Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Labor Day Poetry

I was putting off the work I need to do by catching up on podcasts–a practice I follow even when it isn’t Labor Day–and found that this episode of Poetry Off the Shelf is all about the poetry of labor. It’s an interesting piece, and worth the 15-20 minutes of your day to listen to, and it got me thinking about a poem I teach nearly every semester, “Two hundred men and eighteen killed” by James Henry.

Henry’s poem isn’t particularly subtle–he’s a scold, as a matter of fact, hoping to improve the plight of Britain’s coal miners–and his primary objective seems to be to make his audience complicit in the tragic deaths of 218 coal miners, killed by a cave-in in 1862. And even though the working conditions for coal miners now are far better than they were a hundred-fifty years ago, much of Henry’s argument still holds true today, especially when you consider the work done by business interests in the US and around the world to weaken labor unions.

Henry begins with economics:

Two hundred men and eighteen killed
    For want of a second door!
Ay, for with two doors, each ton coal
    Had cost one penny more.

And what is it else makes England great,
    At home, by land, by sea,
But her cheap coal, and eye’s tail turned
    Toward strict economy?

We don’t have to look far for contemporary equivalents. The Deepwater Horizon explosion seems to have happened at least in part due to cutting corners on safety issues in order to save money, and that’s just one example. And when the federal government decided, after the accident, to put a moratorium on new drilling and make sure that what was going on in the Gulf was being done as safely as possible, what happened? Screeches from industry complaining about how their businesses profits would be affected. They clamored for the public to look at “the big picture,” and spun fabulous stories about how the economy, both local and national, would be destroyed if they were hampered in any way from continuing their standard practices.

In a case like this, there’s no point in trying to argue with the companies. They’re out to make as large a profit as possible–in fact, they’re mandated by corporate charter to do that in almost every case–and if it’s cheaper to settle lawsuits (or, as happened with the Exxon Valdez and will happen with BP, I’m afraid, drag them out so long that they become meaningless), then it would be poor strategy to consent to any changes whatsoever. The same was the case in Henry’s day, so instead he tries to get the middle class on his side by having them recognize the humanity of the miners. After noting that middle class people are always on the side of accident victims in day-to-day life, he points out why those same people aren’t concerned when miners are killed in an accident:

For God be praised! the chance is small
    That either you or I
Should come, for want of a second door,
    In a coal pit to die.

Henry reiterates this point in lines 45-52 where he says, in part, “And if the pit’s a whole mine deep, / What is it to me or you?” Henry is trying to get his audience to recognize that the only reason they aren’t already outraged about the working conditions for miners is that there’s little or no chance they’ll ever find themselves in that situation. It’s a tactic used by activists today when they try to bring to light the working conditions in sweatshops or factories, both here and overseas, with the idea that if you can see how your goods are being made (or mined), then you’ll be less likely to purchase those goods, or to demand that the manufacturer improve working conditions. And it’s had an effect, even though there’s still much to be done even in the US. (Check into where much of your food comes from some time.)

Where Henry’s poem works best as a poem (as opposed to as an activist statement), I think, is when he’s sarcastic. It’s practically dripping from the following lines:

Besides, ‘twould cost a thousand times
    As much, or something more,
To make to every pit of coal
    A second, or safety door,

As all the shrouds and coffins cost
    For those who perish now
For want of a second door, and that’s
    No trifle, you’ll allow;


And if we do, our gracious Queen
    Will, sure, a telegram send,
To say how sore she grieves for us
    And our untimely end;

And out of her own privy purse
    A sovereign down will pay,
To have us decently interred
    And put out of the way;

And burial service shall for us
    In the churchyard be read,
And more bells rung and more hymns sung
    Than if we had died in bed;

By juxtaposing the cost of the coffins and the cost of a safety door, and by cheapening the human cost of such accidents (Henry also suggests that the widows be given a cup of “congo” or black tea, and the orphans half a cup as recompense), Henry really hammers home the true cost of cheap coal, and makes the reader complicit in the death of these miners. And Henry channels Jonathan Swift when he argues that such tragic deaths are in some way superior to dying of old age in one’s bed, as if a telegram from the Queen and her aid in covering burial costs makes up for losing the better part of one’s adult life.

It’s worth keeping this attitude in mind when you look at the various marketing strategies that retailers use. When Wal-Mart says “Save Money. Live Better,” remember that those savings often come at the expense of shoddy, even life-threatening working conditions for the people making those cheap goods. And also remember, on this Labor Day, that to the extent working conditions for most workers are safe and clean and pay a living wage (not a certainty for everyone by any means), it’s due to activists and unions and their allies who refused to let the status quo stand unchallenged.


September 6, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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