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US Poet Laureate Captures Struggles of Working Class

Philip Levine draws on his own past as a factory worker

In his poems, US Poet Laureate Philip Levine draws upon his own past experiences as a factory worker.
In his poems, US Poet Laureate Philip Levine draws upon his own past experiences as a factory worker.



America's newest poet laureate is Detroit native Philip Levine, 83, who is known for capturing the poignancy and grit of a now-vanished industrial America, and the overall struggle of the working class.

Levine sits in the living room of the Brooklyn apartment he shares with Frances, his wife of nearly 60 years. He's published 16 collections of poetry and is knowledgeable about poetry concerning a vast array of subjects spanning centuries.

Yet he creates verse culled largely from what he calls the drudgery of the Detroit factory job he held in the 1940s and 1950s.

US Poet Laureate Philip Levine
US Poet Laureate Philip Levine

“I remember when I worked at General Motors, sometimes people would come in being led on a tour," Levine says. "They were looking at us like we are in a zoo. I felt demeaned by it. I also felt I am a smart guy. I am not living on my wits. And I've got to figure out a way to live on my wits because my back is getting tired. And I did finally get out of it. I got out of it by publishing poetry, curiously enough.”

Levine’s subject matter has acquired new relevance in today’s difficult economy. His poem, “What Work Is,” was the title work of a volume which won the National Book Award.

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...

Although Levine loves the variety in city life, he and Frances often return to Fresno, California, about 250 kilometers inland, where they keep a home. There, he says, life is “fixed,” and he writes a different sort of poetry. Here is an excerpt from “Our Valley.”

We don't see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it…

Levine cherishes silence and celebrates it in “He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do.”

Fact is, silence is the perfect water:
unlike rain it falls from no clouds
to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
to give heart to the thin blades of grass
fighting through the concrete for even air
dirtied by our endless stream of words.

The words Levine does use can be earthy. These lines are from “The Simple Truth,” the title poem of the collection that earned him the 1995 Pulitzer Prize.

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.

Levine also believes in the epic courage and tenderness of human beings. He is an admirer of the anarchists who fought alongside the Republicans against Gen. Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

“I was truly inspired by their belief in the boundless nature of the human that, given the opportunity, human beings could work out a way of living that was based on generosity and common ownership and sensitivity to each other and they could treat the world as a place they didn’t have dominion over but had to take care of."

As to what he hopes to achieve during his tenure as U.S. poet laureate, Levine says he'll do what he does when he writes a poem. He won't know where it's going; he'll just follow his instincts.


Listen: Extended interview with Philip Levine why so much of his poetry draws on the American urban experience, especially his years as a Detroit factory worker


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