Poems about Work and Money
PostedDecember 23, 2004
Without the benefit of wealthy patrons, most poets these days must be gainfully employed. And even though remembering to pay the mortgage or sitting down to the daily grind hardly seems a catalyst for poetic inspiration, employment and money are often negotiated and explored in thoughtful, and sometimes frustrated, verses.
In John Ashbery’s poem "The Instruction Manual," the speaker is at work writing a technical manual, but gazing out the window:
As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses
of a new metal.
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an
And envy them--they are so far away from me!
Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on
For the rest of the poem, the speaker is transported away from the prosaic working world into the world of his own devising; he begins by imagining "dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!" From there, the poem spirals outward, encompassing a brilliant range of image and emotion, though the narrator has never left the office.
The worker in Gary Snyder’s poem "Hay for the Horses" is much more bitter, 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."
There is, of course, a rich tradition of poets needing, seeking, despising, loving, and refusing money and the material world. In the sixteenth century, Barnabe Googe eloquently described why an impoverished poet might put more importance on cold hard cash than on his dearest friends:
Give money me, take friendship whoso list,
For friends are gone, come once adversity,
When money yet remaineth safe in chest,
That quickly can thee bring from misery;
Fair face show friends when riches do abound;
Come time of proof, farewell, they must away
In a kinder and less materialistic contemporary poem, "Leave New York," Joshua Beckman writes about the seductive material lure of New York City, turning away from everything he would like to buy, refusing even to spend his money on books of poetry:
Do not spend $1.00 on two scallion pancakes.
Do not hail a ten dollar cab to blow off steam
and smoke his back seat up
and watch the meter jump by quarters.
Do not spend $7.50 on AXE HANDLES by Gary Snyder
Do not spend $35.00 on the collected anyone.
An important sub-category of the work poem is poetry written by women about the sometimes servile and humiliating tasks associated with domestic labor or office work. For example, Rita Dove's book Thomas and Beulah, a verse cycle based on the lives of Dove's grandparents, deals in part with the work of the home--dusting, washing, cleaning, cooking. And poets such as Sylvia Plath and Marge Piercy have written about working in male-dominated offices. The speaker in Piercy's poem "The Secretary Chant," for example, has come to be defined so much by her job that she reimagines her own body is made of her job's constituent parts:
My hips are a desk.
From my ears hang
chains of paper clips.
Rubber bands form my hair.
My breasts are wells of mimeograph ink.
My feet bear casters.
Here are some meditations on work and money:
"Blues" by Elizabeth Alexander
"The Instruction Manual" by John Ashbery
"Leave New York" by Joshua Beckman
"The Executive" by John Betjeman
"Work Without Hope" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove
"On Money" by Barnabe Googe
"Seams" by Hazel Hall
"Po’ Boy Blues" by Langston Hughes
"Coming Close" by Philip Levine
"The Village Blacksmith" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Black Nikes" by Harryette Mullen
"The Wasted Day" by Robert F. Murray
"A Step Away From Them" by Frank O’Hara
"Five Poems" by Frank O’Hara
"The Secretary Chant" by Marge Piercy
"The Applicant" by Sylvia Plath
"Hay for the Horses" by Gary Snyder
"The Telephonist" by Susan Yuzna
"Personals" by C.D. Wright