"And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field. . . "
- Gen. 2:20
Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
Implex; thou, awagabu.
Every burrower, each flier
Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
Not yet sunk to primitive.
Thou, verdle; thou, McFleery's pomma;
Thou; thou; thou -- three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket, thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
Eared mashawok; thou, all; thou, all.
Were, in a fire of becoming,
Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
Would be as serious as play.
Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
Naming's over. Day is done.
John Hollander 1971
Nonsensical as this poem might seem, the more you get your fingers in it and tug, the more it offers up. Humor seems deceptive in literature often; somehow if we laugh, we feel we are not "getting" it or taking it seriously enough. But what kind of incomplete form would literature be without lightness? So much of the best parts of our lives are light, and so a true form of literature ought to incorporate lightness. "Adam's Task" is a great example of a poem that is funny and rich. Not all poetry needs to be dark and heartfelt; much as I love that kind, it is a relief to just throw your head back and chuckle at these absurd names.
The poem, of course, begins with absurdity. Adam chooses silly names; there's no question about that. The hilarity comes from the freedom of Adam's thought; he is in the moment, using whatever sounds come to his brain (and even including his observations about the animal. This "task" is more like a game, a chance for Adam to goof around. He says the observations that rise to the top of his head, like "lurching through the high-grown grass" and "pliant-footed." I almost read these as little flights of fancy. In either case, he's having fun making up names for a lot of animals.
The second stanza explains what's happening - all of the animals are coming to Adam to be named, and he's happy about it, not yet having fallen. This stanza also points out one aspect of this work that makes it so joyous. It is "prior," the first time anybody has named these animals, and so it is important. Perhaps this is one reason Adam enjoys it. It may also be that he is innocent and childlike now, for he is “not yet sunk to primitive,” and so his attitude enables him to enjoy the work. Going to work day after day after day can drive us insane, and even starting a new job knowing that it will drag out may sap the joy. Adam has no knowledge of this, however.
The third stanza returns to Adam, again following his names. I think “McFleery’s pomma” is my favorite. Oh, and notice how at the end he says “thou, all; thou, all.” This is difficult to interpret, but I think that it may be an expression of joy or excitement. Adam may be exuberantly exclaiming his excitement to see all of the animals there, embracing them with the word “all.” (If that doesn’t make sense, which it very well may not, please comment and I will do what I can to explain that better).
The next stanza is the crux of the poem; it is both the hardest to make sense of and provides the ideas upon which the rest of the poem hinges. Sorted, it reads "Were the fires of becoming to eradicate labor, work would be as serious as play." Initially confusing are the "fires of becoming;" one way to makes sense of them is to read "becoming" as a kind of engagement and presentness - perhaps being so engaged with the work that you become a part of it, which means being fully in the present. The implication, then, is that being present in one’s work (no matter what it is) will eliminate the miserable parts of working. Not only will the bad parts leave, though, but the work will actually become fun. Though “serious play” may at first seem paradoxical, there is a level of genuineness that comes with playing. So work will become as heartfelt and genuine and joyful as play if we can fire ourselves up about it.
As Adam has clearly done. The poem ends with one of the naming-stanzas, I think, because it wants us to smile. It wants to remind us that not all work is labor, though it may be hard. The final line, composed of two short phrases, makes it seem as if Adam is tired by the end of this day. The work is not easy, but it was joyous and exciting. Ought not all of the best work be done this way, lightly and intensely? It certainly applies to poetry – we shouldn’t approach it as labor, nor should we fear it, for both of those things take us out of the present. The best way to look at a poem, to go to a desk job, to sit in the same construction crane every day is to revel in the present. Hard as this may be, it is deeply satisfying.