Essay

Workin’ It

By January 14, 2015 No Comments

typewriter-keys

At least one corner of the internet (so it must be true!) proclaimed yesterday, January 13th, National Poetry at Work Day.  [NB: This is not to be confused with Take Your Poet to Work Day, which appears to be scheduled for July 16.  Mark your calendars now.]  The idea is to celebrate by reading poetry at work, but also to discover the “poetry” already in the work world.  And of course, some of the best poets had day jobs, too (T.S. Eliot in his bank, Wallace Stevens at the insurance company, William Carlos Williams and his medical practice, and the list goes on).

Now as an English professor, poetry at work is no big thing, obviously.  But still, I’m never one to shirk my responsibilities to a literary holiday (there are so few of them, after all). And attentiveness to the holy in the ordinary, in this case particularly in the work to which we are called, seems mighty Reformed to me.  The gorgeous Psalm 104, for example, chronicles a God for whom work (and working mightily–in a range of metaphorical professions) is a central aspect of God’s identity–and central for God’s people as well (verse 23).  I commend that psalm for your reading this week.

Here are two of my favorite “work” poems: Jane Kenyon’s “Finding a Long Gray Hair” and George Herbert’s “The Windows.” One shows us the way work connects us to each other; the other explains how essential it is for God to be connected to our work.

Finding a Long Gray Hair

by Jane Kenyon

I scrub the long floorboards
in the kitchen, repeating
the motions of other women
who have lived in this house.
And when I find a long gray hair
floating in the pail,
I feel my life added to theirs.

The Windows

by George Herbert

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
    Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
    More reverend grows, and more doth win;
    Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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