About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Philip Levine, In Memoriam

            The poet Philip Levine died on February 14. I suspect that many of the readers of this blog are familiar with Levine’s poetry, but for those who aren’t, let me write just a few words of introduction.

            Levine was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, and was born in Detroit in 1928, the height of the Great Depression. As a young man he worked a number of blue-collar jobs, lifting and stacking, running a punch press, operating a jackhammer. Much of Levine’s poetry is about work, the people who do it, and the lives they lead. He writes in a straightforward narrative style, unadorned and unaffected, but carefully crated and emotionally powerful.

            I see my uncles in his poems. And today’s factory workers and miners and hospital aides…and the guys lining up in the mornings outside lumber yards and big box home improvement stores looking for a day’s work.

            I reprint below one of Levine’s best-known poems “What Work Is.” In honor of Levine, NPR replayed him reading the poem. Click here to hear it.

“What Work Is”

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. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to   
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,   
just because you don’t know what work is.

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1 comment:

Jim Burke said...

A tremendous loss, Mike. I heard him speak one year at the CATE convention. He said people always asked him why he, who could teach anywhere, spent his life teaching poetry at Fresno State. He said that when you told kids at the big name schools they had four good lines that showed some potential the kids grew despondent, hearing they "only had four good lines." At Fresno, however, when he told them they had four lines that showed promise, they were elated, and would think, "I have FOUR lines that show promise!" and would keep working at it till they got it right. He spoke about poetry as if our lives depended on it.

Thanks for reminding us to stop and think about his life and his work, Mike. As Rilke might have said of Levine, he "lived the questions."