poem index

Overhand the Hammers Swing: Poems of Work

Written by

Philip Levine
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Year

2005
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What follows are images of work from contemporary American poets, that is poets contemporary to me. When I say work I mean the sort of brute physical work that most of us try to avoid, but that those without particular gifts or training were often forced to adopt to make a living in a society as tough and competitive as ours. This may in fact be a species of work that is disappearing from America as more and more automation replaces the need for human hands, that is manual labor. Perhaps the most beautiful evocation of this activity I find is in Whitman's great "Song of Myself":

Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil,
Each has his main-sledge, they are all out, there is great heat in the fire.
From the conder-strew'd threshold I follow their movements,
The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms,
Overhand the hammers swing, overhand so slow, overhand so sure,
They do not hasten, each man hits in his place.

For Whitman this sort of work, which he liked to pretend he engaged in, is communal and harmonious; it is done with precision and craft, and the reader is left to assume that it brings to each man a sense of fulfillment as well as community. Over a century later another brilliant American poet finds two men engaged in similar labor--and though they should be even closer than Whitman's blacksmiths, being father and son--the blows they strike are in truth meant partly for each other:

We stood on a wooden platform
Facing each other with sledgehammers,
A copper-tipped sieve sunken into the ground
Like a spear, as we threaded on five foot
Of galvanized pipe for the pump.
As if tuned to some internal drum,
We hammered the block of oak
Placed on top for the pipe.
It began inching downward
As we traded blows--one for you,
One for me. After a half hour
We threaded on another five feet. The sweat
Gleamed on our shirtless bodies, father
& son tied to each other until we hit water.

(from "Song for My Father" by Yusef Komunyakaa)

Komunyakaa writes as a participant, one too busy or spent to notice the "sheer of their waists": perhaps if Whitman's blacksmiths had themselves written poems the overall pictures might not be so different, for they too may have felt driven by such labor deep into the self and marching "to some internal drum" or like the proud fathers of James Wright's poem, not marching at all but "ashamed to go home" where their "women cluck like starved pullets."

As we shall see in the poems that follow such work often leads to despair or worse, the human body torn to shreds like the bodies of Kenneth Patchen's orange bears, "Their paws smashed in the rolls, their backs/ seared by hot slag, their soft trusting/ bellies kicked in. . . " Patchen's vision of the nature of labor leads him to question his master, Whitman: "What did he know about/ Orange bears with their coats all stunk up with soft coal. . . "

For Whitman such work may have led to a people and a continent fulfilled, but as we see in Snyder's marvelous "Hay for the Horses," it can lead to more work and not much else or in the words of his sixty-eight-year- old bucker of hay, "I sure would hate to do this all my life/ And damnit, that's just what/ I've gone and done."