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What Work Is by Philip Levine

What Work Is

by Philip Levine

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A few people write so well that the chief reaction to their work is sadness that you'll never see the world as beautifully as they do, only as a reflection in their eyes. ( )
  Michael.Xolotl | Nov 11, 2015 |
It seems that many people in reviewing or talking about this collection characterize it as a series of poems about work, and about the factories and plants in which Levine worked for many years, and they claim that this collection more than any other by Levine meditates on these places and experiences in his life. That is not the case at all. It's true, many of Levine's poems are about work and working people, about their toughness and their tenderness. However, we tend to talk about Levine as if he wrote about work the way Bukowski wrote about drinking and women. Many of Levine's poems are about other things besides work. Here there are poems about graves, about ominous chalkboards, about racism, about childhood, about Jewish identity, about perfecting a strike against a dusty punching bag. Levine is one of the greatest poets of twentieth century America, and to reduce him to somebody who jsut wrote about work in the strictest sense is reductive. As the title poem demonstrates, Levine wrote about work in its widest and most human definition: the labor of compassion and humility. ( )
1 vote poetontheone | Oct 28, 2015 |
Amazing. What Work Is is one of my favorite poems, and the book itself is filled with dozens of others that might as well be. Philip Levine has a perfect knack for capturing experiences that I think are common to, or at least feel common to, most people. ( )
  whimsicalmeerkat | Sep 28, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679740589, Paperback)

If there is such a thing as a working man's poet, then Philip Levine is it. Born into a blue-collar family in Detroit, Levine grew up amidst the steel mills and auto factories of Motor City. Laboring in the plants radicalized both Levine's politics and his art; in early works such as On the Edge and Not This Pig, he explored the gritty despair of urban working-class life, a reality that has continued to run through his later poetry as well. In his 1991 National Book Award-winning What Work Is, Levine revisits the scenes of his youth--only now the factories are shut down, the towns that depended on them devastated. In the title poem, Levine conveys a multitude of meaning in the single image of men standing in line waiting for work:
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours 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.
Factory workers aren't the only subjects here, however; in "Among Children" (an American response to Yeats's "Among School Children") Levine contemplates "the children of Flint, their fathers / work at the spark plug factory or truck / bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs / to the widows of the suburbs." For these children, he contends, the Book of Job would be the most appropriate reading.

What work is, Levine tells us, is the accretion of a lifetime of experiences, compromises, and disappointments. It is drinking gin for the first time at 14, a premature leap into manhood; it is that first job with its double-edged promise of a "new life of working and earning," and later the unrealized dreams of escaping that life. Levine's poems move back and forth in time, touch on issues of race, religion, education--even gardening--and leave the reader with a moving portrait of working-class life from the 1940s to the present day. --Alix Wilber

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:40 -0400)

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