Philip Levine has just been anointed America's poet laureate. Lee Siegel explains why this is the perfect time for Levine's brand of anger ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Fame, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, is the sum of misapprehensions that accrue around a name. No sooner had the announcement been made that Philip Levine was America’s next poet laureate than the misapprehensions started rolling in.
“Best known for his big-hearted, Whitmanesque poems about working-class Detroit,” proclaimed the New York Times. “His poetry taps into memories of his time on an assembly line, a sort of transcript of a life spent hard at work,” amiably reported the Washington Post. The AP described him as having “for decades chronicled, celebrated and worried about blue collar life.” Even the man who anointed Levine America’s national poet, James Billington of the Library of Congress, seemed to share in this general misperception. Levine’s astringent poems of men and women doomed to manual labour, Billington said, were “about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives.”
It’s true that in recent years, as the 83-year-old Levine has aged, his poems have become gentler and more elegiac. But the essence of Levine’s poetry, the quality that makes his work original and unforgettable, is the very antithesis of big-hearted and Whitmanesque. His early poems are cutting, despairing accounts of the type of futile, life-draining work that lacks dignity and purpose. Attending night school at Ohio’s Wayne State University while working in an automobile factory during the day, Levine lived out America’s promise and its bitterness at the same time. He turned the intimate, confessional style of Robert Lowell and especially John Berryman—with whom he had studied at Wayne State—into a kind of colloquial, prophetic harshness:
... the ugly
who had no chance
the beautiful in
body, the used and the unused,
those who had the courage
and those who quit—
In an essay titled “Overhead the Hammers Swing: Poems of Work”, Levine bluntly defined what type of work he was committed to forging into art: “When I say work I mean the sort of brute physical work that most of us try to avoid, but that those without particular gifts or training were often forced to adopt to make a living in a society as tough and competitive as ours.” About Whitman’s soaring odes to manual labour, Levine was downright contemptuous, dryly referring to the physical work that “Whitman liked to pretend he engaged in”.
Whitman, the hirsute bard of Camden, New Jersey, may be the great poet of American democracy. But it is Levine who has been direct about one of democracy’s most taboo subjects: the fact that members of one segment of humanity are doomed to soulless, unreflective, unfulfilling work, while those of another, infinitely smaller segment are blessed with the opportunity to live out their destiny in their work. The unacknowledged gap between these two tribes of humanity has the profoundest social and political consequences.
I don’t know any other poet who has taken this grim chasm as his subject. Here is Levine imagining F. Scott Fitzgerald composing his fiction, as a cleaning woman empties the great American writer’s wastepaper basket:
Fitzgerald never wrote
with someone present, except for this woman
in a gray uniform whose comings and goings
went unnoticed even on those December evenings
she worked late while the snow fell silently
on the window sills and the new fluorescent lights
blinked on and off.
In this way, Levine brilliantly juxtaposes "The Great Gatsby’s" famous “single green light, minute and faraway” at the end of a dock—an illusion, signifying America’s faith in an ever better future—with its deflating reality.
When James Billington says that Levine’s poems are “about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives,” he seems to be missing the point. Levine’s poems are about the hard work people do who are not able to make sense of their lives through their work. Consider “Coming Close,” which appears in Levine’s remarkable 1992 collection, "What Work Is". It begins with a startling question, one that is based on a startling evocation:
Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
The sappy, deluded or deluding answer to that question is, "Of course she is a woman!" The human spirit endures and the very fact of being human ennobles the most menial type of work. But anyone who has been trapped in a rote, meaningless job, and who looks at the clock thinking that the three hours until lunch are almost over but sees, to her despair, that only five minutes have passed, knows that this is nonsense. Toward the end of “Coming Close” the woman turns to the voyeuristic poet and his readers and asks the primordial question: “’Why?’ Not the old why/of why must I spend five nights a week?/Just, ‘Why?’” Why, that is, must some people be chained to unreflective work, and others not? The answers are as uncomfortable as the question is unceasing.
All this might make Levine sounds like some Marxist malcontent from the 1930s, but his poetry is proof of the dignity available to the hard-pressed men and women he depicts. His poems are finely balanced between telling the simple truth about soul-grinding work and demonstrating the universal human capacity to make sense of life when the shift is over. He considers what happens when the machines stop, the fluorescent lights are turned off and the worker returns home, “tired,/ a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion/on his own breath.”
Levine once wrote that he has always believed that “if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.” The poetry was meant to help him to “understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it”, which would allow him to “embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life." This struggle to make sense of life when one’s days seem senseless is the history of culture high and low. Perhaps this essential work that we do after our regular work is what Billington meant when he referred to “the hard work we do to make sense of our lives.”
“Bitter is better,” a poet friend said to me when I asked him what he thought of Levine’s writing. My friend preferred the harsh early poetry to the later, softer work, which often ends on a note of tender, affirmative irony: “There is a justice/after all, there’s a bright anthem/for the occasion, something/familiar and blue, with words we/all sing, like ‘Time on My Hands.’” Levine would seem to agree. “I find more energy in my earlier work,” he said after learning that he had been made poet laureate. “More dash, more anger.”
At a time when even mindless labour has been lost to a growing number of Americans, one wonders what was in the minds of the people who chose Levine as poet laureate. Were they celebrating the corny, anodyne image of Levine as cuddly bard of American “greatness” and “resilience?” Or were they secretly applauding him for capturing in his art the holes in the American dream, and for coming through them?
Lee Siegel is a New York writer and cultural critic. His latest book "Are You Serious?: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly" is published by Harper. His last piece for More Intelligent Life argued that the personal has become way too political
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