Poems about Work

Work: Although it’s a less familiar topic for poetic treatment than say, love, death, or immortal beauty, there are a fair number of wonderful poems about work. Here are two poems that I encountered recently. I was struck by the echoes between them, and they have stayed with me. Short pictures of lifetime stories.

First, Gary Synder, whom I was lucky enough to hear read at MIT this last Spring. If he reads anywhere close by, GO!

Hay for the Horses

by Gary Snyder

He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
—The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds—
“I’m sixty-eight” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”

Progress

X.J. Kennedy

Sundays we’d stroll to the railroad track,
My white-collared father and I,
Where he’d gaze after freight trains billowing past
And deliver himself of a sigh—

“If I still worked for the railroad,
I’d retire with a pass. I could ride
To any place in the country,
And the country, they say, is wide.”

Yet for thirty years my father
With fountain pen wielded power
At the boiler factory in Dover,
Keeping track of each man-hour:

He would total up columns of numbers
In a flash with astonishing skill
And never a man’s pay envelope
Fell short of a dollar bill.

He would hike to the bank every Thursday
To fetch payroll cash in a sack,
The insurance company insisting
That a blue steel pistol he pack.

How the neighbors would taunt and tease him—
“Hey, Joe, would you pull your gun
And shoot it out with that stickup man?”—
“No, I’d throw him the money and run.”

He continued to add up numbers
In his head till there came on the scene
A formidable robot rival,
The Burroughs adding machine.

My father saw that his number
Would be up soon. As he feared,
Anybody could tug on a handle
And an accurate total appeared.

They broke the news to him gently,
They professed their profound regret
And presented him, not with a pension
But a pen-and-pencil set.

For a time he displayed it proudly
Till the pencil had to be tossed,
When it wouldn’t quite twist as it used to
And the cap of the pen got lost.

For more than eight thousand mornings
He had walked to his job past a sign
Where the Women’s Christian Temperance
Union had posted a line

Ill fitting the situation
Of the obsolescently skilled:
Life is no goblet to be drained
But a measure to be filled.

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