“To Be of Use”: A Good Poem

Yes, a good poem for May Day or any day. It’s by an American poet named Marge Piercy, and it appears in a collection called, get ready for it, Good Poems. It was put together by Garrison Keillor, he of the Lake Wobegon tales and The Prairie Home Companion radio show. (A hint as to my current standing as a Man of the People: I’m more excited by the upcoming movie version of the Companion than by any number of Mission Impossible or Superman sequels. Guess it depends which People we’re talkin’ about…) It’s a hymn to simple honest work, and a testimony to the importance of feeling useful in the world. A poem a day keeps the brain at play.

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 muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge to 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.

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