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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Poetry Friday--What Work Is

Just a reminder that the Library will be closed on Monday in observance of Labor Day. Today, we'll look at a man who labored in the factories of Detroit and went on to become a National Book Award winning poet of great renown. Philip Levine was born in 1928, the son of immigrants. His father died when Levine was only five. By time he was 14, Levine had gone to work in one of Detroit's auto plants. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 87.

In 1991 Levine won the National Book Award for What Work Is: Poems [811.54 LEV]. Here's the title poem from that collection:
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.

Not what you expected the poem to be after just reading the title, is it? Plenty to think about, including the idea that relationships are work of another kind.

Robyn is hosting the Poetry Friday Round-Up at Life on the Deckle Edge. Have a great weekend!


  1. Wow. So very powerful - thanks for sharing, Diane, and for the peek into Philip Levine's story.

    1. I hears Levine speak/read shortly before he died. He had a powerful story to tell.

  2. There are those in my family who struggled in lines long ago. They would have loved this. Some were saved by the military, fighting in WWII then using the GI Bill for more education. It's a wonderful poem, Diane. Thank you for sharing what Labor Day is for.

    1. I'll bet the general population has no clue as to the origin of the holiday. It now seems to celebrate a weekend of sales.

  3. Perfect choice. Thank you.

  4. Love this poetic reminder of what this holiday is all about.

  5. What a powerful reminder for this weekend. Thank you for sharing.

  6. A good poem for labor day. Thanks to all the librarians, without whom our library-loving lives would be empty of endless vistas and imagined worlds.

  7. I was just finishing a post on Labor Day and then came to your site, Diane. I am going to place a link at the end of my post for readers to join you and read this amazing poem.

  8. I didn't know Philip Levine's poetry, thanks for sharing him with us–relationships along with work–they are both a piece of work …