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.”


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.

A Fine Picture: Staring at the Sun

Being able to use my laptop as a window into astronomical images continues to amaze me. (Made me sign up for Slooh, which allows you not merely to see these astonishing images, but to operate a telescope half a globe away).

Two pix to contemplate today:

Bad Astronomy’s piece on Alan Friedman’s image of the sun “in the light of hydrogen” (which blogger Phil Plait explains in his engaging way.)

And for sheer “the heavens above us” beauty, NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day is hard to beat. Today’s is a shot of the Milky Way over Monument Valley.

Silly Words: Oy! Jewish Humor

Heard from a 91 year old friend who grew up in Brooklyn (and I could easily see uttering such things on the street), but also in David Minkoff’s Oy!: The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes

Sadie, an elderly Jewish lady, is leaving the Garment District to go home from work. Suddenly a man who has been walking toward her stands in front of her, blocks her path, opens up his raincoat and flashes his wares in all their sordid glory. Unruffled, Sadie takes a look and remarks, “This you call a lining?”

Many, many more at , his web site.

A sample: “Jewish telegram: Begin worrying. Details to follow.”

What the Jewish Buddha says:
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single “Oy”
Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as a wooded forest. And sit up straight! you’ll never meet the Buddha with a posture like that.
There is no escaping karma. In a previous life, you never visited, you never called and you never wrote. And whose fault was that?
Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage, however, is another story.
Be aware of your body. Be aware of your perceptions. But also be aware that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Forget this and attaining enlightenment will be the least of your problems.
Drink green tea and enhance your life. Experience joy with the first sip, satisfaction with the second sip and a Danish with the third sip.
Though only your skin, sinews and bones remain, though your blood and flesh dry up and wither away, yet shall you meditate and not stir until you have attained full enlightenment. But first, a little nosh.
Accept misfortune as a blessing. Don’t wish for perfect health or a life without problems. What would you talk about?
Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bubkes.

Hear a Little Song: Grappelli and Menuhin

Some crazy German classical radio station I was streaming played a great bit of Gershwin from an album from Stéphane Grappell. Two great violinists from different worlds.

YouTube wouldn’t cough it up, but I did find this bit from a BBC piece on how they got together with a fun version of “Jalousie,” which apparently kicked off the collaboration. I think it works because neither is trying to sound like the other–the distance between the smokey jazz club and the concert hall: maybe not so far after all.

And for good measure, a wonderful version of “Autumn Leaves” by Grappelli and Oscar Peterson

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