Laureate Philip Levine, Working Class Poet

Philip Levine

Now seems to be the right time to choose Philip Levine as our nation’s poet laureate, what with our official unemployment rate stubbornly refusing to  drop below 9 %. (Unofficially, unemployment is up around 16%.)  Raised in Michigan and once a factory worker, Levine often writes about rustbelt desolation, as he does in the following poem:

An Abandoned Factory, Detroit

by Philip Levine

The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.

Beyond, through broken windows one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,

And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.

Supposedly Levine wrote this poem about a plant in which he once worked, the Chevrolet Gear and Axle plant.  He hated the work and his poem is torn between the need for work as a foundation for self respect and work–factory work, anyway–as something that saps one’s dignity and grinds one down.

Someone has written that our new factories are our restaurants and fast food establishments.  From the point of management, these have the advantage of not being unionized.  There are no worries of “protest” or “men in league.”  But if Greece and now England serve as any kind of warning, “fears of idle hands” may start returning.  In much of his poetry, Levine captures the low simmering anger of the working class.

As I say, it’s the right time to have this poet as our laureate.

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  • Susan

    I had read about Levine’s new position, so it’s great to have this post. It’s rather a bleak poem, isn’t it? The machinery has been silenced, the images of frozen presses “paused between their strokes/ And thus remain, in air suspended, caught/In the sure margin of eternity.” is hauntingly beautiful. And I’m assuming that the “nothing forged” which doesn’t outlive the rusted machinery may not only be the gears and axles they made, but perhaps his view of a lifetime in this vocation with nothing to show for it.

    I’ll have to get online and check out the rest of his corpus.

  • Carl

    Thanks for this post, Robin. My teaching-partner and I have long used Levine’s work in our American Studies class, with his poem “What Work Is” a central stopping point in our unit on labor and progressivism. His work, ambiguous and difficult but graceful and — as you suggest — enormously respectful of the American worker, makes me proud to have him as my nation’s laureate.

    Paul even contacted Mr. Levine four years ago, and the poet agreed to speak via conference phone to our 11th graders. He graciously read one of his works aloud and spoke with us for an hour about poetry and other things; it’s hard to imagine a greater respect for poetry than can be engendered by an hour-long conversation with one of its most esteemed practitioners!

    One memorable moment from the conversation came when a student asked Levine about a particular image, and a meaning behind which this image seemed to be the unifying force. Levine paused, and politely but bluntly said something like, I never thought of that. It was just a guy I saw once, he said (I’m not quoting him — this is my recollection of the conversation), but that doesn’t mean that your interesting observation is untrue, because poetry is more than a poet’s intention. He is a poet of the senses, not fancy or self-conscious, and inclined toward simple honesty, even if the poems themselves aren’t particularly simple.

    By the way, Mr. Levine’s memoir, The Bread of Time, which the subtitle describes as “Toward an Autobiography”, remains one of my all-time favorite non-fiction works. As much as I love the poetry, I like this book even more. In it he writes beautifully about other poets (Berryman, Winters) and especially powerfully about his experiences in Spain. Definitely worth a read!

  • Pingback: Philip Levine — The Voice Of The Voiceless And That’s The Simple Truth | Becoming is Superior to Being()


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