To Be of Use (Day 51)

(photo credit: Man helping his wife by Curtis Morton on

Occasionally, I borrow books of poetry from the library. Recently, I chose the collected works of Marge Piercy, having a faint memory of being inspired by some of her poems when I was in college.

I flipped through the pages, laNded on a poem and read it. The next day, more flipping, another landing, and I read some more. I discovered fairly quickly that Ms. Piercy’s work still resonates with me, almost 30 years later.

The only thing better than finding a poem that perfectly articulates something I’ve been thinking about is to discover that somebody whose work I admire had a similar response to the same poem. In Parker Palmer’s April 8th blog post on the “On Being” blog (link here), he tells a charming story that illustrates the human instinct and desire to be useful in the world. He ends his story with this poem by Marge Piercy, which I’d copied down into my journal a few weeks ago, after reading it in the collection from the library.

I’d love to know if the poem (and Parker Palmer’s story, which can be found in the short blog post, linked here) also resonates with you.

To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy

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.


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6 thoughts on “To Be of Use (Day 51)

  1. That’s a nice poem. I actually haven’t read much poetry beyond what the English classes I’ve taken in the past required, but every once in a while I think about checking some out.

    1. Because poetry isn’t talked about the way novels are, it is hard to know who to read. Especially since what we read in English class isn’t indicative of the breadth of poetry that is out there. I hope to include poems that move me in future posts for just that reason. Maybe if somebody likes one that I post, they’ll take out a book of poems by that person and be inspired.

  2. I do not read a lot of poetry but some poems I just love for the rhythm of the words. One of my favourite poems is The Country by Billy Collins.

    Plus I happen to like some of the crazy Haikus that Mike comes up with!

  3. I love this poem. My last boss used to recite it from time to time and it always resonated with me. It made the realities of the 2008 financial crisis come into stark relief-the human need for purpose and to be purposeful. What to do when your usefulness, and perhaps identity, disappear from right under you? Nice to see it here.

So what do you think?