A poet of the working class: Philip Levine

The poet Philip Levine once wrote of the American experience that it “is to return and discover one cannot even find the way, for the streets abruptly end, replaced by freeways, the houses have been removed for urban renewal that never takes place, and nothing remains.” (the Atlantic) Levine’s America was above all that of the working class, first of the city of Detroit of his youth: those who build, produce, construct, only to die under the weight of their labour. And once dead, the memory of those who continue in their place is all that gives them life. But America tolerates no ancestor worship, and those whose memory still lives will also follow the dead. America devours its workers in a sacralised cult of growth and wealth, and tolerates no mourning or celebration of those who are sacrificed in their quest.

Levine sings in poetry of the lives of workers; not with heroism, but with dignity. The violence that crushes them is oppressive, ultimately absurd, but they stand nevertheless. And if he once imagined that poetry could change the world, it is the experience of its limits that comes to mark his writings, and thus the absence of any crude social realism in his work. (the Atlantic) It is as much the silences as the words that speak, and always with modesty.

Of anarchism, his admiration was without limits. But as for himself, he was too weak. “I’m cowardly.” (the Paris Review) “For a couple years, maybe four or five, I really thought of myself as an anarchist. And then I stopped. For one thing, I bought a house. I could no longer say, “Property is theft.” I realized I wasn’t up to that ideal — no doubt because I didn’t have the history of grief that they had. Life was becoming relatively easy for me, so I gave up my claim to anarchism.” (the Atlantic) The claim may seem absurd, yet its honesty cuts to the bone like a knife. How many fail to rebel because of compromises, lack of courage, moral weakness? Levine doesn’t judge the cowards, because we all are. But to his credit, he saw it in himself. And anarchist sentiment would remain with him. “But these guys still remain my heroes, because of the intensity of their gift to humanity and their vision, which was large: we are the stewards of the earth, we don’t own anything, and our function is to make it as good as possible and to pass it on to those who are to come. I thought that was a very beautiful vision.” (the Atlantic)

Asked once where American poetry had gone wrong, Levine had these words to say:

“I’m not sure. Maybe it stopped believing in itself. Back in the late sixties we were an amazingly lively, diversified, and yet united bunch, and almost all of us were committed to standing up and being counted against the war, and many of us were concerned with new ways of living, new possibilities. Think of the ambition in Kinnell’s work then, Body Rags and The Book of Nightmares; Denise Levertov’s Relearning the Alphabet; that brilliant long poem by Robert Duncan; Adrienne Rich in Leaflets and Diving into the Wreck. I don’t think all of the poetry was successful, but these poets were trying in their work to be whole men and women, to combine the “holiness of the heart’s affections” with their sense of moral indignation, to stand for what was best in the American soul and against what was the most corrupting and disgusting. They saw their poetry coming out of both their private experiences and visions and their sense of citizenship, to use an old-fashioned word. Yes, these were large manly and womanly undertakings that we as a generation of poets could take pride in. And these weren’t the only large undertakings: Lowell, Berryman, and Bishop were still writing very well. Rexroth and Creeley were at their best; Ginsberg was doing his last interesting stuff, and it was large; Wright, Merwin, Simpson were at the top of their form. Whatever you think of Bly’s work now, he and his magazine were then involved in a campaign to make us see the deepest consequences of living the American lie. It was a brave effort, as was George Hitchcock’s kayak, and marvelous poets were emerging out of these scenes, people like Haines and Simic. I think American poetry was right at the center of the American heart. But we did not change that heart. We did not stop the war. The war ended when the military wanted it to and Vietnam and her neighbors were plundered and leveled. We had such a powerful faith in the rightness of our cause, such a deep belief that if we articulated our vision it must become the American vision, for surely our fellow citizens didn’t want innocent blood on their hands. I can remember feeling full of the power of a just cause and believing that power would not fail me. It failed me or I failed it. We didn’t really change the way Americans lived, unless you take hairstyles seriously. I think it killed something in us, the way something died in Wordwsorth and many of his contemporaries when the French Revolution went first violent and later bourgeois. Everything we spoke out in behalf of got watered down and marketed and then forgotten. Maybe I’m nuts or maybe I’m just tired, but that’s partly what I feel. Maybe it’s also the proliferation of the writing workshops; maybe academia has managed to rent and spay us. Maybe the various endowments have institutionalized and neutralized us, when in fact we should have kept our outcast state, our poverty if need be, our discomfort, our rage; we should have turned and lived with animals. I think I may simply be talking about myself, but maybe not.”

“Don’t let me leave you with the impression that there aren’t wonderful poets out there, some superb ones who are all but unknown, poets who don’t have careers, who just write poetry. I’m thinking of someone like John Engels, who teaches at some dinky school in Vermont. He is an absolutely adult poet, as good as any in the country; his work is beautifully crafted, passionate, and truly moral. I’ll bet there are four or five others totally unknown who never learned how to bow down or manage a career or who didn’t start out at an Ivy League school. Gerald Stern was unknown until he was about fifty. Hayden Carruth is now writing unbelievable poetry. John Haines got a glimmer of the limelight years ago, but John has the bad habit of saying what’s on his mind; he won’t be pruned. These poets will go on getting bad reviews or no reviews, but the true poetry audience will find their work and love it. That’s happening right now with the work of Ruth Stone. Everywhere I go people are talking about her poems. It’s all word of mouth. Is Marjorie Perloff, the literary critic, going to tell us? Hell no. The other day I read a piece of hers that was so stupid it took your breath away. She was lecturing Adrienne Rich on how to become an effective feminist poet, as though Adrienne had failed. Perloff told her she couldn’t do it in her present voice because that voice had been influenced by the poetry of men, so she advised her to become a language poet and write incomprehensibly and thus revolutionize women’s attitudes toward themselves. Such impertinence. Given the chance, she’d have lectured Whitman on why he should have written “Song of Myself” in Esperanto. This is the criticism of the Reagan age, and its purpose is no more and no less than to neuter poetry, to deprive it of its authority, to utterly tame it. Perloff is out to make a little structuralist out of Adrienne, to deprive her of her guts, her sexuality, her deeply earned rage, all of which come out of her experience. The poetry has authority because you know that. Perloff and all these other dwarves sit back smugly and say, How can you believe such naive things, you’re all merely determined by your social and linguistic contexts. How dare you believe you know something in your blood, how dare you shout out your joy or weep your sorrow. Here we are as a nation going through terrible times, needing poetry as much as we’ve ever needed it, and this little circle of elitists and—what did Blake call them?—mockers are urging on us a poetry of irrelevance. If we get a little excited about the facts of our lives they call us Benthamites, romantics, or whatever the current evil is. Once Reagan came to power, you knew these lackeys were on the way; in fact they smelled his coming years in advance—they are those animals with noses to the wind to catch the latest currents. They will never give us a poetry of greatness; a poetry to help us face madness, exile, the grave. Like Reagan himself, they will pass; like Asian flu, they’re with us for a few seasons, and then a new disease comes along.” (the Paris Review)

Philip Levine died last February 14th at the age of 87. The selection of his poetry that follows is to remember those who are born, work and die in silence.


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.


Among Children

I walk among the rows of bowed heads–
the children are sleeping through fourth grade
so as to be ready for what is ahead,
the monumental boredom of junior high
and the rush forward tearing their wings
loose and turning their eyes forever inward.
These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You can see
already how their backs have thickened,
how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams. I would like
to sit down among them and read slowly
from The Book of Job until the windows
pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea
of industrial scum, her gowns streaming
with light, her foolish words transformed
into song, I would like to arm each one
with a quiver of arrows so that they might
rush like wind there where no battle rages
shouting among the trumpets, Hal Ha!
How dear the gift of laughter in the face
of the 8 hour day, the cold winter mornings
without coffee and oranges, the long lines
of mothers in old coats waiting silently
where the gates have closed. Ten years ago
I went among these same children, just born,
in the bright ward of the Sacred Heart and leaned
down to hear their breaths delivered that day,
burning with joy. There was such wonder
in their sleep, such purpose in their eyes
dosed against autumn, in their damp heads
blurred with the hair of ponds, and not one
turned against me or the light, not one
said, I am sick, I am tired, I will go home,
not one complained or drifted alone,
unloved, on the hardest day of their lives.
Eleven years from now they will become
the men and women of Flint or Paradise,
the majors of a minor town, and I
will be gone into smoke or memory,
so I bow to them here and whisper
all I know, all I will never know.


An Abandoned Factory, Detroit

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 Helmet

All the way
on the road to Gary
he could see
where the sky shone
just out of reach
and smell the rich
smell of work
as strong as money,
but when he got there
the night was over.

People were going
to work and back,
the sidewalks were lakes
no one walked on,
the diners were saying
time to eat
so he stopped
and talked to a woman
who’d been up late
making helmets.

There are white hands
the color of steel,
they have put their lives
into steel,
and if hands could lay down
their lives these hands
would be helmets.
He and the woman
did not lie down

not because
she would praise
the steel helmet
boarding a train
for no war,
not because
he would find
the unjewelled crown
in a surplus store
where hands were sold.

They did not lie down
face to face
because of the waste
of being so close
and they were too tired
of being each other
to try to be lovers
and because they had
to sit up straight
so they could eat.


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.


A Woman Waking

She wakens early remembering
her father rising in the dark
lighting the stove with a match
scraped on the floor. Then measuring
water for coffee, and later the smell
coming through. She would hear
him drying spoons, dropping
them one by one in the drawer.
Then he was on the stairs
going for the milk. So soon
he would be at her door
to wake her gently, he thought,
with a hand at her nape, shaking
to and fro, smelling of gasoline
and whispering. Then he left.
Now she shakes her head, shakes
him away and will not rise.
There is fog at the window
and thickening the high branches
of the sycamores. She thinks
of her own kitchen, the dishwasher
yawning open, the dripping carton
left on the counter. Her boys
have gone off steaming like sheep.
Were they here last night?
Where do they live? She wonders,
with whom? Are they home?
In her yard the young plum tree,
barely taller than she, drops
its first yellow leaf. She listens
and hears nothing. If she rose
and walked barefoot on the wood floor
no one would come to lead her
back to bed or give her
a glass of water. If she
boiled an egg it would darken
before her eyes. The sky tires
and turns away without a word.
The pillow beside hers is cold,
the old odour of soap is there.
Her hands are cold. What time is it?


You Can Have It

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labours, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

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 boxcar 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.

In 1948 the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors’ appointments, bonds
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then the bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.


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.”
Some things 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.



“Hill of Jews,” says one,
named for a cemetery
long gone.”Hill of Jove,”
says another, and maybe
Jove stalked here
once or rests now
where so many lie
who felt God swell
the earth and burn
along the edges
of their breath.
Almost seventy years
since a troop of cavalry
jingled up the silent road,
dismounted, and loaded
their rifles to deliver
the fusillade into
the small, soft body
of Ferrer, who would
not beg God’s help.
Later, two carpenters
came, carrying his pine
coffin on their heads,
two men out of movies
not yet made, and near dark
the body was unchained
and fell a last time
onto the stones.
Four soldiers carried
the box, sweating
and resting by turns,
to where the fresh hole
waited, and the world went
back to sleep.
The sea, still dark
as a blind eye,
grumbles at dusk,
the air deepens and a chill
suddenly runs along
my back. I have come
foolishly bearing red roses
for all those whose blood
spotted the cold floors
of these cells. If I
could give a measure
of my own for each
endless moment of pain,
well, what good
would that do? You
are asleep, brothers
and sisters, and maybe
that was all the God
of this old hill could
give you. It wasn’t
he who filled your
lungs with the power
to raise your voices
against stone, steel,
animal, against
the pain exploding
in your own skulls,
against the unbreakable
walls of the State.
No, not he. That
was the gift only
the dying could hand
from one of you
to the other, a gift
like these roses I fling
off into the night.
You chose no God
but each other, head,
belly, groin, heart, you
chose the lonely road
back down these hills
empty handed, breath
steaming in the cold
March night, or worse,
the wrong roads
that led to black earth
and the broken seed
of your body. The sea
spreads below, still
as dark and heavy
as oil. As I
descend step by step
a wind picks up and hums
through the low trees
along the way, like
the heavens’ last groan
or a song being born.


Baby Villon

He tells me in Bangkok he’s robbed
Because he’s white; in London because he’s black;
In Barcelona, Jew; in Paris, Arab:
Everywhere and at all times, and he fights back.

He holds up seven thick little fingers
To show me he’s rated seventh in the world,
And there’s no passion in his voice, no anger
In the flat brown eyes flecked with blood.

He asks me to tell all I can remember
Of my father, his uncle; he talks of the war
In North Africa and what came after,
The loss of his father, the loss of his brother,

The windows of the bakery smashed and the fresh bread
Dusted with glass, the warm smell of rye
So strong he ate till his mouth filled with blood.
“Here they live, here they live and not die,”

And he points down at his black head ridged
With black kinks of hair. He touches my hair,
Tells me I should never disparage
The stiff bristles that guard the head of the fighter.

Sadly his fingers wander over my face,
And he says how fair I am, how smooth.
We stand to end this first and last visit.
Stiff, 116 pounds, five feet two,

No bigger than a girl, he holds my shoulders,
Kisses my lips, his eyes still open,
My imaginary brother, my cousin,
Myself made otherwise by all his pain.


Coming Home Detroit 1968

A winter Tuesday, the city pouring fire,
Ford Rouge sulfurs the sun, Cadillac, Lincoln,
Chevy gray. The fat stacks
of breweries hold their tongues. Rags,
papers, hands, the stems of birches
dirtied with words.

Near the freeway
you stop and wonder what came off,
recall the snowstorm where you lost it all,
the wolverine, the northern bear, the wolf
caught out, ice and steel raining
from the foundries in a shower
of human breath. On sleds in the false sun
the new material rests. One brown child
stares and stares into your frozen eyes
until the lights change and you go
forward to work. The charred faces, the eyes
boarded up, the rubble of innards, the cry
of wet smoke hanging in your throat,
the twisted river stopped at the color of iron.
We burn this city every day.


They Feed They Lion

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.


Philip Levine interviewed by Bill Moyers …

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