Thursday, August 11, 2011

Murfin Snubbed—Levine Gets Nod as Poet Laureate

I’ll admit it.  For days I was on pins and needles expecting THAT call from Washington.  In my mind I was decorating my plush office at the Library of Congress and imagining fawning articles written by reporters who had not read a word of poetry since Hop on Pop.  

After all, not only am I a gifted albeit somewhat obscure poet, but I put in my time in the political trenches.  Why this blog was one of the earliest to endorse Barack Obama way back in March of 2007 and I worked the heck out of my precinct in 2008.  Hell, we even won McHenry County.  That ought to count for something, right? 

But oh no.  I open up the papers and find out that Philip Levine walked off with the plum.  The 83 year old was just named United States Poet Laureate.  So by rights I should be steamed.  “We wuz robbed” as we used to say when a blind ump called a noble Cub out at the plate in a cloud of dust.

But it’s hard to be steamed about a loss to Levine, one of the few working poets in this country who never got the grime and grease of the factories out from under his fingernails.

Born in Detroit in 1928 just in time for the Great Depression, he came of age just in time to plunge into a life of factory work during the Post War boom in the auto industry.  The economy may have been booming, but Levine never forgot the hard times, or the anti-Semitism in his working class neighborhood fueled by crypto-fascist  radio priest Father Coughlin.  And he intimately knew the grinding weariness and tedium of factory life.  He started to write poetry about it.

Now I worked in factories, too, but I have to admit I never thought to make poetry out of it.  I just made up some doggerel lyrics to some old songs.  That was evidently my mistake.

Levine worked his way through night school at local Wayne University.  After graduating he stayed in town, grinding it out on night shifts at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle plant.  And always scribbling away at those poems.

In 1953 he somehow got into the University of Iowa’s famous Writer’s Workshop.  He studied under poetry heavy weights Robert Lowell and John Berryman.  They liked and encouraged him, even if he did keep writing about grimy old Detroit and those damn factories.  After a stint teaching in an Iowa technical college, Levine headed west to California.

I know what you’re thinking.  This is where he sells out in the land of palm trees and movie stars.  But despite falling in with more poets like Yvor Winters who let him crash on his couch and then got him the Stanford Writer’s Fellowship, Levine didn’t change.  

Levine published his first collection, On the EdgeIt was followed by many more.  And they got noticed by people who actually read poetry.  All sorts of awards and fellowships piled in, if that sort of thing impresses you.  Among them were Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, American Book Award for Poetry, Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a double armful of others, and now this.

I have not received honorable mention at the County Fair.

Levine could get political, too.  In 1968, Levine signed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest Pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.  

I guess he was too old to turn in his Draft Card like yours truly.

Of course Levine went the way of all poets, except apparently me, and got a cushy college teaching job to pay the bills for his family.  After all, those awards and dime will get you a sugar packet for your latte because books of poetry sell as if they had been dipped in cholera water.  But Levine didn’t go to the Ivy League or even the swell graduate schools he attended.  He parked himself at California State University, Fresno where he could bake in the Central Valley sun with the sons and daughters of those whose hardscrabble lives we not so different than those back home in Detroit.

In retirement he has split his time between California and Brooklyn, New York.

So as America flounders in The Great Depression II, the Millennial Edition it gets this guy Levine as Poet Laureate.  He’s bound to remind folks who would rather not be bothered about real working people in real places like Detroit and Fresno.  Somebody’s shorts are bound to get all up in a knot.  If one can read, I expect a Tea Party pin head in Congress will push for a bill to de-fund the post and/or the entire Library of Congress.  It’s only a matter of time.

So despite all of this chances are you never heard of Philip Levine, or if you have, did not read him.  Don’t feel bad.  He’s a poet after all.  Even I had to look him up and I am supposed to know about these things.  But I have to admit, I was impressed.  Jealous but impressed.

Here is a sample of why:
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.

Coming Close  

Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break.  Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase,
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes.  You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.

From What Work Is by Philip Levine, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1991 Philip Levine.

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