Home » Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper

Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper by Martín Espada

Martín Espada’s poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” is about the hard work that goes unnoticed, the contribution never realized, and the role of the working class taken for granted. On the surface level, it seems Espasa recounts his personal history as working part-time in a legal pads production unit in his sixteens. However, the shift from personal to objective in the second stanza presents some pressing issues: the history and making of laws, the cuts people endured to ensure their rights, and the lack of social justice. Through the mechanized imagery in the first stanza, Espasa depicts the objectification of humans in industrialized society.

Appeared in Espada’s 1993 collection, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” implicitly hints at the need for social justice and human rights. It is an eye-opening work where Espada makes the civil society realize the “slits” and “sting” behind every perfect “paper” used to write laws that ironically fail to give justice to those who burned to provide and to perfect their papers.

  • Read the full text of “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” below:
Who Wrote The First Poem Ever?
Who Wrote The First Poem Ever? | Poemotopia
Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper
by Martín Espada

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours
at a printing plant
that manufactured legal pads:
Yellow paper
stacked seven feet high
and leaning
as I slipped cardboard
between the pages,
then brushed red glue
up and down the stack.
No gloves: fingertips required
for the perfection of paper,
smoothing the exact rectangle.
Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands
would slide along suddenly sharp paper,
and gather slits thinner than the crevices
of the skin, hidden.
Then the glue would sting,
hands oozing
till both palms burned
at the punchclock.

Ten years later, in law school,
I knew that every legal pad
was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,
that every open lawbook
was a pair of hands
upturned and burning.

- from City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993)
Analysis of Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper by Martín Espada

Summary

“Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” is a window to Espada’s youthful days when he worked in a printing plant. There are said to be different facets to the poem, among which the most obvious is the reference to the white-collar law practitioners who pay no attention to the toils of blue-collared workers. It is broadly about the paper plant workers, who got thousands of slits on their fingers to “perfect” the legal pads.

The first stanza (longer than the second one) recounts the poet’s experience of part-time work in a printing mill where he worked after high school hours. He had to work under a tight schedule as there was seven feet high yellow paper stacked in front of him. He had to stack the paper in perfect rectangles and glue the cardboards. By 9 PM, his hands became weary, causing paper cuts on his fingers. Due to the work pressure, he could not heed to the pain, but when he was about to turn at the “punchclock,” he could feel the burning sensation of the “perfect” slits.

In the second stanza, the speaker says that ten years later, he went to law school. There every legal pad reminded him of the “hidden” cuts. It seemed each open lawbook was a “pair of hands” exposing the cuts that people endured in order to make others realize the need for laws recognizing their rights.

Meaning

The poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” from the start states the pain of a sixteen-year-old boy who, after his school hours, worked in a paper printing plant. It is the story of the poet himself as he had to work different part-time jobs in his high school days. The poem depicts his journey from a part-time worker to becoming a lawyer. The pain that he suffered is manifested into his understanding; the “slits,” “cuts,” and “burns” made him relate and connect with his clients who lived in Greater Boston’s Latino community.

Espada’s primary focus is to make the efforts and labor of the workers known to others. People should not take mundane things for granted, as every good has a history to be told. Every small goods and supply are processed by many hard-working people, who labor continuously for “perfection.” The “perfection” that civil society enjoys has a backstory of suffering and pain.

Structure & Form

“Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” is a free-verse narrative poem without a regular rhyme scheme or meter. The poem is divided into two stanzas, with the first having 21 lines and the second having 6 lines. It is written from the first-person point of view, indicated by the use of “I”. The speaker is none other than the poet himself, as the references in both the stanzas reflect the episodes of his life. Espada uses a number of internal rhymings. For instance, the word “manufactured” in line three closely rhymes with “stacked” in the fifth line. A similar rhyme is seen in “slipped” and “brushed” as well.

Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Espada uses the following literary devices in “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”.

Metaphor

The implicit comparisons between two distant ideas can be found in the following instances:

  • The “crevices/ of the skin” contains a metaphorical comparison between the narrow fissure in a rock or wall and the cracks in dry skin.
  • The line “was glued with the sting of hidden cuts” contains a metaphor. Here, the “sting of hidden cuts” is an extended metaphor for the pain and suffering of the working-class people.
  • In the following lines, the speaker regards the “open lawbook” and “legal pad” as a “pair of hands.” The pages remind the speaker of the cuts not only he but also other workers endured to make the paper.

Simile

It occurs in “and gather slits thinner than the crevices/ of the skin hidden.” The comparison is made between the fine cuts on the speaker’s fingers to the rock crevices or cracked skin.

Enjambment

The poem is continuous without any breaks. Each line runs into the next to make the idea complete. For instance, the following lines are enjambed:

Yellow paper

stacked seven feet high

and leaning

as I slipped carboard

between the pages,

then brushed the red glue

up and down the stack.

Irony

The speaker ironically says, “No gloves: fingertips required/ for the perfection of paper”. In these lines, the term “perfection” is uttered in a sarcastic tone. Situational irony occurs when the speaker states that the law books and legal pads are prepared, glued, and smoothed by the victims (working class) of lawlessness and inequality.

Flashback

The poem begins with the poet’s memory of his youth when he worked as a paper plant worker. In the second stanza, he shares another memory from his past when he was twenty-six. The poem was written around the 1990s when the poet was in his thirties. Therefore, the speaker (poet) gives a flashback to his life events related to the subject matter.

Alliteration

This device is used in a number of instances; for example, the title of the poem contains an alliteration of the “p” sound: “Perfection of Paper”. It also occurs in the following phrases:

  • printing plant”
  • pads:/ Yellow paper”
  • stacked seven”
  • fingertips required/ for”
  • slide along suddenly sharp”
  • later, in law”

Consonance

Readers can find the repetition of the “p” sound across the text. It starts from the very title, and all the significant terms interestingly start with that consonant sound: “printing plant,” “pads,” “paper,” “pages,” etc.
Readers can find the repetition of the “p” sound across the text. It starts from the very title, and all the significant terms interestingly start with that consonant sound: “printing plant,” “pads,” “paper,” “pages,” etc.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-3

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours 

at a printing plant

that manufactured legal pads:

Martín Espada’s “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” begins with the speaker’s memories of his youth. When he was sixteen years old, he worked in a printing plant after his school hours, in the evening shift that stretched to around 9 PM. The speaker mechanically states how the “plant”, not the workers, “manufactured” legal pads. The industrialized society deems workers as mere parts of the big factory, not as humans. This sense is portrayed through the word “manufactured.” Besides, the first lines also hint at the financial condition of the Latino community. Each member of an immigrant family had to work throughout the day and night in order to sustain themselves.

Lines 4-10

Yellow paper

stacked seven feet high

and leaning

as I slipped carboard

between the pages,

then brushed red glue

up and down the stack.

As the poem proceeds to the next lines, the use of some flecks of colors comes into notice in the black-and-white canvas of the speaker’s life. The work might be dry, demanding, and distressful, but somehow the speaker’s eyes did not fail to notice the colors. But, the absence of the color “green” and the presence of “Yellow” and “red” creates a pessimistic mood. To glue, the bundle of papers stacked higher than his size was undoubtedly a daunting task. Somehow, the speaker managed to get the work done for money. The mental state of the speaker, however not painted in the lines, is clear to readers. He felt highly stressed, but he could not leave the job and be with his family or friends.

The speaker quite robotically slipped the cardboard as if his hands were part of a machine. He vividly depicts how he brushed the red glue over the stack. The use of tactile imagery can be seen in the lines, as he explains how he brushed the glue. The irony is that these law books are prepared by those who are the victims of exploitation. Besides, the “red glue” symbolizes blood or the pain each worker goes through to prepare the legal pads.

Lines 11-13

No gloves: fingertips required

for the perfection of paper,

smoothing the exact rectangle

The words “No gloves” sound like an order that cannot be overlooked. It seems the instructor’s words were humming inside his head. Espada extends his imagery in these lines and explains the pain and agony he went through as a paper plant worker. The diction of the poem is straightforward, which makes the poem easily understandable. He says that while working with glue, they were not provided with any gloves because fingertips were required to give the papers a perfect rectangular shape.

The fact that only “the perfection of paper” matters is a bit inhumane and intimidating. Espada describes how for the owner of the plant, the end product is of utmost value, not the workers. Therefore, the “gloves” that provide protection to the workers should be discouraged for the sake of smoothing the exact perfect rectangle. Though they bleed while working, they were not given any kind of assurance or protection. It is a reference to the poor working conditions and absence of legal protection of workers. The rectangular shape of papers could be a reference to the uneven delivery of justice in society.

Lines 14-17

Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands

would slide along suddenly sharp paper,

and gather slits thinner than the crevices

of the skin, hidden.

The speaker advances in “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” with the same arid tone as he explains the affliction in working with the papers. By 9 PM, his hands would become so tired that he accidentally got cuts on his tingers from the sharp edge of the paper. It is important to note how the speaker says that his weary “hands” would slide along the edge as if his whole body reacted quite mechanically when tired.

The thin paper cuts remained unnoticed, like the struggles and suffering of the working class. These “slits” are symbolic of the infliction of pain on the poor. These fine cuts were not on their skins but on their minds, thinner than the fissures in their dried skin. Thus sharpness of the paper symbolizes the passivity of society and their lack of compassion to attend to their “hidden” pain.

The speaker also mentions the time “9 PM,” indicating that as a sixteen-year-old boy, his whole day went into studies and work. This shows how hard the immigrants had to work to make their ends meet and how they were treated in society.

Lines 18-21

Then the glue would sting,

hands oozing

till both palms burned

at the punchclock.

The first stanza ends with the vivid memory of the speaker’s past by remembering the burning sensation he went through because of the glue. The glue was so strong that it would stick to the skin and cause a burning sensation. As the shift ended, he would have their palms covered with glue, which caused an uneasy burn to the open “slits” on the skin. Blood would ooze out of his hands while he went for the punchclock to mark the end of his shift. The “punchclock” can be regarded as another symbol of pain for the speaker as it always reminded him of the hours still left for the shift. No matter how his hands burnt in pain, he had to complete the shift, take the card out of the punchclock, and submit it to the employer to get the daily wage.

Lines 22-27

Ten years later, in law school,

I knew that every legal pad

was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,

that every open lawbook

was a pair of hands

upturned and burning.

As Espada begins the second stanza, the focus is moved to his adult self. After a gap of ten years, the scene begins with the speaker (twenty-six years old) entering law school—the tone changes to a more mature and thoughtful one. As a law student, he could relate and comprehend the torment and frustration (both physical and mental) that workers went through to make legal pads and law books for the practitioners. From his experience of working in a paper plant, he could realize the suffering, the burning sensation of hidden cuts still open, the sting of industrial glue, and the tiredness of hands. The experiences struck him deep within seconds when he saw the legal pads.

The “sting of hidden cuts” is a metaphorical reference to the suffering of the working class and the cold treatment they get from society. This “sting” of the past is still glued to the speaker’s memory. He ends the poem by saying that since he has suffered, he knew the agony of the workers, that every law book was nothing other than symbolic of the weary pair of hands, “upturned and burning.” The irony lies in the fact that those who actually burn for the “perfection of paper” are never recognized, nor their “slits” are healed.

Themes

“Who Burns for The Perfection Of Paper” by Martin Espada describes the suffering of the working class. Espada always stands for the rights of the working class and immigrants. The essence of social justice is there in his blood. Thus, through this piece, he explores the themes of the plight of the working class, their struggles, inequality, inhumane treatment, and law and politics. Firstly, the speaker describes the work pressure on every worker. There is no protection of their health, life, or family. Even the lawbook made out of the “Yellow paper” for which they “burn” does not totally protect their rights. The employer needs perfection in the output, but no safety is provided against injuries at the workplace. The lawmakers even turn blind-eye to the efforts of these workers, who suffer for the “perfection” of their “paper.”

Tone

The tone of the poem is not constant. In the first stanza, the poet seems to talk about the misery and suffering that he suffered as a young poverty-stricken boy. The tone is arid, mechanical, melancholic, and painful as he recollects his memory from the past. In the second stanza, the speaker talks about the time when he himself became a lawyer and used legal pads. His tone is filled with a feeling of pain, sympathy, and distrust. As a law student, he could relate to the pains the paper plant workers went through. Thus, he empathizes with the workers and voices their pain through this poem.

Imagery

The poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” is filled with different types of imagery, as the poet wants his readers to feel, visualize, and internalize the pain of the workers to supply goods to society. Each type of imagery used in the poem is exemplified below:

  • Visual Imagery: The poem is filled with visual images. As one reads the poem, one can visualize the speaker working with the “seven feet high” stack of “Yellow paper”. He mentions his age, the color of the glue, the time he went back, and every minute detail of his schedule in a pictorial manner from stacking the paper, applying glue to the covers, and smoothing the pads in a perfect rectangle.
  • Tactile Imagery: This type of imagery is present in the lines, “I slipped cardboard/ between the pages,/ then brushed red glue/ up and down the stack”, “No gloves: fingertips required”, “smoothing the exact rectangle”, “the hands/ would slide along suddenly sharp paper,/ and gather slits”, and “the glue would sting,/ hands oozing/ till both palms burned”. Through these lines, the speaker appeals to readers’ sense of touch.
  • Organic Imagery: Through the line “was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,” the speaker conveys his internal emotion of pain.


Historical Context

“Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” was first published in Martín Espada’s fourth collection, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993). Espada worked as a tenant lawyer in Greater Boston’s Latino community. He stood by the immigrants and fought for the rights of the working class. His straightforward poetry gives voice to their trials and tribulations. Espada himself was the victim of discrimination and injustice as his parents were also immigrants. Through this poem, he expresses his resentment at the implementation of laws. His agonized voice captures the suffering of those who actually “burn” for the “perfection” of society.

Questions and Answers

What is the poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” about?

Martín Espada’s poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” is about the poet’s experience of working part-time in a printing plant as a legal pad binder when he was sixteen. He vividly recounts the memory of one such day’s work where he would bind papers with glue and get paper cuts. As he grew up and went to a law school, the memory came to him instantaneously when he looked at the “Yellow paper” of the legal pads and the lawbook. It reminded him of the thousand “slits” on the working-class people represented through the open pages of the lawbook.

Describe the speaker in “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper.”

The speaker of “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” is Martín Espada himself, recounting his experience of his youth as a worker in a legal paper printing plant. In the first stanza, the speaker shares how he worked part-time after his high school hours from the age of sixteen to provide for his family. From the way he worked, irrespective of the cuts on his fingers, it can be said that he was hard-working and determined from his teens when others of his age would roam around with friends after school hours or spend time in other vocations. His uncompromising attitude and strong determination paid him off as he successfully managed to get admission to a law school. He never lost touch with his roots nor forgot the ground realities of immigrant and poor workers. His empathy and compassion for them are reflected in this poem.

In “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper,” what causes the “burns” described in the title?

The fine and unseen paper cuts caused the burning sensation in the speaker’s hands. As a grown-up law student, he acknowledged the “slits” symbolic of the pain and struggle of the working class. Through writing this poem, Espada tries to recognize those who really “burn” to bring perfection to the lives of the upper section of society.

What is the attitude of the speaker in “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”?

The attitude of the speaker varies in both the stanzas. In the first stanza, the attitude is of a poor, helpless boy who works the whole day after school in a printing plant, who gets cuts in his fingers, burns due to the glue penetrating the open wounds, and at the end of the day gets exhausted. The attitude changes as the next stanza are about the speaker’s realization of others’ pain and his sense of empathy that he developed from his past experience.

What is the main purpose of “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”?

The main purpose of writing the poem is to give voice to the hardships of the working class people and to throw light on their contribution. This poem shows how the “lawbook” reflects the toil of the workers who made it, yet the laws written in the book fail to address their issues holistically.

What are the key concepts of “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”?

The key concepts as indicated by Martín Espada are the passivity and coldness of the employers or the authority, the lack of implementation of laws, the absence of social justice, history, lived experiences of immigrants. This poem is broadly about the workers who make the paper for law books and legal pads and how they suffer “for the perfection of paper.”

How does the speaker describe his convictions and doubts in “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”?

The speaker describes his conviction in the concluding lines of the poem as he says that he knows the “pair of hands” that burned to make the law books and law pads. He makes his judgment clear as he presents lived experiences of his own life, undergoing stress and pain. The last lines also present the speaker’s doubts as he speculates whether in the near future the contribution of the working will be recognized or not.

How does the poet explore the theme of the American Dream in “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”?

The “American Dream” of equality, liberty, justice, and “all men are equal” can be reflected in the poem, as the poet stands for the equal stature of the workers. He advocates for the credit that should be given to the working-class people. He also stands against the cruelty and coldness, asking for better treatment of the workers. Indirectly, he asks for their legal protection in order to realize the “American Dream” holistically.

What does the author of “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” believe?

The author of the poem believes that every legal pad is glued with the pain of “hidden cuts” on the morale and psyche of the working class. Every open lawbook represents a “pair of hands,” bleeding and burning.

Who is the speaker in “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”?

The speaker of the poem is the poet Martín Espada himself. He recounts his experience from the first-person point of view in an autobiographical format.

In “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper,” why did the speaker not wear gloves?

According to the speaker, gloves are prohibited in order to give the papers a perfect rectangular shape. For this purpose, one worker needs to work with their bare hands and use their fingertips for precision.

In “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper,” what job does the speaker recall?

The speaker recalls the job at a printing plant that manufactured legal pads exclusively. He worked there at sixteen after his school hours.

What is the theme of “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”?

The main theme of “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” is the hard work and suffering of the working-class people and how their contribution is neither recognized nor repaid adequately.

What is the meaning of the title “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”?

The title of the poem broadly hints at the working class by the word “Who”. It is not about “who”, but “how” they burn/suffer and remain useful, even bearing numerous cuts on their minds. They play their part in order to perfect society, yet their contribution is never mentioned.

When was “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” written?

The poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” was written around the 1990s and published in Martín Espada’s fourth collection of poetry, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, in 1993.

What is the tone of “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper”?

The tone of this poem is straightforward and bears the pain of the speaker’s “cuts”. In the second stanza, the tone becomes critical, thoughtful, and sympathetic.


Similar Poems about the Working Class Suffering

  • Assembly Line” by Shu Ting — This poem recounts the experiences of Chinese assembly line workers during the second half of the 20th-century.
  • Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” by James Wright — In this poem, a speaker talks about the struggles of the working class in the post-depression era.
  • Housing Targets” by Kelwyn Sole — It’s about the disillusionment of a speaker as the promise of universal housing is never realized.
  • Singapore” by Mary Oliver — It’s an empathetic poem about a woman who washed ashtrays in the Singapore airport.


External Resources

  • Check out Floaters (2021) — Martín Espada won the 2021 National Book Award for Poetry for this collection, ranging from historical epic to achingly personal lyrics about growing up.
  • The Poem Aloud — Watch Martín Espada reading the poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper.”
  • Martín Espada on Poetry, Teaching, & Resistance — Listen to Espada talking about his poetry, teaching career, how to use poetry as a tool of social commentary.
  • About Martín Espada — Explore the poet’s short bio on his official website.
  • Poet Profile & Poetry of Martín Espada — Learn more about the poet and his works, including his poetry collections, the best-known poem, essays, etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *