Three books, two of them posthumous and one from 2001, by one of our finest poets, Philip Levine, who passed away in 2015. With so many of his contemporaries dying of late, one gets the feeling that the United States they knew and wrote about is vanishing along with them. This experience was familiar to previous generations of readers and either lamented or taken in stride, but not experienced as such a radical break as it is today, when our young seem to know less about our history than ever before and some seem to have no curiosity at all. Even twenty years ago, teaching Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” at my university, one could no longer assume that the students would be familiar with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, or would have much knowledge of what else was going on in this country when those two poems were written.
Philip Levine never forgot the past. He was born in 1928 and grew up in Detroit when that city was a car-manufacturing capital and the global symbol of the ambition and ingenuity of American industry. With factories operating around the clock and its railyards busy with freight trains hauling in raw materials that were unloaded into trucks at all hours, the city’s frenzied activity required a huge labor force. They’d hire anybody, people used to say. And they did. Midwesterners, poor whites from Appalachia, African-Americans from the rural South, and immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe worked side by side on assembly lines, in stamping and tool-and-die plants, foundries, and smaller plants that made everything cars needed from spark plugs to hood ornaments. Ford Motor’s enormous Rouge complex in Dearborn, a self-contained industrial city, employed almost 100,000 people at its peak. It could convert hundreds of parts into a finished product in twenty-eight hours.
Detroit may have resembled other grimy cities in the industrial heartland, but what emerged out of its dirt and smoke was a shiny car with a sleek hood and a noiseless engine sought after by millions of people. In some parts of this now shrunken city, the abandoned factories and boarded-sup houses that have no visitors in recent years evoke a lost world. In an essay in My Lost Poets about a trip to his former hometown, Levine describes his astonishment on discovering that the neighborhoods where he once lived and worked had been reduced to miles of mostly vacant lots. “Nothing lasts” is how an old black man he got to talking to while passing by his garden summed up their generation’s experience of this country.
In that once-bustling city, Levine’s father owned a used auto parts business with his maternal grandfather. Though an immigrant from tsarist Russia and a deserter from the British army during World War I, he prospered in America. Just as he and his family were starting to think of themselves as middle-class, he died suddenly. Philip, who was the second of three sons and the first of identical twins, was five years old at the time. His mother, who like his father came from an immigrant Jewish family, had no choice but to go to work, starting as a stenographer and eventually becoming an office manager. Although she always provided for the family, they were forced to move from the house where they lived to a series of ever-smaller apartments. Worry about money and the lack of it, he said, became the main topic of their conversations at mealtime.
From the age of fourteen until he graduated from high school in 1946, Levine worked summers and after school, first at part-time jobs in the neighborhood and then in factories. Even after he got his bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in 1950, he continued working the same type of jobs. As his witty mother used to joke, “Philip set out to prove there is social mobility in America, so he got born smack-dab in the middle of the middle class, grew up in the lower middle class, and then as an adult joined the working class.”
As an aspiring poet who for a couple of years met regularly with a small group of other poets to talk about modern poetry and their own work, Levine thought that manual labor would leave his mind and imagination free for his poetry. That proved to be true for a while, until the hard physical labor began to take its toll on him and make him tired and irritable. He remembered working at Chevrolet Gear and Axle in the spring of 1952 and hating that job more than any he had before or since, not only because it was monotonous and hard but because it was dangerous. He worked in the forge room, where along with his coworkers he had to grab the red-hot stock with tongs from gigantic presses and hang it on moving conveyors above their heads, performing that feat in the midst of the deafening noise of the whirling machines. To be sure, he could recite poems aloud, sing, and talk to himself for hours without anyone caring, but he could also get himself injured badly while daydreaming.
In 1953, at the age of twenty-five, Levine decided to leave Detroit and enroll in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. In The Bread of Time (2001), his first collection of autobiographical pieces, he tells us how, without actually registering for classes at Iowa, he attended a workshop with Robert Lowell in his first semester and one with John Berryman in his second. He found the first poet to be an indifferent teacher who expected from his students verse written in formal meters and rhymes, while his other teacher had more eclectic taste.
An entertaining, erudite lecturer, Berryman was blunt and sarcastic about students’ poems, and thus not everyone’s favorite. Levine, however, liked him, since Berryman took an interest in him and his poetry. “When was the last time you read your Shakespeare?” Berryman asked, pestering him in order to educate him and make him understand what a great poem was. Levine never forgot Berryman’s reading of and commentary on “Song of Myself,” in a literary seminar in which Berryman convinced him and the rest of the class that Whitman’s poem was the most powerful and visionary poetic statement ever made in our literature. “Unashamedly Romantic” is how he describes Berryman, who at that time was still suspicious of the “cult of sincerity” that his friend Lowell was about to embrace, as he himself would a few years later.
The most discerning portrait in The Bread of Time is the one of Yvor Winters, whom Levine got to know after Iowa when he was awarded the Jones Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University in 1957. At one time a well-known poet and literary critic, Winters started out in the 1920s as an admirer and imitator of the Imagist poets, only to turn against modernism completely and propose a neoclassical poetics that was supposed to take its place. In his 1957 book The Function of Criticism, he defined a worthy poem as
a rational statement about a human experience, made in such a way that the emotion which ought to be motivated by that rational understanding of the experience is communicated simultaneously with the rational understanding: the poem is thus a complete judgment of the experience, a judgment both rational and emotional.
Such a poem would contain no irrational elements, but could be fully paraphrased by its reader, leaving no ambiguities of any kind behind. As far as Winters was concerned, imagination was the enemy. Everyone who wrote poetry, according to him, flirted with madness and self-destruction: the more powerful the imagination, the greater the danger. To stay sane, a poet had to practice a heroic vigilance.
As a professor at Stanford and a well-known critic, Winters had a large following among academics and even some poets, though he dismissed Whitman, Frost, Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams, accusing them all of lacking a sense of moral mission, and preferred instead the poetry of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman and Jones Very in the United States and Elizabeth Daryush in England. Despite their age difference and completely different backgrounds, Levine and Winters got along very well. “He’s the most serious lover of poetry I’ve ever met,” Levine says in the conclusion to his memoir of Winters, and we may be surprised to hear him say that, but thinking back over the many examples he gives of Winters’s vast and detailed knowledge of poetry in Levine’s talks with him, we realize he might have been right.
In The Bread of Time Levine describes a year he spent in Barcelona in 1965 with his wife and three children on a sabbatical from California State University at Fresno, where he went to teach after Stanford. As a result of that trip, Spain was to become, in addition to Detroit, his other lifelong obsession. It first aroused his interest when he heard stories about the Spanish civil war and anarchism in his youth. Once he got to live there, he learned more about both, in addition to learning the language.
Spanish anarchism and its heroes were to him spontaneous expressions of the age-old desire of the oppressed to rebel against injustice and to assert their freedom. Unlike our present-day anarchists, who call themselves libertarians, Levine had no illusion that dismantling all the institutions of government could ever be a practical model for society. What he admired about them was their spirit of defiance, the courage to say no to the powerful. The disinherited would inherit the earth, the Spanish anarchists believed. If Levine carried that hope in his heart for the rest of his life, it’s because he couldn’t live with the idea that our need to oppress, hate, and take the life of other human beings will never change.
My Lost Poets, with its additional essays on writers, cities, and events that played important parts in his life, is delightful reading and ought to have been included with The Bread of Time in a single book, making the story of his life and his literary reminiscences more complete. From his homage to poets he knew when he was starting out in Detroit who never became famous, but who influenced him by some poem they wrote or by introducing him to the work of poets he never heard of, to his description of jazz clubs and musicians he heard in his youth and his hilarious account of hearing an older Berryman give a reading in Los Angeles, Levine excels at telling good stories and drawing memorable portraits of people. As he does that, he is also telling us about himself. In the essay “The Spanish Civil War in Poetry,” he recalls a country woman whom his mother hired in Detroit to clean, cook, and look after him and his twin brother during the summer while she was at work and whose rants left a huge impression on him:
Florence was one of those uncompromising, totally authentic Americans who believe in decency, a fair wage, and a never-ending battle against the excesses of capitalism that all worthy working people were obliged by God and common sense to carry on until their last breath…. Tall, gaunt, weather-beaten, with a cigarette burning in the corner of her mouth, at the breakfast table five mornings a week she’d read through the Free Press muttering, “The bastards are selling us down the river.” The bastards were the powerful, often invisible corporate giants who ran things in America and in Western Europe. By “us” she meant all those who had to work for a living, whose labor created the wealth that ironically shackled them.
“One of the aspects of my own poetry I like best,” Levine said in a 1988 interview for The Paris Review, “is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems.” This, indeed, was his mission: speaking for those who were voiceless. The brief time he spent as one of them brought to his poetry a constant moral indignation about the treatment of workers in this country. His interest in their predicament gives his work at times a documentary quality, like those Depression-era photographs of factory workers and the unemployed. “Nothing epic,” he said of his own poems. “Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you.”
These are the people, he said, who have survived everything America can dish out, and they are still with us today, if we just make an effort to notice them. In his last collection of poetry, appropriately called The Last Shift, the unidentified speaker of the title poem is driving to work early one morning when the traffic stalls a quarter-mile from a railroad crossing, making him notice the time, the moon above the packing sheds of the old Packard plant, the music and voice on the radio that ordinarily he pays no attention to, the unemployed “in greasy, dark wool jackets…keeping warm by a little/fire made from fence posts and garage doors/and tossing their empty wine bottles/into the street where they shattered/on the frosted roofs” of parked cars. There’s even a police car in sight with two cops in it eating sugar doughnuts and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups.
Soon the kids will descend from these dark houses, he’s thinking, and be on their way to school, sliding on the ice and stealing each other’s hats, except for that “faceless/two-storied house” standing beside him with its “rooms torn into view,” its furniture gone, and “the floors ripped up for firewood.” Up ahead, he can hear that the train has stopped, that the bells go on ringing for a while, the blinking arms of light move from red to nothing, while around him, the engines begin to die, and his own as well. “It was strangely quiet,/another town or maybe another world,” he says:
I could feel a deep cold slowly climbing
my legs, which wouldn’t move, my eyes
began to itch and blink on a darkness
I had never seen before. I knew
these tiny glazed pictures—a car hood,
my own speedometer, the steering wheel,
the windshield fogging over—were the last
I’d ever see. 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.
In this beautiful and haunting ending, Levine returns once again to his memories of Detroit and combines them with the premonition of his own death. Reading “The Last Shift,” and hundreds of other poems he wrote in his lifetime, we are struck again and again by how far back in time the events he describes took place and wonder whether it was really possible for him to have total recall, so many decades later, of what someone he met once in his childhood and his youth looked like and said.
The answer is both yes and no. As he admitted in the Paris Review interview, and as any alert reader of his poetry can’t help but suspect, a lot of what he is telling us is fiction. “What I regard as novelistic about my work,” he said in that interview, “is the telling of tales, which is utterly natural to me, and so is the presentation of characters.” Like any skilled storyteller, Levine gives his tales credibility by inserting the kind of details only an eyewitness to these events could provide. Yet the overall impression one is left with after encountering so many first-person narratives in his poems is that one is reading the poet’s autobiography in installments. What makes Levine’s twenty books of poetry more than the story of one man’s life, however, are the people and the country one encounters in them. They have been his real subject all along.
More often than not, posthumous collections of poetry make for melancholy reading. One’s beloved poet is like a lounge singer or a standup comedian whose routines have gone stale and we feel they are just embarrassing themselves. The surprise of Levine’s last book is not just how much he continues to be preoccupied with Detroit and Spain, but how good-natured and playful some of these last poems are. I find poems like “Office Hours” also more concise and less narrative and longwinded than his work in later years tended to be:
Midnight on Grand River, and the car barns
are quiet, the last truck left hours ago.
The watchman dreams through his rounds.
If you entered the office now you’d find
all the old upright Smith Coronas sheathed
in their gowns, the pencils tucked in drawers,
the fountain pens dreaming of the epics
they’ll never write, the paper clips
holding together reports on nothing at all.
You’re at the heart of a nation that divides,
adds, subtracts, and never multiplies.
Before it rings, pick up the phone,
say in a voice you’ve never used before,
your Uncle Sam voice, “Yes, this is he,
tell me what you’d like to hear…”
and wait until the line goes dead.
Years ago you inherited all these desks
and the women who man them
along with all the meaningless facts
that detail the profit and loss of each day.
What’s it worth? You’ll get your answer
from the mice as they make their way
in search of anything usable left behind.
If not from the mice, then from something else
with greater purpose and a smaller mind.
Levine saw the life around us clearly. That clarity, as we can see from this poem, comes from his extraordinary empathy, whether for an old typewriter, the women who clean offices at night, or the mice looking for something to eat. He said of his earliest poems that they were his way of imagining how he would talk to someone he knew, and he went on doing that all his life, addressing his unknown readers as if they were old friends. Rereading his books, I was surprised to discover poems that were unlike any others he was writing at the time, poems that hinted at a poet with an imagination very different from the one he is known for. This poem from The Last Shift strikes me as being like that. Quiet and lyrical, it is an old man’s poem, exquisitely put together and subtle, in which the speaker says good-bye to the world he loved:
RAIN IN WINTER
Outside the window drops caught
on the branches of the quince, the sky
distant and quiet, a few patches of light
breaking through. The day fresh, barely
begun yet feeling used. Soon the phone
will ring for someone, and no one
will pick it up, and the ringing will go on
until the icebox answers with a groan.
The lost dog who sleeps on a bed of rags
behind the garage won’t appear
to beg for anything. Nothing will explain
where the birds have gone, why a wind rages
through the ash trees, why the world
goes on accepting more and more rain.
Philip Levine died in 2015 at the age of eighty-seven. Had he lived a little longer, he would have been astonished to learn what has befallen the descendants of his working-class heroes. From the long history of labor strikes and violence against workers, the people Levine wrote about understood that the bosses are not their friends and that the fairy tales the rich tell the poor—that work, determination, and self-initiative guarantee every American equal opportunity to achieve a life of happiness—are baloney. Nonetheless, some of their grandchildren recently believed a billionaire who told them that he’d fight for them when he became the president of the United States. Had they ever read a poem or two by Philip Levine, I’d like to believe, they might have thought twice before voting the way they did.