Detroit native Philip Levine, the nation’s new poet laureate, owes much to his Motor City roots.
Philip Levine, recently named America’s poet laureate by the Library of Congress, has reading decisions to make. There are some 20 of his collections to review with public presentations in mind.
Levine, who wrote his earliest verse in Detroit, currently is focusing on two very different events soon approaching in the nation’s capital.
One will be traditional as he opens the literary season of the Library of Congress. The other, essentially nontraditional, places him before union activists linked to poems that recall his pre-fame factory shifts in the Motor City.
“I would like to show the range of my interests, emotions, style and methods,” says Levine, 83, in a phone conversation from his New York home. “I will read very serious poems, not very serious poems, early poems in a more formal style and recent work in my current voice.
“I think the range will show that I’ve lived a long life and written about it. I’ve lived in a number of places and with a great many different people entering my work. I will tell about an America that stretches back.”
Levine’s talents, meriting a Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth (1994) and National Book Awards for What Work Is (1991) and Ashes: Poems New and Old (1980), place him on a list of familiar American poets chosen laureates, including Robert Frost, Conrad Aiken, Stephen Spender and Billy Collins. He is the latest Jewish poet in a line dating back to Karl Shapiro in 1946 and, most recently, Robert Pinsky from 1997 to 2000.
The Simple Truth
Levine’s subjects often are readily familiar to Michigan readers, who recognize Hamtramck neighborhoods, General Motors plants and Central High School among many other landmarks.
“Philip Levine is one of America’s great narrative poets,” says James Billington, the Library of Congress librarian who made the appointment. “His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling the ‘Simple Truth’ about working in a Detroit auto factory, as he has, and about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives.”
Since he was named the nation’s 18th poet laureate, Levine’s volumes of poetry — his latest is 2009’s News of the World — have sold out and been ordered again at local stores. Other titles include On The Edge (1963), The Names of the Lost (1976), 7 Years From Somewhere (1979), A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988), New Selected Poems (1991) and The Mercy (1999).
Nonfiction projects include The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (1994), Don’t Ask (1981) and So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews (2002). Editing projects include The Essential Keats (1987) and translated collections of Spanish poet Gloria Fuertes and Mexican poet Jaime Sabines.
“I believed that if I could transform my experience into poetry, I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own,” Levine says about his days on the auto line.
“I thought, too, that if I could write about it, I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life — or at least the part my work played in it — I could embrace it with some degree of joy.”
Levine’s poetic awakening is tied to the awakening of the northwest Detroit neighborhood of his youth.
“When I was almost 14, my mother bought a house on Santa Rosa north of Seven Mile,” recalls the poet, whose father had died years earlier.
“They were just starting to build up these blocks, and there were very few houses. The war started for the United States in 1941, and the building stopped.
“The blocks were full of trees and shrubs, and I would go into these woods just before nightfall. I started composing poems, which I never wrote down. If my twin brother, Eddie, had found them, he would have shown them to my schoolmates, and they would have giggled.”
Levine gave his poems to memory.
“I found a voice that was mine, and I enjoyed speaking in that voice,” he says. “The poems were inspired by the cadences of preaching, which I heard on the radio.
“I would borrow the vocabulary of Old Testament language, mix it with American speech and compose poems about the natural world, which I stopped doing when I was 17.”
A favorite teacher introduced Levine to the writing of Wilfred Owens, a World War I British poet, and he found the complex samples inspirational before exploring less intimidating free verse in college.
Levine earned a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University and a master’s degree from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He later was awarded the Jones Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford.
As Levine explored his skills, with publication starting in his 20s, he taught for many years at California State University, Fresno, where he is professor emeritus in the English Department. He also taught at New York University, as distinguished writer-in-residence, as well as at Columbia, Princeton, Brown and Tufts universities.
“I don’t think I wrote anything I really would like today until I was 30,” explains Levine, who served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2000-2006. “I left Detroit when I was 26 and had a lot to learn. There was a huge growth in my abilities when I studied with John Berryman in Iowa.
“I found him a magnificently congenial and inspiring teacher and brutal but honest critic. I studied with him for 15 weeks, and they were immensely influential in the way I wrote.
“Living in Detroit was extremely influential in what I chose to write about, but it had very little influence on the way I wrote about it. Spending some years in an automobile factory and then going into academia made for a vivid contrast, and my memory of the earlier is much stronger.”
“There are a lot of poems about New York,” he says. “I started living here at the end of the 1960s and [was affected] by the city’s power and variety.”
Levine has returned often to Michigan. He has done readings, and he came to see the effects of the 1967 Detroit riots, which led to his poem “They Feed They Lion,” which first appeared in one of his first collections, They Feed the Lion: Poems (1972).
Family ties, another theme for which Levine employed some identity disguises, also meant visits with his identical twin, Edward, who lives in Royal Oak and has expressed impressions of the Motor City through representational paintings.
The suburban Detroiter showcased the neighborhoods and factories his brother described with words.
“I’ve always been very proud of my brother and proud of his work,” says Edward Levine, whose core career was buying and selling parts for heavy vehicles. “He worked very hard, and that rubbed off on me.”
The twins, although pursuing different artistic interests, shared in athletic activities at the Jewish Community Center, attendance at Wayne State University and employment in the factories.
While Levine’s Russian-Jewish heritage did not draw him to religion, Jewish references and Yiddish terms occasionally appear in his collections.
“I am very proud of being Jewish,” Philip Levine says. “I felt that Jewish people were utterly remarkable. I couldn’t compare them to any other people in terms of the enormous gifts they gave to Western culture.
“When I was 16 or 17, the giants were Einstein, Freud and fabulous composers, musicians and painters. Jews were just making their presence felt in American poetry.
“My wife is not Jewish so technically [our] children are not Jewish. I don’t know how they would answer a question about whether they are Jewish, but I’m quite sure they would say ‘yes.’”
Levine calls himself “indulgent” toward his four grandchildren.
“I love being with them,” he says. “Last winter, I had some physical problems when I was supposed to give a poetry reading, and I just wasn’t up to the long drive. My grandson [volunteered] to drive, and spending three days with him was such a pleasure.”
Levine, a solid jazz fan as reflected in his work, writes in the mornings, sitting in a comfortable nook in his New York home. Mornings also are for reading, from the sports and cultural pages of newspapers to Spanish poetry anthologies.
Afternoons are more every day, taking care of whatever tasks have to get done, exercising at a nearby gym and giving time to reflection.
“I don’t know what workers are experiencing today, but I do know that the factories are more automated and the jobs are different,” says the poet, whose driving years put him behind the wheels of a Kaiser, Pontiac, Ford and foreign cars.
“I doubt that the jobs require so much physical energy and believe they require more mental energy.
“It seems that there is very little security. Working for the great corporations in the 1940s and 1950s, we had no idea the jobs wouldn’t last forever. It was like getting tenure at Harvard; you couldn’t imagine that you would ever have to leave except out of preference for something better.”
It doesn’t seem as if Levine could find a better occupation for himself than writing poetry.
“I’m very glad I became a poet,” he says. “Poetry has been very generous to me, and I’m very glad I became the poet of Detroit.
I loved the city when I grew up there. It was a place of adventure, mystery and magic, and I found it welcoming.
“Although there were things about it that I disliked thoroughly — it was, after all, a very anti-Semitic city with Father Coughlin out there — it was a city that inspired me and in which I met a fabulous variety of people. I owe it a good deal of my poetic life.”
As that life comes to special attention with the poet laureate designation, Levine welcomes his upcoming speaking/reading engagements and thinks about what they mean for his tenure.
“As I prepare to read for the AFL-CIO, I’ve been thinking about some of the unions located in other places and wondering if they would be interested in presenting poetry,” says Levine, knowing that his predecessors have taken on projects to broaden poetry audiences.
“That’s a very appealing idea, and I wouldn’t charge. I would give that to the labor unions, who have done so much for America’s working people.”
Story written by Suzanne Chessler
JN Contributing Writer
Poems from Philip Levine
“WHAT WORK IS”
From 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.
“THE SIMPLE TRUTH”
From The Simple Truth
I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.
“THE SWEETNESS OF BOBBY HEFKA”
From What Work Is
What do you make of little Bobby Hefka
in the 11th grade admitting to Mr. Jaslow
that he was a racist and if Mr. Jaslow
was so tolerant how come he couldn’t
tolerate Bobby? The class was stunned.
“How do you feel about the Jews?”
asked my brother Eddie, menacingly.
“Oh, come on, Eddie,” Bobby said,
“I thought we were friends.” Mr. Jaslow
banged the desk to regain control.
“What is it about Negroes you do not like?”
he asked in his most rational voice,
which always failed to hide the fact
he was crazy as a bed bug, claiming
Capek’s RUR was far greater than Macbeth.
Bobby was silent for a long minute, thinking.
“Negroes frighten me,” he finally said,
“they frighten my mother and father who never
saw them in Finland, they scare my brother
who’s much bigger than me.” Then he added
the one name, Joe Louis, who had been
busy cutting down black and white men
no matter what their size. Mr. Jaslow
sighed with compassion. We knew that
before the class ended he’d be telling us
a great era for men and women was imminent
if only we could cross the threshold
into humanitarianism, into the ideals
of G. B. Shaw, Karel Capek, and Mr. Jaslow.
I looked across the room to where Bobby
sat in the back row next to the windows.
He was still awake, his blue eyes wide.
Beyond him the dark clouds of 1945
were clustering over Linwood, the smokestack
of the power plant gave its worst
to a low sky. Lacking the patience to wait
for combat, Johnny Mooradian had quit school
a year before, and Johnny was dead on an atoll
without a name. Bobby Hefka had told the truth
— to his own shame and pride — and the rains
came on. Nothing had changed for a roomful
of 17 year olds more scared of life than death.
The last time I saw Bobby Hefka he was driving
a milk truck for Dairy Cream, he was married,
he had a little girl, he still dreamed
of going to medical school. He listened
in sorrow to what had become of me. He handed
me an icy quart bottle of milk, a gift
we both held on to for a silent moment
while the great city roared around us, the trucks
honking and racing their engines to make him move.
His eyes were wide open. Bobby Hefka loved me.
“AN ABANDONED FACTORY, DETROIT”
From On The Edge
The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.
Beyond, through broken windows one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,
And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.
“THE NEW WORLD”
From The Mercy
A man roams the streets with a basket
of freestone peaches hollering, “Peaches,
peaches, yellow freestone peaches for sale.”
My grandfather in his prime could outshout
the Tigers of Wrath or the factory whistles
along the river. Hamtramck hungered
for yellow freestone peaches, downriver
wakened from a dream of work, Zug Island danced
into the bright day glad to be alive.
Full-figured women in their negligees
streamed into the streets from the dark doorways
to demand in Polish or Armenian
the ripened offerings of this new world.
Josef Prisckulnick out of Dubrovitsa
to Detroit by way of Ellis Island
raised himself regally to his full height
of five feet two and transacted until
the fruit was gone into those eager hands.
Thus would there be a letter sent across
an ocean and a continent, and thus
would Sadie waken to the news of wealth
without limit in the bright and distant land,
and thus bags were packed and she set sail
for America. Some of this is true.
The women were gaunt. All day the kids dug
in the back lots searching for anything.
The place was Russia with another name.
Joe was five feet two. Dubrovitsa burned
to gray ashes the west wind carried off,
then Rovno went, then the Dnieper turned to dust.
We sat around the table telling lies
while the late light filled an empty glass.
Bread, onions, the smell of burning butter,
small white potatoes we shared with no one
because the hour was wrong, the guest was late,
and this was Michigan in 1928.
“THEY FEED THE LION”
From They Feed the Lion: Poems
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,
They Lion grow.
Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
“Come home, Come home!” From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.
From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From “Bow Down” come “Rise Up,”
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.
From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.