The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Real Work” consists of a title, an italicized epigraph, and three stanzas: one of six lines, one of five lines, and one of three lines. The poem introduces the reader to citizenship in the environment, its ecosystems, its landscapes, and its water systems. This citizenship is to the continent, not to the political state, and the reader is shown that humans can live in harmony with the world and its creatures, even if some humans abuse the environment and its natural inhabitants.

The title calls attention to the choice that citizens of the world face. They can dedicate themselves to the work that is not the real work, losing themselves in the distractions of activities that offer money, fame, or power but afford no satisfaction to the soul and spirit. A life spent in this way is foolish and often abusive to the environment. However, the citizens of the world may also choose “the real work,” in which humans explore the landscapes of their minds, reflect on relationships between the components of the landscapes, and discover an outlet, whether in art or labor, that protects and perpetuates nature’s harmony and satisfies the human heart.

The epigraph, muted by being enclosed in editorial brackets, sets the poem in the present: “Today.” The speaker is with his friends, Zach and Dan, and they are engaged in rowing on the San Francisco Bay, passing Alcatraz and circling Angel Island. They are small figures in a vast and powerful...

(The entire section is 561 words.)