Art & Culture

The sweetest dream that labor knows

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiMay 05, 2015 | 11:47

The sweetest dream that labor knows

May's prompt comes from re-reading Seamus Heaney's great poem "Digging". I was thinking about things and how they're made and how so few poems that celebrate creating celebrate the things themselves. I confess I haven't looked very hard and my memory fails me, but when I try to recall poems about making, they tend to be about things at a platonic remove from the material object.


When we talk about creating something, we usually mean a work of art: a painting, a piece of music or an imaginative work of some kind. Sometimes, the artistic and the utilitarian come together, as in a marvellous work of architecture, but the association of the word "create" with the imagination is unusually strong.

Heaney's poem, though a metaphor for writing, is for all but the first two and last four lines about the physical act of digging, the hard labour of it and the sensuousness of root and peat and turf.

That led me to think of the book Earth Abides, by George R Stewart - a post-apocalyptic world in which most of the human population has been wiped out by some mysterious disease or virus, and where the few who remain, gather in communities and learn to survive by scavenging on what has been left. It isn't until many years have passed that it occurs to one person to wonder what will happen when everything that seems inexhaustibly available, like department stores stocked with canned food, and hardware stores with nails and tools, runs out.

At that point, the man makes a bow and arrow from scratch, using nothing that the reformatted world does not have naturally, and in abundance. He sharpens a stone to fashion himself a knife, cuts a likely piece of wood, makes the rope - all of it - painstakingly, expending blood and sweat in the effort.


All those around him laugh and are puzzled. They do not have the imagination to foresee that the things manufactured by another age will run out and that they no longer have the means by which to replenish what they took for granted.

You can imagine how it goes. That was a book and what we're doing here is writing poems.

For this month, I'd like you to look afresh at the things around you that you take for granted and return to their beginnings. Write a poem about making something using your hands. The object could be utilitarian or not - that's up to you - but its arrival in the world must be heralded by effort and physical work that you, sitting at your laptop and using only the finer motor skills, describe as if you had felt in your body every moment of that effort.

Recall any instance when you made that physical effort to create something. Remember how your body felt, describe the slow emerging of the made object. Ask yourself what your poem is doing. Is description enough? What is the purpose of this poem?

Revise and rewrite keeping in mind that the created thing is different from the description of the process by which it was made and somehow that difference needs to be reconciled or at least taken into account in your poem.


Your poem should be titled and kept under 20 lines. Send in your submissions to thesidewaysdoor@gmail.com by May 20.

Last updated: May 05, 2015 | 11:47
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