‘Shirt’ by Robert Pinsky was published in 1990 in The Want Bone. The poem consists of sixteen stanzas that are separated into sets three lines, or tercets. These tercets do not follow a specific pattern of rhythm or rhyme. But, there are moments of half, or slant, rhyme scattered throughout the text.
These mostly depend on consonance or consonant rhyme. This feature, as well as the variety of poetic techniques that Pinsky makes use of, structure the poem and work together to bring greater attention to the important themes Pinsky wanted to bring to a reader’s attention.
For example, in the second stanza the words “presser,” “cutter” and “wringer” appear right next to one another. In the same lines, there are all the words, “needle,” “mangle” and “treadle.” It is this kind of rhythm that carries the poem on. It also helps to emphasize the lists in general, keeping the reader’s attention on them for longer.
The poem begins with the speaker doing his best to humanize those who try to make a living in sweatshops. These are miserable, unseen jobs. Hardly, if ever, do people in the western world consider where their clothes come from. Pinsky seeks throughout ‘Shirt’ to change that. He speaks in detail on the historical fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the outrageous conditions that lead to it, and the deaths that resulted from it. He also brings two different poets into the poem and connects the slavery of the 17th and 18th centuries to its equivalent today.
You can read the full poem here.
At its most basic level, this is a poem about making shirts. But it speaks deeply on themes of human rights and explores topics of consumerism and selective ignorance. Throughout the text, Pinsky moves through stories, images, and historical examples of how the clothing industry has always mistreated its “employees.”
While contemporary society might believe the world to be a fairer place, there are innumerable employees working for less than any one could live off of, and suffering under despicable workplace conditions. This is a kind of modern slavery that goes against all the proclaimed ideals of the western world.
Throughout ‘Shirt’ there are a number of lists. These contain features that Pinsky gathered together and with which he makes use of asyndeton. This occurs when the elements of the list build, without the presence of conjunctions like “and.” There are a few lists that are created this way. The most prominent examples are in stanza three, ten, twelve, and sixteen.
The poem is densely packed with allusions. Pinsky references a fire in 1911, the poetry of Hart Crane, the poet George Herbert, the hoax of Ossian, and the cultural history around the kilt in Scotland. Towards the end of the poem he speaks on slavery in the Americas prior to the Civil War, and how that slavery still exists today.
By being so exacting in his references, Pinsky is able to secure his facts in the real world. The people working in the sweatshops are human beings who have the right to be seen and heard as such. There is also a lot of languages present in the text that is intimately connected to the production of clothing. A number of these words will probably be unknown to a reader. These include titles such as “carder,” “spinner” and patterns like “Tattersall,” and “Madras”.
Analysis of Shirt
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,(…)Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
In the first stanzas of ‘Shirt’ Pinsky creates an ongoing list of features of a factory. It would more aptly be called a “sweatshop” as those working within it are employed at low wages and are forced to work long hours. The speaker mentions a few elements of the factory, there is “The back, the yoke, the yardage.” He is drawing a reader’s attention to the small parts of a shirt and what it takes to make one.
These are the constructed seams and “invisible stitches” that are put in place by workers in Korea and Malaysia. They are things that no one ever notices, but Pinsky is using this poem to draw attention to them and to the larger problems of the conditions these workers are made to work in.
Stanzas Two and Three
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their breakOr talking money or politics while one fitted(…)The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
In the next lines, the speaker gives some context to the piece, he does not want the workers to be seen as faceless, emotionless, automatons who don’t really have lives. These lines seek to imbue them with personality, cares, and desires. He speaks on their “Gossiping over tea and noodles” and the talk of “money or politics” while working.
The third stanza contains the first instance of a first-person pronoun. The speaker is implicating himself, along with every reader, in ‘Shirt.’ Everyone is guilty of taking advantage of these people who are not paid a living wage and who suffer so that western clothes are cheaper.
There is also another good example of this stanza of asyndeton. There is a list of workshop parts, from “The wringer” to “the mangle” and “The needle” to “the union.”
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.(…)On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The fourth stanza brings in a little more context to the piece and gives the reader another reason to want to help these workers and find a way to improve their situation. Pinsky’s speaker describes the “Triangle Factory.” This is an allusion to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory which burnt down in 1911, killing 146 people.
A large number of deaths were due to the fact that there were “no hydrants” and “no fire escapes.”
Stanzas Five and Six
The witness in a building across the streetWho watched how a young man helped a girl to step(…)And then another. As if he were helping them upTo enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
The next stanzas give more details about the fire and what exactly happened. There is one moving personal story of how one man tried to improve the fates of three children. The speaker recalls the story told to him by a witness who saw a “young man” help “a girl to step / Up to the windowsill.” It was not to safety he was trying to get to, but to a quicker, less painful death.
There was more than one child this man dropped from the window, as the onlooker recalls. To this person across the street, it seemed to be such a simple act, as if he was “helping them up / To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.”
Stanzas Seven and Eight
A third before he dropped her put her armsAround his neck and kissed him. Then he held(…0And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—
Immediately after the man drops the third child from the building, he climbs up onto the windowsill and jumps off himself. This is a better death than that which awaits them in the fire. A tender moment is featured in the seventh stanza. This last child kissed the man before she fell to her death, as if she fully understood and accepted what was happening.
The eighth stanza focuses on what the man looked like as he fell. His clothes “flared” around him and air filled up “his gray trousers.”
Stanzas Nine and Ten
Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly(…)Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
The ninth stanza of Shirt provides the reader with an allusion to Hart Crane’s poem ‘To Brooklyn Bridge.’ The quote comes from lines eighteen and nineteen. A “Bedlamite” is a deranged person and in Crane’s poem climbs up onto a bridge to commit suicide. He tilts at the edge and then allows himself to fall.
The speaker adds in, via the onlooker, that when the man fell it felt slow enough to take note of the colors and patterns of his jacket and how the pockets matched. This connects back to the main focus of the poem, factories producing clothing. The speaker would of course be fascinated by the prints that come to mind, as well as “plaids, checks, / Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras.”
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed(…)To wear among the dusty clattering looms.Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
There is another vague allusion in the eleventh stanza, this time to “the hoax of Ossian.” This was a character invented by the writer James Macpherson who, for a long time, had literary figures and people from all around the world, including important leaders, believing the Ossian was the “Homer of the North”. The speaker describes how the tale of Ossian was used by factory owners to expand on the history connected to names such as “MacGregor.”
This is just another example of how one part of the system works to control another. A fact which is elaborated on in the twelfth stanza with a reference to the kilt and how it was “devised for workers / To wear among the dusty clattering looms”. There are a few more words listed without conjunctions, all of these related to the production of fabric.
Stanza Thirteen and Fourteen
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorterSweating at her machine in a litter of cotton(…)Lady in South Carolina, her name is IrmaAnd she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
The list continues into the thirteenth stanza and then the speaker moves onto talk about a more obvious and known example of slavery, which occurred throughout the Americas. The labels that go with this section include, “The planter, the picker, the sorter.” These were titles that existed in the past, and still exist today as the speaker moves quickly from “slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields” to their modern descendants.
These include “Irma” who, the speaker states, is a descendent of the poet George Herbert, and who inspected his shirt. Still, in the modern world, a similar kind of slavery exists.
Stanza Fifteen and Sixteen
And feel and its clean smell have satisfiedBoth her and me. We have culled its cost and quality(…)Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.
The speaker moves on to the shirt itself. He juxtaposes the history he has just relayed to the “clean smell” and feel the shirt has. The speaker refers to the same history as being “culled”. The “cost and quality” of the shirt all come at a high human price. In the last stanza, he uses another list of words that walk the reader through all the elements of a shirt they will be most familiar with.
There is “simulated bone” for the buttons and “the sizing, the facing” and “The label”. Then finally, in a summarizing short sentence, “The shirt.” Everything he spoke about, the physical parts of the shirt, and all the terrible history that goes into its production, is embodied in the shirt itself.