Poetry Sunday: What Work Is by Philip Levine

Tomorrow is Labor Day in the United States, a day set aside to honor those who keep our society going through the work that they do. It's a day to celebrate the dignity of work and the importance of workers. In another sense, the day honors the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of workers. In this year when so many are out of work and looking desperately for jobs, the day has a particular poignance which Philip Levine catches in his poem.

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.


  1. Good morning Dorothy: It does indeed have a special poignancy in today's world, where the only constant for some is uncertainty. The concept of work is undergoing radical change and what was familiar to those of my generation will probably never return. In Canada there is much philosophical debate about a guaranteed annual income, and some may perhaps never work in the manner in which we have always known it.

    1. Your point is well taken. The concept of work and so much else is changing in our society. For the better? Perhaps. Only time will tell.

  2. Well that one got to me. If only all the essential workers got a bonus this week. If only everyone who needs and wants it had work.

    1. If only indeed. Let us hope for that and do what we can to make it so.

  3. That's stunning. You know how to pick them.


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