I have taught Marge Piercy’s poem for many years to my ninth grade students. I think it speaks to the sentiments of this end-of-summer, American holiday. I hope in the months ahead, many unemployed Americans find “work that is real.”
The photograph above of American journalist H. L. Mencken at his writing desk is taken from a Wall Street Journal article on a new collection of his essays and criticism. The copyright belongs to Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.
To be of use
By Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
“To be of use” by Marge Piercy © 1973, 1982.
From Circles on the Water © 1982 Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Middlemarsh, Inc.
First published in Lunch magazine. Used by permission of Wallace Literary Agency