What shall we do with work? Curse it, hate it, make escape plans from it, call in sick to it, write apologetic e-mails to it, still we find, every morning, we have to do it.
And more than that, work does things to us: decides what time we’ll rise, how well we sleep, the folk we have to endure or mix with, the things we have to take up in our leisure hours so we can forget it, even the kind of stuff we get to eat and buy. What sort of fool would invent a thing like work? What sort of fool would do it? And what can the poets do to soothe or to heal us?
In ‘Pied Beauty,’ Gerard Manley Hopkins, who knew a thing or two about work, offers a celebration of ‘áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.’ Walt Whitman begins ‘A Song for Occupations’ with a similarly energetic, celebratory note: ‘A song for occupations! / In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields I find the developments, / And find the eternal meanings.’
And there are things for poets to celebrate about work. One of these is the way it frames our day, creates the daily round, constructs our experiences. In ‘What I See When I Drive to Work,’ Thomas Lux’s commute gives him the subject for a lyrical celebration of everything he passes on a drive from Boston to New York, from ‘the big machines’ at work at a quarry, ‘drills // and dozers, that eat / the rock and break it down to sand,’ to this idyllic natural scene: ‘a lake / that each day this fall / is open to more and more ducks, / which makes me happy.’
If work does this, holds stuff we can celebrate in the palm of its hand and says Here, it also offers us people. Heaney is among writers who know this and ‘Digging’ and ‘Follower’ are, of course, among the holy poems which get to people who matter through their work. ‘Follower’ beautifully describes the mixture of celebration, love and insuffiency we feel when, as children, we observe our parents’ mastery at work:
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
In ‘Pity the Bastards,’ meanwhile, Tom French, whose work shows the influence of Heaney in its understanding of the working rhythms of rural Ireland, writes a masterpiece of how work connects us not just to family but to a way of life, a body of knowledge, a set of feelings, which stretches back for generations:
Pity the bastards who hunted free-range eggs in sheds
and bore them back in their flat caps like promises
or secrets, who worked for fags and died of lung complaints,
cows withholding milk for days because they missed
the rough, familiar touch, the singing in their flanks…
But if writing about work is a way of writing about things, people, even a tradition we love, it is worth bearing in mind that it can, at least as often, be a way of writing about people and situations we hate. Rage at the injustices of work is at the heart of lots of great poems, and Geoff Hattersley’s great collection Don’t Worry is among books that know this. In ‘Split Shift,’ he offers us the experience of working ‘in the kitchen, washing dishes / ten till two, five till eight,’ concluding with an image which seems to sum up the emotional impact of this routine: a smashed window, ‘one thin piece of glass / still tottering in the pane // like it’s tempted / but can’t quite allow / itself to fall.’
One thing that work offers us, of course, is a map of how things have changed over time: if industry changes, it means that lives do, emotional experiences do and, therefore, that poems do. How does one write a poem about today’s forms of work? How on earth does one write a poem about the experience of working in a call centre, an office? Watching someone dry-stone walling, say, is almost bound to generate a poem: the work is interesting to describe, it does something to the body, and it’s dead romantic. Besides all that, it takes bloody yonks, so there’s lots of time to write a poem while you’re watching. But watching someone typing? For me, among collections which treat brilliantly the modern-day world of work is Sunday at the Skin Launderette by Kathryn Simmonds. Poems like ‘Dictation’ and ‘Stationery’ give us the world of the office, while ‘Learning to Spell’ is a tremendously moving poem about teaching. Then there is ‘Taxi Drivers,’ a highly effective short poem about a group of modern workers:
Five cabs ahead, the leader takes a fare, shifts
into second gear, sweeps
out of the terminal and into startling sun.
Meanwhile they wait,
June sparkling on the river’s filth a mile away,
the city folded tightly in their heads.
If poems about work give us a way of letting off steam, if writing about work treats us for the real things that ail us, work poems can also be a way of escaping. The tradition of work monologues stretches back to Chaucer and, while most of us will never really get to be an astronaut, an explorer, a doctor or a lawyer, we can pick up a pen, right now, and be one. Among contemporary work monologues I love is Matthew Sweeney’s ‘Guardian of the Women’s Loo in Waterloo:’
Centimes, francs – I’ve a drawer full of them.
I’m not supposed to take them but I do.
At least they pay, these French women.
They don’t stand there, smirking, saying
I’m broke, I’m going to wet myself,
or worse, vaulting over the metal bar
to run and lock themselves in a cubicle.
As if I’d leave my seat to stop them!
Sweeney selects as his speaker here the sort of person that most poets ignore, and this poem shows us that jobs which tread a tightrope between professional and intimate territory are great for poems – opticians, barbers, dentists, manicurists, anyone anywhere in the medical profession. Sweeney’s narrator gets to see stuff, gets to see humanity from an unusual perspective, and this makes the poem full of insight into the human condition. Like all of us, the speaker dreams of escape from the job: ‘I tell you, I want out from time to time. / The Eurostar’s just across the platform, / I could go to Paris and not come back, / lose myself in Montmartre, an artist’s flat / overlooking steps…’ Just as monologues allow an escape from ourselves and this speaker dreams of escape from her job, Sweeney’s poem wonderfully illuminates the reality of life for all of us.
So, when writing about work, it’s amazing where poems can take us – into the daily round, into people we love, into history, class consciousness, the back of a cab, someone else’s head. My own heroes of work include Mr Benn – I love the way he can click his fingers, be anyone – and Tom Good from The Good Life, who manages to find his muddy and gorgeous way out of it all.
Mark Twain once wrote, ‘Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.’ In Parks and Recreation, April says, ‘I don’t want to do things. I want to not do things.’ For those of us who want to write poems, it can feel like doing things is always getting between us and the real thing, the sitting down with a pen and some paper. How wonderful, then, that the daily grind we curse and rage against can generate such wonderfully diverse and brilliant poems.
Explore the work we do and how it defines us on Jonathan’s Edwards’ online course, A Song for Occupations: In Praise of Work. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.