Back to Leftside

Review of Leftside, by Ian Syson.
reprinted (with permission) from the Queensland Journal of Labour History, Sept 2010

Who’d be a working-class poet: a label and a vocation dismissed by your enemies and underestimated by your allies?

Well Jim Sharp would. After a working life sharpening a boning knife, at the latter end of life of engagement in working-class politics, he has produced a remarkable collection of verse that traces and reflects that life.

It’s a life of stages reflected in the structure of the book: birth and youth in Yorkshire, emigration to Australia, establishing a life in Queensland, acknowledgement of ageing and awareness of impending death. Metaphors of cycle, spiral and connectedness in the poems reinforce these patterns.

The first poem in the collection, ‘migration’, foreshadows the structure of the life and the book:

Me roots & shoots were nurtured
in the rother-don valley confluence
one flowered & fruited &
me fallin’ leaves be on the antipodes
nowadays as a one-leaf tree
I’m reminiscin’ life’s restiveness
aboot the owd world & the new &
allus me anscestors’ footpads & mine
be magnetically lock-stepped
sharp familial souls on antipodal soles.

While the poems capture a sense of duality between birth and death and north and south, they remain nonetheless written from very particular pair of perspectives. The outlook is based geographically in Australia and politically in the working class. Reference to England as the ‘owd dart’, a ‘green-girt miserable country’ and the creeping of Australian terms into English dialect make the viewpoint clear. The passionate advocacy of working-class politics ensure the only political duality in the book is, appropriately, one of conflict.

One of the strengths of the collection is its idiosyncratic dialect voice. Read alone, the dialect of any given poem is too peculiar and isolated to work, but read as part of a whole the dialect starts to hit home. The cumulative effect is to teach the reader the rhythms and strange meanings of this life and its collection of poems.

Sharp uses terms of his own creation as if they were terms everyone owns and understands – and indeed they do own them, because this work has been created for all readers. Readers will also understand them, though perhaps not immediately. Phrases like ‘monumental social continuum’ and ‘oz-pragmatic universalist’ are new to the ear yet function to describe old processes we all comprehend. They convey Sharp’s sharp sense of humour and wit but they also heighten the seriousness of the political processes he comes to support or undermine.

Sharp’s idiosyncrasies are derived from his status as an autodidact. With few role models or mentors his poetry has emerged in a unique form. This is the case with many worker poets whose writing is nurtured outside the conventions of traditional or modern poetry or after the travails of a hard working life. As Humphrey McQueen suggests in his Foreword:

Some delay awaits the worker who becomes a poet. Geoff Goodfellow got started only after injury put him out of the building game, Jennifer Maiden once she had left the factory floor for the university, Jim Sharp since he was made redundant. It is as if the grind that supplied their content prevented its expression. . .  Until made redundant, Jim was, in effect, illiterate.

McQueen also makes a connection with PiO, a writer who articulates the working-class argot of a Fitzroy crammed with European migrants. He makes the significant point that Sharp produces a very untypical Australian form – the English dialect poem – a form normally lost in the gap between the easier cultural accommodation of English migrants and the pyrotechnics of continental-European migrant cultural expression.

This is a terrific collection of poetry, because it records a life well-lived in a form that gives us a new way to think through the whole notion of living a life well. But its primary importance is that it keeps a candle burning for the diminishing art of working-class/political poetry.

There are any number of poems worthy of note but contemporary events push me in the direction of ‘a false prophet’ which figures Pauline Hanson criss-crossing Australia like a bushfire:

Don’t be allured by the wanderin’ redhead
            as she jetsets thru cities & towns preenin’
            her fashions upon a socially sour country.

While the accidental reading we could make of this poem is hilarious and one of its enticements, I think the final stanza of the poem is as good a metaphor for contemporary political life as any other doing the rounds:

Yet! a blakk & white hoi polloi together
            are running up the down escalator fast
            undergoin’ deadly social burn-backs.

Buy this book. Not for Jim or his publisher but for yourself, to read, to learn and to enjoy.

Ian Syson