Friday, February 20, 2015

What “What Work Is” Is: The Importance of Philip Levine

I met Philip Levine only twice, and both times thought he was a son of a bitch and really liked him for it.  But that’s not what I want to talk about.  I want to talk about why he was an important poet.  He was often called “the poet of work,” and in a sense he was: his imagination was formed by a decade and a half of hard manual labor in industrial Detroit.  But it’s not just that he understood the look and feel and sound and smell and hurt of work and found words for those things.  He understood something about what modernity demands from us, the kind of work beyond ‘work’ in the conventional sense that our culture leaves to us, and he understood how difficult, how close to impossible, that kind of work has become.  This, for me, is why he is an important poet.

When I say ‘modernity,’ I mean the world that emerged in the wake of the wars of religion that wracked Europe in the 17th century.  Much of the vehemence with which these wars were fought came from the depth of the convictions held by both Protestants and Catholics that what was at stake was not merely realpolitik, but something much greater: ideals, ultimate beliefs, salvation.  The fate of the state was also the fate of the soul, since the state was entwined with religion, and was justified by its adherence to particular views of the good and the holy.  It was Hobbes who taught the civil-war weary English to step away from the idea of the state as the guardian of high ideals of the good and sacred (he taught the similarly weary French the same, almost at the same time—he wrote Leviathan in Paris, and its pages were translated before the printer’s ink had dried).  Instead of looking upwards, to whatever shining ideal the state could embody, he looked down, at the bare minimum people needed—basic protection of one’s life and property—and asked that the state provide this and leave ideals, salvation, and ultimate goods alone.  What is the intrinsic purpose of mankind, and how can the state guide us to it?  That, for Hobbes, was a question that could only lead—and had demonstrably led—to bloodshed.  Let’s let the state limit itself, he suggested, to keeping us from killing and stealing, and the rest can take care of itself.  Much of classical liberalism proceeds from Hobbes’ assumptions: John Locke, for example, maintained that the state should provide security from foreign and domestic violence, but that it should have nothing to do with guiding us, collectively, to some higher ideal: instead, it leaves us all to pursue the goals that seem highest to us.  The pursuit of happiness, we call it, in America.

Philip Levine understood that this modern charge to define and pursue our own sense of purpose and our own kind of fulfillment wasn’t a simple thing.  Indeed, it was a task we might not be up for, a necessity for which we, as isolated individuals with all kinds of more immediate needs and only our own feeble resources to fall back on, may never achieve.  He saw the quiet heroism required to live the way the modern world demands we live.  The recognition of this quiet heroism, and the fact that we may fail to achieve it, is what he greatest and best-loved poem, “What Work Is,” is about.

The poem beings with a fairly conventional sense of work, and the work that is required just to get it:

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 of 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.

There, quietly and clearly, we have the alienating world of modern labor, the impersonality of it—and set against such alienation, the idea of brotherhood, even when the brother you see is not your own.  But there’s more:

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.

We thought we knew what work was: the grind of it, the humiliation of seeking it, the powerlessness, the way it turns brothers into a crowd of anonymous rivals.  But it turns out that knowing those things is not knowing what work really is after all.  And what’s that, then? It’s what the speaker’s brother does: he survives labor and pushes himself further, to do something that, for him, is not alienating.  It may not be your idea of the good or of salvation: you may think the music for which your brother lives is the worst ever invented.  But you can see what the real work is: defining for oneself, in the absence of collective guidance, some notion of fulfillment or meaning, and pushing oneself to rise above mere survival in the pursuit of that saving idea of the good.  There’s a kind of sublimity in the brother pushing himself to define and pursue the good—a dark-sky, raining, sad-slouched doggedness utterly uncaptured by the breezy sunshine of a phrase like “the pursuit of happiness.”  Levine sees how this pursuit, a burden the modern world places on our broad or narrow shoulders, is just like the pursuit of the other kind of work, and that it involves:

...a sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No…”

No comments:

Post a Comment