Mowing, and the Meaning of Work

This Monday is American Labor Day, so here’s a poem about work from Robert Frost: “Mowing.”   Like a lot of Frost’s early poetry it’s an example of words that want to sing, and so I’ll sing them today. Also like a lot of Frost’s best poetry it seems simpler than it means. It doesn’t scare the reader or listener away with its surface, but if you really stop to ask why it says exactly what it says, a more complex and subtle work emerges. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem if you want to follow along.

The Scythers by NC Wyeth

That about scythe’s it up. NC Wyeth’s “The Scythers”

 

On first reading this poem is a description of mundane work, mowing a field with the time-honored hand tool: the scythe. How old is that tool? It goes back to the pre-historic days of agriculture, to the making of the first blades for that, and then for the battles over that. It was still in use in Frost’s youth, in the late 19th century. And in the house I grew up in, in the mid-20th century in Iowa, in the crook of a tree in the big back yard there was a scythe caught there, high above my head, stored, captured, put away until it seemed as natural as any other part of the tree.

So, the poet or his speaker counterpart is mowing with a scythe. And since that poet is Frost, we get sound imagery regarding that work. The Imagists contemporary with Frost didn’t require their images be visual, but as a practice they strongly preferred them to be. Frost, on the other hand was the audio guy, not the word painter. The scythe as it swings and cuts, punningly sighs, but Frost has it as a whisper. About this, the poet is curious: if it’s whispering, what’s the scythe (and by extension, the work the man and tool are doing) saying?


The maker of this video on Frost’s poem demonstrates the sound

 

Frost’s poet says he doesn’t know. Interestingly he speculates it might be talking about the heat of the workday, and the phrase he uses “The heat of the sun” may well be reminding him of a poem from Shakespeare we recently featured here: “Fear No More.”   Shakespeare’s poem and the connection with the scythe has with the “grim reaper” brings in an overtone of death.

And then he speculates it may be about why  it’s whispering, why it’s not speaking something out-loud and plain.

Next the poem moves on to the realness of work inherited from its physicality. It’s not a dream or imagination without consequence. And it’s not some fairy story. Gussying it up with such trappings or comparing it to mental work with no embodiment would be enervating it. The poet instead calls this work “earnest love.*” This isn’t some secret crush, even with the whispers and all, this is actually sweaty stuff.

Frost then drops one of his better-known mottos: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” That line is end-stopped with a period, and set off that way it’s a statement that real work on real things is superior to mere fancy. But this is Labor Day, so I performed it as if there’s a colon after “The fact is” and that its meaning carries on through the period and into the last line. The sweet dream then is the scythe whispering and the concluding matter of the hay.

What is the scythe whispering?

Because after all, there’s an unanswered question from the poems opening. What is the scythe whispering? It’s something intimate it wants to say, that good work  says, but doesn’t say. It says it is—paid or unpaid, self-employed or employed, the labor of a poet or of a farmer, done grudgingly or with joy, appreciated or overlooked—it says it is done with love. Not the magic love, not the imagined love. The earnest love.

Happy Labor Day to the readers and listeners here. Wishing you good work and earnest love.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “Mowing”  is below.

 

 

 

 

*This section of the poem, lines 10 through 12 in this unusual sonnet, is the most mysterious. I had to perform it before I could figure it out. There may be an overtone here (something that English folksong often made a practice of) of farm work being used as a metaphor for sexual lovemaking. There are snakes, flowers, and then named flowers that are “orchises” which are a genus of flowering plants and also etymologically testicles. Frost made a choice for what flowers he names, and his poet/scyther could have scared off a field mouse or chipmunk not a snake.

On the other hand, he may be just saying that like all artists his work will fail, some flowers get scythed. And the snake could be a Garden of Eden thing.

Or the flowers and snakes may be the beauty and the evil of what we do, that the Grim Reaper scythe will cut off.

Smoke and Steel

Today is May Day, the international labor day, so I spent it working, looking through poetry books for something about our lives of work. There’s less there than there should be I think, the world of work somehow not seeming as poetic as human love and desire or as sublime as the observation of nature and things of the spirit without any human sweat in it.

This lack leads me to admire poets who address this imbalance. And the first one that came to my mind turned out to be the one I ended up using today: Carl Sandburg. That Sandburg might come to mind for others too as a poet of labor probably didn’t help his reputation at the start of our current century. He doesn’t come by that classification lightly, having had a career as an itinerate worker and labor organizer before he began as a poet, and even while he was publishing groundbreaking works of early American Modernist poetry like his Chicago Poems  in 1917, he had a second, less well-known life as a Socialist radical.

Carl Sandburg at work

Carl clocking in in his later years when his day job was goat farmer

 

Somehow Sandburg survived both the post WWI and post WWII red scares without great harm to his reputation, but by late in the 20th century there was less interest in Modernists who wanted to write about work and labor issues. The bohemian fringe more or less looked at straight work as an unfortunate event*, and the academic establishment was more interested in aesthetic rigor and the ability to carry lightly evidence of a full-fledged college education for its poets.

Proletarian writing had been done already. Time to move on.

As I keep reminding you and myself, our current century is now old enough to vote, it’s approaching adulthood. It might want to re-evaluate those judgements the old century made about its youthful innovators.

So, for today, May Day, I took the opening to Sandburg’s longer poem that gave its name to his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel and turned it into a labor hymn. “By this sign all smokes know each other.”

The player gadget to hear it is below. If you want to read the whole poem, or just read along to the opening section I used, the full text is here.

 

 

 

*as leading beat-generation scholar and theorist, Maynard G. Krebs put it in his famous essay “On Work, An Existential Examination” “Work!?”

The Temple of Summer

I spent Saturday riding my bicycle on the Mesabi Trail and visiting Hibbing, the Minnesota Iron Range hometown where Bob Dylan grew up non-ferrous.

To the visitor, the landscape there has a strangeness. Since the late 19th Century, open pit iron mining has been the industry of the region. An open pit mine is not the kind of underground tunneling and mole-dark pick-axe work you might visualize when you hear the word “mine.” Instead it is the removal of cubic miles of earth with explosives and huge shovels, work my wife describes as “making your own Grand Canyon.” The iron gives exposed rock and dirt a Martian red hue, and this colossal earthwork of generations of open pit mines has added extra hills, ridges, gorges, and small lakes. Though trees and brush eventually regrow and give these acts of men something of the appearance of nature, some hills retain the terraces where the trucks drove, giant Northern ziggurats or Mayan temples, now sprouted with pines—the Hanging Gardens of Bob Dylan.

postcard mesabi iron range

“Making your own Grand Canyon”

 

Since Bob Dylan grew up here, the strangeness of this landscape may not have impressed him in his youth, but an adulthood away might have eventually revealed its uniqueness. It is a singular place on a Labor Day weekend where one can see the mark of daily labor sculpted in a giant tableau.

How many of us can say the same for our labors? Children are raised, daily cares are met, that meeting makes a decision, a sick person is comforted and will live another couple of decades, the number of widgets on the planet increases infinitesimally, a project that will impact things for a few years is completed. In contrast, in the land around Hibbing, Virginia, and Mountain Iron, vistas are forever altered to mark a work life.

Virginia MN Bridge view

A view from the highest bridge in Minnesota spanning part of a no longer active open pit mine now filled with water outside the town of Virginia. The landscape you are viewing is man-made, not a natural feature.

 

An artist’s work, for all the literary pretentions to immortality, is at least as ephemeral as other work. The work is finished, and the earth has not changed its face. The work is read, seen, heard by its handful, and it melds at best into a memory in some part of those.

So, punch a clock or not, these are the same jobs, the same work. The poem, the performance, the painting, no less, no more, the product effort of applied human energy as any other work.

Occasionally, someone gets to be a Bob Dylan, and the vistas change. Leonard Cohen said that giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain. I stood next to my bike on the state’s highest bridge spanning a man-made gorge and thought, maybe somehow, even subconsciously, this landscape gave Bob the idea.

Iron Range Truck

“Cruising down the highway in a Greyhound bus/All kinds of children they was hollerin’ at us…”

 

Today’s audio piece will not remind you of the Bard of Hibbing, as it is a fuzzy epitaph using Mellotron instead of giant earth-moving trucks to get its rocks off me. Here’s wishing all Parlando Project listeners a lanquid fall into the fluffiest possible snowbank. As you exit the Temple of Summer, listening to the music using the player below, I remind you that the Parlando Project appreciates your attention, but still needs listeners and readers. If you can, let others know what we’re doing here, and if you’re new to us, you may want to check out our archives with 250 other audio pieces combining various words with original music.

The School Year Begins

Tomorrow many US schools begin their school year, so here’s an audio piece about a child going through that first week back in school after what seemed to be an infinite summer.

The schools in Iowa, where I grew up, began a week earlier than the “day after Labor Day” start that is more common elsewhere in the US. I’m not sure why. Maybe farms needed kids more in the spring to summer transition weeks than in the summer to fall interval. Maybe it was an advance allowance for the inevitable “snow days” that would cancel school during the winter, days that if made up in the spring would move the end of the school year into June. Maybe it was, in some way, a gesture to say Iowans cared more about getting down to education than slacking neighbor states.

All I know is that as a kid I thought this terribly unfair. A whole week! My cousins in Minnesota got a whole week more of summer! That next week was always going to be the best week of summer, the one that you got to do whatever you hadn’t done, or done enough of, during the rest of the summer vacation.

Now my son goes to school, and the school yard the kids are walking across to get to the first day of school is like my schoolyard was. Maybe all schoolyards are like this. The grass is still a little beaten down from every independent path the kids have taken too and from, still worn from every recess outside last spring.

To hear the spoken word/music piece “The School Year Begins” as performed by the LYL Band, click on the gadget below this.