The speaker of Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is” is a would-be laborer standing in a long line of other potential employees outside an automobile plant. Jobs, apparently, are hard to come by, and the unnamed person who has the power to dole out the few jobs that are available can decide, for any reason, to deny any particular person’s application. The speaker of the poem thus feels relatively powerless, but his attitude seems resigned and stoic rather than angry or bitter.
The “work” mentioned in the poem’s title, then, is literal work: employment; a job. Ironically, in this poem even the task of applying for work is itself a kind of work: it takes time, commitment, and endurance and can be frustrating and disappointing. The poem’s title, then, seems to refer both to the work the speaker seeks as well as to the effort involved in seeking it.
Interestingly, the speaker addresses potential readers of his poetic “work,” telling them,
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. (3-6)
Here the tone is momentarily bitter. Whom does the speaker have in mind? Is he referring to readers in general? Is he referring to the kinds of students who are old enough to do manual labor, who know what it is from having read about it, but who are privileged enough not to have to do such work themselves? Is the speaker implying that some of his readers are lazy, unmotivated, or so economically secure that they are not as hard-working – or as willing to work – as he is?
In any case, the definition of “work” begins to change slightly from this point onward. Instead of focusing on the literal job that may (or may not) be waiting for him at the end of the line, the speaker now begins to think about his relationship with his literal brother (not merely a figurative brother or co-worker).
Although the speaker of the poem is demonstrably tough in various ways (as his mere standing so long in line in the rain suggests), he is also capable of deep love for his brother. Feeling alienated, isolated, and vulnerable as he stands in the line, the speaker begins to meditate on the importance of his relationship with his brother. This relationship provides him with a sense of security and affection that seems otherwise missing in his life.
The brother himself is a hard worker and is apparently employed in a factory job similar to the one the speaker seeks. Indeed, he works not only at his literal job but also on his on his language skills: He
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner . . . (30-31)
Thus the title of the poem takes on yet another meaning. This singing is work done for pleasure and for personal fulfillment. It is work the brother chooses to do, not anything he is compelled to do merely for physical survival.
But the poem ends by implying yet another kind of work, perhaps the most important work of all: the work involved in building, sustaining, and strengthening the human relationships that give our lives their deepest meaning. This kind of work, like the brother’s singing, is the kind of effort that can both give pleasure and also bring it.