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Philip Levine Reads 'What Work Is'


Today is a holiday for many of you, but not for all of you. For everyone still on the clock, we have a poem from Philip Levine. The former U.S. poet laureate died Saturday at the age of 87.


Levine was from Detroit. He worked in auto factories when he was a teenager. He once said that the labor in those factories was, quote, "nothing epic, just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn't give a..."

CORNISH: Care - let's use the word care.

MCEVERS: Care. Here's Philip Levine using his own words with this poem.


PHILIP LEVINE: (Reading) What work is. 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 10 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 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.

CORNISH: The late poet Philip Levine - he read "What Work Is" on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1991. Levine died of cancer on Saturday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.