What Work Is, and Isn’t: Poet Laureate Philip Levine

In between grading student papers, revising my department’s mission statement, taking my son to soccer games, and following the Occupy Wall Street protests, I’ve been thinking about Phil Levine being named Poet Laureate for 2011- 2012.  It’s about time: at 83, he has been writing powerful poetry for five decades.  Nevertheless, in “Voice of the Workingman to be Poet Laureate,” the New York Times quotes the librarian of Congress who made the appointment as saying, “I find him an extraordinary discovery because he introduced me to a whole new world I hadn’t connected to in poetry before.” Clearly, those of us interested in bringing working-class literature into classrooms and to the forefront of the culture still have work to do.  I’ve included Levine’s poems in three anthologies of working-class writing I have co-edited—two with Peter Oresick and one with Janet Zandy—and I teach them every chance I get.

So when I was asked recently to speak as part of a panel on working-class literature sponsored by the International Socialist Organization, I used Levine as one of my examples.  I chose one of his best-known poems, “What Work Is.”  Published in 1991 in the book of the same name, “What Work Is,” like many of Levine’s poems, evokes industrial Detroit where he grew up and worked in the auto plants, in the late 1940s and 1950s.   It begins:

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.

Queuing for work, the poem’s narrator thinks he sees his brother ahead of him in line.  But it is another man, a worker whose grin shows the same “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.

In the second half of the poem the narrator is flooded with love for his brother, who is not in line because he is home sleeping 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.”

Looking back across the decades since that day, the poet asks:

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.

I admire the way the poem addresses its own question backwards.  What work is gets revealed through what work is not: grinning, singing opera, loving your brother.  Typically for a Levine poem, there’s a resistant dignity in the small acts that keep us human, even when there’s little of that in labor itself, and none at all in being denied work.  You see this dignity in famous Levine poems like “They Feed They Lion,” written in response to the Detroit riots of 1967, or “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” with its classic conclusion: “Not this pig.”

As it happened, my colleague Robin Clarke was on the same ISO panel and had chosen the same poem to illustrate her talk.  Robin also teaches composition and literature at Pitt, but unlike me, she is a poet and so has a different investment in the politics of poetic practice demonstrated by Levine.   This became the subject of lively debate on the panel and with the audience.

Robin finds “What Work Is” beautiful in its evocation of the feeling of standing in that line, but she does not see the poem as an example of working-class literature because it is not part of “a literature of revolution.”  For her this is as much a matter of language as of political content or class position.  That is, the poem speaks through lucid language and carefully wrought lines, from the position of a fully realized humanity that is in fact not possible for most people under capitalism.  In doing so, it betrays the reality of “what it means to be a member of the working class”:

In a poem like Levine’s—which is the dominant mode of contemporary American poetry—the poet becomes the source of redemption, restoring dignity in ways the society itself cannot.  A poetry of the working class—a revolutionary poetry—must demand that its reader demand system change, must show us the wound rather than seem to heal it.

Robin went on to share excerpts from poems by Claudia Rankine and Julianna Spahr that enact this principle.  They do this by staging a formal conflict in the poem itself, demonstrating that the poet is not more in control of language and images “than they or we are in control as citizen subjects.”  This way the reader is not “lulled into submission” by the poem, but, in a sense, agitated by it.

I think a poetry that wants to attend to the reality of working class exploitation can only do so by challenging notions about language, for it is language that transmits the ideology of the 1% day after day on television, from the mouths of our elected officials and all their corporate sponsors . . ..  Our attitude toward language embodies a whole attitude toward reality, and it is this we need to differently imagine.

While we disagree about Levine, I agree with Robin that this is an important political discussion to stage with students in any classroom.   Which is why I see the debate as more than a minor storm in a literary teacup.   The market for poetry may be small—though writers like Levine have helped expand it.   But even in today’s economy, roughly 50% of young people in the US attend college, and most of them will take required Humanities courses.  In these writing or literature classrooms they may encounter poems through which they can critique everyday language and address fundamental social questions.

Asking “what work is,” even in a time of mass unemployment, can lead to asking about how work is allocated, organized, and controlled.  For example, with a shorter workweek, everyone who needs or wants a job might have one—and still have time to learn German, play soccer, or write poetry.  Or, in Marx’s vision of communist society: “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.”

Perhaps Robin and I could agree that a good poem provokes a revolution in consciousness.  Whether such movement in thinking and feeling contributes to larger social transformations will depend on the particular negotiation between reader and text, in the context of a particular historical moment.  Today when I read  “What Work Is,” my responses include gratitude for my relatively secure professional job, a resolution to head downtown for the next OWS event in solidarity with those whose security is being shredded, and a desire to hug my brother when I next see him.

The Poet Laureate has few official duties.  Some have created projects to promote the cultural work poetry can do.  Levine has jokingly proposed “a project in which people would be asked to name the ugliest poem they could think of.”  Whatever he decides to do with his year as the nation’s top poet, I hope he enjoys himself.  He’s earned it.  He knows what work is.

Nick Coles

Nick Coles teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  He is the president of the Working-Class Studies Association.

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6 Responses to What Work Is, and Isn’t: Poet Laureate Philip Levine

  1. Erin says:

    “What work is gets revealed through what work is not: grinning, singing opera, loving your brother.” My interpretation is the exact opposite: loving your brother is the true work – and the “you” being addressed in the poem has never “done something so simple, so dumb” as tell his brother plainly that he loves him, because he doesn’t know what work is.

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  2. Kathy M. Newman says:

    I am so glad you wrote about Levine! I have been thinking about him a lot, and how right he is for our current moment. Beautiful essay!

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  3. larrydogger says:

    Well, Philip Levine is one of our finest and strongest voices, always seeing the human side of circumstances, and frankly “in touch.” So his coming to prominence as the Poet Laureate is a tip of the hat to working-class literature…and I see it as a working man’s hat they are tipping. Nice article.

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  4. morna burdon says:

    Thank you for writing this. iI reminded me of an observation I made many years ago when I was thirteen and my mum was a cleaner in a wee village school in Scotland. I noticed that the etiquette was that , at Christmas , the teachers gave the cleaner a box of chocolates. I remember noticing and knowing that it was not the deal that she gave them this gift. Aged thirteen, I also knew why.
    Re waiting in line, my mum when she was young used to wait in line for jobs outside the factory, If someone was ill you got their job until they got better. If they were dead, you got their job. It helped me understand why she was adamant I would become a teacher. I found my own way into something else, but I understood.
    Morna Burdon

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  5. Roy Wilson says:

    This a a nice piece: it not only contrasts Levine’s working-class poetry with non-working-class poetry but also incorporates a different (“revolutionary”) view of working-class poetry.

    I also wonder if Mexico (where Detroit went) has working-class/revolutionary poets. I wonder how they think (in comparison with Levine) about their work and the work of those they valorize/condemn.

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  6. Pingback: Chicago Labor & Arts Festival Blog

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