Poets & Writers

A Poet a Day: Marge Piercy

"To Be of Use"

A Poet a Day: Marge Piercy

During these trying days of social distancing, self-isolating and quarantines, days rife with fear and anxiety, my colleagues and I thought you might like some company. So each day we will be introducing you to poets we have met over the years. The only contagion they will expose you to is a measure of joy, reflection and meditation brought on by β€œthe best words in the best order.”
β€” Bill Moyers

In this clip from Bill’s 1999 interview with poet, essayist and writer Marge Piercy, she reads her poem “To Be of Use” and talks about how poems come to her and the connections between us, observing that “attention is love.”

“To Be of Use”

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Poet Marge Piercy was born into a working-class home in Detroit. Hard times produced strong convictions and loyalties. Her prose and poetry speak of memory and justice. But she writes of other things, too β€” tomatoes, zucchinis and oak trees, and circles on the water.

Watch Bill’s entire interview with Piercy from 1999.