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