Work tends to be more prosaic than poetic. Few people find artistic inspiration in the office cubicle (Kafka, Orwell and TS Eliot excepted). But here is a curious thing - a long poem by Richard Burns setting out in often bizarre and unexpected form a portrait of a manager at the end of his tether at the end of the century.
The manager, named Charles, is struggling with many things: career, marriage, affair, anxiety, despair. In deceptively free-flowing 'verse-paragraphs', the reader is introduced to, or overhears, the characters of Charles' world: colleagues, bosses, wife, lover, strangers. There is more than a hint here of Eliot's disdainful vision of the grimy, gloomy city, of the 'smell of steaks in passageways'.
While equally gloomy, Burns' work is inventive and anarchic. He plays with genre and form, supplying not only conventional verses but also memos, e-mail and other detritus of office life to convey his vision of relentless, grinding work. We are treated not just to terse office jargon but also demotic chat and linguistic variety, with bursts of French, Italian, Greek, Russian, Czech, Hebrew and Serbian (all helpfully translated) in this dystopian, globalised environment.
Don't turn to Burns for practical advice on stress management or teamworking. This manager is just not managing. He confronts his own image brutally: 'When did I last see myself? Myself, did I say? Last night I looked in the mirror and saw a slice of cardboard. Cartoon eyes painted in, and all proper features.'
Perhaps the poem can best be recommended as a consolation, on the principle of 'if you think you've got problems ... ' Burns' view of organisations and the workplace is almost unremittingly bleak. Work crushes individuality and the spirit. Work saps the life out of us. Those who don't realise this are unthinking automatons.
This is a challenging but rewarding read. It is impressive in scope, and the ease with which Burns switches from the arch formality of office hierarchies to the chatter of the street is striking.
It is perhaps unfair (but worth pointing out) that Eliot probably did this sort of thing rather better in The Waste Land:-
'A crowd flowed over London
Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had
undone so many.'
Burns' intriguing poem is well worth a look. After the gloom, there is a glimmer of an alternative life away from work. Charles breaks free to build a new life and identity for himself. Not an option open to us all, but one you might find encouraging.