After the death of Philip Levine late last week, there were plenty of people sharing this video online of the late Poet Laureate reading one of his best-known poems at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington:
It’s a good video because in seeing Levine read his own words, you get the sense that he was a lot like his poetry: plainspoken, patient, sensitive, a little bitter even but not so bitter that listening to him becomes a struggle.
It is also a good video because Levine’s poetry is something of a time capsule. The imagery in “What Work Is” comes from a bygone era. Levine was from Detroit, the once proud citadel of American auto that is now the poster-child of industrial decline and economic devastation. The factories he describes are barely there anymore, and the third shifts are pretty much gone too.
At the same time, there is a familiarity to it, something that makes the poetry seem relevant even though few young listeners will ever see the inside of an auto plant. The point of view that Levine writes from -- that of a worker waiting on the hiring line in the vain hope of being picked for the day -- isn’t one engulfed by the monotonous, foreboding rhythms of the assembly line. The rhythm at which he speaks, punctuated as they are by tense, anticipatory pauses, is the rhythm of the shiftless, desperate idler. That’s a rhythm of life understood by anyone who has understood un-or-underemployment for any real stretch of time in their life.
Compare this with some of the verse quoted in E.P. Thompson’s essay “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism.” Early on he quotes the work of Augustan era poet Stephen Duck, “The Thresher’s Labour”:
Week after Week we this dull Task pursue,
Unless when winnowing Days produce a new;
A new indeed, but frequently a worse,
The Threshall yields but to the Master’s Curse:
He counts the Bushels, counts how much a Day;
Then swears we’ve idled half out Time away.
Why look ye, Rogues! D’ye think that this will do?
Your Neighbours thresh as much again as you.
“This would appear,” says Thompson, “to describe the monotony, alienation from pleasure in labour, and antagonism of interests commonly ascribed to the factory system.”
It is interesting to contrast this stanza, with its tight, almost tyrannical rhythm filled with resentment and exhaustion, and the work of Levine’s unemployed laborer, who in essence resents “his brother” for being wracked and run ragged on a daily basis. The man with all the time in the world but nobody to sell it to hates the man whose time is violently stolen from him.
Why bring up this difference? Because between the two there is a sense of the dual character of labor and therefore in turn the dual character of what made Levine’s poetry important. It is that tension between an abstract and cruel freedom and an exhaustion that still somehow feeds you that made his poetry matter. As Marx said, the only thing worse for a worker than being exploited under capitalism is not being exploited. We know the rhythm of deprivation and indolence. We know the rhythm of being exploited. We also, unfortunately, know the rhythm of being exploited and still not having enough food in our stomachs. It’s worth asking what our rhythms will be when our basic needs and our souls are both nurtured. Sadly, I don’t think any working person even has the framework to suss that out.