Punch on punch off by Geoff Goodfellow
Vulgar Press, 2004
The concept of working-class poetry may seem like an oxymoron to the uninitiated. Isn't poetry, after all, as Harold Bloom would have it, “the crown of imaginative literature”; an elitist, royalist member of the family of letters, on par with other 'high art' and upper-class forms and genres such as Classical music, opera and ballet? And isn't the idea of an 'imaginative literature' itself the very opposite of the harsh and gritty realism one often expects from working-class 'realist' narratives such as the novels of Emile Zola or the movies of Ken Loach?
Such questions are, however, trivial for the initiated. Poetry has always been, at least in its most popular manifestations – e.g. from medieval lay ballads and Chansons de Geste to contemporary Folk music and Hip Hop song lyrics – more closely linked to the 'masses' than almost any other art-form, high or low. Even among the more 'highbrow' poets one does not need to look hard to find many examples of working-class ethos and anti-upper-class radicalism: from the polemical descriptions of a poverty-stricken London by Blake to Tony Harrison's graphic and confrontational 1985 poem 'v.' written during the Miners' Strike in Thatcher's England.
The poems published in Punch on punch off, the latest volume by Australia's most recognisable blue-collar working-class poet Geoff Goodfellow, however, seem odd, if not confused and misguided. As committed to the cause of championing the underpaid and exploited workers (and some other downtrodden members of the society) as these poems may be, they often misjudge the source of their anger and, as a result, in spite of their energy and their purported authenticity, they misfire and come across as far more reactionary than revolutionary.
In the opener 'Poetry in the Workplace', for example, Goodfellow depicts poetry as something altogether trivial in comparison to apparently more crucial concerns such as workplace safety and the manual workers' cost of living. The poem's upper-class villain Lindsay Thompson, the General Manager of South Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is portrayed as not only arrogant and callous toward the workers, but also, importantly, 'well-versed':
maybe Mister Thompson knows
a sonnet has just fourteen lines
but would Mister Thompson know
the weight of workers'
or just that weight of coin
required to replace a pair?
What is odd, almost bizarre, about this poem's discourse is that it pits a (fairly rudimentary) knowledge of poetry – the fact that the sonnet has fourteen lines – against the supposed hardships of being a worker; wearing heavy boots, having to pay lots of money to buy a new pair and so on. What becomes clear from the very opening of this volume, therefore, is that Goodfellow's antagonism is not only directed at the bosses and their cohorts, but also at poetry itself.
Such a bias may sit well within a conventional Australian anti-intellectualism that views all sophisticated artistic and/or cultural expressions as 'elitist'; but for this reviewer such a dismissal of the art of poetry is, among other things, ignorant of the history of literature as well as the history of working-class uprisings; and totally unaware of works such as Shelley's truly revolutionary poem 'England in 1819', one of the best known sonnets of the English language as well as a significant influence on a young Karl Marx.
Goodfellow, however, in spite of the appearance of being a radical, is much more an anti-intellectual populist than a revolutionary. His disdain for poetry and versification is projected, most strongly perhaps, via the style of his writing. His pieces are more or a less vernacular (as opposed to writerly) straightforward representations of their speaker's very common language. In 'The Grind', for example:
If i told you that the girl
i'm seeing now
has bright sparkling
soft tender skin
& a cheeky grin
& wears her mousy
but still with little
piggy tails that i often
grip like reins
i wouldn't be telling
The language of this poem is, to put it lightly, conventional. The phrases used to describe “the girl” are, more or less, stock cliches: “bright sparkling eyes”, “soft tender skin”, “a cheeky grin”, etc. While such colloquial speech may suffice for 'telling a yarn' at the pub – or entertaining workers during their lunch-break on building sites, for that matter – it is hardly challenging, memorable or, in fact, revolutionary. At their best – in poems such as 'Turning in Circles' and 'Poem to a Thief' – the simplicity and candour of Goodfellow's voice reveal a confident, strong and, in the latter poem, compassionate protagonist who can identify with, and transcend his own egoism in favour of, the underprivileged outcasts of the society.
At their most negative, however, the forthrightness of this poet's voice verges on the crude, chauvinistic and, at times, misogynistic e.g. the comparison between a woman's “piggy tails” and “reigns” in the abovementioned poem, 'The Grind'. In 'Ask the Men' Goodfellow's anti-progressive sentiments verge on the odious as the poet claims that “white men” can relate to the Aboriginal peoples' suffering because they too have been victimised; because they have:
been to the Family Court fighting
for access to what they thought
was their inalienable right.
This diatribe is as reactionary and conservative as anything written by Les Murray, yet its author claims to be a 'working-class hero' fighting the good fight in the name of the underprivileged. Occasionally he is capable of conjuring some empathy for working-class women – in, for example, 'The Luxury of Work' – but his proclamations of male victimhood and the like are far more anti-progressive and anti-feminist than anti-Capitalist and/or democratic.
In 'Overtime', for example, the poet begins by telling the reader about the “the young blokes. fighting to survive”. He tries to arouse the reader's sympathy by highlighting the pathos of being a manual worker, before concluding the tragic tale of these “young blokes” by stating that they are “paying for divorce now/in overtime”. Would the tale of these men's overtime work be as tragic if they were not paying for divorce and, say, paying off a sports car? Would the poet still find it contentious and/or dreadful if the absent ex-wives of these protagonists were the ones paying for the divorce? In other words, is this poem an attack on contemporary work conditions and workplace agreements, or a convoluted attempt at lamenting the decline of patriarchy?
There should, of course, be enough room in contemporary Australian literature for all kinds of voices; and my criticisms of Geoff Goodfellow's latest collection do not amount to a condemnation or vilification. I am, nevertheless, uncomfortable with this poet's anti-intellectual and anti-feminist discourses being passed off as working-class, left-wing and radical. I am confident that many (`white men'?) would find Goodfellow's Charles Bukowski-esque down-to-earth language and simplistic voice appealing; but his is positively not a radical working-class poetry, but a profoundly conservative one. Here's hoping that Vulgar Press, a self-proclaimed publisher of `radical writing', will provide us with truly revolutionary literature.