Howard White, The Men There Were Then

 Before we talk about Howard White and his astonishing collection The Men There Were Then, you need to understand something of the impact that work poetry had on me, when I first stumbled across it in September 1988.

At a garage sale in Gordon Head, here in Victoria BC, I picked up a book whose use-shredded spine read Going for Coffee: Poetry on the Job, and found a whole world of working-class poetry that spoke immediately to me. Edited by the indefatigable Tom Wayman, and first published in 1981, this book meant almost everything to me, and it changed everything.

After grade seven, I’d been yanked from a very small community in the BC interior and dropped into a British-style boarding school, and while I’d learned a huge amount there, I had felt even more of an outsider than I probably would’ve back home. English class had been a happy place for me, though, especially the Literature 12 survey of classic British literature (Beowulf to nearly Virginia Woolf), and I’d enjoyed working hard for those teachers. Although I’d had more ability for math and physics, finishing first-year calculus in grade twelve, I’d decided that at university, I’d do literally anything other than what Messrs. Greenwell and Margison would’ve wanted.

Without that book, which I found in my first week at university, I don’t know that I would’ve persisted through the first semester’s scarringly deep Freudian readings of, among other things, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (“the roll of money in his pocket, it’s clearly a huge penis, yes? Larger than his own, certainly”). The second semester was back to the same Lit 12 survey, so I knew my way around that, but with Wayman on my shelf at home, well, literature was vibrant and vital and engaging beyond anything that I’d known before.

And central to that whole experience was one poem, Howard White’s “The Men There Were Then,” which after appearing in Wayman’s 1981 anthology would become the centrepiece of White’s own collection The Men Were Then.

The book’s divided into two sections, “Accidents” being the first and “Bulldozer Joke” the second. As White explains in his introduction, he accepts fully the various elements of his working life, and wants them to be visible to his readers: poet, editor, and bulldozer driver (at minimum). His formal intention, he declares, is to explore “the genius of common speech as I have heard it from the people I live and work among.” To be clear, that’s not at all Wordsworth and the other Romantics were doing, no matter what they claimed (except for John Clare, but that’s another story); White isn’t romanticizing his friends, coworkers, and family members, but listening to them and letting them speak.

“The makers of the great primitive legends, the authors of the great epics, the troubadours, the Elizabethan playwrights, didn’t consider it beneath them to tell a story, but modern poetry does and this has made it the preserve of an incidental minority while the mass of people are abandoned to Warner Bros.

“It doesn’t have to be that way.” (p.11)

Though there’s some great stuff in the book’s second section, it’s the first that I keep coming back to. White remarks in the intro that everywhere he’s worked, people sit down and swap stories about accidents, and this was exactly my experience in the years I spent painting houses and apartment buildings. “Accidents” is a sequence of poems that tell the stories of workplace accidents, some of them funny, some of them lethal, some of them both at the same time, and they hit me hard still.

The story of “The Men There Were Then,” the poem, has to do with old-time logging on the BC coast. If you walk in Stanley Park in Vancouver, in Francis/King Park in Victoria, or in almost any patch of older trees on the coast, you’ll see mossy old stumps with little notches cut out of them, and that’s the evidence you’re looking for. Fallers would cut little steps into the bases of trees and jam springboards into them, so they could get above the unpredictable butt of the tree to generate a straight log, or possibly to an elevation where an eight-foot crosscut saw wasn’t too short to reach through the whole tree. (As the poem has it, “There are no trees like that today”: there are, but not many.)

It was an incredibly dangerous job, and in this poem, a faller ends up prey not to the tree but to his tools. A faller would leave his crosscut saw standing on end while he worked up to where he’d cut from, and he’d drive his double-bitted axe into the trunk in order to bend over and pick up the saw. In the story told by the poem, the faller brushes against the axe, and, well, you read what happened next:

It’s not the accident that speaks to me, but the aftermath. It helps that I grew up in a logging family, my grandfather leaving the woods around 50 after taking a tree’s blow to his chest, but the precision of White’s language still knocks me over. Depending on your poetic tastes, your personal and family history, and your mood, other poems will speak to you more strongly than this one, but if you don’t enjoy the copy you pick up after reading my recommendation, I’ll buy it from you myself.

(The screenshot of the poem, I should say, comes from someone’s blog on working-class poetry that hasn’t been updated since 2014. Read the whole poem there if you’d like, but shout-out to Ron Mohring!)

Is The Men There Were Then dated? Absolutely, both the introduction’s objections about modern poetry and the verse itself.

But I don’t care, and you shouldn’t either. If we don’t keep reading this sort of thing, we’ll lose track of how we got the way that we are, in my case lose track of how British Columbia got the way that it is. Like the book or not, Howard White was and remains a goddamned treasure.

(Cross-posted from my Substack, I should say, because I'm still trying to figure out readership and access issues over there!)


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