News / USA

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.

Multimedia

Audio

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

 

You May Like

Obama: I Will Do 'Everything I Can' to Close Guantanamo

US president says prison continues 'to inspire jihadists and extremists around the world' More

Sierra Leone Educates on Safe Ebola Burials

Also, country is improving at rapid response to isolated outbreaks, but health workers need to be even faster, officials say More

Christmas Gains Popularity in Vietnam

Increasingly wealthy Vietnamese embrace holiday due to its non-religious glamor, commercial appeal More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Jane Monheit Christmas Speciali
X
December 22, 2014 8:15 PM
Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Jane Monheit Christmas Special

Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubans

For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Cuba Deal is Major Victory for Pope’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Pope Francis played a key role in brokering the US-Cuba deal that was made public earlier this week. It is the most stunning success so far in a series of peacemaking efforts by the pontiff. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.

All About America

AppleAndroid