i heard Philip Levine read this on Fresh Air, it is simply amazing...his poems are written in a clear voice speaking of simple and straight forward truths. He is the perfect Poet Laureate for our times.
Philip Levine's poetry evokes the vibrant durability and continuity of things. It is no accident that the seemingly unbreakable thistle, which survives California's harsh summers, is his 'flower.' At least he has celebrated it in such a way throughout his books. Possibly he has done so because its work is to survive, and it does. the way we must, impassively committed surviving, standing up though the harsh heat, the inevitable storms. Levine's poem, 'What Work Is, ' should be read in this context. To work is to survive, and the details of how difficult or debased work can be are evoked in the title poem and the poem 'Growth' (each the book What Work Is) . Levine was the man, he suffered, he was there. But the symbolic importance of work operates as an emblem of the soul as well, since not knowing how to love, Levine writes, is to not 'know what work is.' We may seem to be closer here to the meaning of work as it occurs in the tragedies, desolations, and betrayals of the remarkable book of poems Hard Labor by the Italian poet Cesare Pavese than to the Whitman of 'A Song of Occupations...'
From Doren Robbins essay On What Work Is (Daily Iowan 1992) .