Philip Levine, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, National Book Award winner, and a scribe who turned the monotony of our working lives into extraordinary forms, died on Saturday in his home in Fresno, California. His death closes the chapter on one of poetry’s most important American voices.
He has had such a tremendous effect that it caused Dwight Garner at the New York Times to write this: “Mr. Levine’s death is a serious blow for American poetry, in part because he so vividly evoked the drudgery and hardships of working-class life in America.” The Paris Review will be posting his poems this week in tribute, and David Post at the Washington Post had this to say about the man from Detroit: “His poems have a kind of simple power that frequently reaches real transcendence, and they are deeply and nakedly autobiographical – having read most of his published work, I feel like I know a great deal about his life and he’s like an old friend – without the nasty combination of self-love and self-pity that accompanies so much autobiographical poetry.”
What Levine is known most for is that he’s a working-class poet. He worked in factories and told the stories of the individuals he met in his hometown. He was a poet of the people, and he wrote in turgid, almost Hemingway-like sentences that captured such a stunning music and imagery that he placed you dead center in his moment, in the speaker’s world, in the tangible experience that great writing creates. If you don’t understand the power of his work, the ability of his poetry to connect to everyone that comes in contact with it, then listen:
So what about what Philip Levine is…was. Many writers and critics have already discussed the importance of Philip Levine and his impact on poetry, but to make this more personal, I want to talk about what Philip Levine is…was…for me. As someone who grew up in blue-collar town in Massachusetts with empty factories on Main Street, which was parallel to the bustling center of a plastic factory (almost a perfect dichotomy of the modern world juxtaposed to the past Industrial Revolution wasteland), Philip Levine showed me that my life, my hometown, the people who I have known, are all so beautiful. He showed me that my life could be art if I told it in a way that was authentic. I’m still trying to find that, but I’m positive that not only did he have this effect me; he had this effect on a generation of people growing up in similar backgrounds. This is what made him such a great American poet, because lyricism and the sublime belong to all people and not a select group who have the leisure time to become backyard Hamlets.
I didn’t grow up as hard as Levine did; but I know what work is. When I think Philip Levine dying, perhaps this is selfish or self-centered, what comes to mind are the people I have met in my life who Levine has shown me are worth writing about. For example, his real name isn’t important, but we can call him Stan. I worked with him in a computer warehouse, and he worked in the back room on the assembly line putting parts together for data centers. He would stand there with his screwdriver as the conveyor belt pushed more parts toward him, and he would screw the sections together that needed to be screwed together. That was it. I remember how he unloaded the trucks that showed up in the loading area as if he was Atlas trying to hold up the world, and I remember him staring at the clock when there were no tasks. I remember the calluses on his hands and his yellow fingernails and the stink of cigarette smoke from the breaks he would take next to the dumpster, a spot where he thought no one was watching. I remember how I would head down to the Nashua River on lunch breaks and sit on a rock and watch the dragonflies buzz around the ferns. I would see him, sometimes, wandering around the trails. When I left for good, he told me never to come back. He was being nice.
Then there was the carpenter in Massachusetts…Al. We worked together on a maze. (Yes, it was a corn maze.) I helped him build the wood structures around the facility. He lived close by in a home that seemed to fit the structural and design needs for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s serial killers, and he would always show up late…real late. He would pull down the door in his truck on the job site, and the beer cans would fall out. He would ask me to hold the nail for the hammer, and I would make up excuses or pray.
I remember living in Detroit. It was 2007 through 2008, and it was when America’s economy tumbled, and I was in the hub of its destruction. I remember meeting Len. He lived near me, and he was a fine-art painter who was out of work, too, just like me. He was almost 75-years old, and I remember him and his wife coming home late drunk and screaming into the blackness. At one time, he painted exhibits that were showcased at the Olympics, and to make money, he used to paint the billboards between the skyscrapers. Later, he would find that there was no need for him to paint the billboards, as machines could do it now. We ended up painting houses together until the winter came. We tracked my hours on a piece of paper, and I was grateful, so grateful, for the work, for knowing him, for witnessing his struggle and feeling the pain he felt.
These are the type of people Levine seems to encourage writers to explore. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Philip Levine when he was poet laureate. When I called him up, I was so nervous. Levine is kind of my hero, and I prepared for this interview as if I was researching ways to convince Peter to allow me into heaven. I wanted to know so much from him. I wanted to know how to write poetry. I wanted to know how to tell stories. I didn’t get that from the interview, but I was able to find something just as special. I remember him talking about how he first decided to write about Detroit. He was living in California at the time, and he was trying to find his voice. This is an excerpt from the piece at the LA Weekly:
[Levine] recounts the first time he started to write his now-famous poems [about Detroit]: “One morning I woke up [in Fresno], having had a dream about working with a particular guy. In the dream, my buddy Lemon calls me from Bakersfield. Lemon’s been driving with his wife and kid all the way from Detroit. … He wants to know what he should do in California. I tell him about the things he ought to see in Los Angeles — the Miracle Mile, Venice Beach, this kind of crap. I lay this shit on him. And in the dream, I can see him in the phone booth and the two people in the car. He says thanks and hangs up. In the dream I can see him walking to his car. He gets in. … I know he’s saying, ‘That schmuck, why didn’t he invite me up there?'”
Later that morning over breakfast, Levine had a discussion with his wife about the dream. She told him that it was a warning. “You can’t become a professor in your poetic life or in your soul. You have to be who you are. Who your history is.” Levine then went back to bed with a pad of writing paper and a pencil, and he started writing about Detroit while living in California. He wrote six poems in a week and published them all.
What I will take away from Philip Levine is the knowledge that drudgery, work — the minor moments of life that create your existence — can be poetry. I will forever be grateful to Philip Levine for showing me what work is and how it can be lyrical and beautiful and transcendental. May you continue to inspire future Americans long after your death.