Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 8, 2006

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 8:20 am

I once drove a van full of photography students from Minneapolis to Chicago. I brought a CD compilation of poetry that I insisted on playing. There was nearly a mutiny. (All they wanted to listen to was Tenacious D).

I’m going to give poetry another shot on my blog. I figure a little lyricism isn’t a bad way to start the weekend. So I’ll try to post a weekly Friday poem. In the spirit of Labor Day (and the labor of creating this blog), here is a poem by Philip Levine:

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 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.


  1. I had a similar experience recently when trying to play a recording of various contemporary actors and actresses reading Pablo Neruda.

    Tanacious D is a kind of poetry, I suppose, in a really sophomoric way.

    I’ve enjoyed finding your site and looking at your images.

    Comment by Tim Walker — September 8, 2006 @ 8:35 am

  2. When you spoke at SF PhotoAlliance this spring you mentioend your opinion that a photograph, lacking narrative drive of its own, is less like a story and more like a poem.

    Really one of the most useful things about photography I’ve head all year.

    Comment by Kevin Bjorke — September 9, 2006 @ 9:45 pm

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