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What Is Work?

August 17, 2011

People don’t read poetry. Maybe they stopped when TV was invented.  And yet, like poet Wislawa Szymborska, I “clutch on to it, / as to a saving bannister.”

When I hear a great poem, a poem that takes my breath away, I am filled with so many emotions. Calm, for the moment I stopped and stayed silent and read it. Excitement to share it. Reflection at the beauty and nuances of its rhythms and images. So I saw it as a true gift when in my car, I heard the last few minutes of a reading poet Philip Levine did in 1992 when he was interviewed by NPR’s Terry Gross.

It’s a gift I need to pass on. This is the title poem from his prizewinning collection, What Work Is.


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 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. 


There is so much going on in this poem, and I hesitate to write more about it because a reader needs to sit with it for a while, read it over again, let herself feel the scene. The poem questions how, if not for work, a man becomes a man. It taps into our cultural notions of masculinity, how America was built, how workers function in larger society. And this kind of work is the kind that assumes a person is a machine, soulless, void of feeling and inspiration. It’s the kind of work people did, and do, so rich people can go out and buy something shiny.

What is work, beyond something which earns you money, which allows you to feed a few mouths and sleep under a roof? Levine encourages us to wonder if the hardest work is the work of human relationships, of love. And not only that, but the perseverance to seek a dream, to remember you are more than your work.

But really, forget me. Just read the poem again.


Congrats to Philip Levine on being elected U.S. poet laureate. Read more about his work here.
*Poem taken from The Internet Poetry Archive, where you can also listen to Levine read the poem.

And as always, use the comments section to share your thoughts!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen @ Motherese August 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm

I confess to being scared of poetry. When I read this poem here today, I get it and it speaks to me, but so often I feel like I’m missing out, like either the imagery doesn’t compute or the theme is hidden from me. You’ve convinced me that I need to try harder.

I agree that this poem can speak for itself, but I like your little gloss at the end. Very 21st century Marx.


Jana August 17, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I think it’s a practice. It’s hard to “get” a poem. I don’t think that’s the intention of poetry. I think it’s just something that speaks to you (or not), and you try to figure out why. I really only work hard at it when I’m teaching poems, and I feel very rewarded by the effort.


Kerri August 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm

People have had too many bad experiences with poetry and with teachers who force meaning onto poems instead of just letting them be. Plus, poetry can be intentionally pretentious and alienating (see The New Yorker). I like “What Work Is” because it is deceptively simple and speaks to everyone. On the day Levine was appointed Poet Laureate, I received his poem “Our Valley” in my email and fell in love with it.


Denise Nielsen August 18, 2011 at 9:46 am

I hadn’t read this poem before and I very much enjoyed it. Poetry is something I think does get lost in complication sometimes, as if poets want to out-do one another in layers of meaning and metaphor, but as Levine shows, it doesn’t have to be that way. Poetry to me is a beautiful turn of phrase, but it needs to speak to you and have, at the heart of it, something that takes your breath away.


Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri August 20, 2011 at 10:45 am

Thanks for sharing this poem. I wasn’t aware of it. I find that as I get older, the more I appreciate poetry. For the last few years, I’ve really integrated poetry as a part of my reading life. I don’t always understand poetry, but when a poem does speak to me, the phrases linger inside of me, long after I’ve finished reading it.


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