Sep. 4, 2006

To Be Of Use

by Marge Piercy

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "To be of use" by Marge Piercy from Circles on the Water. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

To be of use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Labor Day. The first Labor Day was celebrated one hundred and twenty-four years ago, on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. The holiday was the idea of the Central Labor Union in New York City, which organized a parade and a picnic featuring speeches by union leaders. It was intended to celebrate labor unions and to recognize the achievements of the American worker.

On that first Labor Day, twenty thousand workers crowded the streets in a parade up Broadway. They carried banners that said, "Labor creates all wealth," and "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation!" After the parade, people held picnics all over the city. They ate Irish stew, homemade bread, and apple pie. When it got dark, fireworks went off over the skyline. The celebrations became more popular across the country in the next ten years. In 1894, Congress made Labor Day a national holiday.

Today, for most Americans, Labor Day marks the end of summer and the last day before the start of the school year.

It was on this day in 1886 that Geronimo, the last major Native American military leader to fight against the U.S., surrendered in Arizona. Geronimo wasn't ever officially a chief. He was a medicine man. But after his mother, wife, and children were killed by Mexican troops, he joined leading raiding parties, attacking Mexican and American settlers in the Southwest.

By the early 1880s, the Apaches had largely been defeated by American troops. Their chief, Cochise, was dead, and the U.S. government forced them to live on a barren reservation in San Carlos, Arizona. As a last-ditch effort, Geronimo organized a group of warriors to fight one last war of resistance. He fought for five years, and many military historians believe he was one of the most brilliant guerilla warfare strategists in history.

For the final five months, Geronimo led a band of only thirty-seven men, pursued by five thousand soldiers, one quarter of the entire U.S. military. Geronimo kept eluding capture. His men left no footprints because they walked only on rocks.

But Geronimo and his men finally got tired of living in the mountains, and so they surrendered on this day in 1886 to General Nelson Miles in a place called Skeleton Canyon.

Geronimo was essentially a prisoner of war for the rest of his life, but he became something of a celebrity. He made a living by selling the buttons off his jacket and autographed photos of himself, and he appeared at an exhibit at the St Louis World's Fair in 1904. He never saw Arizona again. Much of the land that he fought the Americans for remains uninhabited today.

It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Wright, (books by this author) born in Roxie, Mississippi (1908). He's the author of Native Son (1940), the first best-selling novel by an African-American writer. It tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who gets hired by his slum lord, Mr. Dalton, to work as a chauffeur. Bigger catches the eye of Mr. Dalton's freethinking daughter Mary, but when he takes Mary out on the town, she gets so drunk that he has to carry her home. He helps her into bed, but when she begins to make noise, he is terrified that he'll be caught with her, so he covers her mouth with a pillow, and accidentally smothers her to death. He tries to cover up the murder by burning Mary's body in the furnace, but after fleeing police he is eventually caught and put on trial for murder and sentenced to death.

While working on the book, Wright told friends that he didn't think it would ever be published. But once he toned down some of the more explicitly sexual scenes from the novel, it became a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection and sold 215,000 copies in three weeks.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show