One of William Carlos Williams best known poems is The Red Wheel Barrow which goes like this:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams does not tell us what depends on the red wheel-barrow. In fact, explicitly telling us what depends on the red wheel barrow might threaten the aesthetic value and experience of the poem. The poem was crafted to bring the reader into an immediate understanding of reality. It is achieved in 16 words. This is the craft of poetry: it creates understanding of immediately experienced reality based on aesthetic values.
In 2017 Faber & Faber published Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making. At 344 pages, it is pleasant collection of Langlands’ adventures as an archaeologist , historical farm practice re-enactor and all-around-enthusiast of the most ancient of hands-on practices. Though the whole lot is wrapped in an affable and slightly wistful style (note the insistence on the archaic, diphthong-using spelling, craeft, rather than just using the modern spelling and pronunciation, craft), the book is an academic-oriented inquiry into what Langlands’ calls craeft.
It may be useful to be clear what, precisely, Langlands is talking about. In his Preface, Langlands suggests that craeft
…has something to do with making – and making with a perceived authenticity; by hand, with love; from raw, natural materials; to a desired standard. It doesn’t necessarily have to result in an object, though……in the world of art it can be a methodological process as much as a conceptual tool….
Langlands also contrasts this with long-forgotten uses of the word by referencing the Oxford Old English Dictionary and claiming that the word craeft offers an amalgam of knowledge, power and skill with extended connotations of wisdom, resourcefulness and physical skill.
Whether using the anachronistic craeft or the modern craft (and I will use both as I don’t think the distinction between the two is significant), the term and concepts may reasonably be applied to the labour of composition. This is not the first place to consider the idea of a writer’s craft. But there remains value in exploring the depth of connection which that idea might have to other ancient human behaviours. And, by extension why the craft of composing poetry may be far more complex and necessary than we may generally consider.
It is from the staked conceptual territory of craeft as methodological process and conceptual tool that Langlands explores the virtues of manually-completed work ranging such tasks as ditch-digging, bee-keeping, roof thatching, grass mowing and the like. Langland sees in this ancient and necessary labour “deep time signatures” which
serve as a tacit reminder of the human condition: that we are makers, and that we have always lived in a world of making. It defines us, we need it, it’s good for our health, and it makes us better.
These are, of course, sentimental thoughts borne of undertaking manual labour as a matter of choice and self-amusement rather than of hard-driven necessity. It needn’t be perceived as mean-spirited criticism to observe that a life spent without the opportunity to be away from requisite hard labour and the conditions of poverty which typically accompany is very different from a life spent in academic studies broken-up from time to time by a bit of hearty exertion (whether for display on camera or among the pages of a book) is not precisely the same thing. Nor should it be considered that Langlands is completely off the mark or unaware of how his sentiments might be perceived.
A core of Langlands’ thesis is that the human condition is deeply and irrevocably linked to making and that our modern disconnection from making is problematic.
the meta-narrative of the current crop of craft-oriented writing is about disconnection: we have become detached from making, and it isn’t’ a good state for us to be in. It’s unhealthy when we are disconnected from making
Soon, we’ll get to the “crop of craft-oriented writing” and ideas of disconnection. Naturally, Langlands spends some time decrying the distance that modern technologies and approaches – built upon what he calls the pseudo-science of the 1800s – have generated between our daily lives and ancient craefts. So let’s identify a few of these ancient crafts and how they illuminate Langlands’ thoughts.
In a chapter devoted to systems for setting up agricultural barriers, Langlands writes
This is a story that can be told through the main tools of domestication and the means by which it is sustained; the walls, hedgerows and ditches that make up the skein of complexity in the British landscape we see today. These boundaries were for centuries the seasonal concern of an army of agricultural labourers whose craeft it was to ditch, wall and hedge – practices that went hand in hand with the agricultural traditions they facilitated.
Among various chapters on bee-keeping, thatching of roofs, weaving practices and more, this small passage is notable in two respects. First it places in context what seem to be the most basic of technologies and practices. Strategic planting and pruning of shrubs, piling of stones and digging in the earth. Manual labour doesn’t get much more fundamental than these types of tasks. It is the digging in the earth that I wish to focus on; Langlands offers a full chapter on digging.
It is the digging that stands out to me. Not because I can claim a particular expertise of or relationship to digging, nor because of the the distance between digging and composing poetry but because of a passage in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) which I have often remembered as being out of step with the rest of that book. At this point you may be thinking, “Wait. How did we get from digging a hole to an often-dismissed book about riding and repairing motorcycles?” And that’s fair.
So, before I talk about ZAMM, I want to spend a few moments showing how the ideas and sentiments in Craeft are not unique. Langlands places his book among a crop of books devoted to craft. I find threads that connect Langlands’ ideas to ZAMM and through that window to perspectives and philosophies which may be as old as the crafts Langlands is sentimental for.
Langlands references Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, a book which I’ve read and found, apart from a few pithy quotes and observations, relatively uninspiring. Sennett’s book was published in 2008 and if you’ve had an opportunity to read it and found it to be a revelation, all due regards. Maybe I just wasn’t adequately focused on the book at the time. I’ve promised myself a re-read at some point in the future. The thesis is similar if not precisely the same: a relationship to making and doing provides greater satisfaction and connection to life. Let The Crafstman stand as a leading example of the craft-oriented books that Langlands acknowledges.
Let another example be Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class As Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Work. In Crawford’s case there is an expressed dissatisfaction with current modes of living and working. Knowledge work is shown to be unsatisfying and dehumanizing and manual labour – in Crawford’s case the craeft of repairing old motorcycles – in its various forms is shown to be authentic and meaningful. Dignified. Crawford’s punch at the bag was originally published in 2009.
It is Crawford’s book which provides the conceptual link to ZAMM that I want to explore. I read Crawford because I expected to find a complementary exploration of ideas posited in ZAMM.
ZAMM is a book which I continue to study at considerable length. It was first published in 1974. Of the books discussed in this article, ZAMM may be the book which most exemplifies craeft in practice. This is not to suggest that the other writers and thinkers mentioned here do not show tremendous talent. But ongoing study of ZAMM yields layers of meaning and possibility within the storytelling narrative that the more recent books simply don’t (and won’t) have – because Pirsig did not confine his writing within academic expectations. ZAMM is a work of craft where the other books are works of modern academia.
All of these books share common central themes and several perspectives. Each of the authors address and explain their views in their own way. But what I’m doing right now is defending ZAMM as an exhibit of craeft where the other books do not go. And that brings us to digging.
I mentioned a particular passage in ZAMM which seemed out of place. I’ll extend that to say the passage seemed ugly, arbitrary and un-necessary each time I read it or considered it. Like a few other sections of the book, I found no reason for the passage to be there. Excepting these rare passages, the book is exceedingly tight in its internal consistency. It shows craft.
So what is this ugly passage? Along the road of a long motorcycle vacation and amid a long stream of philosophical presentations regarding the same disconnection from modern life that Langlands, Crawford and Sennet explore, the narrator and his companions find a place to rest.
Dayville has huge shade trees by the filling station where we wait for the attendant to appear. None does, and we, being stiff and uneager to get back on the cycle, do leg exercises under the shade of the trees. Big trees that almost completely cover the road. Odd, in this desertlike country.
The attendant still doesn’t show, but his competitor at the filling station across the narrow intersection is watching this, and soon comes over to fill the tank. “I don’t know where John is,” he says.
When John appears, he thanks the other attendant and says proudly, “We always help each other out like this.”
I ask him if there’s a place to rest and he says, “You can use my front lawn.” He points across the main road to his house behind some cottonwood trees that must be three to four feet in diameter.
We do this, stretch out on some long green grass, and I see that the grass and trees are irrigated from a ditch by the road that has clear moving water in it.
We must have slept half an hour when we see John is in a rocking chair on the green grass beside us, talking to a fire warden in another chair. I listen. The conversation’s pace intrigues me. It isn’t intended to go anywhere, just fill the time of day. I haven’t heard steady slow-paced conversation like that since the thirties when my grandfather and great-grandfather and uncles and great-uncles used to talk like that: on and on and on with no point or purpose other than to fill time, like the rocking of a chair.
John sees I’m awake and we talk a little. He says the irrigation water comes from the “Chinaman’s Ditch.” “You never could get a white man to dig a ditch like that,” he says. “They dug that ditch eighty years ago when they thought there was gold here. You couldn’t get a ditch like that anywhere nowadays.” He says that’s why the trees are so big.
We talk some about where we’re from and where we’re going, and when we leave John says he’s happy to have met us and hopes we’re rested. As we move off under the big trees Chris waves and he smiles and waves back.
The desert road winds through rocky gorges and hills. This is the driest country yet.
It must be admitted that the explicit racism of the passage is grating and ugly. It seems gratuitous and out of place. But that is from an extremely modern perspective disconnected from the ideas Langlands presents in Craeft.
In context of what Langlands offers – that the digging of ditches is an ancient and essential agricultural tradition – elevates digging of ditches from simple menial labour to the status of craeft with the qualities and characteristics which Langlands offers. What seems like (and may have been) a racist dig opens onto the possibility that Pirsig is offering an example of the distance between an authentic craeft culture and the modern world. This also offers an opportunity to highlight the separation of modern academic-oriented writing (Sennett and Crawford) from a more craft-oriented writing (Langlands and Pirsig).
Consider this passage from a website which documents a number of locations featured in ZAMM, including the ditch described by Pirsig:
From reading ZMM I got the idea the ditch by these trees was quite large. As you can see in my photos, the ditch by the trees is unused and partly filled in. It probably was never any more than a 8 inches deep and sixteen inches wide. This is probably because this was just a minor branch of a much larger canal system. The “Chinaman’s Ditch“ probably was huge at its main supply outside the town, since it probably fed agriculture irrigation to many ranches in addition to the town itself. The source of the water probably came from a great distance up in the hills. Topozone map for Dayville, shows a blue line, South of town, that is likely the larger main “Chinaman’s Ditch“ since it systematically follows the contour lines. I forgot to ask about how the water had been sent to the location of the gold mining. Perhaps further study of the Topozone maps may show the old mine and its ditch
With this perspective, an ugly little passage suddenly deserves closer scrutiny rather than offended dismissal. Why use a racial term to describe the ditch, apart from the probability that it was actually the term used at the time? Why not call it by its functional name, an irrigation ditch?
This is a central theme, perhaps the most obvious central theme of ZAMM. ZAMM was built on themes established by F.S.C. Northrop in The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding – a book written in 1946 with the expressed objective to peel back the layers of western and eastern thought and expose an urgent need for both western and eastern cultures to successfully engage each other. Northrop’s thesis was that Eastern thought and culture is oriented to immediately experienced aesthetic realities while Western thought is oriented to interpreted logical realities. Northrop argued that these two realities correlate to each other on a 1:1 basis.
What is an immediately experienced aesthetic reality? Let’s suppose that it is what Langlands calls craeft. It is digging ditches, keeping bees and composing poetry. What is a logical reality? Let us suppose it is repairing a motorcycle, negotiating a mortgage or writing an academic article.
Northrop and Pirsig may have been entirely incorrect in their view that Eastern culture is (or was) founded on aesthetic principles to a greater extent than western cultures. What they were describing is not, however, disconnected from what Sennett, Langlands and Crawford suggest about our current human dilemma in being disconnected from craft. Langlands argued that ditches served “British farmers for centuries, if not millennia” and described the practice as a craeft. People have become so far separated from authentic craefts through centuries of philosophy and changes generally described as progress (painstakingly described by Northrop) that the fundamental and necessary aesthetic roots of ancient crafts are lost on many of us. Today most of us, including modern mass-scale farmers, would be unable to successfully dig an agricultural irrigation ditch that would exploit local terrain and conditions.
Northrop explicit argument and Pirsig’s implicit argument connects to a thesis Langlands offers:
At its deepest root, I think this disconnection is derived from our illiteracy of power….we don’t , in society as a whole, really know what energy is all about. It’s too macro for us to comprehend. We’ve become too used to electricity or gas on tap – flicking a switch and using as much as we can afford – facilitated by increased automotive and mechanical complexity…..Craft has, and always will, enjoy buoyancy among the luxury markets, for those who can appreciate it and for those who are simply buying a price tag. But for the everyday, the cost is prohibitive……..
Recalling our red wheel-barrow (or our ditch), the books described here, collectively total approximately 2000 pages of mostly academic explanation, description, exposition and self-validation. Two Thousand Pages.
So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
Craeft and Poetics
In my poetics article, I argue that poetry is an original “making” and that it is poetry, the craefting of language, that makes humanity. It is poetry, the shaping of words, which enables poets to create immediate aesthetically-based understanding of immediately experienced reality.
References and Citations
- Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman
- David Pye The Nature and Art of Workmanship
All content on www.ericadriaans.com, the Erickipedia, is updated and revised based on new information, further consideration, reader feedback and whim. To recommend updates, provide feedback or comment please use the contact and feedback form.
- Original draft: August 16, 2018
- Updated August 31, 2018
- Updated September 3, 2018