CHRISTINE M. KNIGHT

An Australian author who provides insight into the human condition.

Author Christine M Knight's Blog

Monday, April 22, 2013

Blog 8 -DISTINCTLY VISUAL POEM: The Shearing

In response to many requests via my website here is the long awaited discussion of The Shearing. I've included the poem first for ease of reference.

The poem shows the connections between people and the complex nature of place: physical, social, generational, and cultural. The poem portrays the ways in which individuals live and interact in a specific social context. 

The Shearing
Old men -
         grey trousered,
         open necked white shirts,
         long sleeves rolled to the elbows,
         black leather shoes -
Sit aligned
On the wooden barber’s bench.
Reticent men from another world
Witness to the shearing of a new generation.

The father -
         long hair an echo of his generation's rebellion,
         coloured T-shirt declaring his fealty,
         faded, downtrodden jeans,
         shabby sneakers -
Clashes with his son -
         fashion dictated jeans and footwear
         logoed T-shirt,
         clean-shaven.
The argument,
Samson’s pride
Forms the centre of the debate,
The son reclaiming
The razored induction into manhood.

Old men ruminate on the ritual,
The irony of fashion,
The source of strength ….
Knowing why one battles and the conviction it is right to do so.

When I wrote The Shearing, I had Tom Roberts' painting Shearing The Rams in mind. His 1890 painting depicted Aussie men from his time: strong, rugged, bearded, iconically masculine. Roberts' painting and the men in it belonged to a time of social change. When I wrote The Shearing in 1998, I was interested in portraying Aussie men who also belonged to a time of social change albeit from a different place and time. The poem focuses on the way distinctly visual features of each generation gives insight into them.

Unlike in Roberts' painting, the 'shearer' is not in view. The' ram' is implied and has a triple metaphoric reference to the three generations of men gathered in the barber shop. The Shearing explores the ways the men belong, perceptions of strength and weakness, generational conflict as a rite of passage into manhood, and the cyclical nature of life.

The first thing to note about The Shearing is the form of the poem. The poem's narrative is set out simply on the left hand side of the page - distinctly visual. The description of each generation is set out on the right hand side and aligned. I did this to draw connections between the way dress reflects the attitudes and values of each generation. In appearance each generation differs, but the function of dress and the way it provides insight into the person as a representative of their generation remains the same. By aligning the sets of description for each generation, I wanted to focus the reader on the generational positions, identifying what was shared as well as how they differed.

Form and content are tightly meshed in The Shearing. The first and last stanzas focus on the old men, their observations, their reaction to the conflict before them, and the increasing sense of closeness and bonding between them as they observe the scene. They are united through a common experience: past and present. That bond is explicitly stated in

'Old men ...
Sit aligned
On the wooden barber’s bench.
Reticent men from another world
Witness to the shearing of a new generation.'

The old men are aligned literally and visually as they sit in a row on the wooden bench in the barber shop (physical place). They are also aligned or allied by a common perspective within the context of the poem's narrative (social and generational place). Their perspective encompasses knowledge gained from life experiences including generational conflicts such as arguments over hair length and dress styles. They are familiar with the scene being played out before them by the father and son. They have been sons once, and perhaps fathers.

The old men are also aligned in that they belong to a distinct period in history, are a common age, and have congregated together at a specific time and place. The barber shop is part of their world; it is a masculine place. It is a place where men come together to share as well as be shaved and shorn, even when their hair is thinning.

The old men are also aligned in their dress and attitude about how a person should look when he goes into town:

'grey trousered,
open necked white shirts,
long sleeves rolled to the elbows,
black leather shoes'

The 'open necked white shirts' and 'long sleeves rolled to the elbows' suggests an informality about their attire. The 'white shirts, grey trousers,' and 'black leather shoes' suggest a sense of occasion and a sense of pride in appearance. Their clothing shows the character of the people and the culture of their generation. There is nothing shoddy or slovenly or disrespectful in the way they dress. White is often associated with the essence of being clean.

Reticent implies a reluctance to speak freely about particular matters and has connotations of being reserved and tight lipped; they are men of few words. There is a sense of unspoken communication between these old men and a quiet camaraderie. The old men are survivors of harder times. Without stating it, the historical past is implied in 'battles': wars, depression, personal crises, losses, and wins.

Through word choice and arrangement, I wanted to create a subtle rhythm and a gentle lyricism that mirrored these old men. The rhythm of the first stanza is interrupted by the description, the broken rhythm of which was meant to suggest the way the old men move - their gait is made up of steps of varied length and rate of frequency.

The old men appear to be passive observers of the argument between father and son and secondary characters. The old men are, however, central to the poem's intent - observation and comment on generational conflict and the cyclic nature of life as well as reflection on the source of strength. It is for this reason that the poem opens and ends on stanzas about the old men.

The old men see the conflict playing out before them in stanza 2 as a ritual. There is also an appreciation of the irony in this situation where father and son roles appear subverted (overturned). The father's long hair is associated with rebellion and the son's appearance is associated with a return to old values, at least in hair length. Of course, the son is rebelling against the father while the father is arguing with the son to conform to the father's standards (symbolised by hair length). The subversion of roles is also reflected in the duality of the father's roles, past and present. The father was a son once and argued for a different outcome than his son but for the same reason. Related to the overall situational irony, I wanted to convey a sense of quiet humour. It is implied that the old men appreciate both perspectives, having 'been there and done that before'.

The middle stanza deals with the narrative conflict around which the poem is built. Father and son clash literally in appearance, through implied values, and in argument. I chose 'clash' to describe the generational conflict as it suggests a close physical fight. 'Clash' also has connotations of noisy and fierce opposition as well as an intensity of action - a sense of the opposing forces throwing all their weight into the conflict - a reflection of their alienation. At the time of writing, I imagined the head-on clash of rams when they fight for dominance.

The father's appearance is 'an echo of his generation's rebellion' against the fashion of previous generations as well as their values. As such, the father is representative of his generation. There is an historical reference here to the thirty years or so after the 1960s. Visually, he sharply contrasts with the old men. His 'downtrodden jeans' and 'shabby sneakers' refer to subversion of what had been previously fashionable as well as to what was valued by the old men, an orderly well-kept appearance. The father's appearance lacks any sense of occasion.

It is ironic that the subversion of what was valued in dress trends is in itself a reflection of conformity to the fashion of that time. The father's 'T-shirt declaring his fealty' refers to his stated allegiance, an allegiance that is dictated by popular culture. 'Fealty' is strongly linked to the sworn loyalties of the feudal system in the medieval period. The linked juxtaposition of the T-shirt (modern times) and fealty (middle ages) ironically reinforce subservience rather than 'rebellion'. There is also the play of words on the father being in his middle age.

Through contrast, the shared values of the father and son are established. They are influenced by the fashion of their respective time, and they reject/rebel against what was valued by an older generation. They differ in that the son's 'logoed T-shirt' no longer signals allegiance to anything other than adherence to brand names in fashion. His jeans and footwear are 'dictated by fashion' rather than a matter of choice. The father doesn't care about fashionable appearance (his dress is outdated) whereas his son is a slave to it.

I've reversed the order of detail in the descriptions of the father and son to reinforce their differences. The reader scans the father from head to foot whereas the son is scanned in reverse ending on his face. Both descriptions, however, end simply in two words.

In word choice and arrangement in the second stanza, I wanted to achieve a less lyrical, blunt, and more abrupt sound to mirror the poem's narrative action where father and son clash and argue.

The argument centres on 'Samson’s pride' and is 'the centre of the debate'. The biblical allusion to 'Samson's pride' establishes the argument is grounded in an ancient conflict and clearly ongoing (a sense of historical place). 'Samson's pride' has a double reference. First to his hair which was identified as his source of strength. Second to his eventual weakness. In the biblical story, his physical strength meant that others could not hold him to account for his behaviours. He became very proud and with that self-centred. He disrespected authority and did not honour his parents. Samson's story, like the narrative element in The Shearing, is about contrasting definitions of strength and weakness, vulnerability to the dictates of others, and a parental desire to impose standards on the next generation.

The son reclaims the 'razored induction into manhood.' This is a reference not only to the hair length being shortened but to having a razor clean shaven neck and to the rituals associated with becoming a man. The generational argument is identified as a rite of passage with an allusion to the cutting razored inductions in other cultures. If there is pain in this induction process, it comes from the generational clash rather than suffering razor cuts to the skin. As part of that rite of passage, the old men are 'witness to the shearing of a new generation', generation of men being implied.

Stanzas 2 and 3 provide contrast in views about the source of strength as well as in rhythm patterns and lyricism. Stanzas 1 & 3 have a similar rhythm and lyricism.

For the father and son in stanza 2, strength is a matter of whose will is stronger and whose perspective will hold. For the old men in stanza 3, the source of strength is something to reflect on and discuss; there isn't an obvious or glib answer.

'Old men ruminate on the ritual.
'The irony of fashion,
The source of strength ….
Knowing why one battles and the conviction it is right to do so.'

Ruminate means to think in a contemplative manner. A slowness is associated with that process. In its literal sense, ruminate is usually associated with cows and chewing the cud (food that has been previously swallowed and regurgitated). Analogously, ruminate in this poem means that the old men turn over and reassess past perspectives about the ritual. That slow consideration is contrasted against the heated argument in stanza 2 where father and son clash.

Ritual describes an act that is part of a ceremony, the codes that govern action and interaction are formally and clearly established. Depending on its use, the word can be neutral, approving, or ambiguous in its connotations. If the behaviour is appropriate to the situation, the word is neutral. Within the context of this stanza, the ritual refers to the generational conflict played out between father and son.

Within the context of this stanza, the ruminating process about the ritual involves some sharing of the thought process through dialogue after the father and son have departed, some reflection, and subsequent insight. That insight is complex.

The old men recognise the irony implicit in fashion as well as the qualities in the son, his strength, when he asserts his independence as a rite of passage to manhood and resists his father's fashion imprint.

'Fashion' as used in the third stanza has multiple meanings and reflects contradictory states/forces. First, 'fashion' is strongly linked to clothing and behaviour patterns. As such it has connotations of conformity and fitting into a desirable and acceptable mould. Second, 'fashion' refers to the influence of mass marketing and the conditioning of a person. The word focuses the reader on the malleable nature of people and their susceptibility to herd influences such as fashion in order to belong. The person is not strong in the sense of being resistant to external forces but is malleable, able to be manipulated. Contrarily and related to this, the reader is focused on the strength of the impulse to visually fit in and belong to a generation through appearance and mirroring what is valued. Third, fashion also refers to the generic way in which young men assert their manhood and in doing so, resist or no longer conform to parental directions. The key insight of the poem centres on the source of strength and 'Knowing why one battles and the conviction it is right to do so.' Battle is used metaphorically and refers to a specific fight as part of a larger war. The old men evaluate the nature of combat and see the link to values: 'the conviction it is right to do so'.

The use of ellipse or three dots in the second last line after 'strength' indicates a pause in the discussion between the old men, a trailing off into silence and reflection before they come to an answer. I've also used the pause as a way of emphasising their conclusion:

'The source of strength ….
Knowing why one battles and the conviction it is right to do so.'

Finally, I enjoy writing poetry because it is a highly condensed form of expression where a lot can be said in a few words. I also enjoy the related challenge. I hope you enjoyed my poem and found this discussion of it to be interesting. I wrote this poem in the late 1990s when I was in Kiama, NSW.

Consider buying Belonging: A Related Text Companion to 'In and Out of Step' through this website or from Amazon.

©Christine M Knight


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      Saturday, August 12, 2017

      Life Song - a story of metamorphosis

      Saturday, August 12, 2017

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      If you would like to lend me your support so that I can produce more music from my novels, you can buy any of my songs from CD Baby.  Each of my songs can be purchased for the very small price of $1.69. My music is also on iTunes and other major online music sellers as well.



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      Sunday, June 25, 2017

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      Sunday, June 25, 2017


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      I currently have 8 songs on CD Baby and iTunes. You can help me raise the money to produce the rest of my songs by buying one or more of my songs at the very small price of $1.69 per song. They are on sale at CD Baby and  iTunes. Online music streaming services such as Spotify and Deezer promote my music, but I only earn approximately one cent per one hundred streams. 

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      Sunday, June 25, 2017

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