Teri Wilson
January 13, 2015 7:57 am

Happy Poetry at Work Day! That’s right—it’s a thing. Why shouldn’t it be? According to a recent global CEO study, creativity is now the most desirable leadership trait in business. And nothing gets the creative juices flowing around the workplace like a little iambic pentameter.

We love the idea of rhyming water cooler talk. So to help you celebrate this special occasion, here are ten poems to read at work today:

For those who are working to support themselves while reaching toward a goal, like college, law school or graduate school, or anyone who’s ever used a yellow legal pad. . .

Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper by Martin Espada

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours

at a printing plant

that manufactured legal pads:

Yellow paper

stacked seven feet high

and leaning

as I slipped cardboard

between the pages,

then brushed red glue

up and down the stack.

No gloves: fingertips required

for the perfection of paper,

smoothing the exact rectangle.

Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands

would slide along suddenly sharp paper,

and gather slits thinner than the crevices

of the skin, hidden.

Then the glue would sting,

hands oozing

till both palms burned

at the punchclock. 

Ten years later, in law school,

I knew that every legal pad

was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,

that every open lawbook

was a pair of hands

upturned and burning.

Work can be a chore, but it can also be a balm. Rhina P. Espaillat’s powerful poem, Find Work, speaks of the power of work to heal in times of grief.

Find Work by Rhina P. Espaillat

My mother’s mother, widowed very young

of her first love, and of that love’s first fruit,

moved through her father’s farm, her country tongue

and country heart anesthetized and mute

with labor. So her kind was taught to do—

“Find work,” she would reply to every grief—

and her one dictum, whether false or true,

tolled heavy with her passionate belief.

Widowed again, with children, in her prime,

she spoke so little it was hard to bear

so much composure, such a truce with time

spent in the lifelong practice of despair.

But I recall her floors, scrubbed white as bone,

her dishes, and how painfully they shone.

The quintessential work poem is probably I Hear America Singing, by Walt Whitman. It reminds me of the seven dwarves singing Heigh-Ho on the way to the diamond mine in Disney’s Snow White. Only less cartoony and more poetic.

I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

For my fellow writers, bloggers and authors, a poem by Sylvia Plath, who I’ve always thought of as a writer’s writer. In her journal, she writes of singing with joy at the sight of the mailman. If she were alive today, she would check her email just as often as we do.

Female Author by Sylvia Plath

All day she plays at chess with the bones of the world:

Favored (while suddenly the rains begin

Beyond the window) she lies on cushions curled

And nibbles an occasional bonbon of sin.

 

Prim, pink-breasted, feminine, she nurses

Chocolate fancies in rose-papered rooms

Where polished highboys whisper creaking curses

And hothouse roses shed immortal blooms.

 

The garnets on her fingers twinkle quick

And blood reflects across the manuscript;

She muses on the odor, sweet and sick,

Of festering gardenias in a crypt,

 

And lost in subtle metaphor, retreats

From gray child faces crying in the streets.

Even if you don’t work in a cubicle, punch a time clock or call someone boss, you can still celebrate Poetry at Work Day. More and more people are working for themselves these days, and this poem is for those brave souls—the freelancers, artists, the designers, the writers, the self-employed. (Note to self: send my editor chocolate.)

Self-Employed by L.L. Barkat

She is always asking

for more.

More hours making words,

more days finding

the things she loves—

people, art, a good font.

But she gives me

chocolates.

How can I say

no?

I love this next poem. On the surface, it’s a poem about a florist, but it’s more than that. It’s about finding the poetry and magic in the mundane tasks of every day, which is something we can all relate to.

Sending Flowers by Hannah Stephenson 

The florist reads faces, reaches into the mouths of customers.

Turns curled tongues into rose petals,

teeth clinking against one another into baby’s breath.

She selects a cut bloom, a bit of leaf,

lays stem alongside of stem, as if building a wrist

from the inside. She binds them

when the message is right, and sighs at the pleasure

of her profession. Her trade:

to wrangle intensity, to gather blooms and say, here,

these do not grow together

but in this new arrangement is language. The florist

hands you a bouquet

yanked from your head, the things you could not say

with your ordinary voice.

Have you ever been fired from a job? This one’s for you. Or, er…us.

Double Vision by Wilmer Mills

At Waffle House, they fired her on the spot:

“You talk too much!”

She’d told her customers

That “made” gets “mad” and “poet” goes to “pot”

Without the letter e. The “amateurs,”

She’d said, “inherit everything: the sand,

The stars, the world that only God possesses.”

 

While washing dishes with a bleeding hand,

She’d told them, “through ‘possession’s’ double ‘esses’

There’s a line that cleaves; things come apart;

‘Refrain’ means both ‘hold back’ and ‘go again’;

Things join in wholes of which they are a part.”

 

She “touched” the people. Was it such a sin?

Her broken pencil left a double line

On my tab, both legible as one design.

The following poem was written in the 1970’s and is titled The Secretary Chant, but anyone who works in a cubicle, answers phones or regularly untangles rubber bands can relate. I love the whimsy of this poem. And I can’t help but think that if Etsy had been around back then, she could have totally cornered the market on paper clip earrings.

The Secretary Chant by Marge Piercy

My hips are a desk

From my ears hang

chains of paper clips.

Rubber bands form my hair.

My breasts are wells of mimeograph ink,

My feet bear casters.

Buzz. Click.

My head is a badly organized file.

My head is a switchboard

where crossed lines crackle.

Press my fingers

and in my eyes appear

credit and debit.

Zing. Tinkle.

My navel is a reject button.

From my mouth issue canceled reams.

Swollen, heavy, rectangular

I am about to do delivered

of a baby

Xerox machine.

File me under W

because I wonce

was

a woman.

What would Poetry at Work Day be without a poem for the poets out there?

Poet’s Work by Lorine Niedecker

Grandfather  

   advised me:

         Learn a trade

I learned

   to sit at desk

         and condense

No layoff

   from this

         condensery

And last, but not least, an ode to our favorite time of week, Saturday and Sunday! Because everybody’s workin’ for the weekend.

Weekend Glory by Maya Angelou 

Some clichty folks

don’t know the facts,

posin’ and preenin’

and puttin’ on acts,

stretchin’ their backs.

 

They move into condos

up over the ranks,

pawn their souls

to the local banks.

Buying big cars

they can’t afford,

ridin’ around town

actin’ bored.

 

If they want to learn how to live life right

they ought to study me on Saturday night.

 

My job at the plant

ain’t the biggest bet,

but I pay my bills

and stay out of debt.

I get my hair done

for my own self’s sake,

so I don’t have to pick

and I don’t have to rake.

 

Take the church money out

and head cross town

to my friend girl’s house

where we plan our round.

We meet our men and go to a joint

where the music is blue

and to the point.

 

Folks write about me.

They just can’t see

how I work all week

at the factory.

Then get spruced up

and laugh and dance

And turn away from worry

with sassy glance.

 

They accuse me of livin’

from day to day,

but who are they kiddin’?

So are they.

 

My life ain’t heaven

but it sure ain’t hell.

I’m not on top

but I call it swell

if I’m able to work

and get paid right

and have the luck to be Black

on a Saturday night.

Poems via here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere and here. Photo via here.

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