Within ‘To be of use’ Piercy utilizes clever metaphors and similes to praise human beings who embody the traits of powerful and single-minded animals. Through a clear-headed, yet idealistic tone, the poet conveys her interest in addressing themes of work, the purpose of life and human nature. This tone and subject matter work together to create an optimistic and reflective mood that encourages a reader to become more determined in their pursuits and more willing to embrace hard work.
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The poem takes the reader through metaphorical comparisons between oxen, water buffalo, and seals. Each has their own skill and confidence in their individual environments. The speaker says she is interested in people who embody these same traits. She goes on, referencing the pleasures and payoffs of hard work and connecting them to a Hopi vase and Greek amphora. Just as these creations cry out for work, so too do human beings.
You can read the full poem here.
‘To be of use’ by Marge Piercy is a four stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains seven lines, the second: four, the third: six, and the fourth is the longest at nine lines. Piercy did not choose to imbue this piece with a specific rhyme scheme, but there are numerous moments at the end of lines, as well as within them, that she utilizes half-rhyme. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse.
There are examples throughout the text, such as “best” and “first” at the ends of lines one and two as well as “seals” and “balls” at the ends of lines six and seven of the first stanza. Other examples within the lines themselves include “move” and “food” in lines five and six of the third stanza. Internal full or perfect rhyme is also present in the lines. For example, “row” and “go” in lines two and three of the third stanza.
Percy makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘To be of use’. These include alliteration, enjambment, anaphora and repetition. The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For example, the word “who” appears multiple times in close proximity in the second and third stanzas. There are repetitive phrases as well, such as “again and again”.
Anaphora is another kind of repetition. It is seen through the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, “who” in the second stanza. It begins three lines in a row, then later one more in the third stanza.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “swim,” “sure,” “strokes,” and “sight” in the fourth line of the first stanza. As well as “mud,” “muck,” and “move” in the third line of the second stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout ‘To be of use,’ but a few include the transitions between lines one and two of the first stanza and three and four of the fourth stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
The people I love the bestjump into work head first(…)the black sleek heads of sealsbouncing like half-submerged balls.
In the first stanza of ‘To be of use’ the speaker begins by stating that the “people” she loves the best are those who don’t “dally” or waste time, but instead “jump into work head first”. These people are confident, single-minded, and move with “sure strokes” through the metaphorical water.
Continuing the metaphor, she speaks of these confident swimmers as “natives of that element,” water. They are “black” headed seals that bounce through the surf like “half-submerged balls”.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,(…)who do what has to be done, again and again.
The second stanza beings similarly. Here, the speaker says that she loves “people who harness themselves” like “an ox to a heavy cart”. As with the metaphor comparing humans to seals, the next lines use zoomorphism to compare human beings to oxen that pull heavy carts. They are, a simile says, “like water buffalo”. It is their patience and perseverance that makes the speaker create these comparisons.
These people are unperturbed by the mud they have to trudge through. They know what has to be done and they do it “again and again” without complaint.
I want to be with people who submergein the task, who go into the fields to harvest(…)but move in a common rhythmwhen the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The third stanza of ‘To be of use’ is six lines long and tells the reader that this speaker is interested in being “with people who submerge / in the task”. They are of a breed that goes into the “fields to harvest,” working together, passing bags along. There is a steadiness to these various comparisons. Hard work and the temperament to sustain that level of work over a prolonged period of time are very attractive to this speaker.
She is not interested in those who shirk their duties, like “field deserters” or “parlour generals” who sit back, at a distance, and give orders without ever getting their hands dirty. The rhythm of these lines mimics the rhythm the speaker is interested in observing and participating in among those in the field. Necessity and forward momentum are of the utmost importance. What’s next, whether food or fire, is always completed in a timely manner.
The work of the world is common as mud.Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.(…)The pitcher cries for water to carryand a person for work that is real.
The last stanza is the longest at nine lines. here, the speaker of ‘To be of use’ compares the “work of the world” to “mud”. It is just as common and smears one’s hands and “crumbles to dust”. Work takes its toll and sometimes it doesn’t even pay off. But, she believes that the things that are worth doing are worth doing well. When completed, they have a clean and satisfying shape.
That “clean” shape is compared to a “Greek amphora” in the fifth line. This is a traditional Greek vase that would hold “wine or oil”. These are well crafted, and like hard work, are a beauty to behold when completed. She also refers to “Hopi vases that held corn”. These Native American creations are now in museums, but when one observes them, she adds, “you know they were made to be used”.
They weren’t created to be observed and marvelled over. They sit in their new protected locations and cry out, as if humans, for “water to carry”. In the last lines, she relates these various comparisons and references to a general, internal, human desire for “work that is real”. The vases cry out for their intended purpose and she believes all human beings, whether realizing it or not, do the same.