Philip Levine: the “proletariat poet”

Philip Levine, a former Detroit factory worker and one of the most highly rated writers of his generation, is the new US Poet Laureate.

What Levine experienced at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory and Detroit Transmission affected his perspective and values deeply.

The Library of Congress may have given Americans a much-needed hero when it named Philip Levine the United States Poet Laureate earlier this week. Levine’s working-class background and impressive accolades – including the Pulitzer Prize – make him the perfect role model both for struggling writers and for millions of Americans who wonder if the whole world is spinning out of control, taking their money and dreams along with it.

Levine’s future probably seemed just as uncertain when he was growing up in Detroit in the 1930s and 40s. As the son of Russian immigrants, Levine learned about anti-Semitism at a young age, and after graduating from high school, Levine, like most of his peers, found limited career opportunities. So he followed the conventional route – working several grueling factory jobs while pursuing a degree at Wayne State. He also wrote and read poetry in his free time.

What Levine experienced at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory and Detroit Transmission, among others, was far from the life he wanted. The jobs were demanding, the pay was low, and the conditions were unhealthy. The injustices Levine saw, and the ways that people survived their circumstances, affected his perspective and values deeply.

In 1953, Levine left Detroit with his wife and two children so he could study at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. There, he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree and refined his writing, which has always been plainspoken and genuinely engaging. Take, for example, these lines from the wonderful “Detroit Grease Shop Poem”:

Under the blue

hesitant light another day

at Automotive

in the city of dreams.

We're all here to count

and be counted, Lemon,

Rosie, Eugene, Luis,

and me, too young to know

this is for keeps, pinning

on my apron, rolling up

my sleeves.

Levine’s deep understanding of people’s struggles and frailties is especially obvious in the poem’s last stanza:

The roof leaks

from yesterday's rain,

the waters gather above us

waiting for one mistake.

When a drop falls on Lemon's

corded arm, he looks at it

as though it were something

rare or mysterious

like a drop of water or

a single lucid meteor

fallen slowly from

nowhere and burning on

his skin like a tear.

Writing like this helped Levine establish himself as one of the best writers of his generation, and over the years he has won nearly every major prize including the National Book Award, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also been dubbed the “proletariat poet” by more than one critic. That title may carry the most weight with “average” Americans, who witnessed Detroit’s near collapse and subsequent bailout a few years ago. When every foundation seems to be crumbling, hard-earned wisdom can mean a great deal, particularly when it comes through memorable writing.

Even people who don’t like poetry can appreciate what Levine has said about his factory experience: "It took me a long time to be able to write about it without snarling or snapping. I had to temper the violence I felt toward those who maimed and cheated me with a tenderness toward those who had touched and blessed me."

Levine’s tenderness has touched many readers, plus thousands of students who studied with him at California State University, Fresno, where he taught for many years. And now, as Poet Laureate, Levine has the opportunity to introduce millions to an art form that has much to say – and show – about people’s current struggles.

Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.

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