News In Brief

Poems about work and working

Melissa Kaplan Jul 23, 2010

Bill Radke had a great talk this morning with former poet laureate Billy Collins. With so much business rhyme in the air between Collins and our weekly Minute, why not keep the party going? Here’s Collins reading one of his shorter works called “Feedback”, followed by a few poems about working that really hit the jugular.

by Billy Collins

The women
who wrote from Phoenix
after my reading there
to tell me they were
all still talking about it,
just wrote again
to tell me
that they had stopped.

My Father Teaches Me to Dream
by Jan Beatty

You want to know what work is?
I’ll tell you what work is:
Work is work.
You get up. You get on the bus.
You don’t look from side to side.
You keep your eyes straight ahead.
That way nobody bothers you–see?
You get off the bus. You work all day.
You get back on the bus at night. Same thing.
You go to sleep. You get up.
You do the same thing again.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
There’s no handouts in this life.
All this other stuff you’re looking for–
it ain’t there.
Work is work.

by John Haines

All day we were bent over,
lifting handfuls of wind and dust.

Scraps of some human conversation
blew by; a coffin on wheels
rolled slowly backward across
the field, and the skinned
bodies of the harvest were loaded.

A red cloud boiling up out
of the darkness became the evening.
Sentinels of a shattered army,
we drank bitter coffee, and spoke
of the field, the light, and the cold.

The Secretary Chant
by Marge Piercy

My hips are a desk,
From my ears hang
chains of paper clips.
Rubber bands form my hair.
My breasts are quills of
mimeograph ink.
My feet bear casters,
Buzz. Click.
My head is a badly organized file.
My head is a switchboard
where crossed lines crackle.
Press my fingers
and in my eyes appear
credit and debit.
Zing. Tinkle.
My navel is a reject button.
From my mouth issue canceled reams.
Swollen, heavy, rectangular
I am about to be delivered
of a baby
Xerox machine.
File me under “W”
because I wonce
a woman.

The Workforce
by James Tate

Do you have adequate oxen for the job?
No, my oxen are inadequate.
Well, how many oxen would it take to do an adequate job?
I would need ten more oxen to do the job adequately.
I’ll see if I can get them for you.
I’d be obliged if you could do that for me.
Certainly. And do you have sufficient fishcakes for the men?
We have fifty fishcakes, which is less than sufficient.
I’ll have them delivered on the morrow.
Do you need maps of the mountains and the underworld?
We have maps of the mountains but we lack maps of the underworld.
Of course you lack maps of the underworld,
there are no maps of the underworld.
And, besides, you don’t want to go there, it’s stuffy.
I had no intention of going there, or anywhere for that matter.
It’s just that you asked me if I needed maps. . . .
Yes, yes, it’s my fault, I got carried away.
What do you need, then, you tell me?
We need seeds, we need plows, we need scythes, chickens,
pigs, cows, buckets and women.
We have no women.
You’re a sorry lot, then.
We are a sorry lot, sir.
Well, I can’t get you women.
I assumed as much, sir.
What are you going to do without women, then?
We will suffer, sir. And then we’ll die out one by one.
Can any of you sing?
Yes, sir, we have many fine singers among us.
Order them to begin singing immediately.
Either women will find you this way or you will die
comforted. Meanwhile busy yourselves
with the meaningful tasks you have set for yourselves.
Sir, we will not rest until the babes arrive.

My Office
by [Lorenzo Thomas](

I’ve spent the last 10 years
In other people’s offices
Learning the alphabet of nods and eyebrows
And pursed lips, straining for the purse
Legs crossed in easy confidence
Confident nervous gestures of assurance
Approved blue suits
And sudden dreamed-up lies to be delivered

A net of thirty days and sixty days and ninety
Insanely stretched past promise into years
Next week, for certain
Floated haphazardly on possibles
As slight as handshakes,
Firm as agreements of subjective verbs

And got nowhere.

This happy corner, sucking up hard-boiled eggs
And polish hots
The seidel sliding down the polished bar
Clatter of friendly pool balls in the margin
Not exactly somewhere, but a certain place.

A regular’s dark hair and polished eyes
Glow in the glasses lined before her face
Smoking and berating the muzak
“Jack, when you gonna get some country music?”

“Country Charlie Pride?”

Outside, it’s as bright as the important phone call
I always pretend to await
Setting up the lunch meeting at Stouffer’s
Linen napkins and hope’s frozen green peas

Set up another round of handshake laughter for the pictures.

“Hey sweet thing, when we gonna have that date?”
The barmaid pouts a 1940s frown–
It’s Arnie (reaching now to slap me on the back)
A gleaming brazen polyester clown,
Tuesday seems longer than the day before.
Since I began to organize my life around My Office
I stay a little later every day.
A little rain hangs fire in the clouds.

Next trip, I think I’ll bring the wife.

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