Thursday, June 14, 2007

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" by Jeff Skinner

Prose poems are those strange paragraphs that makes one think of what Henry James once called the long novel, "loose baggy monsters", and as such it's a risk for the reader to enter a piece that tries to contain the associative leaps of the free verse poem with the rhetorical drive of a working paragraph. The results are often unsatisfactory, containing the merits of neither form.Jeff Skinner's "I've Been Working on the Railroad" impressed me less for its poetic acumen and more for his seeming knack to tell a shaggy dog story; when the mind is idle, there is nothing between to between tasks (either assigned by the boss or off a self-designed agenda) and there is nothing you either need to or want to discuss with your fellows, you retire into the recesses of the mind, mulling the gathered archive of collected impressions and stored obsessions, talking to oneself as if there was an other at arms length to soak in the ramble.It is the mind in the act of automatic writing, images and aromas and bits of old jokes and city scenes brought together with an alarming fluidity; there is less in this poem in terms of associative leaps and more in the general style of untrammeled, unfettered conscious spew; this is the mind producing it's own white noise to keep the mind sharp and fully aware of what it's habit of mind has accumulated over a few decades of one's senses bringing in the bother and bustle of a cantankerous existence.

I've always had trouble with the boss, even when I was self-employed.

Why do I have to sit there for eight hours when I can finish the day's

work in fifty-seven minutes? And there was a flaw on the face

of the office clock, a flyspeck or mole between five and six

where the eye went naturally, as if to the corner of an otherwise

impeccable woman's lips. I kissed that flaw in my mind, over and over,

because I had nothing else to do. The idea of work is fine, but

must we put every idea into practice? The trees, which I sometimes

catch waving to me, seem content in every weather, as if they

were continuously employed actors, and when the script calls for caress

the willow bends and draws its leaves delicately across the grass;

More than anything else, Skinner's poem hints at word salad, the talk of schizophrenics form whom the order of past, present and future has collapsed upon themselves and all incidents and all concerns , in their respective tenses, are merged, expressed at the same time. This lack of discretion, the failure to make distinctions or abide by circumscribed hierarchy gives this poem an explosive charge; this is stammering with all cylinders firing. The speaker tries to talk about everything at once.There's a resemblance to the bulging rampages favored by Albert Goldbarth, for whom the weight accumulation and each detailed dent and ding of experiential discomfort and annoyance sometimes results in an inspired rant, but Skinner pares his unanchored, rudderless ramble to the minimum. Goldbarth at least has script he sticks to, while Skinner's poem goes off the rails and becomes a suspended bit of verbal strangeness.What is appeals to me here is the way this piece approximates the stammering velocity of someone who is usually quiet and perceived as nerdy (or just plain old weird ) by his community, who, when given the chance to speak, or rather taking the chance to speak, cannot focus on what he wants to talk about, cannot organize his thoughts, cannot sound at ease with the ideas he's trying to express.

What gets to me is the way the poem suddenly stops. This is someone who hears himself talking too loudly at work, at a party, in a bar, in line for a movie, and just falls into a desperate quiet, hoping no one was paying attention.. The final line, which might be taken as poetic in the conventional sense, a metaphor intended to make the reader's heart rise or sink with the imagined rhythms of the poet's intention, strikes me rather as some mysterious sounding bit of pseudo profundity that is intended by the speaker to toss a blanket of bewilderment over the words that had just come out of his mouth.

Perhaps in the end all work

is equally forgotten, and the transmission of knowledge a long train crossing

Kansas at 3 a.m., a glowing tube full of dreaming passengers.

Dazzle ‘em with genius, or baffle ‘em with bullshit, as the T-shirt says. One over hears or indulges in the speaker's diatribe, expecting it to land somewhere, and is then handed this as a parting shot, a summation. I think Skinner has captured the style of the awkward orator, who's habit is tie up adrifting stream of conscious with a cryptic summation. And one is left standing there as they walk away, scratching their head , wondering what it was they were trying to talk about in the first place. I think this is a good poem.


  1. Hi Ted,

    I like your critique of Skinner's "I've Been Working on the Railroad" because it understands what Skinner is doing -- creating a situation where a bored or depressed teacher is daydreaming and ends up with something important. I particularly like your comment about compressing past and present.

    The part of your critique I disagree with is where you seem to give a psychological analysis of the speaker's personality (not used to talking, etc.) when I don't see that in the poem. Besides, the guy's a teacher and has to talk a lot.

    Don't know if you read my critique on Slate, but I gave Skinner low marks on the ending, because I thought he didn't develop it. However, your take makes good sense -- that the speaker's daydreaming brought him around to something profound and having thought it, he stopped right there.

    If I post to your critiques here, will you have time to respond, since you don't spend much time on Slate anymore?

    Speaking of Slate, I'm getting royally beat up by everyone for backing up Islandtime's comment that there's too much negativity when it comes to reviewing Tuesday picks. Angel criticized me for suggesting that people avoid black or white thinking, and Antipasto said that since she's had more experience critiquing poems than I do (and has less time, since she's not retired), she can give a poem a few quick reads and determine whether or not it's SLIME -- as she characterized it. When I noted that Paul Breslin had urged us to spend more time with a poem, White Rabbit questioned whether Breslin's comment was valid since his poetry wasn't all that great.


  2. Good to see you here, MA.

    Teachers who have to talk all day are not by default good teachers or good speakers,in private or public. It may be that this person is capable of cogent conversation, but part of what attracts me to it is the perception of the speaker that (or she) is talking out of bounds;hence the jerky transitions, hence the cryptic coda that attempts to make a bad stretch of sentences seem purposeful.

    I do respond, here on on The Fray generally, to posts that asks questions or give an interesting counterpoint to anything I've written. My diminished there participation comes mostly from lack of interest in waging war agains mediocre poems presented by Pinsky, or in having an opinion on each thing that gets posted.

    A thick skin is required at Fray, MaryAnn, and if some passionately disagrees with you, respond in turn with a counter argument, avoiding insults and slurs, staying on point. Avoid the personality wars; that is a reason I've dissociated myself from some at the forum, who were constantly drawing me in to conflicts that were none of my business.

    I will respond to you, MA, but remember that everyone else can read what you write about them on this page. Some remarks are better left for email.


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