Work and Play … with Language: Occupational Poetry

The following guest post is by John Fenn, head of research and programs in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

On November 6, in honor of Veterans Day and the 20th anniversary of the Veterans History Project, the Veterans History Project, the American Folklife Center, and the Poetry and Literature Center will host a discussion on occupational poetry (free tickets are encouraged and available via Eventbrite).

Occupational poetry is a category of verbal art anchored in communities of work. As a form of folk poetry, it often manifests in the everyday settings of jobs and employment. Folklore scholarship and fieldwork has focused on the poetic traditions within a narrow range of occupational roles, including miners, commercial fishers, loggers, and, perhaps most visibly, cowboys. There are quite vibrant national gatherings affiliated with fisher poets and cowboy poets, but traditions of spoken word performance live inside the work worlds of many other occupational communities, as both historical and contemporary phenomena.

But how does poetry function in occupational contexts? One of the goals of the November 6 event is to explore this question through readings and a conversation with a group of occupational poets: a fisher, a miner, a cowboy, and a veteran.

For context, perhaps it’s helpful to consider poetic expressions found within the commercial fisher community. In 2013, the American Folklife Center invited folklorist Jens Lund to give a talk about his long-running fieldwork and public programming with occupational poets in the Pacific Northwest:

Lund discussed several occupational poetry traditions in his talk, noting poetry of work is read, recited, and sung. As such, the distinction between “poetry” and “song” is fuzzy at best in many occupational settings. He also emphasized that poets use their art as mechanisms for communicating the shared values and traditions specific to the multiple roles within an occupation. As an example, Lund found that fisher poems prioritize “mastery of a dangerous environment and complex skills” and that “despite the importance of the environment, many if not most of the poems are people-centric.”

It is that last thought—the “people-centric” nature of the poetry—that is at the center of the November 6 panel. This event will showcase the people behind the poetry, their experiences as workers within a range of occupations, and also their reflections on those experiences as humans engaging creatively with their jobs.

Before I close this post, especially with Veterans Day fast approaching, I’d like to share a poem from the occupational world of the Air Force. In 1948, a small group of Air Force servicemen came to the Library of Congress to record songs and poems for the Archive of Folk Song (precursor to the American Folklife Center). Within that collection, I found the poem below. There was no author name attached to it, but within the context of the collection, I’m fairly certain it was read by the same man who wrote it. I transcribed it from the recording, so the line breaks reflect my orientation to the flow of the reading. It’s titled “Government Issue” (AFC1948/021):

Sitting in my government bed

My G.I. hat upon my head

My G.I. pants, my G.I. shoes

Everything free, nothing to lose

G.I. razor, G.I. comb

Gee, I wish that I were home

They issue everything we need

Paper to write on, books to read

They issue foods to make you grow

Gee, I want a long furlough

Your belt, your shoes, your G.I. tie

Everything free, nothing to buy

You eat your food from a G.I. plate

And spend your cash at a G.I. rate

It’s G.I. this and G.I. that

G.I. haircut and G.I. hat

Everything here is Government Issue

Gee, I wish that I could kiss you

As Kerry Ward, a liaison specialist for the Veterans History Project, wrote in a blog post about veterans’ poetry,

Long before Homer’s Iliad, servicemembers and veterans have been weaving allegories and rhyming patterns together. Whether celebrating victories or honoring the fallen, these poets pen works illustrating some of the most pivotal moments in their own personal histories, and ultimately in our national history. For many servicemembers and veterans, writing is an outlet.  Sometimes writing can be the first cathartic step toward managing their memories and sharing their truth.

Her words reflect both the emotional texture of this poem and my excitement about the conversations the November 6 panel will yield. We hope you’ll join us.

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