you may be right in expecting a Seamus Heaney poem for today, but while acknowledging a great loss–and foreshadowing next week–we must forge on with our scheduled work. Last year on this holiday we read the poem by Philip Levine, the one where the speaker also waits in line to see if he’ll have a day’s work at Ford, and yet somehow cannot express sympathy for his brother, the one who works all night on the line, and then rises before noon to practice German opera. Today it’s a trainline porter who reads Auden and Eliot in his spare time.
How many people read that the Pullman porters strike of 1894 was the occasion for the creation of Labor Day? The president ordered in 12,000 federal troops to crush the strike, the power of the employers and the government were upheld in court (national labor relations and the right to collective bargaining were not made law until the 1930s), and in response to what was in many ways a horrific reality, legislators at least took highly symbolic, and empathetic, action.
So when I found a poem featuring a porter, I knew it was right for today. Robert Service was, as he labels himself in this poem, a humble bard of boys and barmen. He spun adventure yarns and comedic character sketches in rhyming couplets and quatrains. He was quite popular in his time (1874-1958). There’s no indication of any past of labor strife in this piece–just subtle class and race condescension! -ed.
The porter in the Pullman car
Was charming, as they sometimes are.
He scanned my baggage tags: “Are you
The man who wrote of Lady Lou?”
When I said “yes” he made a fuss —
Oh, he was most assiduous;
And I was pleased to think that he
Enjoyed my brand of poetry.
He was forever at my call,
So when we got to Montreal
And he had brushed me off, I said:
“I’m glad my poems you have read,
I feel quite flattered, I confess,
And if you give me your address
I’ll send you (autographed, of course)
One of my little books of verse.”
He smiled — his teeth were white as milk;
He spoke — his voice was soft as silk.
I recognized, despite his skin,
The perfect gentleman within.
Then courteously he made reply:
“I thank you kindly, Sir, but I
With many other cherished tome
Have all your books of verse at home.
“When I was quite a little boy
I used to savour them with joy;
And now my daughter, aged three,
Can tell the tale of Sam McGee;
While Tom, my son, that’s only two,
Has heard the yarn of Dan McGrew ….
Don’t think your stuff I’m not applaudin’ —
My taste is Eliot and Auden.”
So as we gravely bade adieu
I felt quite snubbed — and so would you.
And yet I shook him by the hand,
Impressed that he could understand
The works of those two tops I mention,
So far beyond my comprehension —
A humble bard of boys and barmen,
Disdained, alas! by Pullman carmen.