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What Work Is

Remembering Philip Levine's poetics of labor

The idea of work—arduous, deeply physical work—is most romantic to those who have survived it and moved on to something else, or to those who have never done it at all. Though he ended his career in an office, my father worked hard jobs growing up. His father, I imagine, also worked hard jobs. I get to be romantic about these jobs because my hands are soft, not calloused by the type of labor that would require me to use them. I wrote, or I stood in shoe stores, or worked behind a cash register. Don’t get me wrong, all of these things are also work—but they’re different from the work that rests in American folklore. All work is difficult in one way or another, in the sense that it takes a toll on the body in some measure. Some measures are simply greater than others. Depending on where you are in the country, or your proximity to wealth, there are certain types of work that will go ignored, un-romanticized. Detroit, for instance, thrives at the intersection of two different tales of American industry, a history of archetypally hard, manual labor and also its opposite: line workers in vehicle factories and CEOs in the towers of the companies.

This May Day, I returned to the poems of Philip Levine to find a Detroit I have always seen in dreams but could not always touch when I woke. Growing up in close proximity to Michigan, around people who largely understood Detroit as automobiles and Motown, the Detroit of the present moment was always a joke: a flood of stereotypical imagery, full of abandoned buildings and shut-down factories. What is true about Detroit is that the city that has given America far more than it has taken away. What the work of Philip Levine represents is the intersection of Detroit’s two greatest gifts: work and art, and how those things often intersect in the city’s greatest moments. The way Motown created what essentially amounted to an assembly line for musical production—its artists first going through image training, dance training, recording in-studio, sometimes churning out months or years of disposable records before squeezing a hit through Motown’s rigorous quality control process. All of this to make music that, largely, profited a music industry that still wasn’t comfortable with the black faces and voices topping the charts. In Detroit, like no other American city, art mirrors industry.

In Detroit, like no other American city, art mirrors industry.

The idea of the American worker as a nostalgic, romantic figure rarely extends to its artists, particularly its independent artists. But the contemporary artist hustles in Detroit in a way that’s true to the city’s past. A Detroit poet and rapper once joked to me that no one in Detroit makes it out to anyone’s shows because they’re all running their own shows or performing at the same time. When our single image of the worker is that of the industrial worker, we ignore the labor that so many Americans engage in, as contingent workers or gig economy hustlers or even artists. We forget that the independent artist might also be the industrial worker, hustling in the hours after clocking out, or never clocking out at all, working into every night with no promise of any immediate reward, and no guaranteed payday at the end of the tunnel.

Levine, a former U.S. poet laureate who died in 2015, was a Whitman or a Ginsburg for those embroiled in Midwestern, heartland work, the industrial work whose specter became a powerful political touchstone during last year’s election cycle. His poems, which faced the worker, rather than romanticizing him for a far-away audience, felt genuine because he himself was a worker, descended from other workers. Levine’s father, who died when he was five years old, owned a used auto parts business in Detroit. Levine worked in car manufacturing plants before he turned sixteen. His hands knew both the rigors of hard work, and the beauty that it can create.

The first book of Philip Levine’s that I held in my hands was 1999’s The Mercy, a book dedicated to his mother. I found myself fascinated by how concerned Levine seemed to be with the imagery of hands. In the title poem, which begins with his mother arriving at Ellis Island before stretching into a longer arc about travel and distance, a young Scot holds a bright orange in his hands. Later in the poem, hands wipe away the juice of another orange as it spills down a chin. There is a fundamental gentleness in Levine’s consideration of the body in his writing—it’s both tender and pragmatic, speaking to the knowledge that the body is often our means of earning a living and must be treated as such. What we have is what we have, and there is survival in that knowledge.

We forget that the independent artist might also be the industrial worker, hustling in the hours after clocking out, or never clocking out at all.

There is no other poet that gives me a sense of geography like Philip Levine does. I close my eyes and see Detroit as smoke billowing out of factory towers, a warm echo of steam spilling out into a cold morning. But I can also close my eyes and see the Detroit I’ve known most intimately in my lifetime: a Detroit of musicians and artists who are, largely, hustling and grinding entirely on their own. This creates a dual appreciation for the idea of work ethic, or the ability to do work as a transferable tool. Many of those who grew up in the city watching the people they love put in days of hard labor are now the artists who press their own CDs, staple their own chapbooks, book their own shows, and set up their own gigs. Levine wrote about this Detroit, too. In his poem “My Brother the Artist, at Seven” he writes, “How much can matter to a kid / of seven? Everything. The whole world can be his.”

Philip Levine was, like Bruce Springsteen in his prime, an archivist of an experience that was deeply regional, but richly layered enough to feel universal. Hard work, of course, happens in other places besides the Midwest. But the way it is made to feel, at least in the poems and songs and stories that speak most gloriously of it, particularly in places where there are factories or mines or economic despair, is that work can also be also a type of liberation. The way Springsteen would describe men coming home from a long day in industrial New Jersey and I could feel an ache in my own back. The way Philip Levine, in his famous poem “What Work Is” wrote “If you’re old enough to read this / you know what work is / although you may not do it” and I felt both implicated and honored to be invited into his world nonetheless. The way, more than anything, he offered an opportunity for the reader to define work for themselves and feel a small honor in it, even if it wasn’t the work that he was forged out of, the type that has a legacy in the Midwest heaviest in Michigan, in Northern Ohio, in Indiana. It was always an honor for me to not only read, but also find a home in what Philip Levine was doing. To learn to honor the work of my parents and their parents and all of the parents before them, even if my work wasn’t their work. Perhaps especially then.