Poems for Our Lives: In the Disciplines

Welcome to Poems for Our Lives: In the Disciplines, a new blog that explores poems centered on the professional disciplines in which we, as academics, scholars and professionals, have made our lives.

Poetry engages with virtually every subject on earth. Although some of us don’t understand the value of poetry or how it relates to everyday life, and some of us think we don’t understand poetry period (!), poetry is like mud: it’s everywhere. Poems for Our Lives: In the Disciplines will discover poems that relate to Business, Social Work and Human Services, Criminal Justice, Religion and Philosophy, Literature, Foreign Language, Math and Library Studies. My take on the old iPhone commercial: There’s a poem for that!

Intimidated by poetry? Not sure how to use it in your classroom? No problem. I will offer critical thinking questions and discussion starters for you to use with your students.

Building a discipline-specific discussion around a poem should be manageable for everyone. You can devote just 10-15 minutes of one class towards one poem. You’re not going to be teaching poetry, you are simply going to be discussing ideas. The best poems unearth the essential nature of their subjects. At the core of poetry is the idea of what it means to be human and that’s an idea everyone can relate to. You’ll be surprised at the variety of responses you’ll get from your students. Some students will find little gems of meaning and connections that you don’t even know are there. Have fun! Think expansively! And remember, Poetry, like the moon, is for everyone.

Gianna Russo
Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing
Poet-in-Residence, REBUS
Editor in Chief, Sandhill Review
Director, Sandhill Writers Retreat

Poems for Our Lives: In the Disciplines 


The following poem is by the Italian novelist, memoirist and poet Primo Levi (1919-1987), who also held a Ph.D. in chemistry and survived imprisonment in Auschwitz. After the war, he managed a paint factory for decades. Levi wrote about his traumatic wartime experiences, but this poem draws on the more mundane.  

Discussion starters: 

  1. The speaker is worried about all the things he didn’t see through, including work with “important clients” and a book that would have explained “fundamental work.” What may have happened to this speaker to cause him to neglect so much? 
  2. In real life, what are some of the reasons people burn out in business? How can they be avoided?
  3. If you are in charge, what do you do when an employee leaves you with unfinished business projects? 
  4. Could the “marvelous book” in this poem represent something else, something larger?  What?
  5. How does this poem explore what it means to be human? 

Professor, create your own question here:  

Unfinished Business 

 by Primo Levi, translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi 

Sir, please accept my resignation 
As of next month,
And, if it seems right, plan on replacing me.
I’m leaving much unfinished work,
Whether out of laziness or actual problems.
I was supposed to tell someone something,
But I no longer know what and to whom: I’ve forgotten.
I was also supposed to donate something — 
A wise word, a gift, a kiss;
I put it off from one day to the next. I’m sorry.
I’ll do it in the short time that remains.
I’m afraid I’ve neglected important clients.
I was meant to visit
Distant cities, islands, desert lands;
You’ll have to cut them from the program
Or entrust them to my successor.
I was supposed to plant trees and I didn’t;
To build myself a house,
Maybe not beautiful, but based on plans.
Mainly, I had in mind
A marvelous book, kind sir,
Which would have revealed many secrets,
Alleviated pains and fears,
Eased doubts, given many
The gift of tears and laughter.
You’ll find its outline in my drawer,
Down below, with the unfinished business;
I didn’t have the time to write it out, which is a shame,
It would have been a fundamental work. 

This poem is from 
Collected Poems, translated by Jonathan Galassi, from The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein. Copyright © 1997 by Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Torino. English translation copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Galassi. 

Source: Poetry (October 2015) 

To see the poem online go to:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58373/unfinished-business 

To read more about Primo Levi see:   https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/primo-levi

Related Posts