“What Work Is” is a favorite poem of mine. It’s by Philip Levine and it appears in the book of the same name, published by Knopf in 1991, which won the National Book Award.
I often teach it and read it aloud to students. Like a lot of Levine’s work, it is conversational and accessible, but rewards close reading. One of the courses I teach is Justice in Literature, which is a course required for Criminal Justice majors where I teach. I use it as part of a unit on distributive justice in poems about work.
But I’ve studied it for its craft as well. I love the changes in tone and how the poem somehow is both conversational and artistic in its language. Levine begins setting the scene:
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.
I first read this book as suggested reading for a poetry workshop with Herb Scott at Western Michigan University, only later knowing that Herb was a student of Levine’s. Anyway, as a twenty-something poet I liked the audaciousness of the opening. Poems are always announcing what poems are, and here Levine addresses the reader directly and then tells the reader off. For the rest of the poem the “you” is the poet addressing himself, and the reader is forgotten.
And I liked the locale too. Feeling like a Michigan poet myself, I connected to Levine’s writing about working in Detroit, although upon reflection that was kind of a superficial connection. I lived in Kalamazoo, worlds away from Detroit. I had worked in a factory, but only for a couple of months, and I didn’t depend on the work to live. Even today, living in Big Rapids, Detroit seems like a different universe. But he was writing about standing in line and waiting for work, something mundane, and finding meaning there.
The tone from there on is by turns carping, melancholic, and funny. The futility of the situation, and the melancholic tone, arises when the narrator mistakes someone ahead for his brother:
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 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.
Here Levine is using repetitions of sound and syntax to create structure and form within free verse. The alliteration is clear in “same sad slouch.” The phrases pile on top of one another to push the poem forward with a single sentence that stretches 11 lines. Levine frequently uses anaphora and lists to build tension with long, rolling sentences that start building to a turn in tone or a resolution at the end of a piece. Here the turn is toward love and then humor, both praising and then affectionately criticizing the brother who:
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
This bit of humor is a feint, a hesitation before Levine takes us to the end:
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.
So the final line restates the title and bookends the poem. What “real” work is changes from the beginning to the end. The first “work” is the sense of physical labor, and here it is also the denigration of the workers by those in power. The second “work” is the work of the heart, the “work” of expressing affection, perhaps the difficulty of these two men to express affection for one another.
Even though I teach this as part of a unit on economics, the poem isn’t really much about that. The subject of work is just the occasion for the poem, the springboard. It doesn’t say much about work (hourly labor, that is), other than that work stinks.
But I do use it to teach about tone, to help students see how words and syntax and line create feeling. It’s also an easy poem to get into, not a lot of language barriers, and my mostly-Michigan students like the local connection.
I’ve also used Levine’s poetics in my own work: seemingly mundane moments, long, driving sentences, dry humor that turns serious, everyday language, and the strong ending. It was very useful to me to mimic Levine to learn how form evolves in a free-verse poem, and how language devices work to create tone. However, like most affectations, I had to leave Levine behind. The best observation I had recently was from the poet Fred Marchant: “you’re very committed to the sentence.” He advised me to try some less well constructed sentences in my work. I’ve come to not worry so much about being accessible either, but like any other phase of work, my time reading and imitating Levine taught me much.