[On Sundays, Career Calling explores different aspects of life and work in “Sabbath.”]
A New National Poet
Someone who describes himself as an “old union man,” Phillip Levine, has been named Poet Laureate of the U.S. At first glance, this honor would hold little merit in a nation more obsessed with popular culture and scandal than poetry. Levine is different because he writes about his roots. Born in Detroit, he worked in auto plants as a youth. While he has achieved broad recognition as a poet (including the 1995 Pulitzer Prize), he has never forgotten where he came from.
Levine’s relevance to today’s concerns was captured by Dwight Garner, writing in The New York Times: Levine’s poetry “radiates a heat of a sort not often felt in today’s poetry, that transmitted by grease, soil, factory light, cheap and honest food, sweat, low pay, cigarettes, and second shifts. It is a plainspoken poetry ready-made, it seems, for a time of S&P downgrades, a double-dip recession and debts left unpaid.” Garner profiles Levine as a complex writer who chronicles working class life without simplifying it or his art.
Accompanying this article was a poem entitled “What Work Is.” Levine takes the reader from an employment line that will end in frustration to thoughts on a brother, who works night shifts at the Cadillac plant so he can study German during the day. The brother is an opera singer. This poem reminds poetry readers, many of whom have lost contact with working people and the poor, that dreams and art belong to everyone. It also challenges the notion of work. Work is not just the job. It’s looking for the job. It’s studying German in order to sing opera. It’s loving a brother even if you’re incapable of telling him that you love him, the hardest work of all.
His poem “Fist” is a meditation on vision, a man who works at an auto plant watching an angry sunrise, “a flower that hates God.” The first line of “A Sleepless Night” echoes Pound’s verse on the Metro: “April, and the last of the plum blossoms/scatters on the black grass/before dawn.” The language and images are accessible, an engaged reader with basic skills can appreciate Levine’s art – his work.
The selection of Levine as poet laureate is timely in at least two ways. We need a poet who can express the visions of what another poet called “everyday people.” We also need a poet who writes in a way that invites working people and students (and their professors) to read his work. Too many Americans are out of work. Too many American also neglect our greatest natural resource, talents like Phillip Levine.
Sunday Extra Helpings:
Paris Review interview with Levine.
Levine reading three poems, including “Assembly,” a meditation on working in an auto plant.