What Work Is: Poems
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What Work Is: Poems

4.25 of 5 stars 4.25  ·  rating details  ·  1,261 ratings  ·  53 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...more
Paperback, 77 pages
Published April 21st 1992 by Alfred A. Knopf (first published April 30th 1991)
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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
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
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
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...more
Nicholas Karpuk
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 familiarit...more
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
Jun 29, 2008 Tom rated it 5 of 5 stars
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.
"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...
Michael Brickey
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.
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...more
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
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
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
Patrick Mcgee
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....more
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.
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.
Sherry Chandler
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
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.
Edmund Davis-Quinn
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.
Patricia Murphy
Was reading a new one so I thought I'd revisit this, which I read in 94. Really love some of the moments here, ""the new elm unleaved/ in public, shuddering with the ache of its growing." "Johnny was dead on an atoll/without a name." My favorite poem, the last, a first line I must borrow: " How could I not know God had a son?"
If not for some gorgeous imagery and nice turns of phrase I'd be tempted to call his writing style 'prosaic' because much of it is plainspoken. Only about half of these got under my skin, but when they did, they were resonant, such as the title poem "What Work Is." (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/what-w...)
Most of the poems in this book are realistic narrative type things and they are really cool. There is this one really long poem that I read twice and have no fucking clue what's going on in most of it but don't let that stop you because you may be better at figuring it out than I was.
Simply, staggeringly good poems. The lines are robust -- Right Cross, and the poems on his blue collar work career (c. 1950) overflow with strong images.
Sandy D.
Wonderful dark, rich poems, full of burning and smoke, mind-numbing day jobs, wax-paper wrapped sandwiches, trains and bottle caps and gin and abandoned houses and kids staring out the windows of elementary schools. Many of the poems are about Detroit.
Aug 12, 2007 Steel rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone who has ever been a wage-laborer
This is a beautiful collection of sensitive, full hearted working-class poems. Read them. One of my favorites is a poem about Bobby Hefka. I can't remember the title exactly, but it's one of my favorites of all time.
I didn't like this as much as Philip Levine's book "Breath." (I love that poem.) I was surprised since this is his most famous book. I did love the title poem ("What Work Is"), though, it is ingenious!
Oct 26, 2007 Al rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
One of the best by one of our best poets. He won the Pulitzer for THE SIMPLE TRUTH because the committee was so embarrassed at not choosing this one. A terrific book. Absolutely fine and true.
Maughn Gregory
Though beautiful, these poems don't in any way romanticize the difficult, dispiriting work they examine, or the lives of those whose bodies and souls are slowly ground down by it.
Alan Brickman
If you own one book of contemporary poetry, this should be it. Great wit, insight, and depth. Ordinary language reveals extraordinary truths. And, in places, funny as hell.
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  • Elegy
  • Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems
  • The City in Which I Love You
  • Donkey Gospel
  • The Country Between Us
  • The Book of Nightmares
  • What the Living Do: Poems
  • Song
  • The Branch Will Not Break
  • What We Carry
  • Some Ether
  • The Dead and the Living
  • The Great Fires
  • My Alexandria
  • Field Guide
  • Blood Dazzler
  • Late Wife
Philip Levine (b. January 10, 1928, Detroit, Michigan) is 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 the United States for 2011–2012.

Philip Levin...more
More about Philip Levine...
The Simple Truth New Selected Poems News of the World Breath They Feed They Lion & The Names of the Lost: Two Books of Poems

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