It was announced Wednesday that 83-year-old poet Philip Levine will be the new U.S. Poet Laureate. In making the announcement, Librarian of Congress James Billington said, "“He’s the laureate, if you like, of the industrial heartland. It’s a very, very American voice. I don’t know that in other countries you get poetry of that quality about the ordinary workingman.”
Nor have we in America had a Poet Laureate whose experience, whose sympathies, whose writing has so reflected the working class. We Americans like our poet laureates plain-spoken--think of Billy Collins and penetratingly observant Ted Kooser -- but seldom have we had one who knows the worth,the trials and the consequences of honest labor, a poet who takes a pick axe to the hard stone of his memory and comes up with jewels. Take these two stanzas from a poem spurred by the memory of sounds his twin brother makes on coming home from a day of labor:
All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray box-car at a time
with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.
--from You Can Have It, 1979
Reading Levine, whose 1991 National Book Award winner is titled What Work Is, should be required of any politician who embraces so-called American values while looking to blame the working class for real or imagined problems, of any politician who claims to speak truth. Let them hear these lines from the title poem of Levine's 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection...
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.
--The Simple Truth
...and then let them talk about "real Americans" and the "heartland."
After working in Detroit's auto factories in the 1950s, Levine declared himself a poet looking, "to find a voice for the voiceless." He continues to do just that. His most recent collection, News of the World, has softened his at-times angry look at American-style exploitation and poverty. In “Of Love and Other Disasters” a divorced assembler meets a woman in a bar who is "all wrong, way too skinny." But there are other attractions, symbols of her life as a punch press operator:
she couldn’t get
her hands right, how the grease ate
so deeply into her skin it became
a part of her.
He tries to find the lifeline in her palm and can’t. She cleans something, delicately, from his cheekbone.
He thought, "Better.
get out of here before it’s too late,” but
suspected too late was what he wanted.
This is what Levine does best. He doesn't glorify the working class but finds the physical toll and shared emotion of it. He makes it all-so human. You can find the text and hear Levine reading his poem "What Work Is" here. A tale of waiting in line for a chance at employment, it ties together humiliation, frustration and familial love (for his brother) into a single, beautiful question. Kudos to the Library of Congress for choosing someone so true, so honest in these times of scarce employment and attacks on the working class. And kudos to Levine for knowing and writing about what in life is important.
CABBAGE RABBIT REVIEW OF BOOKS AND MUSIC