Philip Levine, 1928-2015

A poet of the working class has died

Phillip Levine photographed by Jill Krementz on September 26, 1995 at his apartment in Washington Square Village.

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 Philip Levine 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.

Phillip and Franny Levine photographed by Jill Krementz on September 26, 1995 at their apartment in Washington Square Village.

Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.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