What Work Is: What Labor Day, the Poet Laureate, Ballet, Mountain Biking, and the Philosopher Horace have in Common

Have I missed Labor Day? Where did you go, oh amazing national day off?

Well, perhaps I needed to have already experienced Labor Day 2011 in order to begin contemplating the meaning of Labor Day, and the idea of labor, and how it relates to the work of writing, the work of our daily lives. And, for me, the sometimes arduous slog of riding a mountain bike. (Sorry if that seems like a stretch. But I love mountain biking.)

The work of riding up a mountain is simple, focused, and monomaniacal. (I love that word—monomaniacal. I think I first heard it in relation to Moby Dick. Alas, call me Digressional.) You point the front wheel up the trail and you pedal. A thousand times. A thousand thousand times. And eventually you make it—if you don’t quit. Sometimes you think about each pedal stroke, sometimes not. Sometimes you think about the top of the mountain, about Gatorade, about DQ peanut buster parfaits and Buffalo wings and cold beer. Sometimes you think about the pain in your knees, the creak in your ankles, the stabbing sensation in your back.

Sometimes you think about nothing at all, and you listen: To your huffing breath. To the crunch of dirt under your tires. To the wind in the trees.

The metaphor of riding as writing is simple. Pedal strokes are words. The mountaintop is a completed draft. The trail is the line, narrative, poetic (yes, it is easy to get lost). The pain is not physical, but more sinister, an uneasiness—anxiety about lack of talent, boringness, poor word choice. Confusion. But the mountain biking metaphor is instructive: Keep pedaling and eventually you’ll make it to the top, and then back down again. Keep riding, keep writing and eventually those scary switchbacks can be accomplished without fear, without self-consciousness.

That is the power in work. Do it often enough, do it monomaniacally, and you’ll get better. You learn to endure. (Which, sheepishly, reminds me of a poem I wrote, for the full-length ballet/collaboration with Ballet Nouveau Colorado, which opens next weekend. In this, the father—a water meter reader, chides his son for running away, which to the dad, is a form of giving up. But you can never run away from work.)

Just endure. This can be true for any endeavor that requires work, hard work.

* * *

I was so happy to recently hear that Philip Levine was chosen as U.S. Poet Laureate a few weeks ago. I’ve always admired his work—his celebration of all that is blue-collar and practical, and yes, even pissed off.

When I first heard a recording of Levine reading his famous poem, “What Work Is,” I was completely blown away because I had never considered the idea that a poem could be furious—that a poet, when reading, could actually sneer. Hear it for yourself—and pay close attention to how he recites, “Forget you” which suddenly sounds a lot like “F*ck you.”

Yes, work takes all shapes and forms and often it requires little or no sweat, but it’s still hard to do. Sometimes love is the hardest work of all.

Which brings me back to the water meter dad, but it also connects in my brain to another poem, by Thomas Lux, who says that the philosopher Horace believed that hard work always—always—leads to good things. And thus his poem “An Horation Notion,” one of my all-time faves, which I love for how he relates work to art. Yes, art is repetitive and sometimes it is boring repetition. And while it’s hard, it’s also so easy. Because you love to do it, and because someone else loved it enough to teach you how to do it.

–MJH

P.S. And this extra food for thought, just out today in the Daily Rumpus e-blast, from Stephen Elliott, he of The Rumpus and The Adderall Diaries:

Ultimately, and this is an idea I got from Matthew Zapruder, I don’t think poetry should be fit into the confines of capitalism. I think poets should spend a lot of time lying on their backs, contemplating the clouds. People that think hard work is the highest virtue aren’t going to put much of a premium on that but we don’t need to prove anything to those people. The work will speak for itself, will speak to people, or it won’t. The hard work that went into it is an irrelevancy. Calling poetry hard work is capitulating, surrendering to someone else’s ideals. The art exists outside of the effort, is more often borne from suffering than labor. And still, it doesn’t count. Many people have told me they can’t write a memoir because they haven’t had an interesting, or hard enough life. But if that was true than the best memoirs would be written by the people with the hardest lives. There’s no correlation.

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