1. A Sacred Vocation
“I was first introduced to Philip Levine through the mail in the summer of 1976,” Mona Simpson wrote by way of introducing her interview with the poet in The Paris Review in 1988. For my part, I was first introduced to Philip Levine through his second book of poems, Not This Pig, in the spring of 1976.
“I was studying literature at Berkeley,” Simpson continued, “and my friends and I, all college freshmen or sophomores, were ardent readers of Levine, W.S. Merwin, Donald Justice, Gary Snyder and Hart Crane.” At that time I was studying English at Brown, I was a senior, and I was an ardent reader of Merwin, Snyder and Crane, with heaping side orders of Baudelaire and Bukowski, Stevens and Williams, Ginsberg and Rimbaud. I knew already that I had no talent for writing poetry, but I loved to read it because I believed then as I believe now that its compression and precision make it the highest form of writing, even more exalted than the beloved novel.
Simpson went on, “A friend from the college literary magazine, The Berkeley Poetry Review, introduced me to Ernest Benck, a California poet, who kindly sent some of both of our poems to Levine. Levine wrote back to us, marking our poems assiduously. Since then I have received many letters from him, always on yellow legal paper with comments like, ‘I’m not sure my remarks, which are fairly nasty at times, really indicate…’ His comments, though never nasty, were always serious, as if he took the business of correspondence to be part of the education of a poet. I had the feeling he wrote many such letters to young poets around the country: poets driving trucks, picking oranges, poets who were waiters and acupuncturists’ assistants and college students.”
This is where Simpson’s story and mine, after nearly twinned beginnings, started to diverge. I never sent Levine any poems and he never sent me any letters. But I kept reading his poetry, marveling at the development of his craft, his earthy subject matter, and his unkillable passion for poems in a country that was doing its best to marginalize all serious writing, especially poetry.
Finally, Simpson summed up the lesson she learned from all the letters she has received from Levine over the years: “Levine takes his role as mentor with the responsibility of a sacred vocation.”
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I believe Philip Levine is going to make a sublime Poet Laureate when he takes over the post on October 17.
2. Not This Pig
When the pupil is ready to learn, says the Zen proverb, a teacher will appear. Without realizing it, I was ready to learn from Not This Pig when it came roaring into my life, unannounced, in the spring of 1976. I had never heard of Philip Levine and I don’t remember how I came to the book (or how it came to me), but I do remember being intrigued the instant I picked up this thin $2 paperback and read Levine’s remark on the back cover that the book’s 37 poems “mostly record my discovery of the people, places and animals I am not, the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos – a gesture they don’t need – would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasaran’ or ‘Not this pig.'”
The book’s opening poems were an astonishment. Written in sparkling, almost stark language – with short lines and non-existent or haphazard rhyme schemes – the poems are populated with auto workers and other prosaic nobodies doing the most unspectacular things: driving home to Detroit after an all-night drinking spree in Toledo; stopping on the side of the road to piss in the snow; tripping the switch that stirs to life the “slow elephant feet” of a metal-stamping press; driving overnight from Detroit to Chicago to see what Lake Michigan looks like at dawn. This last poem, “A New Day,” ends with a stanza I can still recite from memory 35 years after first reading it:
And what we get is what we bring:
A grey light coming on at dawn,
No fresh start and no bird song
And no sea and no shore
That someone hasn’t seen before.
In these poems, shorelines are not open places full of promise and possibility. They’re where the land dies, where things end, where Levine’s characters come up against the iron limitations of their small lives. This carries a predictable sense of resignation, but in this resignation there is no admission of defeat; there is, paradoxically, a stubborn refusal to succumb to monstrous and superior forces, in this case the great dehumanizing dynamos of the industrial Midwest. These are, remember, people who live at all cost and come back for more and say, “Don’t tread on me” and “Not this pig.” Their refusal to admit defeat is a triumphant twist, one that reminds me of Camus’ struggle to find the strength “to accept what exists once I have recognized that I cannot change it.”
Philip Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at the age of 14. For the next dozen years he worked a series of brain-killing factory jobs at Chevrolet Gear & Axle, at Cadillac, at Brass Craft, at Feinberg and Breslin’s First-Rate Plumbing and Plating – jobs that nearly crushed his spirit and his body but wound up providing him with rich and unlikely fodder for his poetry. “Those were my first good Detroit work poems – the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine told an interviewer for The Cortland Review in 1999. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work… I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it – that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
There are several reasons why I was so ready to learn from Not This Pig in the spring of 1976. First I, like Levine, had grown up in Detroit and was, like all residents of that once-proud, now-ruined city, attuned to the all-powerful rhythms of its auto industry. My father, like everyone’s father, worked in the industry, not in the oceanic roar of a car factory but in the considerably less brutal buzzing of the Ford Motor Company’s public relations hive. Second, there is a narrative quality to these early poems (and many that would follow), a straightforward telling of stories about unpoetic people that appeals to my own novelistic temperament. Levine once said, “One of the aspects of my own poetry that I like best is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems… What I regard as novelistic about my work is the telling of tales, which is utterly natural to me. How can a poet or fiction writer tell the truth…if he or she can’t present the events in a meaningful sequence, which is what a story is?” And most importantly, when I first read Not This Pig in the spring of 1976 I was living in the gray borderlands between two worlds, getting ready to leave the world of school and go off into the world of work. It was a confusing time and a confusing place. I had known since the age of 10 that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – but after two years of college I’d become convinced that further schooling would be a waste of time. I was a 19-year-old kid from the middle class who had not yet lived, and I told myself that if I wanted to write fiction I would need a “body of experience,” to borrow Levine’s phrase.
So I dropped out of college after my sophomore year, loaded my dog into my ’54 Chevy pickup truck, and took off on an erratic cross-country odyssey that was equal parts Travels With Charley and On the Road, with a few pop quizzes from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test along the way. I got jobs as a racehorse groom, a farm hand, a dish washer, a fruit picker. I worked alongside rednecks, cowboys, Mexican immigrants, Okies and Arkies, people I was not, the ones who lived at all cost and came back for more. One day in northern California, while high in a tree picking fat green Gravenstein apples and listening to my fellow workers chatter in Spanish, I had an epiphany. This was the summer of 1974, the summer when Woodward and Bernstein were completing the ruination of Richard Nixon, and it occurred to me that if I wanted to be a writer I needed to quit picking apples and start getting paid to write. And the best way to do that would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter. And the only way to get such a job, given the “credentials inflation” of the day, was to get a pointless but prerequisite college degree. So I returned to college where, in the spring of my senior year, I came upon a book of poems that proved to me that art can be made from absolutely anything, from a night-shift job at Chevy Gear & Axle or a job picking Gravenstein apples, and that if I truly wanted to be a writer it was up to me to get busy making use of my own body of experience and, far more important, my imagination, my wits, and my will.
Philip Levine made me believe I could do it.
3. Small Heroics
In 1988, while I was struggling to write a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 riots, Levine published a book of poems called A Walk With Tom Jefferson. Like Not This Pig, the book came into my life, almost magically, at a moment when I was ready to learn from it. In one of the book’s first poems, “Winter Words,” I heard a thrilling echo of “A New Day”:
Friday night, after swing shift we drove
the narrow, unmarked country roads searching
for Lake Erie’s Canadian shore.
Later, wrapped in rough blankets, barefoot
on a private shoal of ground stones
we watched the stars vanish as the light
of the world rose slowly from the great
gray inland sea. Wet, shivering, raised
our beer cans to the long seasons
to come. We would never die.
But it was the long title poem, which comprises the second half of the book, that spoke most powerfully to me. While revisiting his hometown some twenty years after the riots, Levine happened to meet an out-of-work autoworker named Tom Jefferson who was living in an abandoned house on a burned-out block, growing flowers and vegetables, eking out a humble but proud life. Tom Jefferson, who had come up from Alabama, needed just a dozen outraged words to sum up the history of Detroit: “We all come for $5 a day and we got this!” In that Paris Review interview with Mona Simpson, Levine talked about how the poem came into being: “I met a guy who lived in one of these (abandoned) houses. He didn’t own it or rent it, and in fact he didn’t even know who owned it. He described his life there, and the poem rose out of the conversation we had. It also came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.”
“Nothing heroic is happening in Detroit,” Simpson says.
“Nothing epic,” Levine replies. “Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It’s the truly heroic. The poem is a tribute to all these people who survived in the face of so much discouragement. They’ve survived everything America can dish out. No, nothing grandly heroic is happening in Detroit. I guess nothing grandly heroic ever took place there; it was always automobiles, automobiles, hard work, and low pay.”
Again, Levine had passed along a valuable lesson – that heroics can be small, that there is something immense about animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be in the most hostile of circumstances. It was a revelation that helped me see my own novel with fresh eyes. I was trying to write with broad brushstrokes about big themes – race, rage, revenge – when I should have been concentrating on my characters’ personal daily triumphs and setbacks, the small heroics of getting through the day. Levine helped me finish writing that book.
4. A Message From the Kingdom of Fire
If Not This Pig contained Levine’s first good Detroit work poems, then 1991’s What Work Is contained his very best. The book won the National Book Award, justly so, and minted Levine as a major American poet after thirty years of steady toil. (Four years later he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth, and he has been awarded numerous other poetry prizes.) What Work Is opens with a poem called “Fear and Fame,” which comes on like a blowtorch and sets the tone of all that follows:
Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acid lowered to me on ropes – all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold
water rained on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Such crystalline, deceptively simple writing is the work of a master at the pinnacle of his powers. There is great dignity here, and rich humor too – this working stiff seeing himself as a knight, an adventurer, a chef preparing a lethal stew, and winding up amazed that no one, “oddly enough,” welcomes him back from his epic adventure down inside a kingdom of fire that is, in truth, nothing but a poisonous pickling tank.
5. Gifts That Change Our Lives
Though now justly famous as a poet – if “famous poet” is not too ridiculous an oxymoron in 21st-century America – Levine also happens to be a superb writer of non-fiction. His 1994 book, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, is less a memoir or straight autobiography than a collection of impressionistic essays about his boyhood and early manhood in Detroit, his later years in California, where he taught poetry, and his travels in Spain, where he fell under the spell of Gaudi’s architecture and Machado’s poetry and the legends of the doomed anarchists who’d inspired the Spanish Civil War. While writing the book, Levine reports, “I realized I was striving to account for how I became the particular person and poet I am.”
The book opens with a portrait of his two teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950s, the disappointing Robert Lowell and the ferociously inspiring John Berryman. It was Berryman who instilled in Levine and his classmates – including Donald Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, Jane Cooper, William Dickey, and Robert Dana – the notion that writing poetry is a serious, nearly sacred pursuit, one that requires intensive study and a lifetime of hard work. Yet Berryman was not without a sense of humor. At the end of the semester, teacher and pupil had a conversation about what a poet should look like. “No poet worth his salt is going to be handsome; if he or she is beautiful there’s no need to create the beautiful,” Berryman told Levine. “Beautiful people are special; they don’t experience life like the rest of us.” (Lord Byron, apparently, was the exception who proved this curious rule.) After a pause, Berryman added, “Don’t worry about it, Levine, you’re ugly enough to be a great poet.”
Levine has reverential feelings for his two most influential mentors – Berryman, the future suicide, and Yvor Winters, who taught Levine that his soul is the part of him that leaves each time he lies. I’m convinced that this reverence goes a long way toward explaining why Levine came to regard his own teaching duties as a sacred vocation, why he has written so many letters on yellow legal paper critiquing the poems of Mona Simpson and all those other young poets who were driving trucks and picking oranges and struggling to be poets.
There is a lovely essay called “Entering Poetry” about boyhood nights when Levine climbed up into trees in the woods near his home in Detroit and spoke to the stars. “I would say ‘rain’ and ‘moon’ in the same sentence and hear them echo each other, and a shiver of delight would pass through me,” he writes. One night, noticing that his hands smell of earth and iron, he says to the stars, “These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang.” “That,” he reports giddily, “was the first night of my life I entered poetry.”
Not long after entering poetry, Levine discovered his first poet. “When I was in the eleventh grade and the war was still going,” he said in an interview with The New Yorker in 2006, “a teacher read us some poems by Wilfred Owen. And after class, for some reason, she called me up to her desk and said, ‘Would you like to borrow this book?’ How she knew that I was responding so powerfully to these poems, I’m not sure, but I was. She said, ‘Now, I want you to take it home, and read it with white gloves on.’ In other words, don’t spill soup on it. It was probably the most significant poetic experience I had in my whole life, and I was only seventeen.”
In the essay “The Poet in New York in Detroit,” Levine describes his young self as “a humiliated wage slave employed by a vast corporation I loathed,” namely General Motors. The chapter opens with a frank portrait of this wage slave’s unlikely path to poetry: “In the winter of 1953 I was working at Chevrolet Gear and Axle, a factory in Detroit long ago dismantled and gone to dust. I worked the night shift, from midnight to eight in the morning, then returned by bus to my apartment, slept for a time, and rose to try to write poetry, for I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life – or at least the part my work played in it – I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.” I have not read a more succinct portrait of an artist as a young man bursting with an impossible and gorgeous dream. Speaking of his heroes Berryman and Winters, Keats and Whitman, Machado and Garcia Lorca, Levine wrote words I wish I had written about Levine: “That’s what they give us, the humble workers in the fields of poetry, these amazingly inspired geniuses, gifts that change our lives.”
Levine concludes, from long personal experience, that Diego Rivera’s graceful, colorful frescoes of autoworkers at the Detroit Institute of Arts are “nonsense.” I agree, partly on aesthetic grounds and partly because Rivera, that great communist and champion of the working man, was paid out of the bottomless pockets of Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. Likewise his ill-fated mural at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which was paid for (and destroyed) by another family not known for its liberal politics or the sympathetic treatment of the working man.
The only weak stuff in The Bread of Time is an essay called “Class With No Class,” in which Levine throws a roundhouse punch at the people who have grown rich at the expense of wage slaves like himself, all those country club swells in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills and Sherwood Forest. Levine, it turns out, is much better at celebrating than at denigrating. Yet “Class With No Class,” for all its flaws, had the salutary effect of revivifying the legends of class warfare all Detroiters grow up with. Now more than ever those legends demand to be remembered. In 1937, Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic, anti-union founder of the company my father would eventually work for, had sent his goons out from his River Rouge plant to bloody Walter Reuther and other United Auto Workers union organizers in the notorious Battle of the Overpass. A few months earlier, workers at one of GM’s Fisher Body plants in nearby Flint had shut down the assembly line and barricaded themselves inside the factory until the exasperated General Motors brass broke down and agreed to negotiate its first contract with the union. We’ve come a long way since those heroic days. We now live in an age of high unemployment when labor unions – that is, people who work for a middle-class wage teaching school and making cars and climbing down into pickling tanks – are being laid off and demonized for somehow causing the current economic malaise. Meanwhile, as vast corporations and rich individuals enjoy unconscionable tax breaks and immunity from the public’s wrath, the middle class doesn’t even realize that it’s been hoodwinked, or that it’s sinking faster by the day.
For this reason, among a great many others, I was thrilled when the Library of Congress announced that our next Poet Laureate will be a card-carrying member of the proletariat, a man who went to work in a Detroit soap factory at the age of 14 and, from that unpromising beginning, went on to write timeless poems and pass along his passion for poetry to hundreds of students like Mona Simpson and untold thousands of ordinary readers like me.
We’re an unmoored country that needs to be reminded what work is – and what it is not – and there’s no one more qualified for the job than Philip Levine.