‘What Work Is’ is a powerful poem by Philip Levine that hones in on the existential toll of those who live on the edge of unemployment. Seen through the eyes of a speaker waiting in line for work at a Ford Motor Company factory, the poet’s imagery captures all the soul-crushing gloom of the scene before sinking into a somber stream of conscious monologue.
What begins as a pensive poem about the nature of work eventually becomes one about the courageously vain endurance of men like the speaker’s brother who wait and wait just to be arbitrarily denied an opportunity to work.
Whether read as a sibling’s lament over finally recognizing the long-harbored suffering their brother has hidden behind a smile — or as a larger metaphor for the necessity of empathy and camaraderie amongst working-class people — Levine’s poem offers a cutting perception of work.
Explore What Work Is
‘What Work Is’ by Philip Levine explores the tension that exists between the speaker’s relationship with their brother and their understanding of work.
‘What Work Is’ unfolds as the stream of conscious thoughts of a speaker who is waiting in line in the hopes of being given some work to do. The setting is the Ford Motor Company’s factory situated in Highland Park, Illinois (once a hub of production for the Model-T and the first to assemble cars on an assembly line, by the 1970s, it was an increasingly defunct site).
As they wait, the speaker begins to reflect on the definition of work itself — a line of thinking that is eventually derailed when they mistake another man in line for their brother.
This leads the speaker to begin ruminating on their perception and relationship with their sibling. Ultimately the poem is less about work and more about the speaker’s previous inability to empathize or understand the toll waiting in line just to be refused has on a person.
Structure and Form
‘What Work Is’ is structured into a single stanza composed of 42 lines written in free verse. There is no rhyme scheme or definite meter. However, Levine’s use of enjambment and end-stopped line and the various uses of caesura create a cadence that mirrors typical speech patterns and stream of consciousness.
‘What Work Is’ uses both imagery and figurative language. There are examples of visual imagery: “We stand in the rain in a long line” (1); kinesthetic imagery: “shifting from one foot to another” (7) and tactile imagery: “Feeling the light rain falling like mist / into your hair” (8).
There is also symbolism in “what work is” (3, 42), which the speaker uses throughout the poem. As well as metaphor: “the love flooding you for your brother” (24); and hyperbole: “the worst music ever invented” (32).
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
‘What Work Is’ opens on a dreary scene: a group of men stands waiting “in the rain in a long line” (1), hoping there will be some work available. The speaker tersely explains they’re there for work and assumes that even if the reader isn’t old enough to do work themselves, they no doubt know what it is.
In this way, Levine introduces one of the common motifs found in his poems: the ubiquitous and, at times crushing presence that industry and capitalism have on the lives of working people.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
The speaker then expresses their annoyance — owed to the rain and uncertainty of their waiting for work — with a reminder that this poem isn’t about the reader though. “Forget you” (6), they declare shortly. This line could also be interpreted as an inward chastisement, which makes sense given how the poem eventually shifts away from the speaker and towards their brother.
Then they declare this poem is “about waiting” (6) and not necessarily just work. A variety of imagery is then used to describe the experience of waiting: the “shifting from one foot to another” (7), which calls to mind an anxious fatigue; then there are the effects of the rain itself, which obscure the speaker’s vision enough that they think they see their brother waiting ahead of them in line.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
Except it turns out not to be the speaker’s brother — after rubbing away the moisture, they realize it’s “someone else’s brother” (13). Levine’s diction is crucial as it shies away from identifying the unknown man as simply a stranger by opting to establish some sort of camaraderie by finding common ground in having a sibling.
Empathy is further established as the speaker examines the man’s shape in the rain and finds similarities to their own brother: they share “the same sad slouch” (15); a smile “that does not hide the stubbornness” (16); and a “sad refusal to give in to / rain, to the hours of wasted waiting” (17-18).
The speaker describes them as waste (and it’s important to remember they, too, are still waiting like this person they’re projecting the image of their brother upon) because work is not guaranteed simply because they wait for it. No small amount of frustration and contempt is expressed when the speaker describes the man waiting at the end of the line who will reject all those waiting “for any / reason he wants” (21-22). That kind of seemingly arbitrary control over such an essential part of life (i.e., the ability to find work and make a living) is an existential crisis in itself.
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
All the imagining the speaker does thinking of their brother moves them to a deep sense of empathy and sympathy for their sibling. Moving forward with their stream of consciousness, they describe the “love flooding” (24) them and their now impossible-to-ignore absence.
The reason they’re not there beside or behind the speaker is that they’re at home, sleeping off a “miserable shift” (27) at a Cadillac factory they worked the night before. But it’s also because he needs to get up “before noon to study his German” (29) so he can sing Wagner. The speaker empathizes with the kind of horrible work they both are forced to suffer through.
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
‘What Work Is’ ends on a somber note as the speaker’s introspections turn increasingly critical of their relationship with their brother. They question the last time they actually voiced their love for them or held them by their “wide shoulders” (34) and, with “eyes wide” (35), said the words — “maybe kissed his cheek?” (36)
These images of expressing intimacy and appreciation through verbal and physical means are beautiful but saddening, as the speaker admits they’ve never done “something so simple, so obvious” (37).
When the speaker searches for a reason why they’ve never tried to show their brother love, they come up with a handful of excuses that just don’t ring true. It’s not because of youthful naivety or the presence of any malcontent between the siblings — nor is it owed to some masculine inability to show emotion to another man.
Instead, it’s something much more innocuous though no less a barrier: “You don’t know what work is” (42), the speaker tells themselves. In essence, the speaker (who is possibly the younger brother) doesn’t yet understand the toll work and waiting for work has on a person. Only by waiting for work themselves do they begin to empathize with those like their brother, men who have spent most of their lives waiting like this in the rain, harboring some small hope that it won’t be futile and their patience won’t be vain.
While at first, it might appear the poem is solely about the speaker’s thoughts and experiences with finding work, it’s clear by the end that it also dwells heavily on their brother. A central theme of the poem might focus on the speaker’s newfound empathy for their brother (and, by extension, the other men in line) after experiencing the very specific anguish of having to wait for work that is never guaranteed. Only after experiencing such a wait themselves are they able to reflect on the silent turmoil endured by these men. This, in turn, spurs the speaker to realize how they’ve failed in expressing their love to their sibling.
The poem opens with the speaker seemingly about to define what work is — but then never does. By the end of the poem, they’ve concluded that their lack of understanding regarding the meaning or definition of work is the reason they’ve never initiated a more intimate relationship with their brother. One interpretation of work could see it as synonymous with waiting — work is waiting, the speaker seems to insinuate — and work is never promised to the man who waits and endures the longest. As a result, work is illustrated as a necessity to these men, but one kept precariously out of reach in a soul-crushing manner.
Even if the poem isn’t semi-autobiographical, it still presents themes that Levine often explores in his poetry, from the camaraderie of working-class people to their grueling treatment by those who employ them.
This small vignette in the poem emphasizes the speaker’s love for their brother by highlighting a part of them they find somewhat annoying or at least don’t understand. This parallels the speaker’s prior lack of recognition of what work is and means to their brother. Although they themselves hate Wagner, they concede and maybe even admire their brother for their dedication to it.
- ‘They Feed They Lion’ by Philip Levine – this poem vividly presents an uprising of oppressed peoples.
- ‘Woman Work’ by Maya Angelou – this poem celebrates the work done by women and views it as not only essential but with immense purpose.
- ‘Work without Hope’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – this poem meditates on the nature of work not just done by humans but throughout the natural world.