Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Readers familiar with Levine’s work, his poetry of social protest, will recognize in this poem one of his familiar themes: the endurance and courage of men and women. It is their tenacity that lets them wake from the “dream of sleep/ without end” and return to the fields. It is their tenacity that brings them to his attention and makes him write about their lives.

One of the primary concerns in this poem is that the worker’s fate is a life of what could be called “tired bodies”—one is caught in an endless cycle, like riding a bus to and from work, where everyone’s face is “wide-eyed with hunger.” In this sense, this lyric is not concentrated on an interior vision or revelation, as many lyric poems since the Romantic era have been. Instead, it is a public outcry, a loud “No!” shouted at the sky and at the earth. It presents the poet as someone who may best be described as a seer-activist. Levine is angry. He is angry at the earth in particular, because it burns lives into ashes, and even these ashes are blown away in the wind. He does not express sorrow, however; in another poem, “Red Dust,” he writes that he does not “believe in sorrow;/ it is not American.” What is American, “Ashes” implies, is work, and the work is never done.

The work of the poet is to see the “meat, skin, core, [and] seeds” of other lives and other suffering. By not feeling sorrowful about the cotton-pickers’ lives—though feeling...

(The entire section is 430 words.)