Meaningful Reward: Approaches to Work in “Shirt” and “What Work Is”

Besides the fact that humans are “creatures of habit”, why do most people chose to do the same thing every day? People wake up to the same maddening noises produced by their alarm clock in order to endure the same work they did the day before. What is the cause of this repetition? The poems “Shirt” by Robert Pinsky and “What Work Is” by Philip Levine allow readers a chance to answer this phenomenon and observe the essential roots of meaningful work from diverse perspectives.

The poem “Shirt”, by Robert Pinsky, represents the power to create excellence through adversity. Pinsky begins by visualizing a quality shirt. Understanding the unfortunate origin of the shirt, the poet continues to describe a setting within a sweatshop. Underpaid immigrant workers maintain normal social interaction within their poor working environment. As Pinsky digresses, the poem uses a direct allusion to the Triangle Waist Company fire (1911) to discuss improper working conditions. During the Industrial Revolution, the Triangle Waist Company stood as a typical sweatshop in Manhattan (New York). The factory was plagued with an unethical amount of immigrant workers and lack of safety precautions. Unfortunately, these faults within the Triangle Waist Company proved to be fatal. “By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died.” (“The Triangle Factory Fire,” 1). In his poem “Shirt”, Pinsky depicted this dreadful event as an eyewitness watching as workers jump from the burning structure: “The witness in a building across the street / Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step / Up to the windowsill, then held her out / Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.” (Pinsky, line 13-17). The poet concludes the poem by complimenting more qualities of the shirt: “The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters / Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape, / The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.” (Pinsky, line 46-48). Although workers continue to face similar, unethical work conditions, the quality of the product produced remains perpetual.

Comparatively, “What Work Is”, by Philip Levine, portrays how purpose strengthens one’s perseverance to work. The poem illustrates a Detroit auto plant worker (in the 1940’s), who is patiently waiting in the soft rain to get hired for the day. Initially, the narrator displays a negative tone towards his definition of work. As the worker stands in line, he recollects emotions for his brother: “You love your brother, / now suddenly you can hardly stand / the love flooding you for your brother /… How long has it been since you told him/you loved him, held his wide shoulders, / opened your eyes wide and said those words.” (Levine, line 31-36). As these emotions overtake the narrator, the tone of the poem becomes lighter. Levine completes his poem by destroying the initial definition of work and substituting sacrifice for the purpose of true work. An analysis article of the poem, titled “There’s Work and Work–Philip Levine’s “What Work Is””, remarks “A man who won’t work isn’t worth much, but a man who won’t do the work of sacrificing himself for something greater is equally worthless–maybe more so.” (Mark, 1). Philip Levine’s poem determines the importance of purpose within the definition of work.

Although the two poems have completely different work environments, the workers in each poem are driven by a main cause or reward. The Triangle Waist Company, while extremely unethical, opened employment to several hundred immigrants, mostly women. For an immigrant woman, landing a job in America during the 1900’s was a dream come true. Not only does that provide mothers with income to support their families in a better country, but also provides freedom and independence for lots of young women. Within the opening lines of the poem, Pinsky mentions the lighter attitude of the workers through their behavior. “Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break / Or talking money or politics while one fitted / This armpiece with its overseam to the band” (Pinsky, line 4-6). These immigrant women were so driven by their own valuable or meaningful reward that the awful conditions did not matter. The only significant issue was producing a high-quality product to match the reward at hand.

In addition to the idea of meaningful reward, the narrator in the second poem finds his meaningful reward while he waits for line into work. As he recollects about the love for his brother, the narrator realizes that he has not worked a meaningful day in his life. Levine reveals this epiphany within the last lines of his poem by stating: “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.” (Levine, line 37-42). The character within the poem has never worked a meaningful day in his life because he has no meaningful cause. This working class character realizes that sacrifice breeds purpose and that purpose or reward lifts a person’s ability to produce meaningful work. The work portrayed in both of these poems are considered meaningful because they have a meaningful reward.

The two poems “Shirt” by Robert Pinsky and “What Work Is” by Philip Levine show that meaningful work stems from a meaningful reward. Everybody has a different reward in mind based on their hierarchy of virtues and values. A meaningful reward spans from completing a job to support a family, to give a person a sense of independence, to sacrifice the next paycheck for a loved one, or simply to be proud of something. It may seem a bit absurd, but I ask myself the same question everyday: “What am I doing here and what is my purpose?” When a person can establish a positive, meaningful reward or goal for themselves, he becomes intertwined with his work and the work suddenly becomes meaningful.