When the nation’s Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, gives a reading of his work tomorrow here at the AFL-CIO, he will recite poems that weave a lyrical web of words around his visceral understanding of the world of work. Levine, whom the Library of Congress named Poet Laureate in May, and who has written of his experiences working in Detroit factories in the post-World War II years, finds his verses especially resonate with America’s workers—and that’s in part because his portrayals are so honest. (To attend the event, which begins at 1 p.m. Nov. 15, RSVP here.)
“I hated many of the jobs I had—they were hard, they were dirty, they were brutal, working lousy hours,” Levine recalls of the time he spent working at forges, on assembly lines and around slag heaps. Yet he also notes:
When I became a union worker, things were a hell of a lot better.
His experiences on the job without a union burned an anger in him so deep that for years he tossed every poem he wrote about that time. Quoting the poet William Wordsworth as saying “we deal with emotions recollected in tranquility,” Levine states there was “nothing tranquil about my emotions.” Only after he left Detroit and moved to California did he begin to compose searing depictions of working-class life, portraits filled with the dockloaders and slag shovelers he worked with and met along the way. Because, says Levine:
What made the jobs really bearable were the people I worked with.
He went on to win the 1991 National Book Award for his collection “What Work Is,” and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for “The Simple Truth.” One of the rare poets who brings labor to lyrical life, Levine’s work strikes a responsive chord because, as a piece in the Atlantic noted years ago, his poems
often take on an incantatory, almost prayerlike, intensity. It is as though the effort is to overcome the inadequacies of language through its sheer rhythmic and musical power—a kind of primal power to enthrall, to entrance, and, as he says in the poem “These Words,” to comfort.
And his poems ring true for working people because they can relate to them. Levine describes how in the early 1990s, the George Meany Center (now National Labor College) contacted his publisher about offering “What Work Is” at a low cost for readers of its publication—estimating the orders would total 50 copies. The publisher refused, and staff approached Levine. Rather than talk with his publisher, he bought the books himself and shipped them individually when he received those requests. He received nearly as many letters back—from electricians, plumbers, factory workers, a classical pianist–which for Levine, was “the real reward.” Says Levine:
The main thing that I got back was people telling me they didn’t know that kind of poetry existed.
Levine sees a role for poetry in the 21st century—the “same as it was in the previous century and the one before that and the one before that,” to “reflect the world through the vision of the poet.”
My whole sense of what America might be I derived from [poet] Walt Whitman.
And that leads Levine to reflect upon why the nation needs a Poet Laureate.
We don’t take poetry with the immense seriousness other countries do….The Poet Laureateship’s main function is to remind America that it has a great literature and that somebody like Walt Whitman has a vision for all America. Or William Blake, the English poet, who has an epic poem about America and a dream of a country we might have become, we came very close to being. We live with these myths of who we were, we deny our history. And I think one of the functions of poetry is to snap the leash and say, “No, no, this is how we failed. This is how we failed Whitman, this is how we failed William Blake in his vision of how we might become.”