A poet’s ode to the meaning of work

Poet Philip Levine (1928-2015) knew intimately about the monotony, filth and physical pain of hard labor. But he also greatly admired the men and women who toiled every day in America’s factories. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in Detroit and began working in an auto plant when he was just 14 years old. He assumed that would be his career, as he told the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown in 2010.

“When I was a young guy working in these places and didn’t see a way out as yet — and I certainly didn’t think the way out would be poetry,” he said.

But poetry did indeed become his vocation. After attending Wayne State University, he went on to do graduate work at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and Stanford University and would eventually teach writing at California State University, Fresno for more than 30 years. He wrote 20 collections of verse, won a Pulitzer Prize and served as Poet Laureate of the United States. And yet he always considered his main mission was to document and honor the lives of working-class people.
Watch next: Instead of fireworks, poet sees American skies lit up by history

“I saw that the people that I was working with…were voiceless in a way,” he told Detroit Magazine. “In terms of literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or I’ve tried anyway.”

What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.