DEMOCRACY’S POETIC VOICE
by David Livewell
It is appropriate to reflect on the poet Philip Levine during the early days of the Trump Administration. The inaugural ceremony did not feature a poem or, sadly but fittingly, the current Poet Laureate (a Mexican-American poet in his second term), Juan Felipe Herrera. In a PBS interview, Bill Moyers once asked Philip Levine what made him angry. Levine paused, then stated two American embarrassments: racism and the way we treat our poor. For his entire writing life, he unapologetically wrote poems out of anger and love for his country. Many poets refused to read at the White House during the Bush administration. Levine was one of them. He said that “poetry is earned” and that President Bush didn’t deserve poetry. Do poets already think the same about President Trump, especially as cuts in arts funding seem inevitable?
Levine died from cancer last year at 87. In 1995 he won the Pulitzer Prize, and he served as Poet Laureate of the country in 2011. He was a product of Depression-era Detroit and worked difficult factory jobs. Those dehumanizing conditions and the comforting companionship of his fellow workers never left his mind or his writing.
If readers missed his other 20 collections, they can begin at the end with two posthumous books curated by his friend, fellow poet, and literary executor, Edward Hirsch.
Start with My Lost Poets, a collection of essays and lectures that illuminates his main obsessions, a kind of scattered autobiography of a life immersed in poetry. In 1994 he published another autobiographical collection of essays, The Bread of Time, and readers might find it beneficial to go back to that volume and appreciate these books in tandem. Perhaps a future volume can contain the text of both—or, at the very least, the best essays from each.
Levine’s language offers a sense of abundance. He shies away from the short lyric, preferring poems that nod to the wise and all-encompassing voices of Lorca, Crane, and Whitman, a “voice for the voiceless.” Whitman knew that America was not just a place but an idea that must be upheld, an all-inclusive ideal. Levine also avoids strictly autobiographical poems. He used items from his daily life, but, as he said many times in interviews, he lied for the purpose of the poem at hand. He had a greater truth to advance.
Levine began his factory jobs in Detroit at the pathetic and tender age of 14. It is remarkable to follow his trajectory from those tough, early days to a BA from Wayne State University in 1950 and to his classes at the University of Iowa where he studied, as an unregistered student in 1953, with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. By 1957 he earned an MFA and won a fellowship at Stanford. He taught until 1992, mainly at California State University (although he had stints at many other campuses).
Such a quick overview, however, oversimplifies his life in poetry. These essays attest to his perseverance and his belief in a truly American poetry that could praise the dignity of the common worker. He remembers that “…all work was worth doing with elegance and precision,” including his own writing. He describes how Lorca’s poetry taught him to harness his “chaotic ranting against American capitalism” and what bad economics did to places like Detroit.
He reminisces about an influential high school teacher who lent him a copy of Owen’s war poems. He was floored—and hooked for life. We follow him to his university days and a library room that held nothing but poetry books. Influential friends introduced him to Whitman and Crane, both writers intimidating and inspiring him at the same time. He knew poetry was a long road. He readied himself for hard work and deep reading.
One chapter could be overlooked by skimming poetry lovers. Levine describes the jazz acts he saw as they passed through Detroit. He envied jazz players. They made a different music every night, and learned to listen to their fellow band members. And, in his words, jazz had “room for so many.” This notion came from a man who was trying to find room for his own poetry among the greats of literature. Over the years, jazz references and memorable concerts made their way into his poetry. Many of Levine’s poetic skills were jazz skills: improvisation on a recurring theme, flexible musical phrasing, fearless bravado, subtle threads and repetitions, underlying heartache from the Blues, sudden joy, simplicity on top of complicated strategies beneath it, endings that reach some kind of resolution. Poetry and jazz created their own rewards. They weren’t tied to success or the external world. Clifford Brown, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker, Kenny Burrell, and others make their appearances and leave their lasting influences on Levine’s aesthetic, more influence than many of his poetic contemporaries.
He left Detroit, but his city never left his poetry or his memory. The working man he knew and wrote about was not a caricature but an extension of himself, his twin brother, and all the workers he met and toiled with in Detroit. Levine learned to sing, to celebrate the rhythms and images of an oppressed daily life, a triumph over the humiliation of the powerless factory worker. He found a voice and syntax that honored sacrifices and daily struggles.
He didn’t write for the elite reader or critic. Rather, his lines were clear and unadorned, almost journalistic in their narratives. He abandoned early traditional forms for a manageable, syllabic line that could support real speech and street narratives. The visionary language he borrowed from Crane and Lorca also subsided.
Now, at a time when American’s working class identity seems even harder for the establishment to understand, we can look to Levine to learn about the hard truths of inequality and poverty. He always believed that a poem could serve as a political act, some kind of historic mile marker.
He reminds us throughout the book that he wrote these essays to praise the selfless teachers and talented friends who taught him about the value of poetry and loyalty. He loved the letters of Keats, a poet who also recognized poetry as a gift. The poets who teach us, in person or through their poems, are gifts as well. Berryman was such a gift to Levine, although Robert Lowell and Yvor Winters came up short, holding back large parts of themselves from their students.
In the mid-1990s, in his book, The Simple Truth, Levine summed up his poetic credo in a few lines: “Some things / you know all your life. They are so simple and true / they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme, / …they must stand for themselves.” The Founders of the country committed treason and gave their “sacred honor” for equality. Levine’s lines have honored equality with a lasting voice. Levine’s words warned against racism and economic exploitation and proclaimed those warnings in memorable poetry.
A short review of the posthumous poetry collection, The Last Shift, would not be fair in the limited space remaining here. Readers should savor these late poems. True to the end, Levine includes several urban and work-related poems. The jacket blurb boasts that this final collection is a “capstone to a remarkable life in poetry.” Indeed, these two final volumes are the closing chapters to an exceptional life in the service of poetry. That is a fair assessment and one that readers can find encouraging. How fitting that his last lines in his last book of poems should be these: “…These places where I had lived / all the days of my life were giving up / their hold on me and not a moment too soon.”
A Note About the Author: David Livewell grew up in Kensington and won the 2012 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize for his book, Shackamaxon (Truman State University Press).