Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Machine poets: the movement of big things

Man and machine, a combination that has existed in poetry since classical times; early English examples include John Donne's The Compass

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the' other do.

and Spenser's dissertation in the Faerie Queene on the uses of wood

    The Eugh obedient to the benders will,
    The Birch for shaftes, the Sallow for the mill,

But at the moment I am interested when machines stand for a certain kind of grit and honesty; less renaissance man who has an interest in science and more alpha male who "likes the movement of big things".

W.H.Auden's factories stand for social truth, Work has been stopped on the powerhouse; the wind whistles under/The half-built culverts while The square munition works out on the old allotments/Needs stricter watching (The Orators 1931); a society of which he is an observer and excluded (Stop all the clocks). But what often appeals to me is the more fifties brand of machine poet. Ted Hughes' Tractor is a badge of manhood endowed with all the pain of a rite of passage:

The tractor stands frozen - and agony
to think of...[]

It defies flesh and won't start
hands are like wounds already
Inside armour gloves...

In the end its superhuman power is mastered and it starts like a Blakean engine or mill. Simon Armitage's poem Very simply topping up the brake fluid (Yes, love, that's why the warning light comes on...) takes the process one step further. The chance of failure that in Hughes's poem is contained within the poet himself is split into a male expert and subservient female persona, the love in question. But Armitage's poem is a cry against the feminisation all men feel when they get out of their depth with machines; it is perhaps a logical step to men (and women) bathing in pies to assert themselves (The practical way to heaven) in Armitage's latest collection Seeing stars (something not so far away from D.H. Lawrence's nudity and wrestling).

This has to end for the moment in a call for machine poems and poets; the series is to be continued...

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