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What Work Is and Why It Matters: Mourning Philip Levine

What Work Is and Why It Matters: Mourning Philip Levine

It’s probably an exaggeration to say that Philip Levine saved my sanity. But not by much. He wrote some words once, and I read them 10 years later, and they gave me back my creative life.

Oh, yes,
let’s bless the imagination. It gives
us the myths we live by. Let’s bless
the visionary power of the human—
the only animal that’s got it

But let’s back up.

At 15 I got my first job at a frozen custard joint down the road.  This was, by the way, not some act of torture on the part of my parents; some of my friends out here on the East Coast seem to regard working at fifteen as akin to being a Victorian chimney sweep. This was an exciting milestone—money in my pocket, earned by me!—and one I and just about every other teenager I knew waited for with some degree of impatience. Sure, the drudgery of the work became quickly apparent, the excitement wore off—but that too was what everybody did, what everybody knew about work. In my middle class neighborhood, work was what made you—it was what your parents did all day long, and what they came home and talked about at dinner or between shifts, and it was what you knew you would be doing for the rest of your life, too, until that nebulous retirement thing finally happened to you. Work wasn’t everything, but it was everywhere.

Since then, I’ve only ever not worked for a few months at a time—at least according to that Social Security Administration statement they mail out every year. A small sample of the jobs I’ve had: bookseller, telemarketer, video chain store cashier, greeting card company cashier, life drawing model, used car lot employee, and cosmetics salesperson. In order to make money I’ve also worked at a dinner theater, ghostwritten a novel for a Vietnam vet, and sold a whole lot of plasma. Just about the only kind of job I never had was a server at a restaurant, mostly because I knew I would be a disaster at it.

And this wasn’t unique. Where I went to college, everybody worked. You either had a part time or maybe even a full-time job—and maybe even two. My friends and I all worked nights and weekends, had crappy closing shifts then hit the bar after, so it didn’t seem like a hardship. Plus I liked meeting so many people—not just students but older people and working moms and immigrants and dudes with jobs just to support a car stereo habit and PhD students and people who didn’t finish high school and even a professional bodybuilder with the thickest neck I’d ever seen in my life. Sure, working sucked (by that point the excitement was long gone) but most of us were artists, painters and writers and actors and musicians, so we knew we’d be doing this for the rest of our lives, or at least a really long-ass time. I was acting, and writing, and playing in a band, and if tiring, life was sort of bohemian and fun, too.

But after college, after 9/11 and the crash, I got laid off from a pretty decent job and got a string of lousy ones. I was working full-time at exhausting retail jobs while my boyfriend and later, husband was in grad school, and we never saw each other. I was barely acting, had quit the band, and I stopped writing altogether. For five years. And I didn’t think I’d ever write again, ever be a creative person again. I saw my life, a series of exhausting retail jobs, cycling in a hopeless Mobius strip.

The one thing that kept me sane was poetry. I was too tired to read much fiction, but before my night shifts I would drive to the Barnes and Noble, buy a tall coffee, and pick out a poetry book or two to read for a couple of hours before I had to start work. I couldn’t afford to buy books then, so I treated the store like a library, working my way slowly through the (at the time, quite large) poetry section. And I stumbled across Philip Levine’s “What Work Is” in an anthology one afternoon and I couldn’t believe it. The poetry I had been reading was all wonderful—was abstract, was formidable, was intense—but it wasn’t about anything connected to my own life or the people I knew. That may have been part of the attraction, the remove of it – but it also made Levine’s work seem like something impossible, a question that I’d never even thought to ask: could the lives of working people be poetry? Could the stuff of the mundane be transcendent?

Apparently, it could. At least in the hands of this particular poet. As Dan Piepenbring writes in the Paris Review:

In Levine’s best work, the political, the personal, and the poetical seem less intertwined than indivisible: his great subject may have been, as he put it, “the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit.”

There are poems we need at different places in our lives, and this was exactly what I needed then. The day, the week, the world didn’t give a shit, and I couldn’t get far enough past the horizon to see when it might again. So instead I immersed myself in the words, the stories, the people portrayed by this marvelous poet with so much compassion and insight. I felt visible, that I mattered again. I read as much of his work as I could find with this hunger for visibility. And I read about him, too: read that he was from Detroit, that he knew and had lived the lives of blue collar workers, factory workers. I read his own words about his writing, how he said that:

I saw that the people that I was working with … were voiceless in a way … In terms of the literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or I’ve tried anyway.”

I had read bad poetry and bad fiction about working people. I had read the sort of thing purporting to uplift but revealing instead only condescension, a callous lack of understanding—the sort of thing written by people who never worked a day outside of academia. (A few years ago I met one of these writers in person, and she told me proudly that her ancestors, just like me, had “worked with their hands.” This, she assured me, meant that “the people” would always have her sympathies.) Bad writing about workers usually presumes no inner life, no substance, no dreams or hopes beyond a simple animal drudgery that can only be heroic in a brute, base sense.

But Levine’s was not that kind of poetry. He understood, having been there himself, the way a dream gets deferred but not dried up. He understood exhaustion did not trump the need for art but that, sometimes, it burned away the path to art. And that sometimes, too, work paved that path, made it possible. In “What Work Is,” he writes:

…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.

Levine wrote about work because he wrote about people—and to him, work was what people were. Work was a big part of the human story. Levine on the problem of the “unpeopling of poetry:

“Except for the speaker, no one is there. There’s a lot of snow, a moose walks across the field, the trees darken, the sun begins to set, and a window opens. Maybe from a great distance you can see an old woman in a dark shawl carrying an unrecognizable bundle into the gathering gloom.”

When people do appear in poems, Mr. Levine added: “Their greatest terror is that they’ll become like their parents and maybe do something dreadful, like furnish the house in knotty pine.”

Levine’s poems gave my life back to me, in a strange way. They gave my life grace. Just the simple act of recognition—of myself, my co-workers in the poems—gave me back the idea that I could still live a life full of art. They reminded me that work, yes, can make us, and yes, can break us; and yet, we should accord it no more and no less importance than that. With Levine I relearned that the voices we have come from just being humans, alive on this earth, and that we should never surrender those voices.

I decided to start writing again. I went to graduate school for politics (working all the while) and when I wrote my thesis, I didn’t forget Levine and those transcendent moments with his words. I wrote my thesis on the need for more (and better, less dogmatic) writing about working class people. In the years since, I have seen fewer and fewer working class voices emerge, even as more and more of America slips out of the middle class and as retail and service sector jobs become worse and worse, thanks to greedy CEOS and Wall Street. We can scare afford to lose voices like Levine, who can speak to what life is like for most of America in our decline. “You know what work is,” wrote Levine:

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.
Rest in peace, Philip Levine. You will be greatly missed, by the people who know exactly what work is and why it makes us more, not less human.

Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection MAY WE SHED THESE HUMAN BODIES and co-author of the novella THE DESERT PLACES (with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish.) Her second short story collection, THE UNFINISHED WORLD AND OTHER STORIES, will be published in early 2016 at Liveright/Norton.

About The Author

Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection MAY WE SHED THESE HUMAN BODIES and co-author of the novella THE DESERT PLACES (with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish.) Her second short story collection, THE UNFINISHED WORLD AND OTHER STORIES, will be published in early 2016 at Liveright/Norton.

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