- Work upon Work
“Work is work. . . . Work is work.” So repeats the father who teaches poet Jan Beatty to dream (20).1 This poem, collected in M. L. Liebler’s 2010 volume Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams, echoes the redundant words of work spoken by parents or grandparents to its many contributing authors coming to terms with the “uniquely American stories of work, labor, and class through their poems, songs, stories, and memoirs” (xix). For editor Liebler, this is best expressed in the opening line of Ray McNiece’s poem “Grandfather’s Breath”: “You work. You work, buddy. You work” (154–55). Philip Levine’s 1992 collection What Work Is refuses to define work in its title poem. Work is always already known: his brother’s job, like that of so many fathers and grandfathers who precede him, is grueling manual labor performed in a Detroit factory:
We stand in the rain in a long linewaiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.You know what work is—if you’reold enough to read this you know whatwork is, although you may not do it.(18)
More than 2,700 years ago, the Greek farmer/poet Hesiod had already said as much in his admonition to his brother: “pile work upon work upon work” (#382). The literal Greek, however, is even starker, as the translators note: “work (imperative verb) work (object) upon work (prepositional phrase)”—work work upon work—do not stop; it never ends (Tandy and Neale 90–91). Works and Days describes the cycles of agricultural labor, its necessary tools and recurrent practices, exclaiming, “Work is no reproach: [End Page 166] idleness is a reproach” (#313), as if to convince us that while the gods can pass the time indulging in their dangerous games, mortals must take comfort in our lot as laborers. His poem describes the dangers that a precipitous plunge into debt—and the “wrangling” within the social order it inaugurates—creates for individuals and communities. As a constant worry, debt pushes work upon work, even as other precarious forces—the weather, illness, hunger—also loom as ever-present threats to solvency. Hesiod goes on to detail more than the physical labor involved in maintaining one’s oikos;2 he knows that what we now call affective labor is essential to maintaining social cohesion as well: “Care supports work” (#405). In sum, we might consider poetry—itself a form of immaterial labor, as Joe Amato reminds us in his polemic Industrial Poetics: Demo Tracks for a Mobile Culture (2006)—as profoundly concerned, since its origins in the West, with the demands of physical and mental work on the body, mind, and community.3 To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: Work is (a) work is work is (a) work.
The premise of Liebler’s collection is that something called “working-class literature,” a connection between art and labor charted through words, has a long history in the US, too.4 According to the editor, despite encompassing such canonical authors as Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, and even Emily Dickinson in the nineteenth century, along with John Reed, Joe Hill, and the emergence of literary radicalism through musicians as diverse as Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, and Iggy Pop in the twentieth century, scholars, critics, and publishers “neglect” this rich tradition. Appearing in 2010, a few years into the Great Recession, but before Occupy Wall Street had brought the 99% into wide public discussion in September 2011, Liebler’s collection builds on the consolidation of working-class studies initiated in 1995 by the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio and even earlier, by Paul Lauter’s editorship of the Heath Anthology of American Literature in 1989. By 2007, Oxford University Press had published its monumental anthology American Working-Class Literature, edited by Nicholas Coles and Janet...