Today is Poetry at Work Day 2018.
Most poets have day jobs. They must. Very few poets, no matter how good they are, no matter how much their words may leave us struck with wonder, can make a living solely by writing poetry.
Walt Whitman, for example, struggled financially for most of his life. He was a printer, a teacher, a journalist, a newspaper publisher, and a clerk in the Department of Interior in Washington. Maya Angelou was a dancer, a songwriter, a singer, a historian, a civil rights activist, a producer, and a director. Wallace Stevens and Edgar Lee Masters were both attorneys. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Marianne Moore was a teacher and editor. T.S. Eliot was a banker and an editor. Robert Frost was a teacher, cobbler, and editor.
A few poets have had the good fortune of being supported by family money (think Emily Dickinson) or by a working spouse. Many more can be found teaching at universities (Scott Cairns) or working for literary magazines (which can’t be the most lucrative of careers). The reality for the vast majority of poets, past and present, is that they must have a day job.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Stevens seemed to like his legal work for the Hartford Insurance Company, so much so that he turned down an appointment at Yale arranged by well-meaning friends appalled at the idea he had to do lawyerly work. Caught up in romantic notions of what poetry should be and how poets are supposed to live and work, we forget that the work we do has intrinsic value, that our work has its own poetry.
That’s the idea behind my 2013 book Poetry at Work. I found the poetry in my work because my work had value. In fact, one can read that book as a memoir of working for a company for more than 30 years. I borrowed the idea from William Carlos Williams, who believed that his work—medicine—worked hand in hand with poetry (an article on Williams, his medicine, and his poetry by a neurologist was published in 2012 in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians).
Here is “Complaint,” written by Williams in 1921:
They call me and I go.
It is a frozen road
past midnight, a dust
of snow caught
in the rigid wheeltracks.
The door opens.
I smile, enter and
shake off the cold.
Here is a great woman
on her side in the bed.
She is sick,
to give birth to
a tenth child. Joy! Joy!
Night is a room
darkened for lovers,
through the jalousies the sun
has sent one golden needle!
I pick the hair from her eyes
and watch her misery
Poetry can’t really be separated from the work we do because poetry is inherent in the work we do.
We have a challenge for Poetry at Work Day 2018.
Say you have a friend who works in insurance sales. She’s skeptical about this poetry at work stuff, so she rather slyly asks you to recommend a poet she might read. What would you recommend?
What about a truck driver? A school district administrator? A human resources director? A policeman? A stockbroker? A city council member or other elected official? What might you say to a psychiatrist, an auto mechanic, an undertaker, a grocery store clerk, or a photographer? What poet or poetry would you recommend to a flight attendant, a train engineer, a research chemist, or a soldier? What would you say to a brand-new mother who had 45 minutes of sleep last night with a colicky new baby?
Select from these or any other kinds of professions or work and suggest a poet, a collection of poetry, or a number of poets or poems. Write your answers in the comments. We’ll select two or three to receive a free copy of Poetry at Work. Winners will be announced next Tuesday.
And, to celebrate today, consider reciting a poem for work, or at work. Leave a copy of a poem in the break room. Write a poem about the work you’re doing today.
And look for the poetry in the work you do. It’s there. You can find it.
Poster photo by Sonia Joie, used with permission.
Get Poetry at Work, the book, by a Fortune 500 leader
Poetry at Work, by Glynn Young, foreword by Scott Edward Anderson
“This book is elemental.”