Falling Hard for an Old Poem, and an Old Poet

I’m scared of poetry. Sometimes because I don’t understand it, and feel stupid, sometimes because it feels annoyingly cloying. But when I hear or read a poem I like, I’m struck by lightening. It lodges somewhere in me and keeps reverberating.

When Philip Levine was announced as our new Poet Laureate on August 10th, I heard his poetry for the first time. I fell, and fell hard, for his poem, “What Work Is.”

In just a few lines, it has everything I try for in my writing. A character caught in tough times, an evocative setting, and an unexpected leap to intense, complex emotions.


(Men waiting outside city mission. Iowa, 1940, Library of Congress.)

Here’s a short interview on Fresh Air which includes his reading the poem:

And the Library of Congress has set up a terrific website if you want more info.

Posted by Elizabeth Partridge




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3 responses to “Falling Hard for an Old Poem, and an Old Poet

  1. shardarr

    I heard him read this on PBS the other night and loved it. I hadn’t seen it before either–and is it ever timely again these days. In this poem he makes the reader feel the emotions of the man, emotions so complex that naming them would be impossible.

  2. Louise Hawes

    I’m so pleased Levine’s our next Laureate, not just because he’s over 80 and I’m glad to see a gray artist get his due; not just because, like him, I can’t stand Wagner. But because his work is so full of that devoted attention most of us recognize as love. Big Love. Bravo!

  3. Julie Larios

    I love what Levine said, too, in an interview with the NY Times after being named Laureate. He said he hoped, in his tenure, to loosen people up about poetry, to “encourage people to think of poetry not quite so seriously.” Maybe seriousness is where a lot of poetry phobia comes from – the sense that we have to back away from common sense and humor and playfulness and get in a “Big Poetry” frame of mind in order to read it. Actually, the love of poetry – like music – is instinctive and idiosyncratic. There’s room for pleasure! I’m glad to know that Levine might turn his attention this direction – towards easing the pain of poetry phobia!

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