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Essay

Zachariah Wells on Peter Trower's "Industrial Poem"

(How Poems Work, January 2004)
Peter Trower’s “Industrial Poem” is an anachronism: a ballad, first published in 1978. Originating in medieval traditions of oral folk song, the first printed ballads date back to the early 16th century and the form was often adopted by poets well into the 19th century. In the 20th century, however, the ballad, rooted in straightforward narrative, singsong rhythms and regular rimes, fell into disrepute as a vessel for serious poetry, and was relegated to the ghetto of popular doggerel. Not one to kowtow to authority, Trower wields the ballad stanza like a fine old rust-flecked sword. Often used to convey outrage against social and economic injustice, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, the ballad is a fitting structure for the content of this poem.

Peter Trower’s “Industrial Poem” is an anachronism: a ballad, first published in 1978. Originating in medieval traditions of oral folk song, the first printed ballads date back to the early 16th century and the form was often adopted by poets well into the 19th century. In the 20th century, however, the ballad, rooted in straightforward narrative, singsong rhythms and regular rimes, fell into disrepute as a vessel for serious poetry, and was relegated to the ghetto of popular doggerel. Not one to kowtow to authority, Trower wields the ballad stanza like a fine old rust-flecked sword. Often used to convey outrage against social and economic injustice, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, the ballad is a fitting structure for the content of this poem.

Peter Trower’s “Industrial Poem” is an anachronism: a ballad, first published in 1978. Originating in medieval traditions of oral folk song, the first printed ballads date back to the early 16th century and the form was often adopted by poets well into the 19th century. In the 20th century, however, the ballad, rooted in straightforward narrative, singsong rhythms and regular rimes, fell into disrepute as a vessel for serious poetry, and was relegated to the ghetto of popular doggerel. Not one to kowtow to authority, Trower wields the ballad stanza like a fine old rust-flecked sword. Often used to convey outrage against social and economic injustice, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, the ballad is a fitting structure for the content of this poem.

But Trower is no rustic naïf, and “Industrial Poem” no old-fashioned exercise in metrical finger-stretching or unsophisticated protest. In some respects, this poem does adhere to the prescriptions of balladry (it tells an action-focused story, briskly and plainly, employing simple stanzaic and syntactic structures), but close reading of this piece shows that Trower has also heeded Pound’s edict to “make it new.” The metre Trower employs consists basically of the three and four-beat iambic lines typical of balladry, but he diverges from it so often and so far afield that the traditional metre and rime-scheme is like a frame showing through free verse cladding (recalling Eliot’s admonition that “the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras of even the ‘freest’ verse”). In a less well-read poet, these deviations might be dismissible as evidence of a bad or ill-trained ear. Trower, however, steeped in the more traditional ballads of Service, Kipling and Robert Swanson, jars their rhythms strategically. The five beats of line 8 for instance—four of them awkwardly clumped in the spondees “life raft” and “death’s sake”—mime the injured man’s deathbed struggles, like the irregular blips of a heart monitor, as he “[clings] to his ruin.” The rhythmically and syntactically clumsy phrase in line 10, “incapable of help,” is a perfect reflection of the workers’ “shockdrunk” state, just as the six beats of line 15, three of them in the terminal trochaic phrase “never even flinched,” limn the workers’ brimming hatred for the cold-blooded foreman, whose gallingly prosaic speech in line 13 serves to underline his crassness.

With all of these subtle touches, Trower updates and personalises the ballad for his purposes. The speaker’s position in relation to the subject is the other major departure of this poem from ballad conventions. Normally, a ballad, often composed by an anonymous author—or authors—is narrated either in the third person by a party not directly involved in the action, or indirectly through dialogue. In this poem, however, the speaker, as we realize in line 10, is very much implicated in the scene he describes, and therefore incapable of retelling it in a cool, smooth, metrical fashion.

Thus, Trower no more loosens the ballad stanza for the mere sake of appearing modern than he chooses the structure in order to be traditional. Rather, he crafts his lines in response to the particular formal demands of the subject matter he has tackled. The result, all questions of prosody aside, is a chilling indictment of industry’s capacity for dehumanization and an affirmation of art’s capacity for redress. One can readily imagine a draught of this poem penned on a red-flecked sheet from that very mill.