“The most exacting test of whether work is a fit subject for poetry is to ask whether poetry can capture and transmute the emotional encounters of work.”
We love TV dramas set in the emergency unit of hospitals or out on patrol with the police and we watch documentaries about truck drivers in the frozen north and social workers in inner cities. We like seeing people at work. But we don’t expect to read about the world of work in poetry.
Looking through poetry anthologies, we can find poems about love and death, God and nature, but only occasionally about people at work: there’s a catalogue of pioneering trades in Song of the Broad-Axe by Walt Whitman, while Philip Larkin gave us commercial travellers and Sylvia Plath beekeepers. There is also a poem by Vicki Feaver portraying her mother making crab apple jelly. But generally speaking, work is a rare subject in poetry.
Yet work can unlock the strongest passions. It pitches us into relationships with many different people and teaches us something about ourselves and our place in the world; it is often a major source of our self-worth and self-respect. So, there must be a place for poetry that expresses these emotions, and that explores the vivid experiences our apparently mundane working lives can evoke.
This was John Looker’s inspiration when he set out to write the poems that eventually became his book The Human Hive, published by Bennison Books. The collection tackles multiple aspects of our working lives, from the excitement of a business trip to the challenges of running a home and the strange world of the night-shift.
However, as John Looker says: ‘The most exacting test of whether work is a fit subject for poetry is to ask whether poetry can capture and transmute the emotional encounters of work.’
Part Five of his book, entitled States of Mind, meets this challenge. These poems express hope and disappointment, companionship and betrayal, stress and boredom, and much more. These distinct states of mind are explored in poems such as Dancer, Submariner, Ambassador, and Caretaker. The scenarios draw on John’s varied experience, directly and indirectly, of working life.
A job well done
Master Baker, (a masterly poem, aptly enough!) celebrates the intense satisfaction of a job well done. It begins in an unstructured manner but, like the baking of the loaves themselves, moves progressively towards the precision of the final product.
There are some wonderful lines in this poem, vividly evoking the dedication of this master baker who begins work at ‘the hour that shouldn’t exist’, his trade almost a religious calling as suggested by the observation that, only monks, rung into church for matins,/ know this as a time to begin.
We can feel the warmth of the bakery, smell the fresh bread, see the newly baked loaves hot from the oven. The master baker practises his timeless art while the neighbourhood sleeps, the resulting aroma of the baked bread so rich that … even the sun/ is drawn down to the street …
It’s two in the morning when he arrives,
the hour that shouldn’t exist:
nightwatchmen are merely halfway through;
farmers have yet to stir;
only monks, rung into church for matins,
know this as a time to begin.
He can leave the shop in shadow,
with the dark presence of the bare counter,
and feel his way to the bakery beyond
here he blinks for a moment in the light.
This is where he dons his White Friar’s habit,
his pristine bakery clothes.
First things first. Before he drinks
that necessary coffee he fetches the dough,
made the preceding day, from where it dreams
in the cool and dark. Organic wheat, fresh yeast,
sea salt; nothing less will do.
Ancient arts from Egypt, Rome and the East
will keep him busy until the neighbourhood wakes,
but finally the genie is released
as modern tools and know-how come into play.
Science, and cunning, and incantations. He bakes
and as he bakes his hard-won skills display
such rich aromas that even the sun
is drawn down to the street, he likes to say;
and as the loaves build up he lets his fingers
linger along their crusts and, smiling now,
allows himself the thought: a job well done.
See part one of this three-part series. John Looker’s first collection of poetry, The Human Hive, was published by Bennison Books in January. It’s available at Amazon UK and Amazon.com, as well as: