Born in Detroit, Michigan, in the midst of the Great Depression, Marge Piercy (b. 1936) is an American poet and novelist, perhaps most famous for her New York Times best-selling novel Gone to Soldiers (1988). The first in her family to attend college, Piercy published her first book of poems in 1968. Since then, she has authored 15 novels, a play, and 17 volumes of poetry. In this poem, first published in a volume of the same name in 1973, Piercy suggests how people work is as important as what they do.
Examine the images the poem uses to describe admirable ways of working: jumping into work head first; harnessing oneself, an ox to a heavy cart; submerging oneself in the task. What idea of working do these images convey? What does Piercy mean by “real work”? Is it true that everyone wants it? What is the meaning of the poem’s title? Do you aspire “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 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.
Piercy, Marge. “To Be of Use.” From Circles on the Water, copyright © 1982 by Middlemarsh, Inc. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Any third party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prohibited. Interested parties must apply directly to Random House, Inc. for permission. For on-line information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, see the Internet website at www.randomhouse.com.
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