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There’s Work and Work–Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”

Philip Levine (1928-2015)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 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.
The brother understands work. Work does not simply involve punching a time clock and putting taillights on Ford Tauruses. It’s only worthy of being called work when you sacrifice for it, when you work nights and study German to sing Wagner. That’s work. Anything less is just employment.
Our hero here–“You”–doesn’t fully understand that. He shows no tendency to sacrifice for something worthwhile. He can’t even go out on a limb to express his love–genuine but unexpressed love–for his brother.
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.
Levine is not and never was the Christian voice of America, but he seems to understand the sort of thing that Jesus tries to convey in John 15:12-13: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Near the beginning of the poem, Levine dismisses those who know what work is but don’t do it with a curt “Forget you.” He seems to be reaching for a working-man’s commonplace: Someone who won’t work isn’t worth much. But then he extends that definition of work and the implications of what it means to be a shirker. A man who won’t work isn’t worth much, but a man who won’t do the work of sacrificing himself for something greater is equally worthless–maybe more so.
That’s my take, with Philip Levine not even in the grave yet. Perhaps I’ll amend my thoughts later.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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