Illustration by  Nate Smith.

Illustration by Nate Smith.

Working Classes

Phillip Levine and Studs Terkel on the meaning of labor

Sometimes answers to big questions come along so suddenly and simply that, for all their gravity, they hardly interrupt the predictable, even obstinate, patterns of daily life. As Emily Dickinson once observed, “The Truth’s superb surprise” has a tendency to be “Too bright for our infirm Delight.”

This is all due preface for Philip Levine’s poems about work. What Work Is (Knopf, 1991) describes men and women at work in booming, early 20th-century Detroit, a city as polluted as it was promising. Levine was born there in 1928, and his poems, frequently referring to its characters and places, channel his direct acquaintance and lingering fascination with the place. In spite of the highly personal nature of these poems, the title poem cracks the metaphorical fourth-wall of literature to confer with its reader:

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.

Reading the last line, I want to know who is being excused. Before I can finish the poem, I’m asking questions out of a need to clarify the poet’s address, and a more basic wish to remain involved with the poem: If I know what work is, what is it?  

Levine’s in-poem reassurance, “You know what work is,” implies that he’s not interested in delving into abstract definitions of work. He’s inviting readers to consult their own memory. Almost every presumed reader of this book has held a job, and for those who can identify that experience, this poem, and indeed this collection of poems, makes sense. In other words, “Forget you” is a diss to a type of person who is not, metaphorically, in the room. It’s muttered to clear the air of a contrarian spirit and to draw the curtains against the uninitiated minority of the world population, as poetry about work commences before those who intend to solemnly listen:

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.

There’s more to be said about the type of folks eligible to join the poet in contemplating this scene at Ford Highland Park, and, to that end, it’s worth discussing another book about work by another Midwesterner—the late Chicago-based radio host and writer, Studs Terkel, who interviewed workers during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (alas, the individual interviews are not precisely date-stamped). The result is called, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do (New Press, 1972).

Terkel’s book helps illuminate the diversity and range of Levine’s audience. Terkel dismisses any prejudice towards treating blue-collar labor as the only “real” work as he solicits appearances from all types of laborers, including newspaper boys, musicians, farmers, men and women of advertising, salesmen, a librarian and a call girl, to name a few of the over 100 people presented here.

In response to Terkel’s simple, earnest questions, each person speaks about his or her work. The rich particulars of these individual stories caution against generalization, but it is still safe to say that many of Terkel’s characters, with the exception of very few, are discontent and so chronically aware of what they’d rather be doing that, on the published page, appearing beside each other, their work experiences often bear an uncanny resemblance.

Some feel regret, for instance, at having taken a job at too young of an age and getting stuck in a grueling blue-collar routine. These pine for the freedom of a university education. Others relate having gotten a degree and still find themselves stuck in a piddling desk job, imagining manual labor for themselves, such as furniture repair or agriculture. Others wish for a different life in which they’d simply achieved more personal recognition or had been able to save up for a retirement. Not all of these reflections are born from late-life retrospection. Says a spot welder, “I’m a machine”; a high fashion model, “I’m an object”; a migrant worker, “I’m less than a farm implement.” A receptionist Terkel interviewed relates, “A monkey can do what I do.” A bank teller and a hotel clerk, independent of each other’s report, feel “caged.”

“Work,” Terkel writes in the introduction to the book, “is by its very nature about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is…about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.” The anecdotes in Working aren’t all so grim: The adventures described by an NYPD cop and fireman, or the contentedness of the Indiana stonemason, are vivid and inspiring. But the grim material stands out.

It would be easy to get political at this point and pin the visible hurts in Terkel’s subjects on global industrial-Capitalist enterprise. Terkel would have been assembling interviews for his book when manufacturing employment in the American heartland began to show statistical decline as early as 1969. But there is nothing to be done about it now. The characters in Working tell their stories of happiness or regret with the finality of cold fact. Since the reader is powerless to initiate past-due reforms for any of these folk, the value of Working lies in Terkel’s example of taking time to listen to what working men and women have to say. “On one occasion, during a play-back,” Terkel reported in a famous recollection of his project, “my companion murmured in wonder, ‘I never realized I felt that way.’ And I was filled with wonder too.”

The opening of Philip Levine’s title poem from What Work Is invites the reader to, likewise, notice and articulate their own work experience. It’s a teaser, “You know what work is,” to step in front of Mr. Terkel’s tape recorder.

Levine’s poems which feature scenes from childhood, classrooms, or early private encounters with literature —“Among Children,” “Gin,” “Burning,” “Coming of Age in Michigan,” “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School”—are windows into the places where people learn to be conscious of their experience in general. After a lifetime of work, sometimes failing to achieve retirement or riches, words remain the only gifts adult men and women can bequeath to the next generation. These words can take the form of literature—poetry—or they can take the form of simple warning. One of Terkel’s characters shares with his sons, “If you ever wind up in the steel mill like me, I’m gonna hit you right over your head. Don’t be foolish…you’ll end up the same way I did. Forty years and nothing to show for it.” Encountering such work experience in printed form is an important cross-generational exercise, involving those living and dead, in the enduring expectations and choices which every person has to face as they come of age.

The first superb surprise of Levine’s poem, “What Work Is,” is the all too sudden description that the work is about waiting; a more profound and universal experience among workers than the clichés of worn hands or sullen complexions. Hear this, workers of the world! Work is about waiting. Some days, it’s about waiting for the bus. Other days, about waiting for your boss to drop dead. It’s about waiting for the day to be over. Waiting for a promotion or a raise. Waiting for crops to grow. Waiting for employee performance to pick up. Waiting for a paycheck, waiting to be told “there’s no work today.”

The second, compelling truth of “What Work Is,” and which Terkel’s survey corroborates, is that private choice matters, desperately, in imagining a more humane work environment. The two books keep each other honest about the most offending culprits behind the working person’s discontent. There are those who loathe the factory and those who don’t mind it. One of Terkel’s subjects readily admits he can’t stand his job but is too lazy to fill out an application for another one. There are those who are “mixed up.” Those who don’t want to follow the pattern of their parent’s careers but end up in the family business anyway.

It’s not always obvious, in the case of each individual, which phenomena appear first in the sequence—giving up or getting caught. Many of the jobs Terkel canvases don’t require introspection or macro-awareness to perform day after day. Yet the notes and bits of conversation he relays from his subjects demonstrate that people are benefited by their own awareness of what they do. Incredibly, humans can be lulled by their routines into forgetting that they are free. And that is perhaps the greatest reminder in these works: Humans are free—free to pay attention and free to be astonished.


Originally published in The Curator Magazine 9/2013; Republished 9/2016