Day jobs are often one of the biggest sources that writers draw from, especially early in their career. This influence is seen in some of the most popular poetry of the 20th century, from T.S. Eliot (banker) to William Carlos Williams (doctor). Sometimes the influence is less subject-based, and more about the structure that a day job provides (or forces), like with Frank O’Hara, whose famous collection Lunch Poems was written during his lunch breaks. Gary Beck’s Songs of a Clerk falls into both categories, wherein the day job (whether or not the author had the job at the time) is the subject of many of the poems, while many feel as if they were written initially on scraps of paper in the midst of a workday.
The O’Hara comparison is clear in regard to the succinct, haste nature of many of the poems, but Beck’s subjects often run parallel to those found in Lunch Poems as well. Take ‘Hold Out’ for example:
Many of the poems in this collection run along this same theme, observing the city around the speaker while grumbling about his separation from it. One could even look at much of this collection as a metaphor for the life of an office worker, in that the poems start to run together like days in an office. While it is a topic that holds of wealth of anger and resentment, the repetition gets a little stale at times. Beck seems to want to hammer these feelings home to the reader, which he definitely does, but after a number of poems that are so strikingly similar it begins to get a little wearisome.
Where Beck does soar, however, are in the longer poems that focus on specific imagery or scenes, while relegating the complaints and repetition to but a few lines. The poem ‘Homeward Bound’ in particular holds a few light and descriptive moments like this:
Lines which finally take the reader out of the office and into a world that isn’t repetitive and drab. Unfortunately, like the life of a clerk, the collection bounces right back into the mundane and muted with poems about the office.
The story being told in the collection is another aspect that is very promising in Songs of a Clerk, but again, the nature of its repetition takes away from any narrative that’s being formed. We see the seasons change for the speaker, even if the gray nature of his outlook takes away from any real images. None of this is to say that Beck doesn’t know what he’s doing with these poems. He surely means to hammer the reader with repetition and drudgery to simulate the life of a clerk. There is plenty of tongue-in-cheek notes within the poems that show the reader that the author does, indeed, know that he’s boring your socks off. With a poem called ‘Repetition,’ he almost describes how the reader must feel:
As the collection winds down with more poems on drudgery and tediousness, Beck comes to an end with his story. In the final poems, we see the speaker headed to the unemployment office and later to the park, where he sits and enjoys nature and the people he observes. This is one of the nicer, more tender moments in the collection, as the speaker has been apparently freed of his job and therefore he can finally be happy. The image is nice, and a breath of fresh air after the endless drudgery of the office life. While I see the story running through the collection, and understand the purpose of the extreme repetition intended to make a point, it was hard to get into the poems when I felt like I was living the boring life of a clerk. So even though I didn’t enjoy the book, I may have felt exactly as the author had hoped.
Songs of a Clerk is available on Amazon.
Spenser Davis is a freelance writer based in Seattle, USA. His work has been published in The Rumpus, The Freelancer, The Billfold, and World Soccer Talk. He can be found on Twitter or at his website.