September 13, 2010

Labor, Work and Jobs

September seems to launch in America with the Labor Day weekend. I have written elsewhere about the Labor of Labor Day that seems to be lost. But there's no question that every poet has a few stories about their own job history.

Philip Levine received the National Book Award in 1991 for his volume of poems titled What Work Is. Levine has long been associated with blue-collar workers in factories and especially on the assembly lines of his hometown Detroit.

At 14, he worked in a factory during World War II when older men were away at war and teenagers were hired to produce materials for the military.

“Growth” from that book begins:
“In the soap factory where I worked
when I was fourteen, I spoke to
no one and only one man spoke
to me and then to command me
to wheel the little cars of damp chips
into the ovens.”
Levine collected some poems online under the heading "Overhand the Hammers Swing: Poems of Work." It is a collection of images of work from American poets.

"When I say work I mean the sort of brute physical work that most of us try to avoid, but that those without particular gifts or training were often forced to adopt to make a living in a society as tough and competitive as ours," says Levine. "This may in fact be a species of work that is disappearing from America as more and more automation replaces the need for human hands, that is manual labor."

He quotes Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":

Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil,
Each has his main-sledge, they are all out, there is great heat in the fire.
From the conder-strew'd threshold I follow their movements,
The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms,
Overhand the hammers swing, overhand so slow, overhand so sure,
They do not hasten, each man hits in his place.

He also quotes another pair of workers - a father and son from "Song for My Father" by Yusef Komunyakaa

We stood on a wooden platform
Facing each other with sledgehammers,
A copper-tipped sieve sunken into the ground
Like a spear, as we threaded on five foot
Of galvanized pipe for the pump.
As if tuned to some internal drum,
We hammered the block of oak
Placed on top for the pipe.
It began inching downward
As we traded blows - one for you,
One for me. After a half hour
We threaded on another five feet. The sweat
Gleamed on our shirtless bodies, father
& son tied to each other until we hit water.
He also references one of my favorite poems of work - "Hay for the Horses" by Gary Snyder.

Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds -
"I'm sixty-eight" he said,
"I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that's just what
I've gone and done."

Philip Levine
Drawing by N.C. Mallory and posted here via Creative Commons
The poem I'll use for this month's prompt on jobs is Phillip Levine's own "What Work Is." I highly recommend that you listen to Levine introduce and read the poem as you read along.


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 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.

For this month's writing prompt, write a poem about a job that you have had that involved that real work that Levine describes.

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Additional readings on work suggested by Levine


  1. Try these
    "For a Living:The Poetry of Work"
    and James Autry's "Life and Work"(various poems within)

    The student asks the master: "What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?" The master replies "Chop wood, carry water." "And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?" asks the student. "Chop wood, carry water" replies the master.

  2. The last line of the poem is missing on the "Current Writing Prompt" tab of the regular Poets Online site. Just thought you might want to know...

  3. Laurie

    Yipes! Good catch! Thanks. It's fixed. A pretty important line...

  4. oops forgot David Whyte...

    Read The Heart Aroused and Crossing the Unknown Sea


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