with Bardolph and Nym and Falstaff. In the poetry of Eliot’s younger contemporaries, we find “the airmen,” the men behind dull cigarettes, the girls with knickers of crepe-de-chine and shoes of python, the cockney hikers, “The Unknown Citizen,” but never a Jim Bludso, the engineer of “The Prairie Belle,” whose only religion was

To treat his engine well, Never be passed on the river To mind the pilot’s bell.

The bored MacNeice says, “It is time for a new coinage, people have got so old . . .” Yet as Dunkirk proved, there were Jim Bludsos all around him—men who would “hold her nozzle agin the bank till the last galoot’s ashore.” Possibly some of them were named Sweeney, Certainly we are not going to have a genuine poetry of the machine until the poets discover the Casey Joneses and the Jim Bludsos. They might ponder Lucinda Matlock’s remark:

Life is too strong for you— It takes life to love life.


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