If you meet as many poets as I do, you get used to hearing talk about “my work” — how the revisions are going, whether it’s getting published or ignored, if maybe you’d want to read my new manuscript. It’s not exactly the “work” most people have in mind, but it’s the work so many people are “out of” in the current economy.
If you meet as many non-poets as I do, you also get used to the assumption that poets don’t do that kind of “real work.” You can mention that Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive and William Carlos Williams a doctor, but that mention gets met with rolling eyes and snapping fingers. Your exceptions prove their rule.
Fair enough. So involved are poets in intellectual and even spiritual work that it becomes difficult to imagine them working physically. But some of this country’s greatest poetry is the poetry of just those labors.
Walt Whitman presented himself in the unbuttoned work clothes of a laborer on the frontispiece of his self-published “Leaves of Grass” (1855). Having worked as a printer’s devil, Whitman recognized the power of the printed image in projecting a poetic image. He promoted himself as “an American, one of the roughs,” and his “Song of Myself” contains the sights and sounds, jargon and slang of working America: “The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,” he writes. “The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane / whistles its wild ascending lisp.”
Whitman’s work represents a beginning in our poetic tradition. Other poets continue that tradition at our current moment. As John Casteen worked on his poetry, he also designed and crafted furniture for over a decade. His poems often meditate on the potentially tenuous connections between artistry and craftsmanship. In Casteen’s poems, physical work is not only an opportunity for rich description, but also for rumination.
In “How to Dig a Grave,” Casteen instructs: “You start / with the spade, bearing above it and down to cut, / and stand with your arch bold over the rolled top edge.” His physical work merges with the emotional work of mourning; the grave proves to be intended for a beloved “dog made short work of by another’s errand.” And in describing the grave itself, “the hole will do its dark work without regard … You will be made of work by the end,” the words “work” and “end” resound.
These are examples of a certain kind of labor, but neither speaks to the most difficult work of all: The process we think of both as a miracle and, tellingly, as “labor.”
In “Bite Me,” a poem about the birth of her daughter, Beth Ann Fennelly writes that she “pushed so hard blood vessels burst / in my neck and in my chest … / so hard that for weeks to come / the whites of my eyes were red with blood, / my face a boxer’s, swollen and bruised …”
Too often we use the cliché “blood, sweat, and tears” in speaking of acts that involve none of the three. In Fennelly’s poem, the cliché finds genuine purchase; we are reminded that those who produce miracles must also suffer like saints. Fennelly’s words reveal the mother’s labor as terrifying, excruciating, and miraculous indeed.
Though Fennelly’s poem presents the work of love at its most dramatic, the mundane too offers itself to poetry. In “Those Winter Sundays,” Michigan alumnus Robert Hayden writes, “Sundays too my father got up early.” The sly addition of the word “too” here tells us plenty of this father’s work. He “put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, / then with cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather made / banked fires blaze. / No one ever thanked him.”
The sounds of the poem, cracking consonants and internal rhymes, mirror the backbreaking, heartbreaking labor it depicts. And though the house was cold with “chronic angers” too, Hayden’s speaker remembers and reproaches himself: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” We tend to hear the word “office” as a place where we do work, but here, it sounds its old, Latinate meaning: a matter of duty. Work is work, whatever kind it is, because it must be done.
Or so I think. Every time I feel confident writing the word “work” here, I return to Detroit native Philip Levine’s “What Work Is,” which tells not only of physical work as the ostensible subject of the poem, but also of the love “flooding you for your brother,” who is at home “sleep(ing) off a miserable night shift / at Cadillac so he can get up / before noon to study his German.” It also mentions the work of saying “I love you” to a brother, or to anyone, something we do too rarely “not because you’re too young or too dumb, / not because you’re jealous or even mean,” but “just because you don’t know what work is.”
It wasn’t what I thought it was after all, and it took a poet to show me.