Another Labor Day is upon us, which means we revisit America’s wordsmith of work, Philip Levine. And man, has this guy done some work: among his accolades are a Ruth Lilly prize, a Harriet Monroe Prize, the Frank O’Hara Prize, a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle award, the American Book Award for poetry, 2 Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, and the National Book Award. Son of Russian immigrants, Mr. Levine worked in a Ford assembly plant in his hometown of Detroit, where he “saw that the people that I was working with . . . were voiceless in a way,” he explained in Detroit Magazine. “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 just hope I have the strength to carry it all the way through.”
May we all be so foolish.
Here’s a poem from probably his most famous collection, What Work Is (1991). Rather than valorizing work though, this selection seems to want to run away from it–just the way a 15-year-old might. Wait, the way a 15-year-old might? I spent the long weekend with people in their 30’s, all of us* dreading Tuesday and the return of work. The way we all do, then. I kninda appreciate the way this poem defines work. How do you see it?
Have a great short week, and work hard,
*Wait, I don’t have a job.
M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School–Detroit, 1942
He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, “What have I done?”
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, “You’ve broken a piece
of chalk.” M. Degas did not smile.
“What have I done?” he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. “M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle.” Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. “It is possible,”
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
“that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn.” I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I’d be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, “You’ve begun
to separate the dark from the dark.”
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.