Home » What Work Is

What Work Is by Philip Levine

“What Work Is” is the titular poem of Philip Levine’s National Book Award-winning collection. It appears as the last poem of the book’s first section. In this poem, Levine shares the interview experience at Highland Park Ford Plant. While standing in the line with other blue-collar candidates, he thinks about the meaning of “work”. Then he goes on to explore the themes of love between brothers and the universal struggle of the workers for survival. It is one of the best-known poems of Levine, oft-read for its simplicity, conversational style, and depth.

  • Read the full text of “What Work Is” below:
Labor Ought Not Be like Time in Pri...
Labor Ought Not Be like Time in Prison | Poemotopia
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.

- from What Work Is (1991)
Analysis of What Work Is by Philip Levine

Summary

Levine’s “What Work Is” begins with a scene of workers standing in a queue in front of the Highland Park Ford Plant. The speaker, without describing his experience, directly asks readers whether they know what work really is. Then, he goes on to narrate the experience of standing in the line for the interview. He, along with other workers, stood in the line, while the rain fell like mist. Suddenly, he noticed a man looking somewhat like his brother. It reminded him of his own brother who worked in the automobile manufacturing plant of Cadillac. He toiled eight hours in the night shift and slept off the shift to learn German. He aspired to be a musician, specializing in German composer Wager’s operas.

While waiting in line, the speaker became emotional thinking about his brother. He thought how long had it been since he told his brother he loved him and cared for him. It is not that he was too passive or arrogant to express his love for his brother. According to Levine, he does not know what “work” truly is.

Structure & Form

“What Work Is” is a free-verse poem without a set rhyme scheme or meter. It consists of a total of forty-two lines grouped together in a single stanza. The speaker of this piece is none other than the poet Philip Levine himself. He begins the poem from the first-person point of view, using the plural pronoun “we” (incorporating a sense of belonging to the working class). After that, he uses the second-person point of view to address readers. It is actually the poet addressing his former self, who went from door to door in search of employment. This piece has a conversational style and the speaker’s tone is subjective.

Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Levine’s “What Work Is” contains the following poetic devices:

Enjambment

This device occurs throughout the poem. Levine uses this device to connect the lines internally and force readers to go through the lines together. For instance, enjambment occurs in the first few lines:

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.

Simile

It occurs in:

  • “Feeling the light rain falling like mist”
  • “narrower across the shoulders than/ yours but with the same sad slouch”

Alliteration

The repetition of the same sound at the beginning of neighboring words occurs in the following instances:

  • long line”
  • same sad slouch”
  • wasted waiting”
  • No,/ we’re not”
  • he’s home”
  • held his”
  • so simple”

Allusion

There is an allusion to German composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner, chiefly known for his operas in the lines, “Works eight hours a night so he can sing/ Wagner, the opera you hate most”. Levine also alludes to the struggling phase of his life in Detroit.

Repetition

The poem begins and ends with the repetition of the titular phrase “what work is”.

Rhetorical Question

Levine uses a long rhetorical question and builds it bit by bit with emotions and love in lines 33 through 36:

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?


Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis

Lines 1-11

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.

In Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is,” the speaker, a jobless man desperately in need of a job, describes his experience of standing in a queue for a substantial time for an interview. The speaker of the poem is none other than the poet himself. In an interview at the National Endowment for the Arts, Levine shared a similar experience and told the interviewer that the incident was the inspiration behind writing this piece.

In this poem, the speaker takes a collective stance by using the pronoun “we” instead of “I”. They stand in the rain in a long queue, waiting at Ford Highland Park, the second American automobile production facility during the early 20th-century. They need work. Before diving deeper into the story, the speaker asks readers whether they know what work is. If they experienced a similar situation at some point, they can relate to his true tale. However, people tend to ignore the past for the associated pain and suffering.

Without wasting any more time, the speaker jumps back into the incident. This tale is about “waiting,” not knowing whether they would get a job or not. He vividly describes the experience of standing in the interview line for hours: “shifting from one foot to another./ Feeling the light rain falling like mist/ into your hair, blurring your vision”. At some point, he notices someone ahead in the line looking exactly like his brother.

Lines 12-22

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.

In order to get a better picture of the person, he rubbed his wet glasses (due to the misty rain) and looked again. It is someone else’s brother. His shoulders are narrower than his or his brother’s. However, he can sense the “same sad slouch” in his posture. Slouch means a lazy, drooping posture. From his standing posture, it can be assumed that he is exhausted from waiting in long lines to get a job.

The person’s grin failed to hide his stubbornness. There is a refusal to give in to rain or rejection. He is aware that the interviewer waiting somewhere ahead in the line holds the key to their future. He can reject without providing any sufficient reason. It is them who badly need the job. These lines provide a better picture of the lives of blue-collar workers and the employment situation during the first half of the 20th-century.

Lines 22-32

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.

There is a shift in the 22nd line. The speaker digresses from the main topic and implicitly converses with himself by addressing readers. This technique helps readers to get in the shoes of the poet and experience the situation. The man standing ahead in the line reminds him of his brother. Thus he can hardly stand there due to the love flooding within him.

Those who are standing along with him are no different than him or his brother. For the sake of basic requirements, he ought to stand there for the interview. He knows if he grabs a position, he would be eating up one of his brothers’ possibilities to get the job. Who knows one of them needs the job more than him.

The speaker somehow feels a sense of security and relief as his own brother is not in the line. He is at home, trying to sleep after working throughout the night at Cadillac. He needs to get up by noon in order to learn German. He works eight hours a night to sing Wagner’s operas. The speaker, none other than Levine, personally hates his operas. It is the worst music ever invented.

Why does the poet say so? Levine was born in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. While growing up, he faced anti-semitism embodied by Father Coughlin, a pro-Nazi radio priest based in Detroit. Hitler was an admirer of Wager’s operas and Nazis used his thoughts for their propaganda. That’s why Levine detested his music. However, his brother had a different take on his music. He praised the “art,” not the antisemitic ideas incorporated by Nazis.

Lines 33-42

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.

In these lines of “What Work Is,” the speaker uses another digression. He shifts from a journalistic point of view to a subjective one. He asks himself how long has it been since he expressed his love to his brother. Besides, he has not said some kind words to him holding his wide shoulders, looking into his eyes. He cannot remember the last time he actually talked with him affectionately. The “work” has really changed him from a person into a machine.

The experience of being a blue-collar worker has changed him profoundly. He has never done something as simple as hugging that is so obvious. It is not that he is too young, dumb, jealous, or mean. It is neither for the incapacity of crying in the presence of another grown-up. The speaker in a resigned tone reiterates, “No”. It is not the case. The reason is simply he does not know what “work” is, or how “work” has erased sympathy, kindness, and compassion from his heart.

Theme

The main theme of “What Work Is” by Philip Levine is the influence of “work” on the human mind. It also explores the themes of brotherly love, struggles for employment, frustration, and passivity. This piece elucidates the experience of the working class. The speaker describes one incident of standing in a long queue to get a job. Suddenly, a man standing ahead in the queue makes him think of his relationship with his own brother. The experience of being a blue-collar worker has changed him substantially. It killed the primal sympathies and changed him into an emotionless machine. This sad fact resonates with the repetition of the phrase “what work is”.

Historical Context

The poem was first published in Philip Levine’s poetry collection by the same title, What Work Is, in 1991. This collection won the National Book Award for Poetry and Los Angeles Times Book Prize. After Levine was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States (2011–2012), the collection became extremely popular. “What Work Is” contains an allusion to the poet’s early life when he had to work in auto factories. In this poem, he shares one such experience he had while waiting for an interview at Highland Park Ford Plant. In an interview with Kristen Dupard, he recounts:

And we stood there, and stood there, and stood there, and it didn’t open ’til 10… I thought about it, though — and I thought, this isn’t an accident. They want people who are willing to stand in the rain for two hours to get a job. You’re passing the serf test.

When Levine finally had the chance, he turned down the offer and walked off. In conversation with Bill Moyers, he told that a news report about a Japanese-American man murdered by a father and son shook him deeply. According to him:

I just couldn’t believe it… I mean, I was just so shocked. And I sat down and started writing.


Questions and Answers

What is the poem “What Work Is” by Philip Levine about?

“What Work Is” by Philip Levine is a poem about the frustration of blue-collar workers standing in a long queue to get a job. The uncertainty and the pain of rejection are other motives of the poem. In this piece, Levine shares the experience of standing at Ford Highland Park for an interview. A man standing ahead of him reminded him of his brother, who worked the night shift at Cadillac. He describes the nature of the work they did and how their work shaped the relationships and the way they felt for one another.

What is the meaning of “What Work Is” by Philip Levine?

Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is” explores the meaning and nature of “work,” particularly that of the blue-collar workers. In this poem, Levine shares a personal experience. In his early life, he had to work in the auto factories of Detroit. The experiences he had there shaped him into the person he is now. The “work” had a lasting imprint on his mind and somehow changed his outlook towards other human beings living in a similar condition.

What attitude toward “work” is conveyed in the poem “What Work Is”?

In “What Work Is,” the attitude toward “work” is realistic, detestation, anger, and frustration. No matter how hard the speaker or his brother tries to come out of the vicious cycle to do the things they really want, they cannot. As a result, it changed the nature of their relationship and their feelings for one another.

How does Philip Levine evoke sympathy for the workers in “What Work Is”?

In this poem, Levine evokes sympathy for the workers by describing the experience of standing in an interview line in the rain for long hours, without knowing whether they would get the job or not. Particularly, the description of the man with “the same sad slouch” highlights the suffering of the working-class men.

What type of poetry does Philip Levine write?

Philip Levine is well-known for his poetry about the working-class, living conditions in industrial Detroit, and concerns for the blue-collar workers. The socio-economic condition of 20th-century Detroit is one of the recurring themes in Levine’s poetry.


Similar Poems about the Working Class 


Useful Resources

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *