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What Work Is

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  2,129 ratings  ·  94 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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4.27  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,129 ratings  ·  94 reviews

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Justin Tate
Nov 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Didn't exactly speak to me, but after a few poems I started to appreciate the beauty in describing hard labor, especially in Detroit in the 40s and 50s. This type of life is not where I expected to find poetic verse, and yet Levine was there and able to put it all into lines. I had my highlighter handy and marked many inspired images and phrases. Even though only a few of the poems were true winners for me personally, all were rewarding in their own way. I read poetry so rarely that it's always ...more
May 28, 2013 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
Mar 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful, almost painfully so at times.
Jan 26, 2011 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
Aug 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I just loved it. Poetry that takes the daily routines or moments of oneslife or the dreayiness of it all and turns it into something else is my favorite kind of poetry. Poems that feel more like narratives or glimpses of life, I think are the kind of poems that can make people really connect.
Apr 04, 2013 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
Michael Brickey
Jan 22, 2009 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.
Jun 29, 2008 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.
Feb 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018, poetry
There are already some amazing reviews for this collection of poetry, so I’ll confine mine simply to why I gave this five stars.

Several of the poems describe work, as the title implies, and what many of us know as America. Many men in my family worked physically hard: factories, migrant farm workers, punch in, punch out. Bone deep and bone tired, moving restlessly from one job to the next or forever stuck. Levine let’s everything unfold about America - this America - in such a lyrical and pure w
Sara Batkie
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 rated it really liked it
Shelves: male-writer, poetry
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 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 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 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 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.
Sherry Chandler
Dec 08, 2012 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.
Dec 17, 2011 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.
Velvet Jane
Oct 20, 2012 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 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 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 rated it really liked it
Powerful and gritty poetry by an urban master.
Rondrea King
Apr 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
For the People

When discussions of economics, war on America, and issues of the working class are in motion, we place it with politics; however, poetry covers every spectrum of this when it comes to the work of Philip Levine. Hitting on sensitive topics such as the effects of physical labor, the clash of classes, family, relationships, and personal loss, Levine goes in very direct in a way to bring light to these subjects that a lot of people, as well as politicians, are afraid to. Some may say
Robin Friedman
Dec 30, 2016 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
Keifer May
Jul 03, 2017 rated it liked it
It's not that it was a bad book or that Levine isn't amazing. I found myself having a hard time clicking with a lot of these poems. I set this book down way too easily and it took too long for me to get through.

That is not to say that there aren't gems in this collection. Levine at his highest is untouchable (and he reaches that in this book), but a lot of the material sagged for me. Some of the line breaks had me scratching my head (jagged cuts on prepositions in a sincere story poem with a so
Jul 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: classic, poetry
I was very into poetry in grade school at the encouragement of one of my teachers, but it waned as I got older, though I still enjoyed the idea of it. In college, writing poetry became the only way I knew how to breathe or speak and the first class I signed up for on the subject had us read Levine's poem What Work Is. I'd read it before in high school, but I was struck by Levine's writing in the moment because he describes something angelic in the simplest of English. I've finally got around to ...more
Apr 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018-highlights
For me poetry is the most difficult kind of literature to read and write as well. It is so very hard to be honest even when one fabricates a whole new world to one's liking, which is to say, even when one is lying and detachment is so easy to set in you don't notice it and when you do, if you do, you can't fix it. I've read some awful stuff from the same poets who gave me some of the most beautiful verse I've ever read. This is an excellent collection of 25 free verse poems about working men and ...more
Laurie Holding
Dec 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
I liked this volume even more than the one that won last year's Pulitzer for Poetry (The Last Shift), and my favorite was "Soloing", about the poet driving to be by his ailing mother's bed in California where she's listening to John Coltrane, "a young Trane/playing his music with such joy/and contained energy and rage/she could not hold back her tears....'he was alone', she says, and does/not say, just as I am, 'soloing.'/What a world, a great man half/her age comes to my mother/in sleep to give ...more
Jun 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, 2019
Philip Levine is one of my favorite poets. Raised in Detroit and working in a car factory before he became a poetry professor, his voice reminds me so much of home, and I love how he brings meaning to the monotonous workday of people, like my father and my grandfathers, who worked on the assembly line.

The title poem is still my favorite for the reasons I state above. I was also a fan of Facts (“I get cold easily as though / I lacked even the solidity to protect my own heart.”), Coming Close (“yo
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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.”
More quotes…