Philip Levine: From Auto Worker To Poet Laureate

Studio 360

Last week, the Library of Congress named Philip Levine the country's 18th poet laureate of the United States, succeeding W.S. Merwin.

"He's the laureate, if you like, of the industrial heartland," librarian of Congress James Billington said of Levine. "It's a very, very American voice. I don't know that in other countries you get poetry of that quality about the ordinary workingman."

Growing up in Depression-era Detroit (at 83, he's one of the oldest laureates to be appointed), Levine worked in auto plants as a teenager, building transmissions for Cadillac and axles for Chevrolet. He published his first book of poetry in 1963 and has written more than 20 since, includingThe Simple Truth, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

But the poems reflecting on his strenuous work in the factories as a young man remain his most beloved.

"I remember many years ago working in my studio and listening to the radio," wrote Studio 360 listener Tim O'Brien. "On came a reading of 'What Work Is' and I was moved to tears. ... His words about this brother who he thinks of and gushes love for made me think the same for my brother. I love my brother and his poem reminded me of how special he is and how hard he, and so many in my family actually work."

What Work Is (1991)

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is---if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.

Listen to Levine read the poem here.