20th Century Poetry #6: John Squire & the Poetry of Protest

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here.

John Squire’s poem about the appalling conditions of the Chicago stockyard is the only early twentieth-century poem I’ve found so far that seems like it could be written in 2019. The question then as now remains: is it good poetry, or just good protest? Is it valuable only as social comment, or does it show poets a way of handling politics and violence?


from “The Stockyard”

….But at last we stopped at a place
Of dingy yards with towering buildings behind,
And backed and turned down a lane between high walls,
Where bumping or halted by doorways
We passed loaded wagons, and horses
Who knew not what service they did there
Plodding in the purlieus of slaughter.
And I thought as I looked about me,
Was it truth when I called it a duty
That a man who ate flesh should come out here,
Being answerable for all that is done here
In this place that I dread to approach?

We came to a yard and the door of a great new building
Square and clean; and up in a lift, and into
A spacious hall and rows of small clerks receding,
At rows of desks, girls and their typewriters,
Inkstands, ledgers, and cords of electric lights;
And then to a neat little office with pictures and carpet
Where a little old man awaited us, smiling and shrewd,
A man with a close white beard and twinkling eyes.
He was witty and kind, he cracked us a few little jokes
About mixing up men with beasts, and the need of guides;
So he rang for guides, and two tidy young men came and fetched us
And we picked up our hats and sticks and walked downstairs:
And I heard at my ear in a quiet sad voice
A sad reproach that I could not answer:
“You have come to see the filthiest thing in the world:
Why have you come to a thing so loathsome,
To ask trite questions and act indifference
As now you are doing before you have started
To stroll through the filthiest place in the world?”

So we stepped out into the cold,
And walked in pairs, wincing at wind and sleet,
Through gates, across gravel, and then to a range of buildings.
The explanations began, my guide talked profusely,
I professed an interest. But my heart was unquiet, afraid,
Trembling with fear at the expectation of strangeness,
Pledged to encounter something I could not guess:
What people? What duties? What infamies done in the light
Yet hid from the world? … Who but a fool would come?
Would I go away now if I could? … But now was too late,
The threshold was crossed at the lowest plank of a stairway
Rising outside a high wall. Came a whiff of the sty.
We climbed to a gallery running along outside
A windowless wooden loft. They were here for a day,
The hogs who would die to-morrow. They were through that wall.
We mast pass, for we did not come to see feeding hogs….
Yet I could not help but linger and peep through a crack:
And there in a filtered light they were scattered about,
Scores of squat steadfast hogs, snouting at roots,
Arrived that day with only a day’s respite,
Fattening after a journey, contentedly grunting,
At the rest and the space and the food…. No notice would they take
Of the new tall sides of the sty, the numerous company,
Yet I looked at them full of fear and awe:
Not pigs did I see but Life in a doom-filled place,
All things and their destiny, not to be understood,
Till my name in a courteous voice broke into my trance:
“We have only an hour and a half: there is much to see.”

The gallery led to a door and we left the sky
And stood among beams by a flat revolving drum.
Pigs slung by the hinder feet went round with that drum
Squealing, and when they had soared and drooped again
A man with a rhythmical knife let blood from their throats,
And they passed down the shed on an endless chain, smoothly,
At regular intervals, pig after pig after pig
Hung downwards, slate-coloured, pouring blood, to vanish
Through a door. The smell came hot and enveloped us round.
I dared not look at the others. I held my breath,
Breathed through my mouth, thought about other things…
I had to walk slowly and could not ask to go back.

A sound of perpetual scraping, a warm wet stench…
And then, still steaming, moved evenly into a hall
A line of pinkish-white pigs, atrociously naked,
Their unders gashed with a wound from tail to head,
Suspended parallel, a quivering pattern of trunks
And dangling snouts and smooth flapping pointed ears,
A shifting geometrical maze of bodies
That trembled when turning the corners. Men stood at their posts
Jabbing and slicing and plucking. The file moved slowly,
And evenly opposite, over against the chain,
A belt flowed on with tight little heaps that were entrails,
The gaping body above, the entrails below it,
Each pile gliding in line with the belly that owned it,
Till it came in the middle to the front of a blue-smocked figure,
Who worked with his fingers, who dipped and peered and dipped
In time like a clock, a man who would stand all a day,
All a year, all a life, groping and peering in entrails
Watching for something there that would mean disease…
I remember: a negro: he’d an armlet “U.S. Inspector.”

Somewhere the heads went off: when we next stood still
In a narrow high passage, half-hogs came tumbling outward
To the top of an inclined plane of wood, slid down
And stuck at the base a second to be smitten in two.
A dark young man with an axe was standing there,
Lean-waisted, strong-armed; one fancied a mask like a headsman’s.
He waited, axe downwards, his eyes looking at us and through us,
His mouth was firm, chin square, he’d a slight dark moustache:
Slavonic perhaps. There was pride and contempt in his eyes,
And nothing else lived in his face to show what he thought.
A carcass rushed down; his hands went steadily upwards,
Then down flew the axe and severed it clean between bones,
To tumble down funnels…. I answered ashamed his gaze
As he stood, imperious, erect, his eyes looking forward,
Axe at rest, straight down from his forearm, a waiting headsman,
A figure from allegory, a symbol of Doom.

And beyond were cool chambers where browning hogs of the past
Hung quiet in lines that dwindled away in the distance
In twilight and fume, being cured. The blood was behind us,
The corridors now were steely and bare, and at last
We came to light and the human; in a varnished room
Hams slid in and were placed in paper wrappers,
Packed and sealed by pretty aproned girls,
Dainty and clean like nursery-rhyme dairymaids;
And a clock marked noon as we watched, and they all broke off,
And two of them put their arms round each other’s waists,
And went tripping upstairs to their meal, whispering and laughing;
All under the one vast roof with the knives and the steam.

They were hurrying outside in the grey cold yards,
Men and women with anxious faces,
Crossing the yard, hurrying for dinner….
But there was no rest in that place from continuous killing,
The work with the sheep and the cattle went clanking on,
And we threaded the bleak-faced crowd to go on with our day….
A sawdusty room, very clean, surrounded with meat,
Where dealers would come, but none as yet were there;
Cool stores of pieces all still in a blue half-light;
And then a glimpse of the sheep-sheds: an open door
And a flock huddling in, led by a trotting goat
Trained to betray those simpletons; woolly backs
Jammed in the pen, and further, a struggling sheep
Hauled through, and another, then dangling bodies and chains…
We passed through a place where a row of throat-cut calves
Hung downwards, their muzzles and tongues dripping blood to the floor:
One of them started to kick like a marionette:
We glanced and went on to the largest shed of all.

So at last we stood
In an old black gallery whose wood was dewy with death,
Old death soaked in. Across, there were bullocks entering
From the light to the dimness, patient. Were they conscious of death?
Did they wonder what this was to which they were brought in a herd
Of strange companions, these fields with no pools, no trees,
No grass on the ground, no gentle light from above,
No leisure to kneel and sleep? They were strangely silent;
But once from them came most quiet and pitiful
A brief little lowing, a little plaintive moo,
Like a question that got no answer. There was not another,
No sound but the shuffling of bodies as we sauntered around
And halted above them and gazed right down on their backs.
They stood there stolid like prisoners under a guard,
And were pushed one by one to their end. For beyond a partition
We moved, and could see, directly below us, two men
Half screened by the shadows, and one had a hammer he swung.
The bullock came in and waited, staring ahead,
The hammer leapt down on his head with a loud smack,
And the beast collapsed and crumpled along the ground
To be hooked and slung and raised and swung for the slitting.

But some I saw that, dazed, fell to their knees
And needed a second blow, and one
That came to its knees and looked with uplifted head,
Bewildered, appealing, as against a dread mistake,
And the loud crack drove it down, and it lay like the rest,
And went off like the rest in the gloom and another one came,
And another, another, and passed to the high dark hall,
Where great carcasses slowly moved, or were held by men
With plunging arms, who slashed and stripped and clove.
They were dabbled with blood, the place was all painted with blood,
Splashings and drippings and clots; blood trickled to the gutters
Specked with white fragments of flesh. In the open space
Of the middle men padded about in the dark red slime
Of a flat floor paved with blood….

Dazzled and sick I passed into the light,
Down steps, along scaffolding, moving with the others,
Crossing the firm’s museum where they preserve
Relics of the founder’s humble beginnings,
A rude machine and photographs of a shop.
I talked and smiled with effort, wishing for solitude
In an air heavy with the neighbourhood of death;
At moments marching mechanically, empty and vague,
Till the thought came back again, dizzying, frightening,
That within those pale insubstantial walls of brick
The wheels of death were grinding, death at each stroke,
Life pouring down a shoot to the dark Pit,
A manufacture of death. And when we were parting,
Shaking hands in the bright white carpeted office
Thanking our host, while floated through the partition
The muted multitudinous tapping of typewriters,
Everything swam before me, I felt like falling,
I saw again that antechamber of slaughter,
And heard the timid lowing of that poor beast….

A varied day, many people, chat about books,
Journeys, sight-seeing, shops. In pauses outdoors,
In streets and courts, at the edge of the ruffled grey lake,
My nostrils were suddenly filled with a scent from the suburbs,
A sickening, pungent, invisible reek blowing in
Over miles of roofs. I set my teeth to my retching,
And told myself, “It is only wood-smoke from the curing,
It gets in your clothes in those vaults with the files of hams,
Or even if not, if it blows, it is only wood-smoke.”
But a whisper came. “No, not smoke; it’s the scent of death,
The odour of death that hangs always over Chicago.
Chicago lives always in the breath from the caverns of Death,
And her people walk always, knowing it, trying to forget it;
Buying and selling and playing, fringed by that horror,
They smell it and do not speak.”
But at night in the Opera
                                             We sat in a box surrounded by pensive faces,
Soft hair, glinting jewels, silks, white elbows on velvet,
Curving around in an arc. There were rows below
Of bare-armed women and quiet white-fronted men,
And far above us, mounting in tiers to the roof,
A slope, thick-speckled with faces. The lights went down,
The people glimmered in shadow all silent, watching
The enchanted gold of the stage, cut square in the darkness.
They saw a pageant of white-cowled monks who chanted,
Feigned worship and grief, a woman dressed as a boy;
They were fired and lifted, comforted, saddened, delighted,
By chains of pearly song, deep organ-like choruses….
Across that circle of thousands
At the summit of civilisation
In a pause of the wandering music
Like the boding voice of disaster
I heard a desolate lowing.
They were happy in song and colour,
Flushed and tender and yearning:
But wanning the air a cloud came over,
A poisonous breath that choked my nostrils.

We talked. The lights went up, then down for a ballet.
In the lovely fairyland world of the stage,
A shepherdess sweetly beribboned
Drooped sighing by a faltering fountain
That sprayed and sobbed in the twilight,
Circled by dark-green bushes
And the pedestalled heads of fauns;
And a ring of shepherds came leaping,
Brown-limbed, in a noiseless motion,
Joining hands and dividing and joining again
To delicate minglings of music.
O harp and horn and Arcadian pipe!
Again from the marshes of blood beyond
It stole to me, chilling my spirit,
The inveterate miasma of death,
A presence drifting as only I knew
Over all that gaiety, sensibility,
Refinement, innocent playing with toys.
And I thought no longer of only Chicago
But of all our haunted race and its world.
The auditorium was rent like a veil
And I saw in a chasm of infinite darkness
Killing, devouring, and charnel smoking,
Writhing, flames and a rain of blood,
The faceless phantoms of Baal and Moloch…
Till it closed and again I resumed my life.