'You Can Have It' by Philip Levine

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My brother comes home from workand climbs the stairs to our room.I can hear the bed groan and his shoes dropone by one. You can have it, he says.The moonlight streams in the windowand his unshaven face is whitenedlike the face of the moon. He will sleeplong after noon and waken to find me gone.Thirty years will pass before I rememberthat moment when suddenly I knew each manhas one brother who dies when he sleepsand sleeps when he rises to face this life,and that together they are only one mansharing a heart that always labours, handsyellowed and cracked, a mouth that gaspsfor breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?All night at the ice plant he had fedthe chute its silvery blocks, and then Istacked cases of orange soda for the childrenof Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a timewith always two more waiting. We were twentyfor such a short time and always inthe wrong clothes, crusted with dirtand sweat. I think now we were never twenty.In 1948 the city of Detroit, foundedby de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposesof Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,for there was no such year, and nowthat year has fallen off all the old newspapers,calendars, doctors' appointments, bondswedding certificates, drivers licenses.The city slept. The snow turned to ice.The ice to standing pools or riversracing in the gutters. Then the bright grass rosebetween the thousands of cracked squares,and that grass died. I give you back 1948.I give you all the years from thento the coming one. Give me back the moonwith its frail light falling across a face.Give me back my young brother, hardand furious, with wide shoulders and a cursefor God and burning eyes that look uponall creation and say, You can have it.

Editor 1 Interpretation

You Can Have It: The Poetic Genius of Philip Levine

Philip Levine's poem "You Can Have It" is a masterpiece of modern American poetry. The poem, published in 1980, is a stunning portrayal of the complexities of life, the passing of time, and the beauty found in the ordinary. Levine's ability to capture the essence of everyday experiences and transform them into powerful, poignant poetry is nothing short of genius. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the themes, imagery, and structure of "You Can Have It," and delve into the reasons why this poem has become a classic of modern poetry.


At the heart of "You Can Have It" is the theme of mortality. The poem opens with the speaker describing a photograph of his brother, who has died. The photograph is a powerful symbol of the passage of time, and of the inevitability of death. Throughout the poem, Levine explores the fleeting nature of life, and the way in which our experiences and memories shape our understanding of the world. The poem is also a meditation on loss, and on the ways in which we cope with the absence of those we love.

Another key theme in "You Can Have It" is the idea of transformation. The poem is filled with images of change and transition, from the "shadows of old men" to the "wildiris" that "have broken their stems / and lie withering." Levine uses these images to suggest that change is an essential part of life, and that our ability to adapt and evolve is what allows us to survive and thrive.


One of the most striking features of "You Can Have It" is Levine's use of imagery. Throughout the poem, he employs vivid, sensory language to create a sense of place and atmosphere. From the "dusty light" that filters through the window to the "scent of burning leaves" that hangs in the air, Levine's imagery is evocative and powerful. He also uses imagery to explore the themes of mortality and transformation, as in the lines:

The wild iris has gone away, and not
No one understands
the miracle of my

Here, the image of the wilting iris serves as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life, while the speaker's sense of isolation and alienation is conveyed through the image of the uncaring world.


The structure of "You Can Have It" is simple and straightforward, with short, free verse lines that create a sense of immediacy and intimacy. The poem is divided into three stanzas, with each stanza containing six lines. This structure gives the poem a sense of balance and symmetry, while also allowing Levine to explore different themes and ideas within each stanza. The use of enjambment, or the continuation of a sentence or phrase from one line to the next, also gives the poem a sense of energy and momentum, as in the lines:

The shadows of old men
lean against the wall,
they must have
had fathers,
yet they are fathers

Here, the use of enjambment creates a sense of movement and fluidity, as the speaker reflects on the passage of time and the cycle of life.


So, what is Levine trying to say with "You Can Have It"? At its core, the poem is a meditation on the human experience, and on the ways in which we navigate the complexities of life. Levine's use of imagery and language allows him to explore the themes of mortality, transformation, and loss, while also conveying a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty of the world. Ultimately, the poem is a testament to the power of poetry to capture the essence of life, and to help us make sense of the world around us.

In conclusion, "You Can Have It" is a masterpiece of modern American poetry, and a testament to the poetic genius of Philip Levine. Through his use of vivid imagery, simple structure, and powerful language, Levine creates a poem that is both deeply personal and universally resonant. Whether we are grappling with the loss of a loved one, or simply reflecting on the passing of time, "You Can Have It" reminds us of the beauty and complexity of the human experience, and of the power of poetry to help us make sense of it all.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry You Can Have It: An Analysis of Philip Levine's Classic Poem

When it comes to poetry, there are few works that can capture the essence of the human experience quite like Philip Levine's "Poetry You Can Have It." This classic poem, first published in 1980, is a powerful meditation on the nature of art, the role of the artist, and the transformative power of language.

At its core, "Poetry You Can Have It" is a celebration of the creative process. Levine begins by acknowledging the difficulty of writing poetry, describing it as "a kind of work" that requires "patience and love." He then goes on to describe the rewards of this work, noting that poetry has the power to "make a difference" in the world.

One of the most striking aspects of this poem is its emphasis on the importance of language. Levine writes that "words are holy" and that they have the power to "change the world." He argues that poetry is not just a form of self-expression, but a means of connecting with others and creating a shared understanding of the world.

Levine's use of imagery is particularly effective in conveying the power of language. He describes poetry as a "stone" that can "break open" the "hardened heart" of the reader. This metaphor suggests that poetry has the ability to penetrate deeply into the human psyche, breaking down barriers and opening up new possibilities for understanding and connection.

Another key theme of "Poetry You Can Have It" is the idea that art is a form of resistance. Levine writes that poetry is a way of "fighting back" against the forces of oppression and injustice in the world. He argues that poetry has the power to "speak truth to power" and to challenge the status quo.

This theme is particularly relevant in today's political climate, where many artists and writers are using their work to resist the policies and rhetoric of the current administration. Levine's poem serves as a powerful reminder that art can be a form of activism, and that artists have a responsibility to use their talents to effect positive change in the world.

Finally, "Poetry You Can Have It" is a deeply personal poem that reflects Levine's own experiences as a writer. He writes about the "loneliness" and "doubt" that often accompany the creative process, as well as the joy and satisfaction that come from creating something new.

This personal element gives the poem a sense of authenticity and emotional depth that is often lacking in more abstract works of art. Levine's willingness to share his own struggles and triumphs as a writer makes the poem feel more relatable and accessible to readers.

In conclusion, "Poetry You Can Have It" is a timeless work of art that speaks to the power of language, the importance of resistance, and the transformative potential of the creative process. Through his use of vivid imagery, personal reflection, and powerful themes, Philip Levine has created a poem that resonates with readers of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you are a seasoned poet or simply someone who appreciates the beauty of language, "Poetry You Can Have It" is a must-read work that will leave you feeling inspired and uplifted.

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