‘The Managers’ a poem by W.H. Auden

The ‘Friday Poem’ this week is ‘The Managers’ by British poet W.H. Auden. The poem was written almost 70 years ago, in the post World War II period when a new class of worker was emerging, the professional corporate manager. The new corporate bureaucracies mirrored the military structures that had effectively managed the war effort.

In the military you were assigned a number, and as these new organization structures emerged, employees lost their identities and became numbers as well. Auden used his poetry to remind those in charge that workers have faces..

‘The mere making of a work of art is itself a political act’ because it reminds ‘the Management … that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers.’

‘The hero of modern poetry is ‘the man or woman in any walk of life who … manages to acquire and preserve a face of his own’.”

The poem is a snapshot in time of one artist’s reaction to the “Men, working too hard in rooms that are too big”.

The Managers

In the bad old days it was not so bad:

The top of the ladder

Was an amusing place to sit; success

Meant quite a lot – leisure

And huge meals, more palaces filled with more

Objects, books, girls, horses

Than one would ever get round to, and to be

Carried uphill while seeing

Others walk. To rule was a pleasure when

One wrote a death sentence

On the back of the Ace of Spades and played on

With a new deck. Honours

Are not so physical or jolly now,

For the species of Powers

We are used to are not like that. Could one of them

Be said to resemble

The Tragic Hero, The Platonic Saint,

Or would any painter

Portray one rising triumph from a lake

On a dolphin, naked,

Protected by an umbrella of cherubs? Can

They so much as manage

To behave like genuine Caesars when alone

Or drinking with cronies,

To let their hair down and be frank about

The world? It is doubtful.

The last word on how we may live or die

Rests today with such quiet

Men, working too hard in rooms that are too big,

Reducing to figures

What is the matter, what is to be done.

A neat little luncheon

Of sandwiches is brought to each on a tray,

Nourishment they are able

To take with one hand without looking up

From papers a couple

Of secretaries are needed to file,

From problems no smiling

Can dismiss. The typewriters never stop

But whirr like grasshoppers

In the silent siesta heat as, frivolous

Across their discussions

From woods unaltered by our wars and our vows

There drift the scents of flowers

And the songs of birds who will never vote

Or bother to notice

Those distinguishing marks a lover sees

By instinct and policemen

Can be trained to observe. Far into the night

Their windows burn brightly

And, behind their backs bent over some report,

On every quarter,

For ever like a god or a disease

There on earth the reason

In all its aspects why they are tired, and weak,

The inattentive, seeing

Someone to blame. If, to recuperate

They go a-playing, their greatness

Encounters the bow of the chef or the glance

Of the ballet-dancer

Who cannot be ruined by any master’s fall.

To rule must be a calling,

It seems, like surgery or sculpture; the fun

Neither love nor money

But taking necessary risks, the test

Of one’s skill, the question,

If difficult, their own reward. But then

Perhaps one should mention

Also what must be a comfort as they guess

In times like the present

When guesses can prove so fatally wrong,

The fact of belonging

To the very select indeed, to those

For whom, just supposing

They do, there will be places on the last

Plane out of disaster.

No; no one is really sorry for their

Heavy gait and careworn

Look, nor would they thank you if you said you were.

W.H. Auden 1948, ‘The Oxford Book of Work’ 1999

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