You Can Have It

Philip Levine

‘You Can Have It’ is a poem about a man’s loss of enthusiasm towards life and his desire to regain the things and people that made it more colorful. The poem conveys this message through the persona’s narrative, set in Detroit in the year 1948.


Philip Levine

Nationality: American

Philip Levine was an American poet born in 1928 in Detroit.

He experienced the Great Depression of the 1930s and the wars of the mid 20th century.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Tireless work can be damaging to the workers

Speaker: Philip Levine

Emotions Evoked: Anger, Empathy, Grief, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'You Can Have It' is written from the poet's own experiences working in a factory in Detroit in 1948. The emotions stirred by the poem are potent precisely because the details of exhaustion and frustration from manual labor are not imagined.

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‘You Can Have It’ by Philip Levine is a narrative poem about the lives of two brothers working in a specific industry. The poem is set in Detroit in 1948, soon after World War II. ‘You Can Have It’ exposes the aftereffects of industrialization through the men’s lives and the latter state of Detroit. The poem is also autobiographical in nature, considering the poet usually wrote about his time working in the industry. Beyond the surface, ‘You Can Have It’ is a poem about a man’s desire to rediscover the parts of life that made it worth living.


‘You Can Have It’ is a wistful poem about the loss of youthful years, the cons of industrialization, and the speaker’s indifference towards life.

‘You Can Have It’ begins with the poet persona telling of his brother who comes home from work exhausted. The persona recounts how they alternated shifts in the factory they worked at, his brother working night shifts while he worked day shifts. He narrates how grueling their jobs were, to the extent that he and his brother looked haggard and ultimately drained of life. Their working conditions are so bad that in stanza four, the speaker points out that they often wonder if they would survive it.

As the poem progresses, the speaker gives more detail about the kind of work he and his brother did. While his brother shipped ice, the speaker stacked drinks. They both work in a factory in Detroit, which according to the speaker, eventually drains the entire town of its life. He tells of how several youths like him wasted their years working for his specific industry.

Afterward, the speaker demands—of an unmentioned entity—to return his wasted years. He rejects industrialization and all he and the town suffered for it. The persona asks for his brother in exchange, so the poem circles back to him. At this point, the speaker’s tone implies that his brother is late.

The version of his brother described at the end is stronger and more vibrant than the tired man at the beginning of the poem. This ends the poem on a wistful note, as ‘You Can Have It’ captures the ultimate desire of its speaker: to be with his brother again.


‘You Can Have It’ is an eleven-stanza poem, each stanza comprising four lines. One would expect this structure to come with a regular rhyme scheme. However, Levine’s poem is written in free verse, with each line differing in meter. The poem has no rhyme scheme.

Levine employs enjambment throughout his poem but uses commas, question marks, and period punctuations to indicate a pause. His periods come at the end of full sentences, even if those sentences spread across a couple of lines or stanzas. Using punctuations in this style is typical of a narrative poem, as they are often written like prose.

Literary Devices

  • Paradox: Paradox is the dominant literary device in ‘You Can Have It.’ The poet uses this device to convey all his themes. Between lines 3-4 in stanza 3, the poet conveys his brother’s indifference toward life with a seemingly absurd statement. He does a similar thing when conveying the theme of industrialization in stanza seven and the theme of loss of youth in stanza 6. Levine’s sentences are worded almost nonsensically, but they all have a deep and real meaning when analyzed.
  • Apostrophe: The title already hints at the appearance of this literary device. At the beginning and end of the poem, the speaker and his brother address an unknown entity simply known as “You.”
  • Enjambment: Enjambment appears throughout the poem. The speaker’s individual thoughts, though full sentences, are often spread across three to four lines.
  • Simile: This is the use of “like” or “as” to compare two things. An example is in stanza 2, between lines 2 and 3.
  • Metaphor: The dominant form of metaphor in ‘You Can Have It’ is implied metaphor. The speaker implicitly compares the loss of his youthful years to the gradual decline of life and activity in Detroit. In stanza 9, he also sees himself and his struggles in the way the city struggles to survive.
  • Personalization: Some instances of personalization appear in stanza 9, line 1 (“city slept”) and stanza 1, line 3 (“bed groan”).
  • Synecdoche: Stanza four harbors the strongest examples of synecdoche. Here, the poet uses parts of the body to refer to the workers in the factories of Detroit.
  • Metonymy: Between stanzas 7 and 8, the poet heavily uses metonymy. For one, “Henry Ford” in stanza seven is a name associated with industrialization, one of the poem’s themes. Other forms of metonymy represent the life of the people in Detroit pre-industrialization.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

My brother comes home from work


one by one. You can have it, he says.

As is common with narrative poetry, the persona begins the poem by describing a scene. The opening narration captivates the audience and sets the overarching tone of the poem, which is gloomy. The poet’s speaker describes his brother coming home from work and groaning, representing the effort it takes to move and reflecting on the long, hard day he experienced at work.

It is not clear what “it” is in line 4, but this adds mystery to the poem, thereby hooking the audience.

Stanza Two

The moonlight streams in the window   


long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Stanza two remains focused on the same scene, with the persona describing his brother’s state. Readers can tell the speaker’s brother is exhausted. His “unshaven face” and ghostly white complexion are telltale signs that the speaker’s brother does not take care of himself. Readers can relate his haggard appearance to the “work” mentioned in stanza one; the speaker’s brother works so hard that he neglects his physical appearance.

One can deduce that he is into manual labor since the speaker gives no indication that appearance matters at this job. Considering the speaker’s brother comes home late and sleeps till noon, one can also deduce that he works the night shift.

Stanza Three

Thirty years will pass before I remember   


and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

Stanza three speeds up the poem. The speaker takes us thirty years into the future, where he presents one of the overarching themes of the poem: the loss of enthusiasm toward life. The speaker reveals this through the wordplay between lines 3 and 4 (“dies when he sleeps” and “sleeps when he rises…”).

He also informs his audience that the feeling of indifference is something every man, and by extension, everyone, can relate to. Here, the speaker describes the ultimate symptoms of burnout, the point where people simply “go through the motions.”

Stanza Four

and that together they are only one man   


for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

In this stanza, the speaker’s intention to show how relatable burnout is becomes clearer. He lumps everyone who experiences burnout in one group: “one man.” Heavily employing synecdoche, he details the things this “man” feels. If readers simply guessed the speaker’s brother’s job was manual labor from previous stanzas, expressions like “always labors” and “hands yellowed and cracked” confirm this.

Stanza Five

All night at the ice plant he had fed


of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time

In stanza five of ‘You Can Have It,’ the speaker refocuses on his and his brother’s story. He informs readers of the specific jobs he and his brother had, which tells us they worked at a factory. Here, readers glimpse the second overarching theme of ‘You Can Have It’: industrialization and its effects. If Levine had not made it clear that his poems were autobiographical, one could have guessed at this point. The speaker gives details too specific to be imagined.

Stanza Six

with always two more waiting. We were twenty   


and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

Stanza six highlights the third theme of ‘You Can Have It’: the death of youth. The speaker describes how his and his brother’s interminable jobs stole their youth. With the expression “wrong clothes” (line 3), the persona tells his audience that their younger years were not supposed to be spent working tirelessly at a factory.

The final line especially reveals the longing the speaker has for the typical experiences that come with youth. It hits hard to realize how fast the speaker transitioned into adulthood, which is, in his case, a struggle for survival. The poet’s persona had already described everyone around him to be in the same state. This situation emphasizes the gloomy undertones of the poem.

Stanza Seven

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded


no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

Readers glimpse into the theme of industrialization in stanza five. Stanza seven elaborates on that, simultaneously giving the poem’s temporal and physical setting. Through the speaker, readers learn of the industrial town of Detroit, founded by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who would later become the governor of Louisiana (in 1710), originally claimed Detroit for his—and the French government’s—trading purposes.

Detroit was only a “site” for fur trading until the arrival of the industrialist Henry Ford. In industrial cities in the United States, factories are established first before people settle around them and build their livelihoods. However, with Detroit, Americans had already settled in this site before Henry Ford acquired it for his purposes.

Today, Detroit is recognized as one of the cities where rapid industrialization took place. But that is so courtesy of people like the speaker and his brother. In a sense, the monopoly on and use of Detroit serves as an implied metaphor for the speaker and his brother. Like them, Detroit was constantly “overworked” for other people’s purposes. It never got to just be a city, like he and his brother never got to be youths.

Stanza Eight

for there was no such year, and now


wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

Stanza eight of ‘You Can Have It’ focuses on how industrialization affected the people of Detroit. The imagery in this stanza is captivating. Using metonymy, the speaker tells of the life that once existed in Detroit. His words create the image of a bustling city where people married, did business, and even learned to drive. This image hits hard because the speaker earlier said, “that year has fallen off.” This means the surge of industrialization in 1948 equaled the decline—and eventual termination—of aforementioned activities.

The speaker is reflecting on the events of 1948, thirty years later, so it is safe to assume industrialization has come a long way. His mentioning in line 1 that there was “no such year” as 1948 is ironic. It is the speaker indirectly telling his audience that no one remembers the things he and Detroit went through for people to enjoy the benefits of industrialization.

It is the same way people, in general, benefit from good things when they are made, forgetting those who struggled to produce those good things. In 1978, the speaker most likely came to realize that people were too busy enjoying the auto industry Henry Ford pioneered to remember the workers who suffered to make Ford’s goal achievable.

Stanza Nine

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.   


between the thousands of cracked squares,

Here, the speaker narrates how the factory he worked at affected the city’s natural environment. From his description, one can tell that industrialization drained the life of Detroit. By painting a picture of how lively the city once was and contrasting that with the imagery of a ghost town, the speaker ensures the emotions readers feel are more potent.

The last line reveals how the town still struggles to survive despite what it’s been through. In this sense, it becomes clearer that the speaker is a physical representation of Detroit, as he himself also struggles to survive.

Stanza Ten

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.   


with its frail light falling across a face.

This stanza transitions into the final theme of the poem: the speaker’s longing for the youthful years he and his brother lost. Apostrophe appears here, but it remains unclear who “you” is. Regardless of the offer the speaker makes, one can guess this entity is transactional. From our speaker’s point of view, at least. “…and that grass died…” in line 1 is an implied metaphor showing that the speaker’s “youth” also died.

Lines 3 and 4 trace back to the beginning of the poem, letting readers know that he not only asks the mysterious “you” to return his youth but also his brother’s. “…a face” in the last line refers to his brother’s face from stanza two.

The speaker’s reminiscing also gives the impression that he longs for the days spent with his brother. Considering ‘You Can Have It’ is an autobiographical poem, one can deduce that Levine was close to his brother, with whom he worked at the time.

Stanza Eleven

Give me back my young brother, hard


all creation and say, You can have it.

The last stanza expands and ends on the theme of longing. It also has the poem coming full circle, starting and ending with the speaker’s brother. Reader’s glimpse of who the speaker’s brother was when he was not drained by work. It is also who exhaustion and frustration made him. By describing his brother, the speaker creates a wistful feeling in the hearts of readers. Although the “you” in the last line is as unclear as in previous lines, it is reasonable to say “it” in line 4 refers to their lives.

More specifically, the speaker and his brother are asking to exchange the daily struggles they went through for what their youth would have been without endless work. ‘You Can Have It’ ends with the titular line, not only adding to the allure of the poem but also showcasing the skills of the poet.


When was ‘You Can Have It’ written?

From the final stanza, one can guess that Levine wrote the poem in 1979. However, ‘You Can Have It’ was published in the collection New Selected Poems in 1991. It was published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

What inspired ‘You Can Have It’?

‘You Can Have It’ is an autobiographical poem, so its inspiration is the poet’s, Levine’s, life. In 1948, Philip Levine and his twin brother, Edward Levine, worked for a long time in a factory. While Edward Levine shipped off the ice, the poet packaged other goods. Levine’s poems often revolve around manual labor, which is what he did for the majority of his life.

What are the themes in ‘You Can Have It’?

The major themes include the cons of industrialization, indifference toward life, and the loss of youthful years and experiences. The speaker in the poem conveys these themes using paradox and metonymy, but his simple language and tone make them obvious to readers.

What is the tone and mood of the poem?

‘You Can Have It’ has a consistent tone of longing, regret, and sadness. The poet recalls a sad time in his and his brother’s life, where they constantly suffered from burnout. Although we see a spark of resentment towards the end, where the poet demands his youth back, the overall mood of the poem is gloomy.

Similar Poetry

If you enjoyed reading ‘You Can Have It,’ you might like these other Philip Levine poems:

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Anastasia Ifinedo Poetry Expert
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.

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