Critically analyse ‘The Uncles’ by John Goodby, with reference to its main thematic concerns and how they are presented through a unique structure.

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‘The Uncles’ is a familial poem written by the reputable John Goodby. The poem has a unique structure, where it is in free-verse and therefore Goodby has manipulated the structure in order to further convey the theme of the disorganisation and work ethic of the uncles. The title includes ‘The’, therefore not personalising the poem from the beginning, however ultimately achieving that. The capitalisation and inclusion of ‘Uncles’ in the title conveys that familial ties and the uncles’s lifestyle will be portrayed through the poem along with their importance, shown through the capitalised ‘U’ in ‘Uncles’.

The beginning of the poem is categorised with terms that usually a manual workshop worker would know of, for instance ‘camshaft’ and ‘gimbal’. Goodby eloquently indents these terms of a specified nature to draw a contrast between the upper and working class — where although the working class may not be considered educated to a large degree, the terms provide some sense of intellectual capacity that the uncles have, therefore uplifting and elevating their position in society as something more than manual workers. This idea is made clear with the simple simile ‘like emigre intellectuals’ Goodby uses. This is also related to Goodby’s love for his uncles, therefore relates the poem to the major theme of familial love. Despite his uncles being of a lower intellectual and academic capability to Goodby, who probably assumes a middle-class status, he still sees his uncles as very learned and academic because of his love and personalised bias towards his uncles’ status — which is a very important standard to him. This bias isn’t considered as something unacceptable, rather, we praise Goodby for his level of affection of his uncles. This familial love is portrayed through a free-verse and irregular structure. Goodby uses caesura in the first line and throughout the entire poem to add more information and switch between multiple ideas very quickly for the reader to gain a sense of the uncles’ true nature and environment, and additionally to emphasise the imagistic nature of his poem.

On the first line and throughout the poem, Goodby also uses enjambment, to perhaps indicate the overflowing work ethic, hard-work and intellectual capability his uncles have. Goodby uses anaphora and repetition with the term ‘Uncles’ to continuously emphasise their importance and to remind the readers of how the portrayal of events through the poem are all related, in a specified nature, to the Uncles. The use of these multiple devices through Goodby’s irregular structure results in a more fluent and personalised writing, which is developed through the poem.

The tone is uneasy and fast-paced which shows disorder in the uncles’ lives. Goodby uses vivid imagery to build a landscape in the readers’ minds so they can grasp the scene and context of that of the uncles in their workshops. The poet writes ‘…Uncles Brickell’, which indicates his line of thought jumping from one image to another. This tells us how he imagines his uncles in a variety of places, and despite being part of the working class, they too have ‘been’ around and it is not as if they are oblivious to the world around them despite being considered lower down the social stratification system. Goodby uses a prolonged oxymoron where he says ‘..Swarfega kings’, as in the subsequent line he describes them as being ‘..measled’ and covered in ‘..grease’, thus painting a picture of how although they have mastered a fast-paced environment, their habitat still compromises of dirt and grease, where they continue to work hard. Alternatively, this could be seen as despite their environment and working conditions, Goodby still continues and values the uncles as if they were ‘..kings’. This is related back to the major theme of how he adores his uncles and continues to elevate their position in society.

Goodby uses alliteration where he says ‘..swarf and scobs’, therefore emphasising and reiterating their dedicated work ethic. Where Goodby says ‘..lithe’, he refers to them as being thin yet hardworking, thus contrary to stereotypes, and thus have become so vehemently impactful with their hands and bodies that they are covered in these scars; they speak loudly to be heard and thus the poet appreciates them for all their hard work. The uncles have excellent mathematical skills, and Goodby uses parenthesis, uncommonly, to dictate the unstructured lifestyle of his uncles and the work carried out by them. The idea of ‘..fag packets’ refers to cigarette packets, which may reiterate their environment with lack of resources, and thus despite their financial position, they continue to work hard. However, it could be seen as an ironical device Goodby uses where these cigarettes are productions of colossal corporations, usually taking advantage of the proletariat to earn more profit — and yet the uncles are spending their money purchasing cigarettes rather than actual paper to record their calculations. Despite this, they work in a ‘..feinting’ manner, dictating their fast-paced and precise environment — ‘..racing’ to indicate the speed of what they do and an analogy is made to ‘..mild steel’, where Goodby changes the line of thought very quickly, talking about how they are mild but not like steel, where the latter is very hard. The poet does not want to create any misconceptions or misconstrue any thoughts in the readers mind, therefore he clarifies at the given chance. This is because he loves his uncles to the extent that he is thoughtful of what his readers think of his relationship with his uncles.

The term ‘Congested, always.’ is important as it should be noted how Goodby places the term ‘always’ at the end of the sentence, therefore adding a sense of finality to it, and thus emphasises the level of being congested as an extreme. The quote ‘Release tab.’ is almost onomatopoeic in nature, and thus denoting their somewhat routine lifestyle and therefore the familiarity between the uncles of their daily lives. The uncles ‘..talk politics’ and about ‘..communism’, which is a political system favouring the working class ethic and the redistribution of land and wealth. This is particularly conventional for the working class groups, including the uncles, because this political system would benefit them as they would no longer be subjugated to by the ruling class or the aristocracy. A special note should be taken to how Goodby strategically prolongs the term ‘communism’ to ‘..commun-’ and ‘-ism.’, the latter following up on the next line. This device may be used to portray how long it has taken communism to succeed and perhaps the longing of the political system to succeed by the uncles. One has has a ‘..missing half-finger’, albeit ‘not really missed any longer’, which denotes how the uncles are hard workers and these are the problems they must face but must also deal with and thus they do not reiterate the problems they have faced in the past and move on quickly because this is the life they they are subjugated to — however, they still continue to make the most of it and Goodby praises them for this level of commitment and dedication.

The concept of an ‘..epoch’ is introduced where they must always be ready to face new challenges, and therefore references back to the unique and irregular structure of the poem, following no specific rhyme scheme, which could refer to how the uncles barely have free time — therefore denoting how the poem cannot follow the rules of literature, and instead exists as free-verse to adapt to the fast-paced environment the uncles are working in. Towards the ending of the poem, the poet referee to the uncles as being ‘..immortal’, thus showing the readers how the poet has gradually personalised the poem eventually by the end and although in nature they may be deceased they are never-dying of the poem as he is completely overwhelmed and stupefied by their intellectual and academic capabilities. He uses the setting and memorable language ‘..welding shed’ and ‘..neon’, as he wants them to be remembered in a specific way; hard at work, which accurately portrays their true charisma and temperament, and further how they will spiritually live on to the author. The ending is extremely important because it adds closure to the entire poem and summarises the poem as being evocative, emotional, personalised and impactful to the author as the reader may relate to the poem throughout, whoever by the end we realise that the poet was reliving and resonating the idea of his immortal uncles with the words ‘My Uncles’, with specific reference to ‘My’, as opposed to ‘The’. This reinforces the concept that Goodby had a special attachment to his uncles and idealises their work ethic along with their temperaments, and therefore they still live, in spirit, to the poet.

Furthermore, in essence, the poet utilises a vast variety of poetic devices, enchanting language and notable imagery to carefully depict his exact mood, tone and ideals of his uncles throughout the poem. These poetic devices are further enhanced with the irregular structure of the poem, which is written in free-verse, to denote the fast-paced environment of his uncles and commemorates their hard-working ethic, and as a result, his idealisation of his uncles through the theme of familial love.

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