Saturday, September 21, 2013

Marge Piercy on Why Work Matters

I sometimes struggle when teaching about unemployment to explain just why work matters. It's straightforward enough in  class about economics to note that elevated unemployment leads to loss of economic output, lower tax payments, and greater need for government welfare benefits. I can refer to evidence on  how unemployment is connected to social ills like bankruptcy, divorce, depression, and even suicide. But this listing of consequences, while a necessary part of teaching the economics of unemployment, doesn't touch the human heart of the issue. The poet Marge Piercy, in her 1973 poem "To be of use," gives a more concise and powerful sense of why useful work matters so much.

"To be of use"

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.

Marge Piercy (1973)