The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour

The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour, by Allen Ginsberg

When I first heard about prose poetry I thought it was some kind of con. That poets who couldn’t rhyme wrote prose instead and just called it poetry. I saw it the way many see modern art, as a pretentious way of disguising a lack of talent. Those who can’t draw, install.

I was a teenager, though it’s the sort of view one can have at any age. More importantly, I was wrong. John Wynne’s installation at the Saatchi gallery recently was art. Poems do not require rhymes.

The Wynne piece involves patterns of sound radiating out from the speakers, every now and then the cable on the floor undulates. If you walk to the far corner, a pianola can be seen playing itself. It’s a haunting and fascinating work.

This is the poem that taught me that prose poetry can be great poetry. It’s by Allen Ginsberg, and apparently it’s quite famous though I didn’t know that when I first read it.

Two bricklayers are setting the walls
of a cellar in a new dug out patch
of dirt behind an old house of wood
with brown gables grown over with ivy
on a shady street in Denver. It is noon
and one of them wanders off. The young
subordinate bricklayer sits idly for
a few minutes after eating a sandwich
and throwing away the paper bag. He
has on dungarees and is bare above
the waist; he has yellow hair and wears
a smudged but still bright red cap
on his head. He sits idly on top
of the wall on a ladder that is leaned
up between his spread thighs, his head
bent down, gazing uninterestedly at
the paper bag on the grass. He draws
his hand across his breast, and then
slowly rubs his knuckles across the
side of his chin, and rocks to and fro
on the wall. A small cat walks to him
along the top of the wall. He picks
it up, takes off his cap, and puts it
over the kitten’s body for a moment.
Meanwhile it is darkening as if to rain
and the wind on top of the trees in the
street comes through almost harshly.

What I love with this is the intensity of its gaze. A wholly quotidian moment is made beautiful. Perhaps the moment was always beautiful but now its beauty is recognised.

The language is sensual. That’s partly because of the complete immersion in sensory detail, but also because of where the poem’s eye rests. It was no surprise to me to learn that Ginsberg was gay. The bricklayer’s “spread thighs” and the description of how he “slowly rubs his knuckles across the side of his chin” are deeply sexual. The poem is meticulous in its description, but not disinterested.

In the end though I lack the language to discuss poetry. It’s something that frustrates me. I can say that I find this poem beautiful, and that I find it moving, but I can’t entirely say why (or even how I am moved).

I think the inability to speak about poetry is part of what often puts people off it. I’m far from alone in being able to say what I like in poetry, but not why. Speaking personally, I feel a slight sense of incompetence before it, as if trying to buy groceries in a shop in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. I can sort of get across what I mean, but it’s a tortuous process.

All that said, poetry can be intimate and devastating. Part of its power, bizarrely, may even be non-verbal. The spaces between the words matter in ways I can’t describe.

I lack the knowledge to speak to poetry. All I can really do is point and marvel. That’s ok though.

The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour. I point and marvel.

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15 Comments

Filed under Ginsberg, Allen, Poetry

15 responses to “The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour

  1. yes it seems to grasp a moment of time ,I struggle to describe poetry sometimes ,love tis one read some of his i heard it on a radio ,this is simplier thou you can see these guys even thou your given the briefs of descriptions ,it is like a fly in amber ,all the best stu

  2. Beautiful poem, the instant taken away in memory.

    I have Howl at home, I still have to read it. It’s a dual edition, perfect for poetry.

    If you like poems with non-verbal added to the poetry, see here ( http://jacquesmottier.online.fr/pages/apollinaire.html) what Apolinaire did.
    It doesn’t matter that you don’t speak French.

    I understand what you mean about the difficulty to speak about poetry. Maybe it’s because it speaks to the heart rather than to the brain. Analysis involves brain.

  3. I know very little about prose poetry (or proems, as I’ve also seen used). I am drawn to, and write, straightforward poems. Indeed I’ve toyed with the idea of formatting my pieces without line breaks but never been brave enough. My personal view is the prose poetry is prose writing that concentrates more on images than storytelling; it eschews the kind of rhythm and rhymes that we associate with poetry. My problem with this piece is the line breaks. I would have preferred this to be formatted as a single paragraph like prose. I need to do some research clearly. I like this piece though. Not read much Ginsberg. I was gifted a copy of Howl over thirty years ago and could never get through it and that kind of put me off for life.

  4. Stujallen,

    Thanks for dropping by. Fly in amber is a wonderful metaphor, it’s that perfectly captured moment.

    Bookaround, I’m afraid the link didn’t work for me. I think you’re right that poetry in part defies analysis because of its emotional content. I still suspect it can be done though, it just requires skills I lack.

    Music after all mostly speaks too directly to the heart, but there are those who can speak to it.

    Perhaps in part it’s just a question of reading more poetry.

    Jim, interesting you mention the line breaks. I wondered about those myself, since my memory of the poem didn’t have them. That was the version I found online, my own complete collection of Ginsberg seems no longer to be at home (lost in a move sometime I guess) but I do wonder if that’s how it was originally written.

    I’ll be writing up an Angela Leighton collection soon, which is much more traditional in structure. Marvellous poems, I have one of hers already here if you dig around in the poetry category.

  5. Sorry the link didn’t work. Let’s try again :
    http://jacquesmottier.online.fr/pages/apollinaire.html

    I’m not sure reading more poetry is enough to improve its analysis. Like for painting or music, you need to know techniques you can’t learn just by reading, watching or listening.
    I’m afraid it would ruin my pleasure to know all the techniques, just like knowing the tricks used by a magician. “To marvel and point”, like you said, is good too.

  6. Yes, a fine piece of work by Ginsberg. I was first introduced to his work by reading the Penguin Book of American Poetry back in the 1960s when it all seemed terribly modern – strangely, it still does, which perhaps shows how original work lasts whereas derivatives don’t.

  7. due to the way the poem is written it is easy to picture it in your minds eye.

  8. Thanks for the link, I’ll have a read tomorrow.

    I’ve found that with books knowing some technique has given me another avenue for interest, though I do know what you mean (excessive analysis can kill a work, which is why books studied at school so often can’t be read for pleasure afterwards).

    Tom, originality does last I agree. As does talent. Quite heartening really.

  9. If you like prose poetry, you can try Arthur Rimbaud, if you haven’t read him already. A Season in Hell is prose poetry.

  10. I admire Ginsberg for his ability to switch seamlessly between obsessive/sensual attention to detail (as in the poem you discuss above) and broader, urgent hearkening to dangerous trends or easily forgotten inferences (as in, for example, “America”).

    I also share an inadequate vocabulary to discuss poetry, but this is mostly what I love about it. Poetry creates its own vocabulary of uncommon connections, imposed pauses and half-heard rhythms.

  11. I’ve not tried Rimbaud. Any you’d recommend to start with?

    Brendan. Uncommon connections, imposed pauses and half-heard rhythms. Precisely. That’s what I was trying to get at when I talked about the spaces between the words mattering.

    I’d actually forgotten how much I used to enjoy Ginsberg. This one just popped back into my head from nowhere. I’ll have to pick up some of his collections again.

  12. For prose peotry : Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell)
    For classic poetry : Poésies (Poems)
    You will probably find an omnibus edition, it’s not very long.
    If you choose an online version and want me to look at the quality of the translation, feel free to ask.

  13. I find that my vocabulary is inadequate for describing my feelings about anything. I am aware of many of the techniques used in poetry from English classes and how they affect the experience of the poem, having personally experimented with them, but I find that most of the time I am as incapable as you claim to be (I find yours a very illuminating description of the poem, and besides one that made me like the poem more, so I can’t completely agree with you) of describing what I feel.

  14. I think we all feel a bit that way Ronak. Occasionally I see someone write on their blog that they’ve struggled to know how to talk about a particular book or poem. I always sympathise because we’ve all been there.

    Still, I’m glad my description was helpful. I still think I only scratch the surface though.

  15. I think you said it just right…

    Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
    Missing me one place search another,
    I stop somewhere waiting for you. -

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