[Marxism] Voice of the Workingman to Be Poet Laureate

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 10 07:30:21 MDT 2011

NY Times August 9, 2011
Voice of the Workingman to Be Poet Laureate

The Library of Congress will announce on Wednesday that Philip 
Levine, best known for his big-hearted, Whitmanesque poems about 
working-class Detroit, is to be the next poet laureate, succeeding 
W. S. Merwin.

He was selected from a long list of nominees by James Billington, 
the librarian of Congress, who said on Monday, “I find him an 
extraordinary discovery because he introduced me to a whole new 
world I hadn’t connected to in poetry before.”

“He’s the laureate, if you like, of the industrial heartland,” Mr. 
Billington added. “It’s a very, very American voice. I don’t know 
that in other countries you get poetry of that quality about the 
ordinary workingman.” Referring to Mr. Levine’s ironic and 
self-effacing nature, he said: “This wasn’t really a factor in the 
choice, but he doesn’t seem to have that element of posing that I 
suppose we all suffer from to one degree or another. He has that 
well under control.”

The author of some 20 collections of poems and the winner of the 
1995 Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Simple Truth,” Mr. Levine is 
83, making him one of the oldest laureates. But speaking on the 
phone the other day from his home in Fresno, Calif., he sounded 
much younger. “I feel pretty good,” he said, adding that he was 
still writing and that he found great inspiration these days in 
the poetry of Thomas Hardy. “There’s this unbelievable humility in 
his work,” he said. “He kept writing right up until he died, when 
he was almost 90.”

“But I’m not as good as ever,” Mr. Levine went on, referring to 
the writing that he had done in the last year or so. In an e-mail 
he said he thought he had begun doing his best work in the early 
1990s, but on the phone he added: “I find more energy in my 
earlier work. More dash, more anger. Anger was a major engine in 
my poetry then. It’s been replaced by irony, I guess, and by love.”

Mr. Levine grew up in Detroit, back when it was still a “vital 
city,” he said. His parents were emigrants from Russia, but for 
some reason they told him he was of Spanish ancestry ,and as a 
young man he became fascinated with Spanish anarchism and the 
Spanish Civil War, which still turn up in his poems. Mr. Levine’s 
father died when he was 5, leaving the family hard up, and before 
embracing poetry he held a succession of what he has called 
“stupid jobs.” He built transmissions for Cadillac, worked in the 
Chevrolet gear and axle factory, drove a truck for Railway 
Express. His early poems, often written in narrow, seven-syllable 
lines, were gritty, hard-nosed evocations of the lives of working 
people and their neighborhoods.

Over the years Mr. Levine’s subject matter hasn’t changed much — 
he remains a distinctly urban poet — but his line has lengthened, 
and his edge has softened. Many of his poems these days are 
narrative, anecdotal elegies for that vanished working-class 
world, and as in the title poem of his Pulitzer-winning volume, he 
finds depths of beauty in the simplest of pleasures — food, for 

Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong ...

Mr. Levine’s early poems were more formal than the ones he writes 
now, doubtless because as a young man he studied with eminent 
formalists like Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Yvor Winters, but 
also, he suggested, to compensate for the formlessness of his own 
life back then.

“I don’t know why it took so long,” he said. “That looseness and 
freedom took place when I brought order to my life. I got married, 
got a job — not a good job but a job.” (He taught English and 
writing at California State University, Fresno.) Sometime in his 
40s, he added, he was struck by the tenderness in the poetry of 
others and thought, “Why isn’t there more tenderness in my own work?”

His late poems are full of that tenderness and also of a 
Hardyesque humbleness in which, while still enthralled by poetry, 
he hesitates to make too great claims for it. A 1999 poem by Mr. 
Levine is called “He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do” 
and ends:

Fact is, silence is the perfect water:
unlike rain it falls from no clouds
to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
to give heart to the thin blades of grass
fighting through the concrete for even air
dirtied by our endless stream of words.

Strictly speaking, the poet laureate has few official duties 
during the one-year term, but lately the laureates have tended to 
take on projects intended to broaden the audience for poetry. 
Robert Pinsky started his Favorite Poem Project, encouraging 
Americans to share their selections at readings and in audio and 
video projects. Ted Kooser created a free weekly newspaper column 
in which he introduced a poem by a contemporary American poet.

Mr. Levine said he had thought of proposing a project in which 
people would be asked to name the ugliest poem they could think 
of. “I knew they wouldn’t go for it,” he added, referring to the 
Library of Congress. “But I was trying to think of something a 
little light and humorous, to encourage people to think of poetry 
not quite so seriously.”

He said he might try to get 5- or 10-minute spots for poets to 
read their work on the radio and hoped to help resurrect what he 
called “the enormous number of forgotten poets out there.”

“I know a great many poems that I love and that most people have 
never heard of,” he said. “Some of them are quite magnificent.”

He hadn’t particularly aspired to be poet laureate, Mr. Levine 
said, but he was pleased that after a long career, the honor had 
come his way. “How can I put it? It’s like winning the Pulitzer,” 
he explained. “If you take it too seriously, you’re an idiot. But 
if you look at the names of the other poets who have won it, most 
of them are damn good. Not all of them — I’m not going to name 
names — but most. My editor was thrilled, and my wife jumped for 
joy. She hasn’t done that in a while.”

More information about the Marxism mailing list