What Work is Poem by Philip Levine Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “What work is’ ‘ was written by Philip Levine. It was published in his poetry collection named “What work is”. It was published in 1991. The same collection won the National Book Award for Poetry and Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The poem became extremely popular after Philip Levine became a Poet Laureate of the United States.

About the Poet:

Philip Levine was an American poet. He was best known for his poems about the working class of Detroit. The poem “What work is” shares about his experience of waiting in a line for an interview at Highland Park Ford Plant. Philip Levine is known for his simple yet deep writing style.In this poem he explores the struggle of people waiting to get a job for their survival. He was appointed as the Poet Laureate of the United States in the year 2011. 


The poem “What work is” is a free verse poem without a rhyming scheme of metric pattern. It consists of a total of forty two lines. All the lines are grouped into a single stanza.

Speaker of the poem:

The poet Philipe Levine is the speaker of the poem. He begins the poem by starting with the first person plural pronoun “We”.After certain point he uses the pronoun “You” to address the readers. On the other hand he is actually addressing the former self,who went from place to place for a job.

Poem Analysis:-

Lines 1-11:

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.

The speaker of the poem is a jobless man.He is desperately in need of a job.The poem starts with the description of the speaker standing in a big line for his interview. Despite the mild rain, he along with others are waiting at Fort Highland park. Suddenly, the speaker questions the readers about work. This shows how stressful his life is without a job. So, he says to readers those who have had such an experience can relate to his situation. The speaker then talks about the climate. He is waiting for the person in front to move faster so that he can get the chance to have his interview. He then talks about the climatic changes. He has been waiting for so long, suddenly a man who is standing some ten places before him looks similar to his own brother.

Lines 12-21:

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.

The speaker now starts to speak with himself. He rubs his glasses to get a clear vision.Though, it is someone else’s brother, he looks the same as him. Because, even that person is waiting for a long time despite the rain. The next line shows the bitter reality of interviews. The person knows that there will be an interviewer who refuses to hire him for any reason he wants. But, like the speaker, the other person is also waiting for so long.

Lines 22- 33:

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.

The speaker now couldn’t resist thinking about his own brother. The love has started to flourish. Now, the speaker talks about his brother. Actually, his brother is working in a place called Cadillac during the night for 8 hours. At the time, the speaker was waiting for the interview, his brother was sleeping in the house. He seems to have some aim in life. So, he wakes up at noon to learn German.The speaker talks about his brother’s interest towards singing.

Lines 33- 42:

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.

The speaker is actually talking to himself. He questions himself. The speaker asks how long has it been since he showed his love towards his brother. He couldn’t remember any situation where he kissed his brother’s cheeks. But, he reasons for not showing his love towards his brother. The reason is not because he is young or dumb. It is not because he is jealous or mean. But the real reason is the work. The search for a job changed him a lot. Now he feels guilty for not showing his love towards his brother.