Friday, May 4, 2012


(This is the twenty-third in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken. Each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Tragic Song

All still when summer is over
stand shocks in the field.
nothing left to whisper,
not even good-bye, to the wind.

After summer was over
we knew winter would come:
we knew silence would wait,
tall, patient, calm.

And that cold this winter gray wolves
deep in the North would cry
how summer that whispered all of us
at last whispers away.

- William Stafford.

W is rife with possibilities. Just the sound of W, "whuh," puts us in the interrogative mode; at least in English, it signals the emergence of a question: whuh? whah? what? when? where? why? whence? Whether brings us to weather and thus to wind, to winter, to Stafford's ominous wolves. If it were the only syllable one were able to utter, it might betoken a mortal thirst, a plea for water. W might also serve to introduce us to wariness, to wakefulness, to watchfulness, all elements the search for such wisdom as we might aspire to in this world. And topographically, W is the last truly fertile ground in the alphabetic odyssey now winding to a close. It's close to the end. Winter is coming.

But what I wanted to write about, briefly, was Work. Because work is the means by which we create wealth of whatever kind. There is much of value that is given to use by virtue of the fact that we have been born. But having been born — and raised, with luck and the blessing, by the work of those who care for us — there comes a point at which both who we know ourselves to be and how we are known to others is defined by the nature and quality of the work that we choose to do.

One of the most interesting books I've read in the last year is Art and Fear by Bayles and Orland. When they talk about work they are making specific reference to artwork, but what they have to say is true with regard to virtually any kind of work. Here they talk explicitly about the connection between work and identity, and how the work you do comes to define in significant ways both who you are and who you might one day become:

What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials. The place to learn about your execution is in your execution. The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love. Put simply, your work is your guide: a complete, comprehensive, limitless reference book on your work. There is no other such book, and it is yours alone. It functions this way for no one else. Your fingerprints are all over your work, and you alone know how they got there. Your work tells you about your working methods, your discipline, your strengths and weaknesses, your habitual gestures, your willingness to embrace. (Kindle Location 419)

Later in the same book, they develop the idea that success in one's work arises from the cultivation of those habits of mind and practice that allow the work to continue:

The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over — and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful. A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns. Over time, the life of a productive artist becomes filled with useful conventions and practical methods, so that a string of finished pieces continues to appear at the surface. And in truly happy moments those artistic gestures move beyond simple procedure, and acquire an inherent aesthetic all their own. They are your artistic hearth and home, the working-places-to-be that link form and feeling. They become — like the dark colors and asymmetrical lilt of the Mazurka — inseparable from the life of their maker. They are canons. They allow confidence and concentration. They allow not knowing. They allow the automatic and unarticulated to remain so. Once you have found the work you are meant to do, the particulars of any single piece don’t matter all that much. (Kindle Location 607)

There are three questions attributed to Henry James which he believed could be used to evaluate work (Again, he was talking about artwork, but the questions are relevant in any case): What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he succeed? And was it worth doing?

The first two questions are easy enough to figure out. But it seems to me that the third question is the interesting one. How do we go about assessing the worth or value of a particular work or kind of work? What criteria are we comfortable with? What quality indicators make sense to us? Answers, as they say, may vary. But for what it's worth, I'd like to toss out a couple I think ought to be on any list we might try to develop:

1) Does the work represent an immediate or potential improvement in the lives of human beings? Does it offer immediate or potential pleasure, insight, relief, aid, or sustenance to others?

2) Does the work represent an immediate or potential improvement in the quality of the environment in which we live? Does it serve to make our world healthier or stronger, more functional or more beautiful?

3) After all is said and done, at that moment when silence is waiting and summer is whispering away, is the world in which we have lived safer and better resourced than the world that was waiting for us when we arrived here?

I first encountered the Stafford poem above when I was in high school. I was working part time as a clerk in a not-very-busy bookstore and I had a lot of time to comb the shelves. "Tragic Song" is to the best of my memory the first poem, and Stafford the first poet, that I discovered entirely on my own, without the benign intervention of instructors. It struck me then, and it strikes me now, as an extraordinarily simple and true and artful piece of work, celebrating as it does the dark beauty of the world and the certain limits on our experience of it. I love in particular the image of the shocks in the field, the visible residue of the harvest now completed, the work now over, the world lying in wait. Winter is coming.

Image Credit: Weedpicker's Journal

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