What might at first seem a rather inconsequential poem, about a man watching other men achieve nothing, reveals itself as a subtle meditation on men, on language and on work. That very appearance of inconsequentiality is a key to the poem – it too seems to achieve nothing.
Motion’s poem is an adaptation of a section of The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919), the first volume of journal entries by WNP Barbellion, a pseudonym of English naturalist and diarist Bruce Frederick Cummings. Disappointed men are the central concern of the poem, firstly the workmen who fail to position their supporting pile for the pier, but also the observing speaker of the poem, who also fails to do much either, despite the ordered regular stanzas suggesting clear progression.
The poem establishes a gulf between the observer and the workmen. Not only does the speaker have the leisure merely to stand and watch while they labour, but his tone and language throughout suggest an educated, meditative mind, using such words as ‘paraphernalia’, ‘ruminative’, ‘mystic’ and ‘bolus’. In contrast, ‘Speech was not something to interest them’ and their language is functional and simple – ‘Let go’ and ‘Hold tight’.
The workmen are dealing with ‘a wooden pile, a massive affair’ and they are described as ‘men; very powerful men’. The repetition of ‘men’ highlights a focus on masculinity; these workmen represent the traditional male, working physically together to achieve something which requires strength. Even the asyndetic list of tools in the first stanza contributes to this idea: ‘chains, pulleys, cranes, ropes’. Hard hats and hi-viz vests, this is a stereotypically man’s world, but a world from which the narrator is excluded; it’s not his world. He can only observe, which he does meticulously and precisely through the eleven stanzas. The difference between them is emphasised when the observer notes that the workmen are ‘ignoring’ him.
There is also a slight snobbishness which creeps into the narration. The workmen’s speech is introduced as ‘like this’, as if the speaker can only give a rough approximation of such alien expression, despite its simplicity. The workmen are later described as ‘monsters’. The use of ‘mystic’ is ironic, and he sees fit to judge that the foreman is ‘the most original thinker’.
All the men in the poem have hit a problem:
‘…for all their strength and experience
these men were up against a great difficulty.’
The speaker too ‘cannot say what’. Whether burly workman or educated observer, nobody has the answer. However, while the workmen fail in their task completely, the speaker continues to observe and interpret; at first he is ‘baffled’, but then he says ‘I realised’. The body language of one of the men ‘showed me’ as he watches for ‘at least an hour’. While the observer implies a sense of inadequacy for not being a ‘very powerful’ man, here there is a sense of superiority that he is able to continue with his interpretation and thoughtful understanding of them while they fail in their task.
There is comedy in the men’s staring into the water in silence and the foreman smoking ‘a cigarette to relieve the tension.’ There is also humour along with mocking irony as that foreman, ‘with a heavy kind of majesty’, gives up and walks away. It is an admission of failure, humiliating to ‘powerful men’ of ‘strength and experience’, but the ‘wooden pile’ with which the poem starts is ‘still in mid-air’ in the last line. The speaker, though, has completed his observation and interpretation of the scene and Motion has constructed a poem out of it. But the balance of the last sentence is interesting. It could be read as ‘That left/ …me’ as well as the dangling pile, abandoned in the same way, but it could also be read as ‘the pile still in mid-air, and me of course’, suggesting the speaker too is in ‘mid-air’, unable to progress, to be useful, to be put in place. The poem questions the observer’s achievement as much as the workmen’s. What kind of work is writing observations into a poem?