Philip Levine is a member of the remarkable generation of American poets born in the 1920s, which began with Hayden Carruth, Marie Ponsot, and Richard Wilbur and includes James Merrill, Carolyn Kizer, W. S. Merwin, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, and Adrienne Rich. These poets are perhaps all the more notable in that each of their voices is unmistakable and unique: nothing like a school but a colloquy of possibilities that has at once shaped and opened the way for writes and readers after them. Levine is the author of eighteen books of poems, including What Work Is, which received the National Book Award in 1991, and The Simple Truth, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. David Baker, writing about What Work Is in the Kenyon Review, said Levine has “one of our most resonant voices of social conviction and witness, and he speaks with a powerful clarity. ... Poem after poem confronts the terribly damaged conditions of American labor, whose circumstance has perhaps never been more wrecked.”
it all was, the dawn breaking each morning, dusk
arriving on time just as the lights of houses
came softly on. Why can’t I ever let it go?
Philip Levine writes this at the end of “Northern Motive,” in his 1999 collection, The Mercy. Many of Levine’s poems return to reimagined, re-visioned versions of his origins and his youth, of Detroit in the 1940s and ’50s, what seems sometimes like a prelapsarian United States between World War II and the Korean War.
Levine was twenty in 1948, when the world for him was still Detroit and “work” still meant factories; it was hard, honest, badly paid, and not debased. In “After Leviticus,” a presumably widowed woman worker with an unspecified Middle European surname—Strempek—spends the night after payday drinking rye in a Plymouth with two fellow workers—one Polish, one black—in a comradely, unsexual, almost silent atmosphere (and therefore unpoliticized? Or emblematic of another kind of politics?). She returns to her Quonset hut home at two in the morning and stops before entering to stare up at the cold, clean stars. This same Bernadette Strempek appears in another poem, planting daffodil and tulip bulbs in the unforgiving strip of cold earth in front of her dwelling. Women and men work together, black, Poles, Germans, and Jews—immigrants all—from Europe or from the American South. They work together, as they work at reinventing themselves in the context of the industrial United States. But an atmosphere of “before disaster” exists in many of Levine’s poems set earlier or later. These poems include “My Father With Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Would Break His Heart,” which appears in the sequence of poems forming the book 1933, and the magisterial title poem of his 1988 book, A Walk with Tom Jefferson, one of the most nuanced portraits of an African American working man yet to be created by a European American poet.
Though Levine’s work most consistently recreates for readers the working-class environment that was quotidian reality for most immigrant and first-generation Eastern European Jews, Levine is not a “proletarian poet,” if such a figure exists in an American context. “I’m an American / even before I was fourteen I knew I would have / to create myself,” he wrote in a poem called “The Escape,” which begins “To come to life in Detroit is to be manufactured / without the power of speech” and ends “Oh Lord of Life / how much you made them pay so I could love.” But his self-invention was neither a solitary nor a solipsistic act. Both in poems and in his essays in the book The Bread of Time, he recounts and acknowledges his idiosyncratic apprenticeships to such great teachers as Yvor Winters and John Berryman. They guided and refined his investigation of the English canon, and their grounding in English prosody enabled Levine to forge his own uniquely musical, essentially syllabic line. Levine also acknowledges the Spanish poets whose duende informs his vision of America—Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado.
In all Levine’s poems, whether they return to Detroit, to years spent in Spain, to his present home in California, or whether they perform the work of elegy for a parent, a relative, a mentor, or a friend, there is a deep and deft integration of the narrative and the lyric impulse. His is a poetry in which the questions of “who, what and where” are always answered, but in which there is nothing either linear or predictable about the text’s meander, its purposeful drift or quest at once into the past and the future. It is a poetry in which the indissoluble connection between individual narrative—autobiographical, familial, or fictional—and the larger construct we call “history” is made manifest. And what is history, after all, but the intersection of many such narratives? In the precise specifics of Philip Levine’s multiple histories, readers, men and women who followed other trajectories and who heard different stories can recognize and find a new perspective on themselves.
Poetry critics in the United States seem to make a great case for the “Americanness” of American poetry, as if this were a virtue in itself, as if the hegemony of the United States did not extend to its literature, some facets of which, at least, seem to be more studied, translated when necessary, and discussed in other countries than those countries’ own rich literatures. Philip Levine’s poetry, while most of its specificities are American, is the work of a man who lives in a wider world, as much because of his consciousness of the interconnected, international conditions of labor and capital as his reading of Spanish or Russian poetry. And it is the specifics of American working-class and immigrant life as depicted in his poems that make them accessible and of vivid interest to readers anywhere for whom neither poetry nor the human condition are abstractions.
Philip Levine was the recipient of the 2013 Wallace Stevens Award. This essay originally appeared in the spring-summer 2014 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 20134 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member online.