Books for Poets | Mailing List | Copyrights | About Us



September 2010

The poem for this month's prompt on jobs was Phillip Levine's "What Work Is." (from What Work Is).x I highly recommend that you listen to Levine introduce and read the poem.

September seemed to be a good month to consider work. It's the end of summer and the Labor Day weekend launches us either back to school or back to work. I wrote a post elsewhere about how the "Labor" has drained away from Labor Day.

That's a feeling that Levine would probably agree because he says that "When I say work I mean the sort of brute physical work that most of us try to avoid, but that those without particular gifts or training were often forced to adopt to make a living in a society as tough and competitive as ours. This may in fact be a species of work that is disappearing from America as more and more automation replaces the need for human hands, that is manual labor."

I don't know that all the poets reading this have spent time doing manual labor, but we have all worked and had jobs besides writing. For this month's writing prompt, we asked poets to write a poem about a job that that they had that involved that real work that Levine describes.

For more poems about work, an article about work poems by Levine and more prompts and poetry, visit the Poets Online Blog.


I’ve never done physical labor.
Not for lack of trying, but for lack of experience.
You’re very smart, but you’ve never waitressed.
You can have the night shift on dishes. It pays $4.50 an hour.
No, of course-- I want to earn tips.

Does shelving books and stamping them out count as physical labor?
If so, I’ve done that.
But it’s not repetitious, monotonous, paying my dues, work.
Not good for a Note tracking
My rise from humble beginnings to Broadway.

The editorials say we have
More experienced intellectual laborers than we need
And thus can pay them less than they want.
And the physical laborers aren’t trained to do the work we need.
What about writers? Is being creative a valuable job? Should it be paid?

Ellen Kaplan


At 12:18 in the smoggy afternoon air
Eating lunch in my car parked
In an abandoned parking lot
I suddenly realize:

This is the rest of my life.

Maybe in a different parking lot
On another day
With another dirty windshield sky
I will again forget
I am no one in particular,
Again dream of great honors
Awarded me for great things
I could never really do,
Not even in a hundred years.

I am out of the running.

My children are growing up poor
Without me
While I give little that matters to the world,
Working into the night,
Earning money
Which is not and never will be mine.

I am legions.

Russ Allison Loar


was the one that showed me
what I didn't want to do
for the rest of my life.
punching in.
weeks divided into hours,
work coming down a line
for five days straight
so you could blink twice;
fifty weeks
so you can blink again;
letting your hands work,
letting your mind sleep.
picking up your check.
punching out.

Charles Michaels

I woke up before dawn from a dream
that I was late for work – not doing the work
itself, which began at 6 a.m. in the kitchen,
making coffee for the family who owned
this place, coffee thick and dark as a foreign
accent; pouring it into heavy bowls; slicing
bread, setting table in the dining room;
serving; washing dishes; stripping
beds and scrubbing bidets; sweeping hard-
wood floors older than my grandmother’s
great-great forebear who left this old
continent for America; making beds; slicing
onions for midday soup; setting table;
trying to turn “de la moutarde” into “a little
mustard”; scrubbing sink; chopping onions
for supper, when new guests would begin
arriving from some battlefield or other, from
another country with their luggage full
of words and lives beyond my study. No one
explained, my job was trying to understand
their histories, their languages.

Taylor Graham


One could describe my jobs as editing,
I suppose, but not only in words.
Day after day,
Summer after summer,
Armed with a gas-powered pruner—
I was nature’s helper,
Hacking and hewing,
Reshaping this haphazard world
To get it ready for Christmas.
Had I a gas-powered red pencil
In my full-time job as a teacher,
I, probably, would have enjoyed correcting essays more.
The thrill of power and permanence.
The rush of potential hazard of snagging on symbols
For sentence fragments or run-ons,
And having it kick back
To permanently maim myself between the eyes.

But returning to my field,
The placement of the sun in the sky
Is insufficient cause for the shapes of trees.
Branches lengthening to a spot of sun,
Have to be slapped for misbehaving,
Pruned to the logarithms of tinsel, lights, and ornaments.

A perfect Jesus needs a perfect tree.
And I was good at my job.
In less than a minute,
I could transmogrify a raw tree
Into an idea of a tree.
Down long row after row of white or blue spruce
I precisely coned each tip,
Each made ready for as many angels
As have ever danced on the head of a pin,
To be persecuted for whatever
Sins they would have committed
Had they had proper genitalia.

On December weekends, I would walk out with families,
Into the snow that separated each row from the other,
Now lines on a gigantic composition paper.
The woman would say,
“I want one with a bird’s nest in it,
“Like we had last year.”
That was an accident,
Like some kid using a possessive pronoun before a gerund.

“I don’t want one like we had last year.
“All the needles fell off before Christmas.”
The man sounded like I did
Every time I assigned an essay.

“It can’t be taller than seven feet,”
The grandmother would add,
“We had to cut three feet off the one
“You sold us last Christmas.”

As if I knew how big their house was,
As if in essays about Christmas traditions,
I understood why stepfathers threw stepdaughters
Down the stairs.

“This one is perfect,”
The mother would finally say,
As the children whined about the cold.
I started the chainsaw,
Happy myself to be getting out of the cold.
“I love the smell of pine,”
Always an adult would say.
“It’s such a clean, natural smell.”
As if sticking my concept of a tree
In the front room of their house,
Was the most natural thing to do,
As natural as using sentences with both subjects and verbs.

Ron Yazinski


The tree roots know
no boundaries.
They know what to do.
Build your walls and fences,
if that's your work.
They work around you.
They work below you.
They can undo your work.
They don't seek the light
as you do
and so they cannot fall.

Lianna Wright


It’s hard to know which Mom I am when the newspaper
calls me “soccer mom” or “WalMart mom” and in fact that’s
not at all a description of the wallpaper hanging I did yesterday
after painting the trim in between feeding a couple of kids
who are much younger than the two who have to get to soccer
(yes indeed) plus lacrosse after school, #2 to deal with her
cruel lacrosse coach afraid that girls notice, that she may
be outed by being nice, and so instead her anger rules,
but our attic has to be insulated so gender is a minor issue
then the plumber has to be called for a leak in the basement,
and darn it, we do need to shop since #2 needs a dress
for a party because she decided to grow at the wrong time
so we’ll go after I plan my biology lecture for the freshmen
who don’t get mitosis and meiosis and frankly don’t care about this end
of reproduction when the rest is so much more exciting with hormones
at full tilt, though little do they know that diapers, teething and no sleep
come next, to say nothing of the teenagers out past curfew and you’re not
sure whether to kill them before they set foot in the door till you realize
#1 has to make the money for the window he broke playing baseball
and besides who has time when there’s a doctor’s appointment
in the morning for #3 who scraped her face on the sidewalk
racing her bike at high speed down the hill while I set the table
and warmed leftovers in the microwave, which reminds me
#4 must be somewhere reading his book
and also in this mom naming game
there’s a husband.

Lavinia Kumar


To move Alice you had to sit her up
and steady her till MS relaxed its grip
exercise her knees till they flexed limp
then position the lifting strap
and call for help –
Together now lift, swivel
careful she’s stiffening...
don’t let her slide to the floor!

I daydreamed while I fed Anna porridge
till one morning she sprang to life
flailing her long, bony hand
squawking rusty gibberish.
I recoiled
as if from a trapped bird
went all heat and heart-pound
perspiration pricking my armpits.

Cunning Mary ruled from her wheelchair.
In the bathroom she did quick tight turns
with precision and the speed that said,
Get out of my way; I know what I’m doing.
When I was on evenings
and getting her ready for bed
she gossiped about the other nurses
You are better, she’d say.
Without her teeth
she looked just like a witch.

Sarah was always expecting
her mother for tea.
She’s downstairs
waiting for me right now, she'd mutter
as she stuffed her water glass with napkins
and crumbled toast
into her bedside drawer.

One night when I came on shift
there was a new woman on the ward.
In the photo beside her bed
she was a smiling grandma
surrounded by family.
At 2:00 a.m. her breathing
was slow, hard, rattly.
At 6:00 a.m. she was silent.

I was still weak and shaky
a few hours later
when I climbed into bed
and it wasn’t all fatigue.

Violet Nesdoly


I'm drinking my cup of tea
in the shining lamp-light
and dreaming about Wallace Stevens.
He's walking to the insurance office
through the park
and he's working on a poem
in his head.

It's morning.
Frosted leaves
on the path
and in that loneliest air,
he makes himself
the compass of the world.

But what I saw,
heard, felt came not from myself.
And then there was nothing.
And then, even more.

Ken Ronkowitz