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By-the-Way -- Patrick MacGill

(Poem #186) By-the-Way
  These be the little verses, rough and uncultured, which
  I've written in hut and model, deep in the dirty ditch,
  On the upturned hod by the palace made for the idle rich.

  Out on the happy highway, or lines where the engines go,
  Which fact you may hardly credit, still for your doubts 'tis so,
  For I am the person who wrote them, and surely to God, I know!

  Wrote them beside the hot-plate, or under the chilling skies,
  Some of them true as death is, some of them merely lies,
  Some of them very foolish, some of them otherwise.

  Little sorrows and hopings, little and rugged rhymes,
  Some of them maybe distasteful to the moral men of our times,
  Some of them marked against me in the Book of the Many Crimes.

  These, the Songs of a Navvy, bearing the taint of the brute,
  Unasked, uncouth, unworthy out to the world I put,
  Stamped with the brand of labor, the heel of a navvy's boot.
-- Patrick MacGill
A recurring theme in poetry is the 'voice of the common man'; poetry
purportedly written by the uneducated, the poor man, the rough, uncultured
worker. And the attraction of such poetry is undoubtedly that it cuts
straight to the heart of the matter, eschewing the 'poetic' trappings that
many do feel get in the way of the 'real poetry'[1].

Of course this is untrue, and it is likewise the reason that most of the
oeuvre is simply bad verse disguised as rough verse. The good poems fall
into two categories - poetry actually written by the rough, uncultured man,
which may by its sheer unaffectedness[2] contain the rare gem, or poetry
written by good poets, with careful attention paid to every word in an
attempt to reproduce the rhythms of semieducated speech and avoid them
jarring against the more stylized rhythms of verse.

There have been many excellent examples of the latter - Kipling comes to
mind, as does Frost. Today's poem, while I wouldn't call it brilliant, does
a pretty good job - it doesn't quite capture the 'common-man' effect, but
it is a nice poem in its own right. Of course, it then remains debatable
whether it failed in sounding 'rough and uncultured', or it succeeded in
that we would 'hardly credit' the fact. On the whole, I'd call it a good
poem, and leave it at that.

[1] it is to this that I attribute the growing popularity of free verse -
    the feeling that any attention whatsoever to form stifles and compromises
    content. Needless to say, I disagree.
[2] and you need to be _very_ good to simulate this

Biographical Note:

  Patrick MacGill was born in Donegal in 1890. He was the son of poverty-
  -stricken peasants and, between the ages of 12 and 19, he worked as farm-
  -servant, drainer, potato-digger, and navvy, becoming one of the thousands
  of stray "tramp-laborers" who cross each summer from Ireland to Scotland
  to help gather in the crops. Out of his bitter experiences and the evils
  of modern industrial life, he wrote several vivid novels (The Rat Pit is
  an unforgettable document) and the tragedy-crammed Songs of the Dead End.
  He joined the editorial staff of The Daily Express in 1911; was in the
  British army during the war; was wounded at Loos in 1915; and wrote his
  Soldier Songs during the conflict.

        -- Louis Untermeyer

  The Great Push:
  <[broken link]>

  Soldier Songs:
  <[broken link]>


40 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Sunil Iyengar said...

Could it be that this poem, beginning "These be the verses," provided
Philip Larkin with the title for his famous poem, "This Be the Verse"?

Martin DeMello said...

Also spracht Sunil Iyengar...
> Could it be that this poem, beginning "These be the verses," provided
> Philip Larkin with the title for his famous poem, "This Be the Verse"?

Nope, that was from Stevenson's 'Requiem':
This be the verse you grave for me;
"Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."


Smartart said...

In the second line, is "model" correct? It looks as if it should be "hovel" unless model has some obscure meaning. I suppose it might be irony
as in "model dwelling" - but somehow I doubt it. "Hut and hovel" make a nice couplet.


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