Like so many of Philip Levine’s poems, ‘An Extraordinary Morning’ casts a solemn eye toward the working class. Honing in on a scene of quiet revelry as two young men celebrate the end of the workweek as they await the streetcar that will carry them downtown toward a weekend of leisure.
Narrated by the poet’s gently wise voice, the poem portrays these two companions with reverent tenderness. While also rooting the poem in Levine’s desire to capture the everyday camaraderie that buoys humanity through life. Here, that ardent sentiment emerges as a question from the speaker, who earnestly asks: “Are they truly brothers?”
Explore An Extraordinary Morning
‘An Extraordinary Morning’ by Philip Levine illustrates the after-work rituals of two youthful working-class men.
‘An Extraordinary Morning’ opens with the speaker setting the scene: “Two young men” stand waiting for a streetcar to take them downtown. The duo is exhausted and dirty but also elated because their workweek is over, and they’ve just been paid — a paltry sum to others but riches to them. The speaker then inquires about the nature and closeness of their relationship.
They remark to the listener that they might inquire with the “husky one” as they appear to be friendly, especially because of how they dance to the song “Sweet Lorraine.” But if their “mocking tone” is too off-putting, they might ask their companion who stands leaning against the door of a closed restaurant. The speaker tells the reader they should impart how “crucial” it is to know if they share a “brotherly love.”
The speaker reassures the listener that the man won’t get angry because he’s too tired for such a diminishing emotion and too happy to be off work. He won’t laugh either, though he will find your question peculiarly funny. After all, today is considered holy in its own way to both men. They are neither “devout / nor cynical,” and the only way they know how to worship is by doing exactly what they’re currently doing: enjoying a moment of liberating leisure.
Structure and Form
‘An Extraordinary Morning’ is written in free verse and, as a result, lacks any formal meter or rhyme scheme. Its cadence is instead dictated by the lively imagery of Levine’s sentences and the use of caesura. The poem consists of 29 lines that are both end-stopped and contain examples of enjambment.
‘An Extraordinary Morning’ contains the following literary devices:
- Auditory Imagery: imagery that focuses on illustrating sound, as when the speaker describes they way one of the men “sings / ‘Sweet Lorraine'” (11-12).
- Kinesthetic Imagery: imagery relating to movement, as in the “snapping / [of] his fingers while he shakes his ass” (10-11) or “the one whose eyelids flutter in time / with nothing” (15-16).
- Visual Imagery: The poem creates a variety of visual moments of the “two young men—you just might call them boys— / waiting for the Woodward streetcar” (1-2), which include physical descriptions such as when the speaker refers to “the husky one, the one / in the black jacket he fills to bursting” (8-9).
Two young men—you just might call them boys—
waiting for the Woodward streetcar to get
them downtown. Yes, they’re tired, they’re also
dirty, and happy. Happy because they’ve
finished a short work week and if they’re not rich
they’re as close to rich as they’ll ever be
in this town. Are they truly brothers?
In the opening lines of ‘An Extraordinary Morning,’ the speaker establishes the poem’s central characters and subjects as “two young men—you just might call them boys—” (1-2). Even before we’re given an in-depth description of the two men, Levine’s imagery and diction begin to idealize them.
First, he juxtaposes their physical exhaustion and grimy appearance with romantic youthfulness and vitality. They’re tired but also “dirty and happy” (4). Revealing them as beat but also persistently joyful because their workweek has ended and they’re “as close to rich as they’ll ever be” (6).
This leads us to their humbling perception of their respective paychecks. Not only are they happy over anticipating some hard-earned rest and relaxation — but they’re also immensely grateful for the meager sum they have to spend. It’s here that the speaker poses the rhetorical question that echoes for an answer throughout the poem: “Are they truly brothers?” (7)
You could ask the husky one, the one
in the black jacket he fills to bursting;
he seems friendly enough, snapping
his fingers while he shakes his ass and sings
In this next collection of lines from ‘An Extraordinary Morning,‘ the speaker continues their descriptions of the two men waiting for a downtown-bound streetcar. Levine attaches the imagery to the speaker’s suggestions of which of the men the listener should ask this “crucial” (16) question about “brotherly love” (17).
The first man is described as being larger than the other; he is “husky” (8) and “bursting” (9) from the black jacket he wears. But his size is not meant to be intimidating, and the speaker admits he “seems friendly enough, snapping / his fingers while he shakes his ass and sings” (10-11), enrapt in the joyous revelry of the popular jazz standard “Sweet Lorraine.”
Yet the speaker admits that this man’s bold extroversion can giveaway to some teasing or jeering, which might lead the listener to prefer the much more reserved second man. Despite his lack of audacious movement, he is still keenly animate, as the speaker notes his “eyelids flutter in time / with nothing” (15-16).
get angry, he’s too tired for anger,
too relieved to be here, he won’t even laugh
though he’ll find you silly. It’s Thursday,
maybe a holy day somewhere else, maybe
‘An Extraordinary Morning’ continues with the speaker explaining that the men won’t get angry if the listener intrudes upon their celebration and asks them this vital question about brotherhood. Reiterating once more that they are too tired and too relieved to be anything but happy.
The speaker then reveals that it’s Thursday, musing that somewhere, there’s someone who probably considers it a holy day. This allusion to religion adds a spiritual or at least sacred meaning to the men’s revelries. Levine implies that although they are “neither devout / nor cynical” (22-23) and don’t know how to worship, there is still something immensely sublime about the whole scene.
Rooted in their shared jubilation, everything from the song being sung to the way their bodies inhale and exhale, “the used and soiled air” (27) becomes symbols of the admirably robust and sumptuous spirit of the working class individual.
One of the poem’s themes is expressed via the speaker’s marveling tone and descriptions of the two men. Through it is heard Levine’s championing of the day laborer who toils away assuming the burden of America on their broad shoulders. But it also gets at the undercurrent of camaraderie that sustains such men in their essential but still oppressive employment.
Levine often exalts the lives and labors of blue-collar workers in his poetry. This poem takes a slightly different approach and instead examines men who’ve just clocked out for an early start to their weekend. One of the reasons the poet might’ve chosen to focus on their leisure time instead of a moment on the job is because it allowed them to create a portrait of the working man that isn’t solely rooted in their disadvantaged and exploited position.
The poem’s seemingly hyperbolic title highlights Levine’s profound respect for working-class people. One that places immense universal and personal significance upon the simple revelry of two men excited to be off work.
The speaker describes the men’s grimy and dirty appearance in a positive light. Serving as a symbol of their hardy and dedicated work ethic. But it also reveals the prejudices levied towards those who do hard labor that might superficially judge them based on appearances alone.
If you enjoyed this poem by Philip Levine, be sure to check out some more of his works below:
- ‘What Work Is’ – This poem offers another, if not more dismal, illustration of blue-collar work that is similarly imbued with a powerful brotherly love.
- ‘You Can Have It’ – This poem expresses an intense existential weariness over life.
- ‘Animals Are Passing From Our Lives’ – This is an emotional poem that advocates for animals.