I was at a memorial service for a community activist recently, when a man stepped up to the microphone who was clearly not used to speaking in public. He fumbled a moment with a sheet of paper, then leaned forward and began to read. Tentatively at first, but with growing confidence as the words carried him along:
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 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.
I've heard this poem, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy, many times over the years at funerals, fundraising events, retirement parties and the like. And it makes me wonder: why has it broken through the wall that often seperates the world of poetry from the lives of “ordinary people”? I asked Marge to reflect on her poem’s iconic status.
Why do you think this poem is known and appreciated by so many people who aren’t usually interested in poetry? "From a structural standpoint, the poem has resonant imagery and strong cadences that make it easy to recite. It’s also easy to memorize."
It’s also a poem that's easy to engage with. You don’t often hear poems that honor the efforts of ordinary people. "No, there isn’t a lot of poetry that praises ordinary work. Work of all kinds. 'To Be of Use' has been used in memorials to activists, radical lawyers, labor unionists and so on. People put it up on walls and refrigerators."
It’s a very “accessible” poem. Some poets use that term like an insult. As if a poem can’t be “important” if ordinary people can engage with it. "My poetry is not for the poetry community only. One time I was a member of a Jewish wedding that used a couple of my poems. Afterwards someone asked me if that poem was part of the regular wedding ceremony, because he'd heard it at three other weddings that spring."
Obviously, a number of your poems have become part of the canon. "Yes, and sometimes it gets a little odd. “To Be of Use” is on the New York Regents exam. And my other poems sometimes wind up reaching beyond the poetry community. Some of my liturgical poems like my “Nishmat” get used in Reconstructionist and some Reform synagogues and in Liberal synagogues in England as well as in Unitarian Universalist services. My Kaddish has been part of funerals. I am very pleased that people use my poems in their lives..."
On Another Note: SOMETHING YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS
The “Split This Rock” Poetry Festival is coming up March 27-30 in Washington, DC. Featuring readings, workshops, panel discussions, parties, and poetry activism. Guest artists include Sheila Black, Joy Harjo and Yusef Komunyakaa.
If you can make it, you have NO EXCUSE to be anywhere else.
Check it out here.