American Life in Poetry: Column 072


Those who survived the Great Depression of the 1930s have a tough, no-nonsense take on what work is. If when I was young I’d told my father I was looking for fulfilling work, he would have looked at me as if I’d just arrived from Mars. Here the Pennsylvania poet, Jan Beatty, takes on the voice of her father to illustrate the thinking of a generation of Americans.

My Father Teaches Me to Dream

You want to know what work is?
I’ll tell you what work is:
Work is work.
You get up. You get on the bus.
You don’t look from side to side.
You keep your eyes straight ahead.
That way nobody bothers you—see?
You get off the bus. You work all day.
You get back on the bus at night. Same thing.
You go to sleep. You get up.
You do the same thing again.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
There’s no handouts in this life.
All this other stuff you’re looking for—
it ain’t there.
Work is work.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. First printed in “Witness,” Volume 10, Number 2, and reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright © 1996 by Jan Beatty, whose latest book, Boneshaker, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2002. Introduction copyright © 2016 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.