How does Philip Levine evoke sympathy for the workers in "What Work Is"?

In his poem "What Work Is," Philip Levine evokes sympathy for the workers by describing the uncomfortable and dispiriting conditions that the workers are made to endure as they wait to be given work.

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Philip Levine's poem "What Work Is" sympathetically describes a line of workers waiting to find out if there is any work available for them. In the opening line, the speaker, who is one of the workers, says, "We stand in the rain in a long line." A few lines later the speaker implies that these workers must wait for a very long time and that they are always "shifting from one foot to another." He also implies that they must wait for a very long time when he says that the rain, although only "light," drenches them so that it blurs their vision and feels "like mist" in their hair. Despite the rain's lightness, it is a burden when endured for hours.

The poet also evokes sympathy for the workers by suggesting that they may well be told, after having waited so long, "No, we're not hiring today." The fact that their waiting might be for nothing makes the conditions not only uncomfortable but also dispiriting.

In the second half of the poem, the speaker emphasizes the empathy that the workers have for one another. The speaker refers to a fellow worker as his "brother"; this arises from a simple mistake of perception, but it nonetheless implies that he feels a brotherly love for his fellow worker. This love is born out of sympathy, and also admiration. The speaker feels sorry for his "brother"—and by extension all of his fellow workers—because he is denied work, but he also admires him for "the stubbornness, / the sad refusal to give in." In other words, the speaker admires his fellow worker because he endures the dispiriting conditions with dignity and resilience. He does not give in or become self-pitying.

This empathy and admiration that the workers have for one another increases our sympathy for them because it is of course easier to sympathize with people who are likeable and loving. These workers are good, honest people who endure with dignity conditions which are utterly dispiriting.

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