Sunday, September 14, 2008

Is poetry work?

Do you think of poetry as work?

If so, do you think of it as a particular kind of work?

If not, do you think of it as another kind of activity (that is, other than just poetry)?

I’m influenced enough by Wittgenstein that I don’t think of poetry inherently as work. Instead I’m interested in what happens to poetry if we define it as work, and what happens to it if we don’t. Thinking of it as work or not might change, and probably does, how we write poetry and how we feel about its importance.

There’s a long history, both in what became the United States and elsewhere, of distrusting poetry. That distrust has often been based in thinking of poetry as something that is not work, or as work that may not be all that valuable. Puritan culture, for instance, often looked skeptically at poetry. As one Puritan divine of the time put it, “It is as if words should elect to dance and caper, instead of to speak plainly.” In this view, poetry is playful and wasteful and an inappropriate manner of celebrating. The Puritans were no simpler than we are though, and one of them, Edward Taylor, wrote poems full of ornate artifice and linguistic playfulness, dancing and capering with quite marvelous results.

If we consider poetry to be work, is it possible that we’re looking to justify it by giving it the dignity of labor, dignity that perhaps we feel that poetry simply as poetry doesn’t have? When we use the phrase “work of art,” have we, in a subtle fashion and perhaps even unknown to ourselves, sought to justify art through the productive aspects of it as labor?

If we consider poetry to be work, what role does humor, feeling, playfulness, ornamentation, and artifice have in the poem as work?

If we do not consider poetry to be work, what role does effort, thoughtfulness, difficulty and developed skill have in whatever kind of activity we imagine poetry to be?

Which is to say, I wonder what aspects of poetry become more emphasized or more forgotten when we consider poetry as work or as something that is not work. And when we consider poetry as work or not, I think that probably changes the relation of poetry to the kinds of work we’re doing, work we may have to do or may want to do. Does poetry become less important or more important to us as we imagine it as more work or as something other than work?

And by the way, I’ve been working a lot these past few weeks. If you haven’t heard from me recently, that’s why.


Joseph said...

Hey Mark,

Funny you should ask. I have an unpublished manuscript (unpublished mostly because I'm still "working" on it) called Repair Work, or Maintenance that addresses some of these issues. I think poetry can be work but doesn't have to be. In Repair Work I approach it and treat it as work. Essentially, I asked several poet friends to send me discarded or failed poems--I perform maintenance, I repair them, just as a skilled technician might repair a thrown out piece of electronics or a faulty piece of merchandise.

Lemon Hound said...

I fear I am severely unhip in this regard, but yes, it is work. It is labor, a visible record of mental labor, and a labor of intellectual and technical craft. Does that make it more important? I doubt it, but it might shift the emphasis to a more thoughtful sense of engagement over an emphasis on product...which is what much of the poetry discussions--not here, but out in the ether--are about. Individual product. Individual success. Product, not process.

Whether or not poetry is work doesn't necessarily relate to humor, emotion, play--a laborious, politically charged work can be all of the above and not have an ounce of sentimentality.

Random thoughts. Thanks for the question.

Sandra Simonds said...

I don't see poetry as work; that's not to say writing poetry isn't difficult. But difficulty and work are not the same thing (at least in my mind).

I was taught that poetry writing was
"a lot of hard work." Many people think one must write "every day" just to be a good writer. I think that this is silly. Why would I write crappy poems every day if I didn't feel like writing just to say "I'm working on my writing?" Why churn out 100 pigeons when you really want a swan? 100 pigeons don't equal a swan.

We have all read the well-crafted, shallow poem---pure artifice. It's so unimpressive.

Long live Rimbaud!

tmorange said...


poetry has to be considered work in the most basic sense of the term (to work = to perform, execute, produce or do something). certainly poetry is something produced, done, executed or performed, and so to not consider work seems altogether perverse to me.

thus i find the really interesting implication of or subtext to your question "is poetry work" to be: "when or how did poetry become something different from or other than work" or, perhaps better still, "when did work become something that excludes poetry, and what are the grounds for such an exclusion?" that is, i think it's our ideas of "work" that are tainted, not our ideas of poetry.

my suspicion is that our understanding of "work" changed when it became tied to certain kinds of intentionality and utility: work as a means of subsistence under capitalism; work as a means to achieve material gain and advance in society; work hard in this life for rewards in the hereafter, etc.

now we know poetry has little capacity to achieve many of these things -- especially today! -- and so i think knowledge of this fact inclines us to think that poetry might not be work. but as i suggested earlier, i think this is due largely to a narrow or restricted understanding of work. and that we might think of poetry in ways that expand that this limited sense of work -- to include things like unproductive labor, blanchot's desoeuvrement (worklessness), etc.


Joseph said...

If you press me I don't really see poetry as work either. I guess I'm just wondering, in a science-fiction sort of speculative way, what if we did see poetry as work?

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Poetry can certainly be a record or product of exertion and activity. And I agree that it requires effort. Part of what makes poetry interesting, to me at least, is the way in which poems tend not to have value in the way that other work usually does because the labor required to make a poem is typically not valued in the same way an hour of a lawyer's time or a car is. Value is determined by complex social connections between/among individuals and groups. The fact that there are a lot of poets who write a lot of poems for which they receive little to no financial compensation suggests a kind of value different from what is normally assigned to work.

Joseph, that manuscript sounds great.

mark wallace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

It depends on your definition of "work." If you believe "work" means work in the sense of industrial/post-industrial age of factories and Frederick Taylor in America, which means the exchange of your services or labor for money, then no. I don't believe that is the definition of work, however. That is a "modern" invention. Since "money is time," art is considered by many to be a luxury afforded only by privilege and social class. Because it serves no commercial purpose, it is not viewed as "work."

Before the industrial age, everything was just a part of life. The East had it right, so did the Native Americans. Capitalism has changed the way we view everything -- through a narrow dark tunnel.

mark wallace said...

Thanks, everybody, for these comments. Quite seriously, I find it heartening to see so many different takes on the relationship between poetry and work.

Just to clarify, a Wittgenstein reading would go something like this: there's no such activity as work. Instead, work is a word that we use to apply to various activities, and thus the definition of work is defined differently in different times and places. Same for poetry too of course, and also activity for that matter.

On a broad take, as Tom offers, any productive activity is work, although that still doesn't avoid distinguishing between less and more exploitative types of work. A narrower view might define poetry as a kind of productive play that's distinguished from the concept of work understood as something more purely functional, whether that function be economic, political, or so on. Work, that is, as something that produces something with a functional goal in mind.

My main concern is our often unexamined connection between poetry and work, so that I'm less interested in the idea of finding one answer for all of us (not likely, huh?) than in asking what happens to poetry and to us depending on the answers that we give. If poetry really felt like work to us (and it might or might not), then that changes why we value it. And I think my other main concern is that if we defend poetry on the grounds that it's serious work, we might neglect to defend it on the grounds that it's poetry, whether it's work or not. We might then be wanting poetry to approach the condition of work, when I'm more inclined to hope that work could approach the condition of poetry. At least sometimes anyway.

Now, back to grading.

mark wallace said...

Angela, thanks for your comment too, which seems to have been sent before I wrote my response but not to have showed up in my Inbox until after.

Was there some particular life philosophy from the East that you had in mind? For instance, I'm not sure what role poetry/art had under Confucianism. Are you referring particularly to Buddhism? I'd love to know.

Matt Walker said...

I think it does depend on what you mean by work. Is the work really work if you like working...

Anonymous said...

Last time I checked energy was defined as the "ability to do work" (at least in middle school science text books.) Does poetry require energy? If it does not, then it cannot be work (without energy, no work.)

SO, if you are expending energy, giving energy, losing energy when you write a poem, you are either a) working, or b) performing actions that result in a net loss of your "ability to work." In the case of b) it seems likely that poetry is either work or it is a mechanically/ bioenergetically similar set of behaviors/tasks.

So I think poetry is work. OR it's something that in a very substantive way, enters the vital equation so as to take the place of work in a practical sense.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Mark and Wittgenstein. Work should approach the condition of poetry:

Pete, you should read beyond middle school science textbooks. Aim for 9th grade, maybe: a little philosophy (Wittgenstein, et al), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Joseph Campbell, Thoreau, Emerson, Blake, Carl Jung, Chuang Tzu, Alan Watts -- and if you can wrap your head around it, a little quantum physics.

mgushuedc said...

I actually got to ask John Ashbery if he thought writing poetry was more like work or more like play. Although he acknowledged that going to sit at the desk to do some stuff could be worklike in its duty, he came down on the side of more like play, finally.

It's not a very thematized question of course. I wasn't thinking of energia.

Anonymous said...

Poetry is Effort, Candlepower, Ohms, Ergs, Oms, and Errs, among other Outputs.

But let us not forget the amount of pretention that has overtaken the word "work." Not that it's OUR fault.

Since I toil at an arts college, virtually every artist statement I see says "My work" blah blah. "My work" equates with "my journey" equates with "my awakening" "my unfathomable commitment" "my path through the hellish morass" (sp?) "my work oh my work oh oh oh OHHHHHHHH."

About the only thing of value said by the American fiction writer Charlie Baxter was the following:

Poets work for 30 minutes a day, write a little poem, and then are done, and say that they have "written." Or whatever that dude said.

But that's kind of funny, too. More often, poetry is a condition that requires self-medication, destruction, animosity, violence, and breakfast. I mean potatoes, eggs, bacon, salsa, pancakes, grits, toast -- the Big Guy's Breakfast, at that place in San Fran. (My picture is on the wall there because I finished one).

Toast is Taost depending upon the country and the Folks. I rest. My case. (Meaning me earse).