labor, writing’s finished product, critical and creative process, calling/vocation, pointless busy tasks, job, career, making, doing, acts, deeds, in late capitalism, essential workers, invisible labor, work ethic, useful/use value, efficient, humming along, effort, hard worker, lazy, worker as citizen as person, overworked, exploited
Emily Dickinson and the Busy Bee
from March 26 log entry on RUN!
To interrupt His Yellow Plan/ Emily Dickinson (1863)
To interrupt His Yellow Plan
The Sun does not allow
Caprices of the Atmosphere —
And even when the Snow
Heaves Balls of Specks, like Vicious Boy
Directly in His Eye —
Does not so much as turn His Head
Busy with Majesty —
‘Tis His to stimulate the Earth —
And magnetize the Sea —
And bind Astronomy, in place,
Yet Any passing by
Would deem Ourselves — the busier
As the minutest Bee
That rides — emits a Thunder —
A Bomb — to justify —
I really appreciate PB’s (prowling bee) analysis here (and the comments by others too. Click on the poem to read all of it). Very helpful. I especially like her last bit about the Bee and her suggestion that ED is poking fun at Isaac Watt’s “Little Busy Bee”:
Now, as to Watts’ poem about the “Little Busy Bee”. The first two stanzas praise the bee who is industrious, skilful, and neat. Such attributes “Improve each shining hour”. The last two stanzas find the poet wanting to emulate the bee for two reasons: to lead a good life and to stay busy so that the Devil can’t make use of his ‘idle hands’.
I imagine Dickinson reading this poem and finding it deeply ironic. Most of her countrymen were exposed to this poem. Many of them spent their childhoods “In books, or work, or healthful play” and later strove to be busy in ‘works of labor or of skill’. And yet rather than a society like the humming hive, they found no way out of their deep divisions except by busily building and employing the engines of war.
How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.
In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.
In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.
Isaac Watts, 1715
Yes! Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the bullshit of busy work, which seems to be a lot of what work is these days. While Watts champions the busy work of bees, constantly contributing to the health of the hive, I wonder about the value of work now (which has made busy-ness and distraction an end in itself and that often doesn’t contribute to the greater health of the community)? What, in the 21st century in the midst of a global climate crisis and a pandemic that necessitates many of us do less, is work for? What is our work doing–to the world? to us? And, what work are we valuing most? Least?
Thinking about work in relation to religion and as a counter to Watt’s “idle hands do the devil’s work,” I’m reminded of David Naimon’s “Between the Covers” interview with Ross Gay:
DN: “What parts of my day, in relationship to the Earth, aren’t extractive on a species level versus relational and giving back?” It feels 99 to 1….I wonder about spiritual technologies that we used to use, like in its best form, the Sabbath where you’re not supposed to do anything that moves you forward in the world, you don’t exchange money, you don’t get in a car, you spend time with people you love, you attend to the moment with no sense of the future. It’s supposed to be this recreation of the Garden of Eden once a week but also, along with that, in the Bible, you were supposed to let the land rest every seven years….David Naimon
Do we offer any meaningful space for rest now? (I don’t think so.) Why not?
Not sure if that totally makes sense, but I’m thinking about the limits and dangers of our understandings of work–who benefits from it, who is exploited by it, what/who does it produce/cause/contribute/harm? And, as we (in the US) live through this terrible time–ecological devastation, over half a million deaths from COVID-19, a divided nation, an unchecked/barely checked white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (see bell hooks for definition), suffering, extreme poverty, no safety net or support for the most vulnerable citizens–what has all our work achieved? I think this might come across as a little preachier and darker than I am intending. I am not trying to preach. Instead, I am struggling to make sense of my relationship to work and to contend with my extreme disappointment over how much and how often so many of us have been taught/encouraged/required to believe work = success and achievement, and how little that has prepared us to respond to our current crises in ways that are meaningful, caring, and reparative.
the bullshit of busy work
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.
The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ’60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs/ David Graeber
Mary Oliver and Work
from April 2 log entry on RUN!
hum/ mary oliver
What is this dark hum among the roses?
The bees have gone simple, sipping,
that’s all. What did you expect? Sophistication?
They’re small creatures and they are
filling their bodies with sweetness, how could they not
moan in happiness? The little
worker bee lives, I have read, about three weeks.
Is that long? Long enough, I suppose, to understand
that life is a blessing. I have found them-haven’t you?—
stopped in the very cups of the flowers, their wings
a little tattered-so much flying about, to the hive,
then out into the world, then back, and perhaps dancing,
should the task be to be a scout-sweet, dancing bee.
I think there isn’t anything in this world I don’t
admire. If there is, I don’t know what it is. I
haven’t met it yet. Nor expect to. The bee is small,
and since I wear glasses, so I can see the traffic and
read books, I have to
take them off and bend close to study and
understand what is happening. It’s not hard, it’s in fact
as instructive as anything I have ever studied. Plus, too,
it’s love almost too fierce to endure, the bee
nuzzling like that into the blouse
of the rose. And the fragrance, and the honey, and of course
the sun, the purely pure sun, shining, all the while, over
all of us.
I love Mary Oliver and when I read this poem I don’t think of it as an “easy” romantic poem just about how great bees are. This poem is the declaration of someone who has done and is still doing the very difficult work of learning how to notice and love the world–every bit of it, no matter how small or how broken (here I’m thinking of her line in “Invitation”–“believe us, they say,/ it is a serious thing/just to be alive/on this fresh morning/in this broken world”). She writes:
I think there isn’t anything in this world I don’t
admire. If there is, I don’t know what it is. I
haven’t met it yet. Nor expect to.
That’s impressive and something I aspire to. For several years now, I’ve been working to find delight in these small moments, to recognize them as enough, more than enough, to make life fulfilling, to ensure flourishing. I’m getting closer, but I’m not there yet. There are things I don’t admire and, too often lately, I’ve thought about them more than the things I do admire.
from April 7 log entry on RUN!
Lots of words and thoughts swirling in my head about work, labor, productivity. And about why Mary Oliver’s poems are so popular–how/why does her work speak to so many, especially those who don’t normally “like” poetry? As I skimmed through her collection, Devotions, I started thinking about how so many of the poems talk directly to the reader, inviting them to attend to the beauty of the world, to notice the long black branches, or to chastise them, nudging them to do and be better:
Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches/of other lives?
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
Can you Imagine? Oh, do you have time? Come with me into the fields of sunflowers. What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks flew in circles around your head? Surely you can’t imagine they just stand there looking the way they look when we’re looking?
Mary Oliver’s invitations, and even her admonishments, are seductive. Yes, I will notice! Yes, I will look and imagine and take the time! Her words inspire, making it seem attainable to be better, to change your life, to do more than merely breathe. Even as I have loved and admired her work since the first poem I read–was it “Invitation”?–I have also been wary of it. She makes it sound so simple–just change your life! Stop, take a break, notice those goldfinches!
I was bothered enough by this idea to write a poem about her poem “Invitation”, and then a chapbook about the phrase, “change your life” that features my poem which I titled, “You Must Change Your Life.” In my only workshop experience, for a great Advanced Poetry class at the Loft, the rest of my class didn’t seem to like “You Must Change Your Life”. Too wordy, too full of explanation, too much Oliver, not enough Rilke. So I put it away. But, reading it again now, I like it. It needs some cleaning up, but I’m proud of it and the questions I’m posing about will and attention, how we hear the call to notice things and change our lives, how we sustain that call.
Back then in 2018, I focused a lot on how change happens whether we want it or not and I explored different meanings and causes of change. Now, I’m interested in how we might choose to act on her invitation, how it becomes possible for us to “enter the long brown branches of other lives.” First, the easy answer: say yes, take up her invitation, decide to stop and smell the roses, watch those goldfinches and their musical battle, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk! But, don’t do this just once. Do it repeatedly–every month or week or morning. Make it a habit. Of course, making this into a habit isn’t necessarily easy; it requires effort and discipline and commitment, but it’s possible to believe, on any fresh day, that we can make this choice and change ourselves. This Yes! answer is the one that I imagine gets many readers excited about MO’s work and is why she’s so popular and important.
But, there’s another answer to the question of how we take up her invitation that is harder and more hidden, and that involves the difficult, messy work of saying no to many things in order to say Yes! to the goldfinches. And, this saying no is not simply choosing to not do this or that busy, important thing in order to notice the goldfinches. It is to refuse some of the fundamental values that shape who we are and what we should be doing in 21st century, late capitalism: work, always work, that is productive, useful, efficient, busy, fast, that makes lots of money for someone else, that yields status and success, that creates more things, that doesn’t waste time, that generates quantitative (not qualitative) results. Refusing these values is difficult and requires breaking habits we have been disciplined into following and practicing starting in elementary school (or even earlier–hello, Althusser and the ideological state apparatus). Habits and values that those with Power want and need us to follow to ensure that they keep hold of their Power. To break these habits makes trouble. And, it demands that we question (why is this how it is?) and rethink (why not be otherwise?) who we are and where we come from. I describe this work of refusal as undisciplining yourself. And I’ve been working very hard at it for the last decade.
As far as I can tell, Mary Oliver rarely mentions this work in her poems, but it’s there, haunting every page. Each Yes! is tinged with the effort of the no that made it possible. I happened to remember one poem in which MO briefly describes her own undisciplining process:
Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer/ Mary Oliver
I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods,
and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught—
two times two, and diligence, and so forth,
how to be modest and useful, and how to succeed and so forth,
machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.
By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back
to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember
the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.
I saw that skill was needed, and persistence—how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page–the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances-a passion for work.Upstream/ Mary Oliver
from April 15 log entry on RUN!
And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe–that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.Upstream/ Mary Oliver
“I have made for myself out of work and love….” Sometimes, I think I combine these things, work and love–loving (as in caring, noticing, beholding) the world is the work–but I like the distinction she offers. Work is work, love love. Work as useful, ordered in “heat-retaining” efficient, proper forms. Love, as being “good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.”
What kind of work do we need to do on ourselves to be loving? To notice the world–to stop and stare and be open to beholding and praising the green pea as it “climbs the stake/on her sugary muscles” or how the “rosy comma of the radish/fattens in the soil”? Perhaps, having been raised in a family of “serious,” driven people who work a lot, and having spent decades of my life doing the work of thinking (too) seriously and critically, not working and just being–standing still, staring hard, loving everything with pure admiration–is harder for me than for other people? I have devoted the last few years to learning how to look, how to be simple in my joy, how to be satisfied with “tiny little things” and the slow, small moments of the birds and the trees and the gorge. To me, this has been important and necessary, and it has been work. A lot of work.
Continuing my run, I kept thinking about how messy and complicated the division between work and love is and then I wondered if that seam (here I’m thinking of ED and her idea of the seam, the Circumference) where they come together is a spot of creative possibility as you try to navigate your useful, “serious” work of managing and shaping words into forms that flare with your whimsical, overwhelmed with delight, untidy exuberance for the trees and the stones and the flowers and the bees and your beloved dog Luke that died years ago.
The Work of Living a Fulfilled Life
There’s no interest in fulfillment in our culture. We’re the people’s republic of “spring break.” We’re supposed to be having this constant, drunken great time, you know. This idea of living a fulfilled life, a creative life…to make stuff. Everything you make, you don’t have to share with others. Just be creative. I recently got interviewed and someone said to me, they said, ‘You know you make a movie every year. Which filmmakers are you competing with?’ And I said, ‘I’m not competing with any filmmakers. I’m competing with the Grim Fucking Reaper. I finally figured out what I want to do and I got to get them out of me.’
Protestant Work Ethic
as discussed in Do What You Love/ Miya Tokumitsu
- industrious pursuit of wealth
- deferral of pleasure
- subjugation of individual desire
- acceptance of obligation
- Ben Franklin’s self-improvement via enterprise
- work is moral, earnings reflect character
Our Real Work/Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Poet’s work/ LORINE NIEDECKER
Learn a trade
to sit at desk
Kaveh Akbar and Work
One thing that I think about a lot is that a revolution comes in two parts; there’s the overthrow and the rebuild. Without either of those parts, it’s not a revolution. There has to be something being turned over and then there has to be something being set up in its place. It’s very easy to inhabit the carapace of revolutionary rhetoric without advancing something new. That, in and of itself by definition, isn’t revolutionary because there’s no rebuild. There’s no gesture towards a rebuild. I’ve talked to my students and my friends and the people with whom I’ve had this conversation in these discussions. I think a lot about the physics definition of work which is the force applied to an object in order to move it. If there’s force applied to an object and nothing moves, that’s not work. Similarly, if an object moves but you haven’t applied force to it, then you haven’t done work. If I say to a room full of people who agree with me, “F*ck Trump,” and I say that in a room full of poetry people, probably the majority of them will be like, “Yeah, f*ck Trump.” I haven’t really caused anything to move. I’ve inhabited the form of revolutionary rhetoric but I haven’t actually moved anything. By the physics definition of work, probably that’s not doing much or any work.Kaveh Akbar Interview
Alice Oswald and Working Accounts
Raking, like any outdoor work, is a more mobile, more many-sided way of knowing a place than looking. When you rake leaves for a couple of hours, you can hear right into the non-human world, it’s as if you and the trees had found a meeting point in the sound of the rake. (ix)The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems for the Planet
I think about those years of gardening every single day. It was the foundation of a different way of perceiving things. Instead of looking at landscape in a baffled, longing way, it was a release when I worked outside to feel that I was using it, part of it. I became critical of any account that was not a working account.source
Last April, when I was reading Mary Oliver, I spent some time thinking about work and labor. I’d like to think about it again, now with Oswald. For Oliver, the desire with work is to be useful to the world. For Oswald, it is to be part of it, in the midst of it, not looking at it, but using it. This work, for Oswald, is labor: gardening, fishing, trimming trees, panning for tin, etc.
Hanif Abdurraqib and the work of living
When we talk about “the work”, as writers, so many of us mean the actual work of writing. The work on the page, of course. After a year of wrestling with the fragility of my own life, and the life of my closest human love, I realized that “the work” is also the work of living. It is the work of loving others when we can, taking care of ourselves when we can, and knowing not to let the former overwhelm us into forgetting the latter. Those two different types of work are two rivers flowing into the same body of water, for me. I don’t know how to write healthy and productive poems if I’m only doing one side of the work.Haniq Abdurraqib’s “On Joy”