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…
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