Let us begin with our general topic — work itself. Work ennobles us, bores us, captivates us, grinds us down, enables us and steals our time. It’s likely the thing we will spend the most hours of our lives doing (apart from sleeping). It is central to our self-image. It feeds us, and it consumes the time we might use to find other ways to feed ourselves. We love it and hate it, wake up with it on our minds, will do nearly anything to get it off our minds. It is a constant in our lives, and an absence. Let us consider, then, the work we make of work:
Several of you played with the concept that work never ends:
busy days rush on from each other a thought [Julia Clark]
Is the self-awareness of the third line self-admonishing? Or is it a step outside the realm itself?
Some attested that work recognizes no authority:
I am the boss I come home I change the diaper [Evan Flaschen]
Of course we recognize the poet is laughing at his own circumstances, where his dominion in one setting has no purchase in another. But a straight reading might be that it is the changing of the diaper that makes him the boss — a somewhat darker take.
And most recognized there are compensations:
the joy of work comes in a wage packet — so many positions [David Dayson]
Again, the quizzical third line opens the poem to interpretation: is this a reference to the circumstances of the many workers in the office? Or perhaps to a cast of mind that is set loose by the weekly paycheck? Or even the sexual combinations such a paycheck might produce? The words don’t quite say, which make the poem open-ended, and leave us with no certain recompense for our work in parsing.
There were a number of poems testifying to the specifics of work. This one was cleverer than most:
it’s just work — a tax inspector nails their files [David Dayson]
The neat reversal of the ultimate line puts us in mind of just the sort of devious machinations tax inspectors indulge in, while the throw-away first line means to have us believe there is nothing personal in it — just business.
My three choices this week all offer a kind of bleak despair before the seeming perpetuity of life lived in chains for the foreseeable future. This is certainly not the only possible take on work, and probably is likeliest for those of a certain age: no longer innocent and invested with energy to change the world, but decades to go yet before retirement is an option. I don’t know if such a description fits these poets, but it fits the personae of their poems.
My third choice goes to this chilling picture of depersonalization:
inside my office I cannot feel the snowflakes [Evan Flaschen]
The poet knows she is missing something, something presumably she has felt before, but the office anaesthetizes her. Is the solution as simple as stepping outside the confines of the room? We can’t say, nor can we be sure that she hasn’t been immobilized by her numbed condition.
Our second place poem presents an equally grim snapshot of the poet’s circumstances:
two screens with text and numbers forty six weeks [Julia Clark]
There is a kind of stasis to this picture, which is renewable each year in exactly the same way. Such a prospect is deadening, but there is a hint that the poet is not dead inside — there are six weeks left unaccounted for.
How do we defeat this encroaching paralysis? More work? Perhaps our only recourse short of resignation (in either sense) is that wonderful human invention, wry humor:
Sisyphus dreams of promotion — a larger rock [David Dayson]
Casting our plight in light of a famous laborer reduces the personal sting, and at the same time recognizes the mythic scale of our labors. The ironic wish for an increased load undercuts our sense of its difficulty, and at the same time notes that this is self-inflicted. We may still need to push that rock up that hill again tomorrow, but at least we’ll be clear-eyed and refreshed for the challenge. Beautifully managed, and a fine poem with which to end.
Since beginning this column in September 2014, we received thousands, and published hundreds, of haiku, senryu, short poems, adages, apophthegms, epigrams, monostiches and the like. We hopefully learned some of the differences between them, and some of the approaches and techniques that might improve the ones we write. Most of all, we shared poetry, which is a very great thing in a world that does not reward such enterprise. We often think in poetic terms, but there is little cultural incentive to note it, or write it down, or find a way to give it to others. So the task devolves upon us, and for its own sake. I was privileged to do this work for the 18 months this series ran, and hope that it was only the beginning of an evolving practice for us all. Writing, too, is work, and like all the work we undertake, it has its costs and its rewards. If you invest in your writing, and give it to others, you will be rewarded many times over, and in ways you cannot possibly foresee. It is these rewards of community and connection that to my mind far outweigh any monetary compensation we might receive. I wish you continued inspiration, and good writing, the best of work.
Snow melting in March . . . my mother's new smile — Ellen Grace Olinger, Time Of Singing 30.1 (Spring 2003) In addition to honoring my mother, this haiku is for the caregivers, and all who help us be well. * oh, my mother . . . all her life laying eggs this queen ant — Ernesto Santiago * work what better way to spend it — Michael Henry Lee * pressing tasks — she begins to write a haiku instead — Marion Clarke * snowdrifts . . . quitting my job to write paper piled before me — Charlotte Digregorio, Cicada 22 (1996) * board meeting... few zigzag lines in each notepad — Aparna Pathak * last days: how his uncle used to test cotton bolls round & round his palm — Sheila K. Barksdale * here on the fourth floor the vending machine works harder than I do — David Jacobs, The Iron Book of Haiku (Iron Press, 1998) * another Monday hot clouds of coffee at every desk — Rachel Sutcliffe * autumn rain – in the teachers’ room so much silence — Maria Laura Valente * sunday cleaning together with rubbish goes an old broom — Nikolay Grankin * the job what i am not who i am cog in the machine honeybee slow meeting sneaking in a haiku — Christina Sng * whole work day! on my lawn far and wide molehills — Marta Chocilowska * winter blues... a customer mocks my accent — Samantha Sirimanne Hyde * only so many hours with a necktie . . . cherry blossoms — Tom Sacramona * summer school one learnt foreign word for each dive — Vessislava Savova * weekly powerball one number from never working again — Ron Scully * lunch break finding food too hard to swallow — Srinivasa Rao Sambangi * night sky on the office window I face my face — Debbi Antebi * rain-streaked windows a day filled with pivot tables — Deborah P Kolodji * suicide he said no one would care standing room only — Bruce H. Feingold * working from home the project counted in pajama hours — Lori Zajkowski *
Next Week’s Theme: The Boss
Send your poem using “workplace haiku” as the subject by Sunday midnight to our Contact Form. Good luck!
From October 2014 through April 2016 Haiku Foundation president Jim Kacian offered a column on haiku for the London Financial Times centered on the theme of work. Each week we share these columns with the haiku community at large, along with an invitation to join in the fun. Submit a poem by Sunday midnight on the theme of the week, from the classical Japanese tradition, or contemporary practice, or perhaps one of your own, which you might even write for the occasion. The best of these will be appended to the column. First published 2 October 2014, edited 26 October 2016.