“To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”

Why do some people (including me) care so much about their town’s baseball team? Are our egos really that attached to the success or failure of players we don’t even know? The answer to that is beyond me psychologically, but I confess to have been down in the dumps since the Brewers started their long slide into oblivion. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t have to do with ego-by-proxy; I think that watching anyone succeed at a difficult task at which they have worked very hard confirms something in us about possibility, which spurs us on in our own endeavors. Carlos Gomez’ Golden Glove bobblehead sits on my desk to inspire me.

A more serious example of “failure” is the example Edward Hirsch discusses in his long poem Gabriel, in which I have started to read about the death of his 22-year-old son. I think most parents see their children—at least when they are young–as their personal creation, their “work,” and when that work “comes to nothing”—in Hirsch’s case, when his difficult son died of an overdose—the pain and apparent meaninglessness of it overwhelms. If one is not to fall into an endless depression, filled with guilt, anger, and remorse, as my mother did after the death of my sister, there is an urgent need to create something else as a counterbalance: e.g. a work of art, or the creation of an organization of support for other people going through something similar.

Hirsch writes,

Look closely and you will see

Almost everyone carrying bags

Of cement on their shoulders


That’s why it takes courage

To get out of bed in the morning

And climb into the day

(p. 73)


Finally, in the middle of the “failure” spectrum are those “whose [creative] work has come to nothing,” as W.B. Yeats wrote in his rather obscure poem. I suspect many have looked to that poem for answers: i.e. what comfort can one give to a friend, or to oneself, “whose work has come to nothing”?


To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing (1916)

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.


In my attempt to delve more deeply into Yeats’ poem for answers, I found this blog post from July of this year, in which the writer, GK Stritch, questions the “advice” Yeats supposedly gives in this poem. Stritch suggests that perhaps to encourage someone with little talent is unkind, and that the title of the poem makes [her?] “cringe,” and yet, “Yeats, methinks your poem is sweetly supportive. The artist is brave, whether successful or not. He [sic] stands naked in front of the world and must accept the world’s rejection, silence, indifference, scorn, jealousy, mockery, criticism, harsh and ill-formed opinions for everyone to read on Internet reviews. But the great thing, the brave thing, is that he gets up there and does his art, and does it again, and again.”


Hirsch adds, just before the stanzas I quoted,


Poor Sisyphus grief

I am not ready for your heaviness

Cemented to my body


So, why do we do it, again and again?  The griever MUST do it if s/he is to survive; the baseball player MUST do it because he is being paid millions of dollars a year. But the artist whose hard work is rejected? S/he sends it out again and keeps writing.  This is a hard lesson that perhaps only those who have reached a certain age and/or who have unusually thick skin can do: it’s not “about” you and your success or failure: it’s about the work and the doing of it.  It “comes to nothing” only if you do not believe in the value of the work.

The “process” vs. “product” discussion is familiar to most of us, and yet, in a competitive culture such as ours, the “process” often involves picking ourselves up and doing whatever is necessary to go on, hopefully, eventually, to realize what we have envisioned.

Sometimes this involves strengthening muscles, literal or figurative.  I have to return to my “old friends,” the red tubular resistance bands, probably for the rest of my life if I want to continue playing the piano as I age. 

And every time  a poem or manuscript is returned, I strengthen the “muscles” of re-vision, of practice, of research, of faith, of remembering that there has been and will be again someone else besides myself to whom the “work” has value. And I try to remember that there are others who feel this way and to whom we can turn to for support and to be supported.

There will always be resistance to the ease with which we think things should happen. However, it’s in meeting that resistance that those things, or even better ones, can happen.

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