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.