office. poetry.

People don’t often write poems about offices, places of white-collar business and the ordinary business activities that take place in them. Just as one example, I don’t think Wallace Stevens wrote a single poem about the insurance industry, in which he made all the money that enabled him to be a poet (please correct me if I’m wrong because I’d love to read that poem), but he wrote plenty of poems about blackbirds and rabbits and harmoniums and snowmen and the glass knobs on deal dressers. They were ridiculously good poems too, but, I query skeptically, was there not a single word that could be said poetically in the Stevensian manner about underwriters or risk adjustment? Hmmm, I answer myself, and how about you, do you write poems about the medical software industry, the sector of the economy that is supporting your poetic habit (admittedly on a far less grand scale than Stevens’s)? I do not, I admit to myself. But don’t think I haven’t tried.

In theory nothing should lie outside the purview of poetry but in practice, instructions for the proper configuration of the software your doctor uses to record your cholesterol levels and take notes on your gall bladder attacks seem to be pretty unpoetizable. (That’s a word now.) Frankly I find this state of affairs frustrating and embarrassing. Real poets, I think, should be able to make a poem of a conference room full of earnest young software company employees discussing the new install methodology. Real poets are apparently not me, Wallace Stevens, or any other poet I’ve ever heard of.*

There are certainly plenty of blue-collar poets, like the late great Philip Levine of the late great Detroit, and maybe this is because blue-collar work is concrete and describable in a way that white-collar work is not–you can write about blue-collar work using words like rust and grease and steel and dirt and bulldozer and incinerator and all kinds of other vivid, solid, vigorous English words, the kind that poems need to breathe freely. White-collar work, especially these days, takes place physically in clean, smooth, antiseptic offices, and mentally largely inside the tidily closed metal boxes in which we organize, express, and communicate our thoughts. There’s hardly even any paper left, as there would have been in Stevens’s day, meaning no concrete things like ledger books, no inkwells, no blotters, no letter openers because no letters. I have no problem keeping my desk at work tidy and rust-, grease-, and dirt-free because the only thing on it is a computer. And two giant monitors, though I often wish I had three, so I could see more of what I was thinking at one time. And also a telephone, but I don’t use it very often. It’s easier to send email.

So the physical environment of office workers is somewhat impoverished, for poetic purposes. Still I think it’s a failure of our imagination, not to be able to write poems about it. Is it just because it’s all so new and we have no models for it that it’s so difficult to figure out how to write poems about sitting in a climate-controlled box in front of a computer thinking and writing about things that happen inside other computers? Or is there something inherently unpoetic about doing these things? And if we don’t write those poems, do we risk giving the impression that there’s something wrong with what we’re doing, or that it isn’t an important part of our lives? I don’t think either of those things is true but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the fact that it’s so hard to write poetry about means that there’s something wrong with it or that it isn’t an important part of my life, not at the deepest level of me. Or maybe I should just give up and write prose if I need to convey some information about what’s going on at the office these days.

I’m still staring
at the error message

*In case I was just ignorant of a vast trove of stellar office poetry I did a little search over at the Poetry Foundation for poems containing the word “office” and after sifting through the results for a while came up with a couple that could arguably be considered white-collar poetry, although they’re older poems and neither of them reflect the kind of highly computerized office environment I work in. But they’re pretty great. Enjoy.

To My Father’s Business, by Kenneth Koch
My Office, by Lorenzo Thomas

10 thoughts on “office. poetry.

  1. If you granted Desth of a Salesman status as a dramatic poem, you might add that to your bag. Work in the post-industrial world has lost the heroic element that sustained it as a poetic subject throughout history. There are lots of haiku, however, about the modern workplace. In fact the form seems very adaptable to that environment. One of its virtues and a good subject for an essay if someone wants to write it.

      • I may be interpreting ‘office’ a little more broadly than you. I’m thinking of the modern office building environment in its broadest dimensions as an aspect of urban living. So this could include my visit to the doctor or dentist or psychologist, my experience, as in a haiku by David Cobb, of seeing myself from the back in an office building video monitor going away from myself, Ed Markowski’s haiku about the dead body of an auto worker falling off the end of an assembly line conveyor belt as final product, or the famous one by Jack Kain about the door of the empty elevator which opens then closes. Anxiety, emptiness or feelings of loss seem to be the most common themes of such haiku, reflecting perhaps the isolating and alienating aspects of our experiences in these places. I don’t think we can ever expect to read many haiku that repay reading about the exhilarating aspects of writing code or attending a cell phone sales meeting. There was a professor of chemistry at Stanford who made writing haiku about the nature of chemical experimentation and observing chemical reactions a mandatory part of his courses, but I don’t think they ever went mainstream, for good reason. So I think haiku can extract something from the modern office experience, but not much that’s very positive. My favorite from my own stuff is this:

        mingled with the snowflakes
        falling on Wall Street
        begging letter bits


        • Yes, although I do like all the poems you mention and think they’re valuable commentaries on modern life I think I’m trying to get at something more specific here–can we, and do we want to, describe our physical environments and our subjective experiences as workers in the technological economy? You seem to just suggest that no, these are not worth writing poetry about, but I don’t really understand why. I don’t actually find my life at work inherently emotionally or spiritually impoverished, I like the work and find it valuable, I work in a pleasant, sunny semi-private office and not a sea of gray cubicles, my co-workers are intelligent and interesting people…I actually find the business world fascinating, especially since the industry I work in is at the heart of some really important changes in the American and global economy. I imagine that if I could write novels I could write quite an interesting novel about it. So why can’t I write poetry about it? I mean literally why can’t I, not why shouldn’t I. It’s a serious question. Why is it so hard? It’s not a less important part of my life than a lot of other things I write about all the time. Maybe there’s some obvious reason why this subject matter is not suitable to poetry, I just can’t figure out why.

      • Maybe we should think in terms of senryu at the office. Here’s my latest:

        a Calgary oil exec
        with compelling numbers to share
        eight inches

        I’m from Calgary and number several old friends among the petroleum office workers in that town. Probably all retired now, but I’m certain they would enjoy the crude oil oozing from this one. Of course, Calgary is also the new driving force in the faltering Canadian petro-economy, which gives this one an added resonance. For the haiku poet, the office means money and money means ethical debate, a very productive theme, I think, for senryu.


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