Symbolism In “The Shirt”

The clothes we wear are taken for granted by most people. They don’t care to learn the conditions in which they were made. Robert Pinsky explains the process of making a shirt in his poem “Shirt”. The shirt represents the working conditions in sweat factories. Robert uses historical events to illustrate the current situation. He begins his poem by describing how the workers in the Malaysian and Korean sweatshops are treated. Then he goes on to talk about politics, gossip, and tea. The poem honors the workers of the Triangle Shirts plant in Malaysia and South Korea. It speaks about the Scottish workers who created the clan tartans. This poem shows the relationship between workers and consumers in today’s world.

The poem uses descriptive language that helps to convey the message that the shirt should not be taken as a given. When he refers, “The wringer or the mangle,” the poet uses language found in factories. The union, the needle” (8). Factory terminologies play a vital role in setting the scene and setting the mood for the poem. This language is crucial in capturing the attention of the reader. The language also reminds the readers of the requirements for a well-made shirt. The Code mentioned in the third stanza refers to laws that govern conditions at factories. The author refers to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of more than 100 immigrant workers. He wrote that “one hundred forty-six” laborers died in flames (11). According to the code, the laws regarding safety were ignored and the result was the notorious blaze. The infamous fire is an image that highlights the theme of sweat factory workers being exploited and suffered. In the poem, fire is included to show that sweat factory laborers are suffering.

Robert Pinsky describes what happened to the Triangle Shirt waiter martyrs. He wrote that he kissed his victim and wrapped his neck around him. He held her/Her in space and then dropped her. Almost at once” ( 21- 22). It was because there weren’t any fire escapes or water hydrants that the laborers lost everything. The sweat factory conditions are the reason the laborers die, and it is similar to the deaths of martyrs. This vision helps to highlight the suffering of sweat factory workers. He mentions George Herbert as a notable poet from the seventeenth-century and the ancestor Irma. Irma, a South Carolina woman, is given the task of inspecting the shirt. Herbert, a prominent figure in shirt manufacturing history, is mentioned by him. It is crucial to show the losses attributed the sweat factories by using historical references.

The shirt represents the simplicity that speaks volumes about the lives and daily activities of ordinary people. Because it prompts the reader to think about the shirt they are wearing, the poem is extremely useful. It raises questions about whether sweatshop workers were exploited to make the shirt. The poem contains detailed descriptions of the relationships between the shirt-makers and their laborers. Pinsky illustrates the close relationships between Pinsky and the woman who examined his shirt. He says that “And Feel, and its Clean Smell Have Satisfied/Both Her and Me.” We have sorted its quality and cost” (15). This is a clear indication that the laborer does a great job at completing a high-quality task. This fact is not appreciated by the laborer’s employers due to the working conditions. The descriptions are a reminder that the people who make the shirt have feelings. The poem shows that even though they are simple, simple objects like the shirt can spark many thoughts. Simple objects can provide a lot information about the daily happenings of human life.

The poem is a powerful argument about human relationships. It reveals the intimate relationship between workers and consumers. The conditions in which products are produced is irrelevant to consumers, who buy them anyway. While the workers labor to produce goods, the consumers seem not to pay attention to their exploitation and hard work. The workers are taken for granted by consumers, which is unfair because they would not be able to have clothes without them. Pinsky is trying in other words to convey that consumers should be able to appreciate the contribution of workers who make clothes.

The poet also makes a statement about how those who own production factors exploit workers to maximize their profits. To maximize profits, the owners exploit workers. They disregard safety regulations for workers. Workers are more at risk of fire if they work in unsanitary conditions. Pinsky’s poem is a powerful reflection on the current labor relations and conditions.


  • davidwong

    David Wong is a 29-year-old educator and blogger who focuses on helping students learn in creative and interesting ways. He has a background in teaching and has been blogging since 2006. David's work has been featured on a variety of websites, including Lifehack, Dumb Little Man, and The Huffington Post.