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What Work Is

4.26  ·  Rating Details ·  1,849 Ratings  ·  75 Reviews
Winner of the National Book Award in 1991
“This collection amounts to a hymn of praise for all the workers of America. These proletarian heroes, with names like Lonnie, Loo, Sweet Pea, and Packy, work the furnaces, forges, slag heaps, assembly lines, and loading docks at places with unglamorous names like Brass Craft or Feinberg and Breslin’s First-Rate Plumbing and Plat
Paperback, 77 pages
Published April 21st 1992 by Knopf (first published April 30th 1991)
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May 28, 2013 Ann rated it it was amazing
I love Philip Levine's poems. They aren't like anything else in the landscape of American poetry. Levine, who is from Detroit and writes about blue collar laborers (he worked industrial jobs in his youth), has a passionate, clear, narrative form. The reader follows his poems in loops down the page; poems that are hard and filled with love. Poems that are dream-like, terrible yet hopeful. Levine is a rightful heir to Whitman and Lorca: a populist and a radical. The cover photo, "Spinner, cotton m ...more
Jan 26, 2011 David rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
This was one of my favorite collection of poems when it was first published and I began taking poetry seriously. I am not a narrative poet at all, but these are the poems I wish I could write, if I had been a story-teller. Tough and spare in style (I couldn't help but notice how all of his lines end with hard nouns), skeptical of ideas and authority, and masterful in the way Levine recollects and lays out the personal, formative narratives of his youth and beyond (and, by the way, also those aro ...more
Amazing. What Work Is is one of my favorite poems, and the book itself is filled with dozens of others that might as well be. Philip Levine has a perfect knack for capturing experiences that I think are common to, or at least feel common to, most people. I've now read this twice and will read it again, probably multiple times. I cannot say I have ever felt anything more than passing interest when someone was named Poet Laureate, but that changed when Philip Levine was named this year. I will def ...more
Apr 04, 2013 Helen rated it really liked it
Levine's book of poetry, What Work Is, is exactly that. A collection of poems that define work, the kind we do for money, the kind we do for love, the kind we do for understanding. They're beautiful, artful narratives chock full of vivid imagery.

For example, in the poem Innocence, Levine describes how earthmovers:

...gripped the chained and stripped trunks,
hunched down and roared their engines, the earth
held and trembled before it gave, and the stumps
howled as they turned their black, prized g
Jun 29, 2008 Tom rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
"You have begun to separate the dark from the dark."

This line from "M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School" hints at the depths of Levin's poetry.

Suggestion: Check out Diego Rivera's famous "Industrial" murals, at Detroit Institute of Art while reading this book.
Michael Brickey
Jan 22, 2009 Michael Brickey rated it it was amazing
This collection of poems transformed my life. Levine's ability to expose grandeur through the purportedly mundane will inspire you to see life for what it truly is: hard, dirty, unlucky, magnificent.
Apr 02, 2017 Sara added it
A collection of hymns to a dying way of life in the United States. Incantatory, tough, but also imbued with a steely beauty, Levine's poetry feels unique to this country; it could only have been borne from the automotive plants and coal mines that, for a time at least, made up the bulk of our industry. The first section, which includes the title poem, is the strongest but the entire collection is essential to understanding the particular myth making of America, how the false promises of pulling ...more
Diann Blakely
Those who have read the poems that Philip Levine has produced in his thirty years of writing know that perhaps no other living poet has earned so fully the right to tell us "what work is." The various "grease-jobs," as he calls them, held in his native Detroit in his earlier days have provided him through fifteen books with a wealth of material that he has transmuted into fierce and gritty praise songs of the dignity of human labor. Levine's poems, in this new collection and before, celebrate th ...more
Jan 01, 2010 Valerie rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, male-writer
Everyone knows the title poem in this collection. It's a great poem. I decided to read this after hearing this poem read by Levine on Poetry Magazine's website. It reminded me that I should read some more of his poems.

It is hard to write a review of someone as prominent and well-liked as Levine, especially when it is the old work that made them famous, and especially when you think that he's great too. We pretty much all agree: he's wonderful. He sculpted Contemporary American Poetry.

The only th
Oct 29, 2011 Ben rated it liked it
The poems here largely remind me of a scene in Steve McQueen's film Hunger in which a man mops the hall of the cell block. Watching the scene, it's like he's starting at the end of the hall and (given the slow-core poetic of the film) you're damn sure the camera will follow him down the whole hall. So at the beginning it's a groan. Then it's boring. Then something happens just passed half way down the hall. This guy's mopping is like saying something really difficult to put into words. And, then ...more
Nicholas Karpuk
Dec 22, 2011 Nicholas Karpuk rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Right here is a collection to put hair on yer chest!
Of all the Philip Levine books out there, I feel like I started with the most stereotypical. All the reviews of his work highlight the gritty, working man quality of his writing, and I grabbed the book that’s almost entirely devoted to those slices of blue-collar labor.
I’m not much of a poetry enthusiast, but for my poetry writing class I had to pick a poet and make a presentation about their work. Since the poets I actually had some familiar
Mar 06, 2013 Glen rated it really liked it
I would have given this a five star rating had the focus on work and workplace-related images and insights persisted throughout, but the last fifth or so of the collection veered off into the personal and more conventionally poetic. That said, this is a fascinating cycle of poems that underscore the reality that, at some level at least, there is inherent dignity in all work, which is odd given how badly we tend to speak of it at the same time that we acknowledge its necessity and seek it passion ...more
Patrick Mcgee
May 02, 2012 Patrick Mcgee rated it really liked it
My ongoing trek to read every poem ever written and published by Levine continues. For me, "What Work Is" is not as good as "The Simple Truth" and, as a result, I would give it 4.5 stars. Still excellent; I just thought "The Simple Truth" was superior. I may also be a bit biased considering that his Pulitzer Prize winning book is what really got me thinking that I wanted to write poetry like his someday. It was my watershed moment as an aspiring poet and writer. If you like Levine, check it out.
Dec 17, 2011 Courtney rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
Beautiful working-class portraits from the current poet laureate. Phillip Levine is a joy to read.

From "The Right Cross"
We rise, drop our faces
in cold water and face the prospect
of a day like the last one from which
we have not recovered...
fight for nothing
except the beauty of their own balance
the precision of each punch.
I hated to fight. I saw each blow
in a sequence of events leading
finally to a winner and a loser.
Yet I fought as boys were told to do,
and won and lost as men must.
Sherry Chandler
Dec 08, 2012 Sherry Chandler rated it it was amazing
Shelves: thepoets
A cataclysm occurred in my life while I was reading this book back in the summer. It was only recently that, pulling my life back together, I discovered that I hadn't actually read the last half dozen poems. And so I nearly missed "The Seventh Summer" and "The Sweetness of Bobby Hefka." That would have been most unfortunate.

Many thanks to the friend who gave me this book to recover by. Many hours of pleasure in this volume.
Velvet Jane
Oct 20, 2012 Velvet Jane rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
You will taste machine oil and smell ice blocks in this collection of poetry by the former Poet Laureate of the United States. What the Romantics attempted to do in celebration of the common man is actually accomplished by Philip Levine in this collection. Levine delivers the rotten teeth and bald tires of a life half produced on the production lines of Detroit.
Jan 16, 2008 Karli rated it it was amazing
"You don't know what work is." Philip Levine's poems reconnect me to my working class background. They draw up all the emotion and struggle of survival. Confessional, autobiographical, and somehow universal...
Aug 18, 2015 Mike rated it it was amazing
A few people write so well that the chief reaction to their work is sadness that you'll never see the world as beautifully as they do, only as a reflection in their eyes.
Oct 04, 2014 Diane rated it really liked it
Powerful and gritty poetry by an urban master.
Robin Friedman
Dec 30, 2016 Robin Friedman rated it it was amazing
American Toughness

It is sad that we in the United States do not appreciate the strength and the variety of the poetry that our country has produced. A major instance of a contemporary poet whose writing deserves attention from a wider readership is Philip Levine. His book, "What Work Is" won the National Book Award for poetry in 1991. He has produced an impressive quantity of poetry which, in its very restraint and poignancy, can help bring meaning to people.

This is a short collection, consistin
Lindsay Jack
Nov 04, 2016 Lindsay Jack rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2016
Levine's work didn't grip me quite at first but I felt connected to the work and the stories by the end of the book. It's a subtle work that runs deep. I've come from three generations of steel and textile workers. Levine could have easily been my own grandfather. It's wonderful to have finally found a collection from the voice of my people. I'm so thankful to have found this necessary work.
tortoise dreams
Feb 23, 2017 tortoise dreams rated it really liked it
The National Book Award winning poetry collection by American author Philip Levine.

Poetry Review: What Work Is surprises even with its title, not one expected on a poetry collection, even as the poignant cover photograph reminds us that "work begins at seven" once referred to age rather than the clock. The 25 poems in this book (one 18 pages long) are relentlessly good, as usual displaying Levine's immense craftsmanship and almost perfect mastery over his field. To learn to write poetry, just re
Jan 15, 2012 Jsavett1 rated it liked it
This is our current Poet Laureate's most well known collection. Part one is comprised of the kind of poems which have defined Levine's oeuvre, hymns to the blue-collar, paeans to the downtrodden. If Bruce Springsteen had never picked up a guitar and had been raised in Michigan, he would have written this book. But I have to say something sacrilegious: I don't feel that Levine's poems about "what work is" are his strongest. Saying so feels the same to me as saying anything not glowing and thankfu ...more
Aug 31, 2008 Michelle rated it it was amazing
There’s an astonishing reverence for the tedious, repetitive work of the “common” laborer in Levine’s poems. He ignites the reader’s awareness of the everyday experience of human beings normally overlooked, raising those lives we take for granted to the level of something beautiful and sacred. Through hardcore detail and gifted insight, the poems soar beyond the stories they set out to tell. His narratives are full of surprising turns and revelations. They tend to be long and epic in proportion, ...more
Sep 19, 2014 Tristan rated it really liked it
Just finished this book today. I'm torn between a four star and a five star rating. This was an incredibly solid collection with a number of wonderful poems; my personal favorites are "Growth", "What Work Is", and "Above the World". I eventually settled on a four-star rating because, despite all its strengths (and it has many), I didn't fall in love with this book the way I did with News of the World. This collection had poignancy, beauty, flow, and elegance, but it was lacking the finely tuned ...more
Feb 17, 2015 Jay rated it really liked it
Philip Levine documents the lives of factory workers and navvies. He does so in a believable and accurate manner, but he always stops short of the big questions. It's as though for his characters being assigned to a permanent underclass is acceptable and accepted by them. I know Levine despised Bukowski's anti-academicism, anger and rage, but I think I prefer rebellion and rage against benign indifference to acceptance.

I like Levine's poetry insofar as it gives a voice to a class that is usually
Jan 01, 2017 Eric rated it it was amazing
I'm no student--let alone a connoisseur--of poetry, but this was just magical. Makes me want to write poetry, it's so good. (Not that I would even come close to crafting a line as sublime as Levine's.)

Again, it's hard not to view all art through the post-election lens these days, but the poems of the first section of the book felt like requiems for the manual laborers of American lore. They really make one appreciate the meaning, purpose, and camaraderie such work gave so many people in our cou
Apr 08, 2015 Faith rated it liked it
Reading some poetry for National Poetry Month and this seemed like a good place to start. I heard Levine read some of his poems at the National Book Festival a few years ago and really enjoyed them. He recently passed away and so was on my mind again. I found that I connected more to the poems I had heard him read out loud and wished he or someone else skilled at such things could read the others to me. I do like poetry best that way.
May 16, 2007 Jordan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
a really great poet originally from the east coast, however taught and lived in fresno for many years. he gets the central valley. he gets it good. beautifully calm voice, reads in long stanza form. the poems are almost like small vignettes, each a sort of story, reaching back or ahead into the still moments of time passed or maybe to come...handling, examining everying gingerly, with wise hands

favorite poems: fire, growth, agnus dei, gin.
Edmund Davis-Quinn
Apr 02, 2012 Edmund Davis-Quinn rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, poetry
Amazing pickup in my $3 bag of books at the Walker Library book sale. Excellent poetry about the challenges of working people, alive in verse. Recommended.

Really solid poetry, beautiful language. Planning to give this away for other poets to read in the Portland area.

Looking forward to reading his selected poems.
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Philip Levine (b. January 10, 1928, Detroit, Michigan. d. February 14, 2015, Fresno, California) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet best known for his poems about working-class Detroit.

He taught for over thirty years at the English Department of California State University, Fresno and held teaching positions at other universities as well. He is appointed to serve as the Poet Laureate of t
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“No one that night turned
into literature, nothing that we did or didn't
entered the mythology of boys growing into men
or girls fighting to be people.”
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