Monday, April 13, 2009

What The Chairman Told Tom - Basil Bunting


Poetry? It's a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It's not work. You don't sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that's opera; or repertory―
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week―
married, aren't you?―
you've got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it's poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I'm an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company,
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it's unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They're Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr Hines says so, and he's a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.

---Basil Bunting

Basil Bunting's What The Chairman Told Tom

Ezra Pound wrote of Basil Bunting that he “simply will not melt himself into the vile patterns of expediency.” That's far better than “he was a good guy.” I'm pretty sure Pound used expediency with a specific definition in mind: actions in the interest of self gain as opposed to what is just and right. If that's true then Pound was paying Bunting quite a compliment, a fitting compliment when viewed in the context of “What The Chairman Told Tom.” The poem is a bitingly sarcastic take on the vocation of poetry. A successful, albeit staid and uncreative, businessman is the character at the center of the poem. His voice―the Chairman's voice―challenges poor Tom and his love of writing poetry. The challenge hinges upon the belief that poetry is not serious business, it's merely a release, an escape from the real world. This Chairman character is a misguided fool and I imagine he would've been prone to fits of expediency.

“Poetry? It's a hobby.” Sure, this opening line is true. For some folks writing and reading poetry occupies the extra minutes that would stack up unfavorably in their lives without a solid hobby. And for others poetry is essential, a day without it would be cause for illness and despair. I can't imagine anyone feeling that way about a day without model trains or breeding pigeons, the hobbies the Chairman compares poetry to in the poem's first stanza. Maybe that's an unfair assertion on my part, particularly because I've never bred a pigeon or collected model trains. That na├»vete is valuable and I will use it moving forward, starting right now. The Chairman's views on poetry are attributable to his lack of experience with poetry, very similar to my views on pigeon breeding and model train running. He assumes poetry is “not work” because “you don't sweat” when writing it or reading it. In looking at other art forms, such as opera, he sees no threads of commonality. When these arguments and analysis are exhausted, the Chairman turns to fearful name-calling and stereotyping: “They're Reds, addicts, / all delinquents.” But for somebody who lacks experience, the Chairman has one thing right about poetry: “Nobody pays for it.”

So the question that Basil Bunting indirectly raises is this: how does a person like the Chairman come to detest something he barely knows? More importantly, how can we get him back on the straight and narrow, reading poetry and appreciating it for all it has to offer? Let's tackle that first question. His hatred for poetry could have started at a young age. In class he could have had an assignment to read and interpret a poem, only to find the assignment impossible. The words were strangely placed,the punctuation was odd, the lines weren't broken as they are in every other book, and there wasn't a clear story. The poem was indecipherable, but this statement diagnoses the problem for us. Poems aren't meant to be deciphered. It's fulfilling to understand poems, but they can just as easily be enjoyed for displays of imagination, figurative language, and the types of things that resist explanation. That provides us a natural segue way to our next question. Old habits are tough to break. Changes are never easy to embrace. For someone like the Chairman who values the bottom line, poetry must provide a tangible assets. It must be worth his paying “twelve pounds a week” and not feeling like he's wasted his money on a shoddy investment. I'm not sure I can produce a blockbuster profit with any poem, but I can show how poetry is one of our oldest art forms and how it is at the root of communication and story telling, how without poetry many of our histories would be lost, and how some of the greatest minds to ever live turned to poetry to soothe their souls.

Would this argument be enough to change the Chairman and others like him? I doubt it. People who resist trying something like poetry will remain steadfast in their reasons until they seek poetry out on their own. They can hide behind their “three thousand and expenses, / a car, vouchers,” for only so long before they come face to face with what they're afraid of. In the case of the Chairman, he encounters poetry and his reaction is predictable: “What do you do? / Nasty little words, nasty long words, it's unhealthy.” These insults give way to my favorite line in the poem, a line I imagine Bunting viewed as the crown jewel of this poem: “I want to wash when I meet a poet.” Considered to be somewhat of an outsider himself, Bunting knew what it was like to have a stigma associated with being a poet. From stringy haired dreamers hopped up on drugs to beret and turtleneck wearing coffee drinkers with fingers ready to snap, these are out-dated and inaccurate stereotypes. Poets are hard workers, so hard in fact that they might spend a lifetime crafting a single poem or collection of poems, just as Walt Whitman. Creativity is not a synonym to hard work. So when the Chairman tells Tom at the end of the poem “Go and find work,” the horrible irony is that Tom found his work long ago in poetry, even if something else pays Tom's bills.


Jeremy James said...

I too love this poem - I wondered about asking for it to be read on poetry please, but ... without the Northumbrian accent, the gutteral slow howking of "rhot", and "rhabbits", it wouldn't be the same. I never thought that the poem was about the Chairman though - he's an ordinary chap, with ordinary prejudices - but it was about open rejection - how people can feel quite untrammeled in their expression of prejudice, and about how their victims might feel. Still, the Chairman is almost forgotten now, his only fame now in being in this poem !

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hi Jeremy, Thank you for your insightful comments! I always focused upon the Chairman and Tom, without pausing to see how their interactions were indicative of larger issues relating to the expression of prejudice. Reading your comments has allowed me to view the poem through a new lense and enjoy it even further.

All the best,