NPR’s news covered the fact that Philip Levine, former poet laureate of the United States, died over the weekend. It’s a sad truth that in an age that doesn’t widely value poetry the way that previous ages did, a great deal of very good and very readable poetry is flowing from the pens of people like Billy Collins, Wendell Berry, and Levine.
In 1991, Levine, the poet of the Detroit auto plant, won a National Book Award for his collection What Work Is. The title poem from that book will reward the reading.
What is work? Levine suggests from the outset that his reader knows what work is. Work is the thing that men do, men who are old enough to read a poem, old enough to stand outset in the rain waiting to be denied the opportunity to move inside an auto assembly plant and screw objects onto things. Work is the activity that other people value enough to give you a few dollars for every hour of it you deliver to them. It’s the hoped-for activity that leads people to stand in the rain in hopes of obtaining it.
But that’s not work, Levin argues in this poem. Work is love. If we don’t love it, then it’s not worthwhile, not something that deserves to be called work. How do I draw that conclusion from those lines?
The second-person topic of this poem, the “you” that might just as easily have been an “I” finds himself thinking about his brother:
he’s home trying tosleep off a miserable night shiftat Cadillac so he can get upbefore noon to study his German.Works eight hours a night so he can singWagner, the opera you hate most,the worst music ever invented.
You’ve neverdone something so simple, so obvious,not because you’re too young or too dumb,not because you’re jealous or even meanor incapable of crying inthe presence of another man, no,just because you don’t know what work is.