excerpt from The Poetry of Southwatch Volume 3
by Professor Thumbswedge
We begin this third volume on the poetry of our great city right at the moment when the steam engine's effect began to be felt in the city. And so it is fitting to begin with a new poetic form, which has come to be known as “steam poetry.”
What is steam poetry? It began among the dock workers, as a way to pass the time while loading and unloading ships. Unrefined and ignored by the literati, it developed its own patterns and striking beauty, something only discovered much later when recent poets have revived the forms.
The first steam poets are unknown today, folk poets who made up their lines as they worked. The poems spread along the docks, acquiring alternate lines and verses. The first recorded lines we have begin with the well-known statement, “The ship is gone, the sea is cold, my love.” Other early efforts yielded “Seven crows and seven masts / and thunder in the hold” and its many variations and “Swing the boiler low, feed on my heat.”
In this final example, the true beginnings of steam poetry can be seen. The metrics and rhythms changed somewhat over the years without straying too far from those first examples. But the central conceit of the steam poem is conceit. (Overly clever? That's what you get when it's the third volume of an in-depth look at the poetry of a single city...) Arrogance. Boastfulness.
The steam poets couched their greatness in lines. They boasted of their muscles, their great strength, their, ahem, prowess. And steam engines were often the basis of their boasting. Or rather, the comparison to themselves, which always found the machine to be lacking.
“Feed it fuel and watch it burn / but not as hot as me. / Bellows blow and children slave / to give it industry. / While I curl my burnished arm / and towers bend down to see.”
There is a definite sense of defiance in the best of these poems, a sense that the people in Aerie owe much to the workers below. A sense that they might be strong in their riches up above, but they lust after the real strength of the people working.
As we will see over the course of this volume, that same sense will carry through to later street-level poets, as they struggle to stake out their places in a city of mechanicals taking their dock jobs, taking their factory jobs, even taking their scribe duties. It will play out in an increasingly sophisticated way, from the starving artists of the Underground to the artist colonies in the White Cliffs.
For now we will end with one more snippet of a steam poem, before moving on to the full poems themselves in the pages that follow.
My boiler burns, intense and strong
too hot for hot, young blood.
They say slow down, they say enough
you'll burn up in your place.
I say I'll burn, so bright and fierce
that all will know my death.
Daniel Ausema is the author of the second story in The Darkside Codex, The Electro-Addictive Moth Flame.