Saturday, April 20, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 20: “Emergency Haying” by Hayden Carruth

Read “Emergency Haying” on the Poetry Foundation site here.

This is one of my all-time favorite poems, easily in the top 10. Maybe the top 5. I go back and read this several times a year, and it hooks me in every time. Every stanza, every line, is doing something fascinating.

I’m noticing a theme emerging in this monthlong gathering of favorite poems: I love poems about work*. I love poems written by people who have actually done the work. And I love the honesty of this poem, the acknowledgment that this speaker doesn’t do this work for a living—he’s just helping a neighbor—which makes the images of the physical hardship especially vivid; my hands actually sting when I read this poem.

The religious images, honestly, go right by me. And I know, that’s sad; they’re probably the heart of this poem, so who knows what I’m missing. But let’s just say the Bible is my worst category on Jeopardy!, along with British monarchs and Roman numerals. So I have to set aside the Jesus imagery for someone to explain who is more schooled in it. I’m all about the work itself, and the slightly hallucinatory exhaustion afterward, because I’ve done that, I remember that; I worked so hard (ranch hand, long ago) and got so dirty that the bathwater hurt at the end of the day and literally ran like mud down the drain.

And then Carruth takes us back into the history of field work, of forced labor and slavery, and his images are still raw and immediate—everything that happens to those hands! And by the end, there’s his defiance, a sort of punch-drunk triumph, a strength (even momentary) in being the person who does the work, one of those who actually did the haying and the lifting, the digging and the building. There’s a little discomfort here—he’s already admitted he’s a “desk-servant, word-worker”—but any poet who can help out for a day of haying and go home and write a poem like this is also doing great work.

* Recently I was talking with the poet Tim Applegate, who has written a lot about work that he used to do, which was wood refinishing for hotels and cruise ships—a fascinating topic that you should ask him about if you ever meet him. (See his book Blueprints here.) I mentioned that I rarely see books entirely devoted to the poetry of work, and he said (rightly so) that most “work” poems are about manual labor. We talked about how tactile and kinetic physical work is as opposed to, say, desk work. So I get extra excited about poems that are about the kind of work I do these days, which basically amounts to sitting in a chair and making little clicky-click noises on a keyboard all day (which weirds me out sometimes). Memorably, Stephanie Lenox, whose work is always witty and unexpected, won the 2015 Colorado Prize for Poetry for her book about office work, The Business.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

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