Labour poetry

19.14, Monday 23 Aug 2021

I am taken with dagong shige, “labour poetry,” a genre that has emerged from the 300 million workers who have migrated across China to the big cities over the past four decades, as described in The Economist:

Its most famous practitioner was Xu Lizhi, who worked on an assembly line for Foxconn, a Taiwanese firm that makes most of Apple’s iPhones. Before he committed suicide in 2014, at the age of 24, he had written almost 200 poems about the drudgery of factory work. Among the best known is “I Swallowed An Iron Moon”:

Here’s the poem.

I Swallowed an Iron Moon, Xu Lizhi

I swallowed an iron moon
they called it a screw
I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms
bent over machines, our youth died young
I swallowed labour, I swallowed poverty
swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life
I can’t swallow any more
everything I’ve swallowed roils up in my throat
I spread across my country
a poem of shame

Some of the literature refers to powerlessness and homesickness; others are proud and patriotic.

It must be a strange mix of emotions to be part of a movement so strong and so vast which is lifting the largest country in the world out of poverty and is literally building the nation and the world, but at the same time to be, well, far from home and oppressed.

I’m reminded of the British war poets: Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen… I mean Dulce et Decorum Est is so vivid and so bitter - it’s a hard read, even with familiarity, and it’s hard to imagine how the imagination could be brought closer to the trenches of the Great War.

What is the role of this kind of art?

Maybe it sits midway between being

  • a mirror
  • a memory
  • the sound of society talking out loud about a colossal event or a becoming; processing it, digesting it for all of us, creating places for our feelings.

Which is vital.

I don’t know about poetry but there were, appointed by the British government, official war artists for the First and Second World Wars.

It is a shame that the government did not appoint official pandemic artists, to document and interpret the empty streets of the lockdown, the paranoia inherent in Covid itself, the masks and the bubbles and the supermarket shelves and the diversity of experiences, the whole 18 months and wherever it goes next.

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