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machinists

I have done physical labor in my life, and never found it harsh or unrewarding except when it was under the scrutiny of a manager (foremen, overseer, take your pick). They’re job was to make sure I was “doing it the right way,” or that I was doing it quickly, or that I was doing it both the right way and quickly (a contradiction in terms that causes almost all the heartbreak of blue collar life). It was never right enough or quick enough for my boss, even when it was right and quick. I am strong, but not well coordinated, and I am also slow to catch on to things. When it comes to anything in the physical world, I need to be stupid before I am smart. When it comes to piece work, this does not bode well.
I am verbally intelligent, and that helped me get by on being “comic relief” and charming until I learned to be competent. I relived the life of the most ancient bards as a result. My theory is that the original story tellers were often maimed, or clumsy, or old, and to earn their place at the fire, they needed to be ingratiatng, funny, wise,able to act as emotional buffers and consolers in times of stress..I dont trust when writers make themselves the heros of working life stories. I’ve known very few verbal folks who were the best machinists or tool makers, or riggers or fishermen. Some were middle of the pack,, and some held their own, but that’s about it. On the other hand, Musicians were often top notch at the more skilled forms of labor (eye/hand dexterity) and I knew several great tool makers who could play piano, guitar, banjo, and any combination thereof with great skill. So now I’m going to theorize further and submit that the original bards fell into two camps: those who were verbal in the communicative, prosaic way, and those were not verbal except where verbal was a conduit to pure sound–to rhythmic, musical grunts, to cadenced words, to the mimicry of animals (vital to a hunter): to pattern, and spatial/kinetic awareness. Let’s say both theories were right: if so,then, you have two trends in poetry from the very beginning: that which is social- manners, narrative, and communicative, and that which is ritualized, lyrical, and not based on the cognition of social order but on what Whitman called the Barbaric yawp–he tribe in its state of trance, its impersonal possession by a God. One is fully conscious, the other recieved as if via the intuition. If you’re not good at physical labor, at hunting, at weapon making, you better know how to compensate and have value in some other way. Ineptitude and adjustment to ineptitude thereby constitute the beginning of subjective consciousness. The other type of non-verbal yet vocal expression is not conscious, but a sort of received acumen for pattern–a sort of intuitive knowledge of pattern and rhythm, and the ceremony of verbal being within space.. Such poets are not facile with words. They experience words the way a toolmaker experiences raw material–as something to intuit. I would not privilege the conscious or the unconscious–divine aflatus, or native stealth and conscious shrewdness, but I would say one developed from the compensatory need to be a character, a personality, and the other from the impersonality of divine aflatus and what Plato called possession by a “demon.” Being physically inept, I compensated in two ways: I was very strong (could out wrestle most people), and so I was good at brute force (a bull in a china shop), and I was very verbal and this made me a force for comic relief by being able to “talk shit.” I couldn’t put these two together since, their togetherness is contingent upon grace and I was an oaf.
Brute force is hardly ever needed in its pure forms. All labor I know is skilled labor. A good ditch digger does not just have a strong back; he has a singular fineness and grace of motion so as to conserve energy and avoid being injured. To be strong in the way I was strong was to accentuate the clumsiness and create an incongruity between force and grace. When I learned to hide, compensate, or make light of this, I developed my verbal intelligence beyond normal, but living there was always a sort of ongoing sadness: I was strong, and loved the physical, but did not flourish in the skilled trades. I was verbal, and could get away with a lot of things because of it, but I felt cut off by my jester’s personality from the part of me that was physical. Jesters are often lame, or blind, or somehow malformed, as are clumsy but strong giants. The jester retreats into logos–the conscious verbal universe of the mind: sarcasm, invective, travesty, melancholy, whimsy. The giant hurls rocks, has his one good eye put out, and cries “no man” to the sea. Caliban is oafish and not adept at skilled work. For this reason he is called lazy, and beastial, and uncouth, yet Shakespeare shows Caliban has an advanced hunger for beauty (both in wanting Miranda and by his reaction to music). He has no ability to express this hunger except in forms that make others feel contempt. To be in a factory where even the graceful are often told they are not right or quick enough is to exist under the yoke of third rate Prospero–to be always compelled to do what one would do without being asked if the world were not glutted with managers and something needed doing.
As for those who “receive” words, far from being inept or maimed, they were often the ones in the group with the greatest fine-motor skills, hunting abilities, and intuitive sense of pattern. This creates a different kind of poesis: a poesis of intuitive ceremony, of hyperbolic praise, and the free play of word-puns, repetition, and call and response. Poetry did not privilege the lyrical or the narrative for thousands of years, but rather emphasized the lyrical in the mysteries of religious ceremony, sympathetic magic, and group lamentation, and emphasized the narrative in terms of reenacting the story and news of the people. One played out the rhythms of the hunt or the planting, the sacrifice, the pattern of emotions, while the conscious form of verbal ability (what we associate most with prose) played out the mythos and history of the people. One was far more mimetic and invocatory, and the other was far more based on an evolving cult of personality, individualism, and on cognitive, sequences of meaning. One was intuitive and sensing, the other thoughtful and feeling–one received from the gods, from an unconscious, the other worked out by the machinations of those who needed to be ingratiating in order to have value..
The trend in modernism and post modern poetry has been to return to a privileging of the received, the unconscious, the automatic, the ritualized, the irrational, the “primitive” forms of the lyrical voice–to put intuition and the “derangement” of the senses in prime place over the rational functions of feeling and thought. The phrase: No ideas but in things, could be rephrased as: All ideas from totems–from fetish, from the intuitive reception via physical stimuli of the objects and patterns. I think modernism’s largest error is this hangover from the romantics: that they see one system as superior to the other. Both systems have flourished from the beginning. One (the intuitive and sensing) based on physical/pattern genius, and the other on the genius of compensating for a lack of physical/pattern acumen. The two are blended now for the most part–a remnant polarity that has lost any truly clear lines of demarcation.
In the factory, after I became competent at what I did, I no longer needed to play the joker, but people preferred the joker to the merely competent tool maker. My rep as a really smart and funny fuck up never went away. When men needed tools they came to me last. When they needed advice on a fight with their wives, or in how to handle the death of a mother or father, they came to me first. I don’t know if I was ever as incompetent as I felt. After all, I play a decent piano and I play by ear. I can fake guitar fairly well, and harmonica, and have a good singing voice–so my sense of pattern must be better than I think, at least for sequences of sound. Sound is vital to a toolmaker because you can “hear” when a piece is wrong. It just has a different way of sounding. My visual intelligence and my ability to learn by watching always sucked. I need to fuck up in order to learn. Error is my friend. Left alone, with no one to watch my sorry ass, I figure things out or find a new way to do them. The modern world rewards quickness rather than depth and slow knowledge. This I know. What does it reward in terms of poetry? Nothing truly new looks like anything to most people except for error. Error must find a way to charm bias. I have lived my life through adjustments as per error. Do workshops allow error? I’m afraid they work too often like motion study experts. It not the quality of the work, but its facility and quickness that gets confused with quality. I don’t know. I started this essay wanting to meditate on how joyous physical labor can be when there is no overseer to threaten you with being fired or calling you a lame ass. perhaps the same holds true of poetry.

Image Credit: Marco Muñoz

I learned to read a micrometer a couple days before my first shift at National Tool and manufacturing. The night before, I did my first paid poetry gig at the Franklin township library in New Jersey. I made fifty bucks. This is the early 80s. Pay for poets has actually gone down a wee bit (we’re not talking the 1 percent). Anyway, I read at the Franklin township library, came home, got up that morning at around 5 am, and left for the job–taking two buses.

I had never been inside such a large shit hole. The first thing I smelled was creosote (the floors at that time were creosote blocks to better absorb the oil, grit and coolant). The next thing I smelled was what I suppose you could call “loud.” Certain types of loud are both sound and stink. The machines were loud. They stank of loudness, and they looked like something out of a dark dream, all hoses, and drill heads and dangling modifiers and dangerous fanged and daggered appendages, sort of Charley Chaplin meets Fritz Lang. Men moved around them guiding what I learned were two ton magnets. A two ton magnet lifts 4 thousand pounds of steel. Machinists use these magnets held to a conveyor by chains, swing them into place, lock down the plate (piece) clamp it, measure it, drill, ream, mill, grind it, etc. etc.

These plates often have razor sharp edges, especially if they have not been filed down, and I saw men slice their hands open when guiding them–right through the safety glove. I also witnessed feet crushed, fingers cut off, and various other nasty injuries. As a first aid attendant, I bagged a couple fingers. About four years into the work I had my right index finger put back together. I severed the tendon and “violated” the joint. I cut it on a borzon cup wheel spinning at 4500 rpm. The cut was clean, instant and half way into the bone. At the emergency room I asked to be given local anesthesia so I could watch the surgeon work. She was like a master tool maker. She cauterized some veins so they did not bleed, reattached my severed tendon, tied it up nicely, tended to my violated joint and sewed me back up. I played piano. I was told I would recover maybe fifty percent use of the finger at best and that I should keep it immobile for six weeks. I said: “fuck that.” I figured it was going to do what I wanted it to do or I’d cut the damned thing off. I continued to play piano with it–even while it was in a splint. I thought: “use it or lose it.” I still have almost 100 percent use of my finger. It hurts during cold weather and tightens up even after 25 years, but I was right not to listen. No one can predict recovery or capacity until they test it against their own experience.

So I am a good piano player and I’ve made some money playing, and I was working in a place that took fingers very easily. So what? Americans expect jobs to be fulfilling. They think they have “careers.” They’ve forgotten it’s just a fucking job and its meant to feed and clothe you–that’s it. It can’t kiss you. It can’t go to your father’s wake, and it sure as hell does not define character. Some of the worst scumbags I know are a success. I am Zen in this respect. We are corpses and success means very little if you remember first and last things and sleep soundly in the coffin of the truth. All jobs are good jobs if they keep you from starving to death and they don’t make you a murderer, a crook, or an overseer and contriver of someone else’s suffering and enslavement. Any job that contributes to the misery of the world is against God. It is also, and more importantly, against humanity. I would rather be a peon caught in the need to toil at menial labor than a big shot responsible for the slavery and sadness of countless people. It is better to eat shit all the days of your life than to be the one who shovels shit into another’s mouth. I figure I have a choice in so far as being a worker by choice and will means I keep my freedom of conscience.

Eating shit is what a working person does. The jobs are dangerous, or boring, or made unbearable by some manager type who wants to earn his or her money by being a fucking jerk wad. The best managers are better at your job than you are. They are there to truly supervise–meaning teach. The worst managers think they are there because we all know workers, left to their own devices, will do nothing, get drunk, and have sex. In all the years I worked at National, I only saw the foremen have sex with women in rough and finished inspection–never rank and filers. Foremen are often the most physically impressive guys on the shop floor–not always, but often. They are young, and cocky, and tend to feel entitled. This works for mate selection. We call it power dynamics and sexual harassment, but, in most cases, the women willingly engaged in affairs with the often married foremen. The shop floor tends to bring out atavistic behaviors.

Men court the foremen as well. You don’t need foremen to weed out back sliding because the stupid men rat on each other 90 percent of the time and save the foremen the trouble of looking for wrong doers. Once a guy came up to me and said: “Joe, I think we have a rat in our midst.” I said: “Yep…we sure do; and he’s punching every fuckin’ time card on every fuckin’ shift.”

Workers turning in workers and courting the favor of foremen was my chief trouble as shop steward. The only guys who didn’t turn in other workers were the guys who knew what they were doing–good men, highly skilled. They didn’t have to turn in other workers because they knew their jobs, did them, and with a minimum of bullshit. Such men should have been the foremen, but the kiss ass/rat culture in this nation has superseded ability.

The smart foremen knew enough to prize and respect these guys. The dumb foremen (and we had many) harassed or fired the best workers because they didn’t rat and kiss ass. If that sort of stupid manager proliferates, the quality of work goes way down, and all sorts of excuses and accusations go way up. It ruins the company and destroys business. A workplace without valor, without honor, with only kiss ups, and rats is soon doomed to fail, Punitive treatment and disparagement of workers always leads to such a work place. Bad supervisors encourage it. The first thing I’d do in a shop that seems to be falling apart is hold a meeting with the men, find out who the best foremen are, and fire the rest. Then I’d have a meeting with the remaining foremen and find out who the biggest rats were. I’d either shit can them (if I could) or tell them they were not to complain about another worker unless it was in writing (they never want to put it in writing since, most of the time, it’s fairly malicious).

You want workers who respect each other, who don’t rat, who know how to take care of problems within their own rank and file. You want workers to become the sort of people who could teach and lead others–not abuse them. You want valiant and honorable men more than you want productivity. Productivity, or what we think is productivity, never comes from piece rates, or from cracking the whip. It is usually the result of a few secret, but deeply respected men or women in the shop who hold things together. These men and women are like the jewels in the furnace. Productivity is almost always from within , the outcome of valor and honor. When these few are fired, or quit, or retire, you can watch the whole house of cards fall apart. Because workers are perceived as not much better than Thersites in the Iliad, we accord them no such distinctions, and, after a few years, the productivity of any abusive atmosphere always falls apart. It’s the law of diminishing returns. This is especially true if corrupt managers punish the valiant and honorable and keep their pets and their rats. Nothing destroys productivity more than a bunch of yes men who don’t know what they are doing. If ratting and ass kissing are the secret system of your workforce, then any other system suffers, and you end up with bureaucratic ratting/ass kissing. People no longer even have a reason to rat or kiss ass; they just do. This is a major problem in our professions–much more so now than years ago because so much of what we call work these days is based on social interactions and the verbal construct. So much of it is based on smoke and mirrors.

Envy is the one bad worker who never gets fired. Of all the evils that could do a work place in, envy is the worst. Envy can ruin even the best endeavors. Management seeks to cut envy down to a minimum by encouraging “team efforts” but among workers they often encourage envy, especially during union negotiation time. Envy reduces grown workers to the level of the three year old screaming: “It’s not fair!” “How did HE GET THAT?” Envy is indeed a deadly sin and almost anyone who is honest and has fought against envy knows how hard it is to truly defeat it rather than rationalize it away.

Sociopaths, people with a seeking mechanism devoid of honor, valor, or guilt, are envious of anyone in power, but will bond with the more powerful sociopath in a sort of evil marriage, until they find a way to become that more powerful sociopath, or find a willing slave to do their bidding. Sociopaths tend not to work in factories unless they are management because sociopaths are thrill seekers and there is nothing thrilling about making the same part over and over again and being told by a numb nut foremen that you are an asshole. Sociopaths come in bragging. They have great surface charm. They often run the football pool, get the worst foremen on their side by appealing to their vices, and so on and so forth. In my 20 years as a factory worker I watched sociopaths come in with great energy and verve, and bravado, and then, sooner or later, crash and burn or simply quit. Often they became foremen and, when they did, mediocrity and fear ensued.

Sociopaths are like incompetent gods: they are usually good-looking or charismatic because evolution has given them these traits to survive. They usually have average to above average intelligence. They tend to like action and trouble for the sake of action and trouble, and, no sooner do they rule, than they grow bored and contemptuous and start destroying people. You will only recognize a true sociopath when he or she has been given power. A sociopath given too much power will develop their infantile sense of submission and seek out the “ultimate” sociopath to whom they give homage: some god, or a figure of greatness with whom they identify and from whom they believe they derive their strength. They will also seek the ultimate slave or consort: the right hand man, the good cop to their bad–the perfect minion. You must dip a sociopath in triumph in order to see his true colors. All sociopaths are “family” men–incapable of being alone (serial killers are loners, but I believe they are created by society for the expressed purpose of keeping power arbitrary). All sociopaths lack empathy or remorse, have no guilt and a total sense of entitlement, traits they hide exceedingly well behind a series of extroverted social appearances and schemas of the appropriate. According to self-empowerment tropes, this is merely being self-loving and self-motivated. According to modernist and postmodernist cynics, this is the true and organic way of all people. They are confidence men to the degree that they know how to give other’s confidence, and have an intuitive sense of how each “mark” should be approached. They invariably mess everything up, and nothing of lasting worth comes from them because, at their core, is a sort of dull rage and utter lack of humanity. They are heroes to Ayn Rand and to American followers of that idiot, and we admire them because we have become co-dependent with sociopaths: ass kissing and ratting eventually turns a whole work force (or nation) into a bad version of S and M. We are either having our asses kicked or kicking ass. Only the foot and the ass remain in America. The rest of the body politic is lost.

I learned a lot in the factory–how things really work or fail to work. Ideas are never as important as appearances and narratives. The groove of the story can outlast any series of good ideas, and no idea stands a chance unless it can find a groove. If a bad idea finds a groove, it becomes a system, and then, God help us. Men and women worship tallness, physical prowess, and “normalcy.” The stooped general, the distinguished looking, slightly over serious, rather grave man or woman always has power projected onto him or her–regardless of true ability.

We are far less individual than we pretend and even those valiant, “special” individuals in Ayn Rand who have a riding crop, a fast horse and reason on their side, and who let no sniveling collective stand in their way, are largely horse shit. They don’t exist save as semiotic smoke we blow up each other’s power worshipping asses.

Working in a factory for shit pay in 110 degree heat with some foreman coming out of his air-conditioned office to warn you not to fuck up is exactly what most American’s need to experience: to be without power or respect, to be treated as if you were a moron and to know your only alternative is to go to another place where the same thing is likely to happen…. isn’t this what our wonderful new technologies are encouraging worldwide while reserving dress down Fridays and maternity leave for their chosen few? We think we rid ourselves of the worst traits of the industrial revolution, but we really only did what a child might do if told to clean his room immediately: we swept all our mess under the bed, and hoped no one would notice. There is nothing clean or post-industrial about our new technological, post- mechanical world. We simply put the filthy aspects elsewhere and turn back the clock to a time before unions and pollution laws, and labor reform. Sadly, so sadly, William Blake’s chimney sweeper poem still makes sense:

And have gone off to worship their God and king
who make a heaven of our misery