Reading Mindfully: Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”

Reading Mindfully: Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”

Each month, we offer you a chance to read mindfully, to use literature to think about your perceptions and reactions to the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and accompanying questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. Please grab a friend or colleague to read, share and discuss – and send us your thoughts.

Philip Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1928 and was raised and educated in the city. After graduating from Wayne State University, Levine worked for both Chevrolet and Cadillac where he gathered material for his future poems. Levine went on to teach at Columbia, Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley. He was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012.

As you read “What Work Is,” consider these questions:

  • What does work mean to you?
  • What gives our work significance?
  • Would it be be worth doing a job you hate to make money for something you loved?

What Work Is

by Philip Levine

Philip Levine's What Work Is

Cover design via Alfred A. Knopf

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.

Continue reading “What Work Is” or listen to the author read the poem.

Henri Martin, Work, 1914, [Public Domain] via

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Capria Jaussen

Capria Jaussen

Capria Jaussen is the Director of Operations of Books@Work.