Labor Day Poetry

Work is the American right of passage, and is as apt a poetic subject as love, death, or nature. Work affects all other subjects in our lives. Historically, it’s been difficult to find poetry about work, but these lives are important and deserve a voice in our community. On this Labor Day, we’ve put together some poets who are writing about the job for you to enjoy.


by Tom Wayman in Money and Rain: Tom Wayman Live

“By four o’clock the body is tired/ and even more surly. It will hardly speak to me/ as I drive home. I bathe it, let it lounge around./ After supper it regains some of its good spirits.”

Tom Wayman, in the 70s and 80s, was arguably one of the first poets to popularize writing about work. He’s been writing about work and people who work for the decades since, even founding an industrial union in Vancouver. Tom Wayman proves that poetry about work has been ahead of the curve in engaging the reader’s body—so much labor involves paying attention to what the body is doing.

“On the Roof with Death”

by Kate Braid in Rough Ground Revisited

“When sawdust rolls like marbles under our boots/ on the newly sheathed roof three storeys up/ we talk of falling.”

Kate Braid says she began accidentally, writing poetry because there usually weren’t any women to talk to on the job. For 15 years she worked as a carpenter, with a love of concrete buildings. Her poetry is all jobsite, all construction, all power tools and concrete bricks and fitting in.

“Coal Deliveryman”

By Ramón Cote Barabibar in Poetry
Translated by Craig Arnold

“As impossible as all these, as melancholy and lonely, would it be to find, fifteen years later, the same coal    deliveryman carrying on his trade, bent from the strain”

This prose poem translated from Spanish contemplates the sacking-wrapped man with the job of delivering coal. Arnold has done an excellent job of delivering his own load from the original Spanish: the melancholy, the wish for lost time, the green truck, the man, his orange crate.

“Factory Love”

by Jim Daniels in Poets & Writers

“Machine, I come to you 800 times a day// like a crazy monkey lover:/ in and out, in and out, in and out.”

Witty and metallic, “Factory Love” is for all of us who’ve spent hours under the hood or pressed up against levers and dials. Humor, this poem says, is how one day gets to the next. Jim Daniels has been a forceful advocate for poetry about work for his entire career, and you can read more of his great work here.

“The Telephonist”

by Susan Yuzna in

“I will stand at the center of a room/  and watch the damn thing ring its little head off,/ and I will grin, quite stupidly, at its/  helplessness.”

“The Telephonist” brims with dark humor and a wry vision of work. Characters and scenes and stories texture the poem, and the room of telphone switchboards becomes is the double of our own office, factory floor, garage.

“The Condition of the World, August 1997”

by Cortney Davis in Leopold’s Maneuvers

“Once, a surgeon let me place my two gloved hands/ against a dying man’s heart. The heart, slightly tipped,// lub dubbed like a fetal kitten in a red silk sack.”

Corney Davis has been a working nurse for decades, and she’s written books of poems about her job in the uniform. This poem tenses on the thin line between quiet frustration and daily awe. When you’re breaking open human bodies day after day, how can you not write poetry?

From “Saying Grace”

by Kevin Young in Poetry

“September meant picking/ & half-days at Springfield, us colored// grades let off at noon to pick/ the valuable white till/ nightfall.”

This moving poem, in understated tercets, reminds us how work transcends boundaries, histories, identities. We see the bearded rows of cotton, the “white king,” line the young life of a black child in the post-Confederate South. Calluses, Kevin Young says, know all hands.

“The Instruction Manual”

by John Ashbery in Poetry

“And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk and leaning out of the window a little,/ Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!”

We had to include a beautiful Ashbery piece today. Rest in peace John.

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