Learning from Philip Levine on – What Work Is

I was watching an interview with Philip Levine as he remembers his life in the Ford’s River Rouge Plant. As he talks about his life there; a time when his young self never knew if he would ever have a way out of there and not even in his wildest dreams did he think it would be poetry.

As he says that the interviewer asks him

“What did you do there?”

Levine says he along with five other people would take an enormous piece of molten steel and put it on a huge press using Tongs. He also says that he never knew what it was that they made. The interviewer chuckles.

Levine then goes on to tell a story when a young kid from West Virginia joins his group to do that same job and asks him that same question.  The Kid asks him “What are we making?”. And Levine replies

“I make $2.15 an hour and I have no idea what you are making”

The kid insists on knowing the answer that Levine did not know. The answer to a question he never thought asking ever. The Kid insists…

“what it is that we are making with this steel?”

Levine probably thought that the kid who asked the question has a right to an answer and so he goes to his foreman and asks the question to which the foreman replies

“stop screwing off and get back to work”

Next year Valentine’s it will be 3 years since Levine left us. And Today I saw this interview and thought I should mention him because he is a poet who has taught the world a lot about work and the working-class. And I want to share with you one of his most famous Poems and one that I like so much

What Work Is – By Philip Levine

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.
-Philip Levine-

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