It was really something to go to NYU at night in the early 90s, take the E train downtown and walk across a very beat up Washington Square Park. Upstairs, I’d walk into my graduate poetry class. One of my first professors was Philip Levine, who had just published What Work Is, which would win him the National Book Award later that year. In 2011, he would become the poet laureate.
Philip Levine was a brilliant instructor, a brilliant poet, delightful in every way. He admired New York City but spoke longingly of the dust and solitude of Fresno, where he normally taught. He was full of praise when the poem was good, gentle when it wasn’t. He loved to tell us stories of working in Hamtramck, a forgotten Detroit island of steel where he used to build cars. He hated, hated, NASA and any spending on space. He’d seen enough poverty to think money we spent should be for the people on Earth.
We sat around an old wooden table and read our work out loud, and Levine cut and welded the words with precision, much as he must have worked at the auto yards. On the last night of class, he brought us a bottle of red wine, real grown-up wine in a bottle, the best red I’ve ever tasted. Somewhere in my basement is a notebook where he wrote down the name of it for me.
I saw him one more time when he had a book reading and signing in a gorgeous bookstore in Greenwich Village that is probably gone now. He was so happy to see us—the weather was awful—and grateful we bought his books, What Work Is and The Bread of Time. The poem below is one I’ve quoted to myself, to others (sometimes in anger), and always with reverence for the writer.
All of us were just starting to use computers to work (and all of us printed in Courier, one of the only fonts available at the computer lab) and Levine told us that he did a search of his work to find the word he used most often. It was hideous.
What Work Is
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.