Monday, February 16, 2015

The Poet Laureate of Working Folk and By Grace of Obama the Whole Damn Country is Dead

The young worker/poet at Wayne State, 1950.
Philip Levine, United States Poet Laureate in 2011 and ‘12, was born on January 10, 1928 in Detroit—in Henry Ford Hospital no lessin 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.
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 Edge.  It 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 the 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. 

After spending time in Spain he became fascinated with the Spanish Civil War and particularly the revolutionary anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT-FAI who built agricultural and industrial co-operatives while battling Franco’s fascists and then fending off the stab-in-the-back attacks of the Communists who were determined to eliminate and alternative Left voice even if it meant the loss of Spain.   So naturally, Levine made poetry out of that, too.
Levine was not afraid to get political.  In 1968, he signed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest Pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. 
Like many poets, Levine turned to teaching college.  But he did not 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.  And he would write about them, too, about the fields and the barrios.

In retirement he split his time between California and Brooklyn, New York.
Levine died of pancreatic cancer in his Fresno home on Valentine’s Day at the age of 87.

Levine as Poet Laureate.
Here is a sample of why you should go find some of Levine’s books and read them
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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