from ‘Self-Portrait as a White-Collar Worker, 1981-2016’
which in turn is
from Then and Now – Opus 1
First in a Series of Three.
By W.D. JACKSON.
(Illustration by Alan Dixon)
The poems and prose in these three columns are from my work-in-progress, Then and Now, and consist of extracts from a sequence, Self-Portrait as a White-Collar Worker, 1981-2016, which forms part of the work and whose persona is presented – through his poetry and also translations – as developing over time as the events of his life affect him. The extracts are all taken from Then and Now – Opus 1, which is to be published by Shoestring Press in 2023.
The first volume of Then and Now to appear was Opus 3, in 2018.
DIFFICULTIES OF A WHITE-COLLAR WORKER
“You appear, like me, to lead a very exhausting life, with the leisure that you want always a mirage ahead of you, your holidays always disturbed by foreseen (or unforeseen) calamities… What I do – I am dealing alone with all the debts and claims of the bank under the various Peace Treaties – sometimes takes a good deal of thought and strength… The chief drawback to my present mode of life is the lack of continuous time, not getting more than a few hours together for myself, which breaks the concentration required for getting out a poem of any length.”
– T.S. Eliot to John Quinn, 9 May 1921
WRITE what shall I write?
Who have sold my mind – into legal employment
By an electronic communications multinational
Having its headquarters in the Federal Republic of Germany
And offices, factories and subsidiaries in:
28 countries of Africa
24 countries of North and South America
32 countries of Asia and Australasia
26 countries – including 31 locations in Britain
alone – of Western and Eastern Europe.
Write write what shall I write? Whose father,
Arthur Edward Cyril Parker, was appointed telephone operator
In the London offices of Faber & Gwyer, publishers,
At approximately the time that Mr Eliot joined the company
At a salary (my father
Not Mr Eliot) of one pound ten a week
Rising, by annual increments of five shillings –
Mr Eliot was a stickler when it came to figures –
To two pounds ten a week; with a bonus of thirty shillings at Christmas
And one week’s leave a year.
Here is a row of writing desks, orderly files, all looking remarkably multinational,
Remarkably like each other, lit up by a neon flare
Of energy inexhaustibly supplied
By I cannot tell how many miracles of technology.
What shall I write? As one of so many
Crowding the way. As the long–lost son
Of one of the low,
Of one of the least of a statesman’s difficulties,
Who fathered six children and later returned to Liverpool
– Or Bradford – or even stayed where he was in London –
And raised his children in another statesman’s difficulty
Long overdue for clearance down by the river.
Father father (not among these necks
All correctly attired)
I a tired head
Among these heads
Who said right out loud, crumpets
In church on Easter Sunday,
Who threw away that sausage.
As a difficult child
I was naturally subjected
To fourteen years of schooling, and learned
That one does things in order. For example,
One learns things in order
To pass exams and/or become employed
Which is what one lives in order
To do. So I laboriously studied
German – or Law – or Physics – or Engineering –
Or even Business Administration –
At the state’s expense. After which I was appointed
At exactly what salary I have never been able to calculate
To the ranks of our company’s myriad-minded middle-management
And my thoughts were no longer free
Of charge. Languages
Have always been highly saleable on the job-market
Like muscle on a slave. How should I write
Understanding so little
I a tired head among these heads
Understanding so little –
And one month’s leave a year
To relieve my mind
Of the boredom and fear
Which oppress and upset it.
“Fool,” said my boss to me: “Poetry’s a mug’s
Game. Forget it.”
A GERMAN CHILDHOOD.
OR: FORMS AND FORCES
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying
to awake” – Ulysses
Her charming manner on the telephone
And orderly rows of files at the office
At first seem worlds away from where she learned
That a woman’s better on her own,
That whatever praise she’s earned
(Though no longer beaten, or burned)
She necessarily suffers.
Our German secretary. Her Nazi father,
She informed my embarrassed wife and me
One evening after wurst and kraut,
Had relished public beatings. Rather
Than watch the prisoners shuffle out
To the crowd’s indifferent shout,
She’d pour the beer, or make the tea…
But being his eldest daughter meant she was forced,
Whenever the Russian war demanded men,
To present glum officers with her bouquet
And salute them goose-stepping off. The worst
Was when her father ran away –
Which taught her, she thinks, the meaning of ‘betray’ –
And her mother refused to mention him again.
And now she has a flat all of her own.
Divorced after twenty years of domestic strife,
Her husband cuts her dead. Three grown-up boys
Are conscientious visitors. Alone,
She makes the most of “little joys”.
She seems to think that hope somehow destroys –
But did her duty as a mother, less as wife,
As her mother did before her. When the enemy
Threatened her birth-place with annihilation,
They stayed until the approaching dead
Din of Russian artillery
Forced them to flee. They fled
From danger behind towards danger ahead
In a crawling train without a destination.
Their carriage was an open cattle truck.
So the five children and their stubborn mother
Set off into the cold. At night the rain
Recalls their unrelenting lack of luck:
Afraid, humiliated, trapped again
On that freezing, overcrowded, half-starved train,
She dreams of how they tried to warm each other.
Or wakes pursued by nightmares of disgust
At turnips grubbed with fingers out of mud
Boiled in the baby’s potty. And was
It the soldiers’ guns or their lust
Which made her scream? So unquietly has
That rape been buried by what is
That what she will still cries for what she would
Do if she could – or would have done – till she
Declares us “mad” to want a second child:
Her English husband claimed his marital ‘rights’ –
But, surely, with the pill a woman’s free…
She hints at the hopeless bondage of those nights,
Of three small children, at the bitter fights
And feeling (for the children’s sake) defiled.
She seems to think that artists too are free –
And, oddly, homosexuals. Those who bend
Events to their non-conformist will,
Or do so as far as she can see,
Give her some inner thrill.
She talks from inside herself until
I wonder has she ever had a friend,
If in the office human distances
Don’t suit her better – getting machines to do
Without much trouble most of what she wants,
Typing dictations, making xeroxes –
Far from her children’s cries and husband’s grunts;
Where discipline is tough…
But who confronts
Such choices, made without much meaning to?
And how much is chosen for us? How can one life
Awake from history’s forms and hidden forces?
Each thinks he’s different. Aren’t we the same?
This woman, I, her husband, my wife:
Who do we emulate, fear, or blame?
And if not, why not? What’s in a name?
– Who runs our lives? or sets their future courses?
And what right have I – who hardly know
What I want from what I don’t want any longer,
Who sell my mind in the same bright place,
Unwilling either to stay or go –
To analyse her tied-up case,
(Ignoring the beauty of her face):
Am I more hopeful? freer? stronger?
Difficulties of a White-Collar Worker: Cp. T.S. Eliot, Coriolan (1931). The poem presumes that the “young Cyril” mentioned in ‘Triumphal March’ is the son of “Arthur Edward Cyril Parker” in ‘Difficulties of a Statesman’ and that the “he” (presumably Coriolan) of the first section is also the “I” (presumably the “Statesman”) of the second. Shortly before writing Coriolan, T.S.E. formulated his well-known description of his “general point of view… as classicist in literature, royalist in politics and anglo-catholic in religion” (For Lancelot Andrewes, 1928). In ‘The Function of Criticism’ (1923), Eliot had characterized – or rather, caricatured – the difference between Classicism and Romanticism as “the difference between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic.”
Probably not even his harshest critic would want to describe Old Possum’s poetry as fragmentary, immature and chaotic. Even so, it is now difficult to understand how anyone could have been taken in by his claim to be a “classicist in literature”. Eliot seems, however, to have appreciated in general the advantages of having a foot in both camps – starting with America and England. As Peter Ackroyd pointed out in his ground-breaking biography: “Almost from the beginning [he] had a clear understanding of the mechanics of making a literary reputation…” (T.S. Eliot, 1984, p.101).
Then and Now also alludes to The Waste Land and other works by Eliot. One would hardly guess it from the poem itself, but The Waste Land seems largely to have been written because of his own difficulties as a white-collar worker – most of it during a three-month break (on doctor’s orders) in Margate and then Lausanne in mid-winter 1921-22. In Lausanne he was treated for a nervous breakdown whose immediate cause seems to have been overwork, much of it at Lloyds Bank in the City of London – where his office was across the road from King William Street, “where St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine” (‘The Burial of the Dead’, ll.67-68): “A phenomenon which I have often noticed”, as he primly (and grimly) noted…
John Quinn was a New York lawyer and patron of the arts, who was of much assistance to the young Eliot, although they never met. Ezra Pound wrote to the lawyer in June 1920: “No use blinking the fact that it is a crime against literature to let him waste eight hours vitality per diem in that bank.” But Eliot wasted his vitality there for altogether eight years, finally leaving Lloyds to join Faber & Gwyer, publishers, in 1925.
“Fool,” said my boss to me, “Poetry’s a mug’s / Game. Etc.”: In the first sonnet of the first major sonnet sequence in English – Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (1581/82) – the poet laments his inability to express his love, until its concluding line: “ ‘Fool,’ said my muse to me, ‘look in thy heart and write.’ ” Eliot, however, wrote in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) “The works of Sir Philip Sidney are not among those to which one can return for perpetual refreshment.” With hindsight, one might be forgiven for suspecting that at least one of the uses of criticism in the case of TSE was to commend his own sort of poetry at the cost of others’. Not that this aspect of the matter could be openly discussed: “I want to boom Eliot,” as Pound wrote to John Quinn, “and one cant have too obvious a ping-pong match at that sort of thing.” In his ‘Conclusion’ to The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism Eliot wrote, “Poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game…” His American family – particularly his father – disapproved of his residence in England in order to “mess up his life for nothing”, pursuing what turned out in the end, though, to be as successful a career as any careerist could desire.
W.D. JACKSON’s five books and a pamphlet are all parts of his work-in-progress, Then and Now, on the subject of the individual’s place in history. This column is also a part of that work. His most recent book, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press, Nov. 2018), was reviewed in The Fortnightly, and was one of Frederick Raphael’s TLS Books of the Year in 2019. A review by Chris McCully in PN Review 253 can be read here (under Altered Distances Vol 54, Nos. 1-2, ‘Special Features’). A new pamphlet, Aesopean (with woodcuts by Alan Dixon) is due from Shoestring shortly. The Fortnightly archive for W.D. Jackson is here.
ALAN DIXON was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, and has been exhibiting his prints since the 1960s. Shoestring Press published his 73 Woodcuts in 2011 and Wood and Ink in 2013. An exhibition of prints at the Redfern Gallery, London, was held to coincide with the launch of his most recent collection of poems, The Wall Dancer, Shoestring Press, 2017.