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“Working Class Poetry” – a paper presented at the Virginia Humanities Conference

April 11, 2011

I presented the following paper at the Virginia Humanities Conference on Friday.

 “Working Class Poetry

Bridging the Gap Between an Employee’s Essence and their Work”


“This paper examines the role of poetry in enabling a worker to bridge the gap between their soul, their work, their employer, and society. There is little opportunity for creativity in monotonous Blue Collar work.   Daily routines are depressing, alienating the worker from job, employer and surroundings.   The working class struggle is not only for economic mobility, but to find the means to feel human, in an impersonal work environment with no options.

Professor M. I. Liebler’s Anthology, “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams” and the words of 20th Century writers provide the foundation for this paper.”


            “You work. You work, Buddy. You work.”  These are the first words from “Grandfather’s Breath”, by Ohio poet Ray McNiece.[i]

Work is at the very essence of human existence.  Though in early Judeo-Christian theology it is a punishment for transgressions against the Creator – toil is how we fill our lives. If it were not deigned by the gods, the human race would have created it to fulfill a need to satisfy a basic longing of human existence.  Work is creativity – an extension of one’s personality. Work is a means to provide dignity and meaning in life.   Work therefore, is more than the essence of human existence, it is the human condition.

            Pope John Paul said:

Toil is something that is universally known, for it is universally experienced. It is familiar to those doing physical work under sometimes exceptionally laborious conditions. It is familiar not only to agricultural workers, who spend long days working the land, … but also to those who work in mines and quarries, to steel workers at their blast furnaces, to those who work in builders’ yards and in construction work, often in danger of injury or death. It is likewise familiar to those at an intellectual workbench; to scientists; to those who bear the burden of grave responsibility for decisions that will have a vast impact on society. It is familiar to doctors and nurses, who spend days and nights at their patients’ bedside. It is familiar to women, who, sometimes without proper recognition on the part of society and even of their own families, bear the daily burden and responsibility for their homes and the upbringing of their children. It is familiar to all workers and, since work is a universal calling, it is familiar to everyone.”[ii]

            Before the industrial revolution, young workers were left with few options. Honed in their father’s footsteps or indentured to learn a craft or trade – the only means for a modicum of  upward mobility.[iii] Each member of the household worked to help sustain the family unit.

            Philosophers and theologians have contemplated the relationship of work to the human spirit – to a person’s soul – that aspect of ourselves that links physical and earthly existence to the eternal. Contemporary thinkers still struggle with this as the nature of work changes, with new social dynamics and types of work.

  Thomas Moore writes about the care of the soul in the workplace. Moore postulates the need for meaning in the workplace as necessary for a fulfilled (psychologically sustainable) life.  With work often “We only consider function, and so the soul elements are left to chance. … Where there is no artfulness about life, there is a weakening of soul…”[iv].  “Let us imagine care of the soul, then, as an application of poetics to everyday life.”[v]

Thomas Merton’s in “New Seeds of Contemplation,”[vi]  writes: “The requirements of a work to be done can be understood as the will of God. If I am supposed to hoe a garden or make a table, then I will be obeying God if I am true to the task I am performing. … He works through me. When I act as His instrument my labor cannot become an obstacle to contemplation, even though it may temporarily so occupy my mind that I cannot engage in it while I am actually doing my job. Yet my work itself will purify and pacify my mind and dispose me for contemplation.”

            In spite of these lofty esoteric religious statements, earlier religious doctrines, rules and protocols, were tailored more to ensure that the early economic engines churned – rather than in recognition of the need to satisfy human needs.[vii]  A surf’s role was but to serve his Master, eventually the King, a ruler who represented the deity and Its will.[viii]  When less sophisticated, non-Christian cultures were encountered, they were considered heathens – savages. Most viewed as less than human — beasts of burden – a tool in the world of work. Slavery was viewed as a part of the natural order.[ix]  Indentured servitude served the purposes of class and commerce.[x]

            With the dawn of the industrial revolution, enslavement evolved from a legal concept of non-compensated toil, to a concept of legalized, but minimally compensated, servitude. Most workers served not only those who owned the capital but were slaves to the impersonal machines of the workplace themselves. Monotonous, routine, tedious, physically and mentally taxing manual labor marked each day – not just the seven or eight hours which are a norm now — but 12 to 16 hour days which pushed each man to the limits of human endurance.[xi]

            Political philosophers eventually struggled with responding to these deep-seeded problems. Where a society has acknowledged the need for change, change has always been difficult to reconcile.  Slavery, indentured servitude, laissez-faire economies, had always been posited as necessary to promote the engines that would sustain the majority of the population.[xii]

            In the late 19th and early 20th century movements took shape that directly confronted  these realities.      

            In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,[xiii]  Karl Marx identified four types of alienation in labor under capitalism:

Alienation of the worker from the work he produces, from the product of his labor

Alienation of the worker from working, from the act of producing itself

Alienation of the worker from himself as a producer, from his or her “species being” or “essence as a species”.

Alienation of workers from other workers or producers”

            To bridge these gaps, Marx’s philosophy required an upheaval in the social structure that could not be tolerated in most Western cultures, particular America. Change in most political systems was gradual – except where it was implemented by force.[xiv] 

            What does the worker do while awaiting real change?   Reconciliation of a worker and his essence cannot be dependent upon the whim of politics.  Each man, or a group of men with a common identity, common enslavement, each worker, or a group of workers, motivated by the basic enduring concepts of human nature, are forced to craft interim solutions, are driven to find a way to bridge the gap, to find meaning when their work or circumstance withholds it.

            Poetry played a role in fostering personal fulfillment.[xv] Through the written and spoken word, often converted to song, the words of the poet are converted to memory – move the body and spirit – bridge the gap – promote endurance.   Poetry, in the form of the time period, was there to help an individual make it through the work day, the monotony, anxiety and pain, help a worker endure until the last lash was received or the factory whistle blew.

            Enslaved blacks and their descendants used the arts to stay rooted to a culture from which they had been ripped – to endure – until escape.  Song, dance, storytelling, helped bridged the gap between enslavement and identity – between the chains of work and freedom of spirit.

“boy, that old cracker said to me, what the hell
you doing sitting down in my shade?
I was real young and must not’ve known
any better so I said to him,
your shade bossman?…..
… you sass me one more
time, nigger,….and you see
that big limb right there over
your head?
when he pulled out this pistol …
I headed off into the wind….
I outrun the first piece
of lead….
….and that’s how I ended up
here in Detroit.”[xvi]

 an excerpt from Migration Scene (1937), by Albert Aubert.

Or the words of Philadelphia poet, Lamont Steptoe in his poem, “Day Worker” about his mother:

“….and much of her life would be spent on her knees in white folk’s kitchens…work with her back to the sun with huge windows across her thighs, feet dangling inside, hands full of damp, wet newspaper shining the thick glass…

momma…momma…after all those cold winters, after all those hot summers, after all those years of your life you gave to those white people for our sake, how can it be that you could teach us how to be gentle?…[xvii]

 And,The Women Who Clean Fish” by Erica Funkhouser:

“The women who clean fish are all named Rose
or Grace.  They wake up close to the water,
damp and dreamy beneath white sheets,
thinking of white beaches.
It is always humid where they work.
Under plastic aprons, their breasts
foam and bubble.  They wear old clothes
because the smell will never go.
On the floor, chlorine.
On the window, dry streams left by gulls…

It is the iridescent scales that stick,
clinging to cheek and wrist,
lighting up hours later in a dark room.”[xviii]
Womanhood  by Catherine Anderson:

“…When she enters,
and the millgate closes,
final as a slap,
there’ll be silence.
She’ll see fifteen high windows
cemented over to cut out light.
Inside, a constant, deafening noise
and warm air smelling of oil,
the shifts continuing on. . .
All day she’ll guide cloth along a line
of whirring needles, her arms & shoulders
rocking back & forth
with the machines–
200 porch size rugs behind her
before she can stop
to reach up, like her mother,
and pick the lint
out of her hair.”[xix]

The worker in Gary Snyder’s poem “Hay for the Horses” is bitter, when looking back on his career:

“’I’m sixty-eight’ he said,
‘I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.’”[xx]

            The poet Martín Espada said in a recent interview:[xxi] “…I think it’s important to realize that we can’t always see when poetry makes a difference…. What poetry does… is to change people from within. It changes the way we think and the way we feel. It changes hearts and minds. It creates a new way of seeing, of feeling the world, and that in turn changes the world. …… A number of people have come to me and said, “Poetry saved my life.” Many times these are people who have come from extreme circumstances, such as deep poverty or the prison system, who have struggled with drug or alcohol abuse, or a history of domestic violence, and will tell you, literally, “Poetry saved my life. I would have been dead without it.   We can see something concrete happening when, for example, prison inmates are exposed to poetry, when a poet comes to visit, or their books are donated to the prison library. That’s an epiphany for somebody out there…”

            Today, the sweat shops, the great blast furnaces, have evolved.  The worker is enslaved to the computer, impersonal communication, interactively evaluated by the very machines they operate – constantly observed by the cameras that film every step, in and out of the workplace.  We carry our work – carry our workplace – 24 hours a day, within devices that constantly keep us tethered, off the clock – but not so.

            Statistics reflect the lack of vocational happiness.[xxii]  Computers have become this generation’s machines of monotony, sapping the mind of strength, emaciating the spirit — enslaving us to the noise of electronic gadgets — intellectual dissonance. 

            In the midst of all this, what does today’s worker hang on to?  What is there to help establish equilibrium – find the center of gravity – free true nature from the work which enslaves it?   The nature of the contemporary workplace solidifies the role of today’s poet as an aide to help all vent their frustration – provide calm in a seemingly overwhelming fast paced world – bridge the gap between work and soul.

As Professor M. L. Lieber said in his anthology:[xxiii] “So, from storytelling around the backyard grill to sing-alongs in the family car to the blues, jazz, and rock music, to worker writer festivals, to slam poetry and theater by and for the working class, we can usually start to understand the very important part that art plays, and has played, in the working class throughout the twentieth century and continues now into the twenty-first century.”[xxiv]

[i]Ray McNiece:

[ii] Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul, pages 38-39

[iii] Economic development of the United States by Isaac Lippincott; D. Appleton and company, 1921 – page 79

[iv] “Care of the Soul”, Thomas Moore, HarperCollins, 1993, at page 183

[v] “Care of the Soul”, Thomas Moore, HarperCollins, 1993, at page xix

[vi] “New Seeds of Contemplation”, Thomas Merton,  New Directions Publishing, 2007 at page 19

[vii] “Sacred Trust”, Robert Burton Ekelund, Oxford University Press, US 1996, pages 171-174

[viii] Castles and fortified cities of medieval Europe: an illustrated history; Jean-Denis Lepage; McFarland 2002, page 24

[ix] Slavery from Roman times to the early transatlantic trade”, William D. Phillips, Manchester University Press ND, 1985 – page 17

[x] “Slavery and servitude in colonial North America: a short history”, Kenneth Morgan, NYU Press 2001, pages 8-13

[xi] “Marx, Durkheim, Weber: formations of modern social thought”, Kenneth L. Morrison, Sage, 2006, page 36

[xii] Property and prophets: the evolution of economic institutions and ideologies, by E. K. Hunt, M.E.Sharpe, 2003  page 129

[xiii] “The economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844”, Karl Marx, Prometheus Books, 1988

[xiv] “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels;Echo Library, 2009

[xv] “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams”, edited and Introduced by M.L. Liebler, Coffee House Press, 2010

[xvi] “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams”, poem by Albert Aubert page 17

[xvii] by Lamont Steptoe, “A Long Movie of Shadows”, (Whirlwind Press, Camden, NJ, 1994)

[xviii] by Erica Funkhouser, “The Way We Work”, edited by Peter Scheckner and M. C. Boyes, Vanderbilt University Press, 2008

[xix] by Catherine Anderson, “The Work of Hands”,  Perugia Press

[xx] From Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder, published by North Point Press. 1958

[xxii] “Job Satisfaction.” Encyclopedia of Business and Finance. Ed. Allison McClintic Marion. Gale Cengage, 2001. 2006. 4 Apr, 2011 <

[xxiii] “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams”, edited and Introduced by M.L. Liebler, Coffee House Press, 2010

[xxiv] “Working Words Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams”, edited and Introduced by M.L. Liebler, Coffee House Press, 2010, page xxiv

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2011 10:57 pm

    An excellent paper. And particularly well delivered too. Reading it here allows me to really absorb it, focus on the details, which are so aptly selected. Thank you for posting it Ray! You make a strong case for poetry’s role in “bridge[ing] the gap between work and soul.”

  2. Ray Brown permalink*
    April 11, 2011 11:50 pm

    Thank you Annmarie for reading, and for your kind words. I know how busy you are and I am appreciative that you made the time for this

  3. Stan Galloway permalink
    April 12, 2011 11:23 am

    Ray, what a thoughtful and well-reasoned piece. I’m glad you put it here, since I missed it in person. And here I can come back and savor and ponder as time allows between the work that has to be done. Thanks so much.

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