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What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is – if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.

Philip Levine, ‘What Work Is’

The more I think about what work is, the more confused I get. Today is a Thursday, one of my Writing Days. A Writing Day can consist of reading poems, writing poems, applying for freelance writing work, planning workshops, organising residential courses, writing articles or reviews, blogging and then general admin to keep my life as a poet ticking over. This is work, but not as my father knows it.

Yesterday was a Teaching Day. A Teaching Day is full of music, or noise, depending on your viewpoint. Today I taught five classes of thirty children, all armed with a trumpet, cornet or baritone. I also conducted two junior brass bands. This is also work, but not as my mother knows it.

I remember holding my infant teacher’s hand and marching around the playground, and asking her why her hands were soft and my mum’s hands were rough. I can’t remember what she answered, but it can’t have been very satisfactory, because I asked my mum the same question when I got home. I remember realising that I’d said the wrong thing but I didn’t know why or whether my mum was upset, angry or sad.

My mum worked in a shoe factory in Leicester for most of her life. The constant working with leather hardened her skin. She used to bring work home and I would ‘help’. I loved helping, but couldn’t do it for very long before my hands were sore and red. My dad has worked as a scaffolder all his life. He first climbed up a scaffold when he was 16 and he is still climbing up there now, in his sixties.

My mum never talked about whether she did or didn’t like her job. She used to say it doesn’t matter whether you like your work, you have to just get on and do it. I always knew my dad loved his job though. Even now, he can’t walk past a building with scaffolding without looking up to examine it. The worst thing that could possibly happen on the weekly shopping trip to Asda was if my dad bumped into one of his workmates because then we would all be standing there for an hour while they talked about ‘work’.

Planning this course and writing this article has made me realise what a huge importance work has always had in my life. Even as a child, my parents work gave a rhythm to the days and the weeks. Their work patterns made life structured, predictable and measurable and I think I’ve always seen something like poetry in the way they approached work – my mother’s single mindedness, my father’s love of it. Their attitude to work has coloured both my approach to work and my own creative practice.

On the first residential poetry course that I went on as a participant at Ty Newydd, I was telling the tutor, Nigel Jenkins about how my dad had expected me to practice for an hour a day after school. Music became work, the job I had to show up for each day, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable. There was something wonderful in the inevitability of it, the fact that it had to be done, whether I felt like it or not. Nigel said that poetry was the same – that I should approach poetry like I approached music. I should write every day, and read every day. The realisation that I could get better at it, that I could work hard at it was a revelation.

So is work the hard physical graft that my mother and father did, or the work my infant school teacher did, or me sitting at a desk writing poems? Is work what my mum does every day when she takes the neighbour to the hospital to visit her husband, suffering with dementia, or to the supermarket to do her shopping? Is that work even though it is unpaid?

Writing about work for me is the ultimate poetic subject because of the indefinable quality of work, which means that any poetry of work must start from a place of not knowing. When I think about all of the jobs I’ve done throughout my life I know that there are poems that I still have to write, which explore worlds which aren’t written about very much. Despite being a teacher since I was 21, I’ve also worked as a pot washer, a bar maid, a glass collector, a waitress, a sausage packer (yes really!). I’ve worked behind a checkout and as a musician. I even had a brief spell repairing pianos before they realised how terrible I was and very kindly and gently sacked me. I’ve never written about the grace of working behind a bar, the dance that goes on all night in a confined space. I’ve never written about the chef who threw a knife at me in a temper and the door that I pulled shut that probably saved my eye.

Juan Ramón Jiménez was one of the most prolific and hard-working poets of the twentieth century, and wrote substantially about the ‘work’ of poetry. Thanks to a very patient wife who did most of his chores and clerical work for him, he even allowed himself to take poetry as his life’s vocation, and up to his death he continued to write innumerable books of lyrical verse of hugely varying quality, fine prose poems, aphorisms and critical essays.

Recently, Christopher Maurer has edited and worked on a book of Juan Ramón Jiménez’ poetry, aphorisms and prose, called The Complete Perfectionist. In the introduction to the book, Christopher Maurer writes:

‘Poetry helps us see more easily what work is, helps us remember that it is a spiritual impulse which does not always belong to business. The poet helps us remove work from its ‘institutional’ framework, and meditate upon it the way we meditate upon love apart from the social institution of marriage. Seen as poetry, work touches upon everything that matters, it gives our lives rhythm; deepens our appreciation of silence, nature, and dream; brings the present into vivid existence, and consoles us for being mortal’.

He goes on to say ‘There is comfort in the stoical thought that no social force can prevent anyone from working. A poet symbolizes that proud independence. He can better the world through his work, but how little he requires for it. Not even paper and pencil.’

During this course, we will be exploring what work is, figuring out the ‘work’ of a poet and writing our own poems about work. The work our parents did. The work that we have already carried out and the work we still have to carry out. We will look at how the world of work has changed and how contemporary poets, have written about work. We will be researching careers that no longer exist. We will also be creating our own ‘poetics of work’. This course will require you to use both your imaginations, and your experience of work. It will challenge your ideas of what work is and you will be expected to work hard!

Here are Christopher Maurer’s closing words in his introductory essay to Juan Ramón Jiménez’s book:

‘Here, then, are the words of a great worker: sparks from his anvil. May they help you love the work of poetry, and find something like poetry in your work.’

It’s 1.45am now. Time has flown away from me, but I’d like to leave you with the words of Juan Ramón Jiménez:

‘To work, to work even at night, so my eyes will be worn out when they go back to the earth!’

Write your own poetry about this thing that we will spend, on average, 90,000 hours of our lives doing, on Kim’s new online course What Work Is. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.


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Image credit: Daniel Gonzalez Fuster