Who is Philip Levine?
To get an idea of Philip Levine you just have to read one of his poems. He is the quintessential poet of the blue collar working class; gritty, down to earth and above all, real. His verses are filled with the concrete power of simple words. Do not be fooled, however, his poems are not “simple.” For Levine, the life of the everyman is unveiled as something beautiful, wise, and mysterious. I had the privilege of hearing Levine read a year or so ago. I was struck by his humility, humor, and just downright awesomeness.
Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1928. He attended public schools and studied at Wayne University. Levine worked in many industrial jobs such as the night shift at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle Factory while reading and writing poems. Earning his MFA at the University of Iowa in 1953, Levine studied with the notable poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman. The poet then taught at California State University, Fresno until his retirement from teaching.
Throughout his career, Levine has won numerous awards for his poetry, such as the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize for Poetry, the Frank O’Hara Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, oh and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.
From the numerous books of poetry are the noteworthy titles: On the Edge (1963), Ashes: Poems New and Old (1979), 7 Years From Somewhere (1979), Breath (2004), Mercy (1999), and News of the World (2010).
What is the Poet Laureate exactly?
The Poet Laureate or Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress is the nation’s spotlight on a specific poet that takes the pulse of American poetry. It’s a big deal, one of the top honors a poet can achieve. The Poet Laureate is expected to raise public awareness and appreciation of poetry. This position is appointed by the Librarian of Congress annually in a term lasting from October to May. The $35,000 stipend allows the poet to work on their own projects while also giving an annual lecture and reading of his or her own poetry and introducing poets in the Library of Congress’ annual poetry series.
Why does this matter?
Appointing Levine at this juncture, one of extreme instability and financial uncertainty, gives a voice to the millions of Americans facing hardship right now. His poetry remains fresh, reflecting the underlying struggle of the working class that echoes throughout our nation’s history. His is the poetry of the underdog, the downtrodden, the worn out. But it is also the rallying cry, the call to arms, to fortitude and never say die. Levine restores the dignity beaten out of us by huge corporations that outsource jobs, reduce pay and benefits while reaping huge bonuses from tax-payers bailout money that was facilitated by the rampant political ass-hattery prevalent today. In Levine’s work, we can find the truth of life, which is what makes our existence worthwhile.
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.