“Work” is a multifaceted concept and subject. It extends from the board room to the shop floor, from the Oval Office to the local school district, from the tractor-trailer truck on the interstate to the university classroom, from stage and screen to the hospital intensive care unit, from raising a child to burying a loved one, and so much more. Work is a significant life activity common to all people. We love it, hate it, want to change it, embrace it, hide from it, worry over it, celebrate it.
Poets have long recognized work as a theme and subject. One of the more famous poems about work was published by Walt Whitman (1819-1892) in Leaves of Grass:
I Hear America Singing.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-
hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morn-
ing, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Wallace Stevens was one of America’s best known mid-20th century poets, and worked his entire career as a corporate lawyer for a major insurance company. Geoffrey Chaucer was a clerk and diplomat. John Donne was a church dean. Robert Burns was a farmer. Edwin Arlington Robinson worked in a customs house. James Dickey worked for an ad agency. Marianne Moore was a public library assistant. Robert Frost was a chicken farmer. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. T.S. Eliot was a banker. Ted Kooser sold insurance. Dana Gioia was head of the beverage division at General Foods. Philip Larkin and Jorge Luis Borges were librarians. A.E. Housman was a clerk in the Patent Office.
The important lesson here, other than very few poets make a living writing poetry, is that virtually every poet has worked in a workplace, one familiar to all of us, because virtually all of us work in a workplace, too, no matter what we call it. Our work affects what we write, and what we write can affect our work.
Here at Tweetspeak Poetry, we’re embarking upon a new Tuesday feature called “Poetry at Work.” We will be looking at the language (and poetry) of the workplace, the poetry of work culture, the poetry of leadership, the poetry of corporate conscience, the poetry of sales and marketing—even the poetry of meetings. We will be seeking poetry about work. We will sponsor a few contests about poetry at work. We will interview a few workplace poets.
The overall idea is to help us all understand that poetry is very much a part of what we do at work every day, help us infuse poetry into what we do, and help provide an understanding of how poetry may actually help us do better work.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $2.99— Read a poem a day, become a better writer. In October we’re exploring the theme Wine and Beer.