By Philip Levine
Original Publisher: Atheneum
Current Publisher: Out of Print
Philip Levine also won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1991 for What Work Is.
John Murillo writes:
Because I came to poetry so relatively late in life, Philip Levine’s 1991 National Book Award-winning volume, What Work Is, was among the first full-length collections I’d ever read cover to cover. I could have done a lot worse than to have Levine as one of my first guides, no? His trademark honesty and image-driven narratives kept me hungry not only for more of his work, but for contemporary poetry in general. From there, I went on to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Simple Truth, his selected poems, his interviews, essays, and memoirs, and further back to his 1980 NBA-winning collection, Ashes: Poems New and Old. For a long while, it was all Levine, all the time. I apprenticed myself to his work and learned much. Problem was, when I started reading other poets, I was disappointed to find that what I loved most in Levine is depressingly rare among his contemporaries. (Rarer, still, among mine, I’m learning.)
What little verse I had read pre-Levine was almost exclusively from the African-American canon, sprinkled in with volumes of political philosophy and a steady diet of what we used to call “conscious” hip-hop. By the time I got to What Work Is, I was well-schooled in such literary movements as the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. I was still listening to tapes from rap’s “Golden Era.” Writers such as Alaine Locke, KRS-One, Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde set up expectations that literature should speak to, from, and about the world we live in; that we read and listen in order to help us understand how we fit into this life. Writers are people writing to other people. So, of course, Levine represents for the little man in the factory. That’s what a good poet, playwright, or emcee is supposed to do. (Consider that if Phil Levine was born about fifty years later, still in Detroit, Marshall Mathers might only be that city’s second most significant rapper; MC Levine’s rhymes would rouse rabble, stir the funky proletariat like a white Tupac Shakur.)
Though I no longer believe so much in “shoulds” when it comes to literature, I’m nonetheless pleased when I happen upon a poem—a good poem—that while providing all the aesthetic joys it does, also serves as a prism through which we can view a world that typically goes unnoticed. No one does it quite like Levine. In the poem that opens What Work Is, “Fear and Fame,” for example, Levine’s speaker walks us through work that, while mundane as all hell, is also life-threatening and necessary—not only for the manufacturer for whom he slaves, but in order for him to earn his daily bread; work that goes unrewarded either by a decent wage or by any recognition from the larger society for its sheer danger, its heroism:
Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes…
His is a knowledge of a select guild, one which very few care to—or would ever have to—enter. Levine’s worker descends, as if into hell, then returns to us:
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.
Levine’s speaker doesn’t sentimentalize his circumstances. He’s not asking for pity or even an “attaboy!” He’s just sharing a bit of his life. And it is what it is.
What it is, is work. The hard work of looking directly into worlds we’d just as soon pretend don’t exist. Levine denies us that luxury at every turn. Throughout this volume and others, he provides us with truths that sometimes cause us discomfort, but always make us more aware and, therefore, more alive.
John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). A graduate of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, he has received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, among others. He is a founding member of the collective, The Symphony, and is currently visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Cornell University. (Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- Stanley Kunitz for The Poems of Stanley Kunitz
- David Wagoner for In Broken Country
Poetry Judges that Year: Not Available
The Year in Literature: Selected Poems by Donald Justice won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Philip Levine (1928- ) was born in Detroit, MI.
- Levine earned his MFA from the University of Iowa where he studied with previous National Book Award Winners John Berryman and Robert Lowell.
- From the NBF Archives: Philip Levine Author Interview by Diane Osen
- Levine's profile at Poets.org
- Levine, The Art of Poetry No. 39, Interviewed by Mona Simpson
The Paris Review, Summer 1988, No. 107
Poetry Everywhere: "Belle Isle, 1949" by Philip Levine
Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation.
Buy the Book: