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The Leftist Laureate

Looking back on his term as poet laureate, Philip Levine said he’s been surprised at the public attention he received. 

“I had no idea what was in store for me. I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed it. Poets are not well-known people, by and large,” he said in a recent interview.

But for a poet who writes about the industrial labor force, timing has been everything. By most measures, it has been a prime political moment for Levine — known as a poet of the working class — to serve as the nation’s top literary figure. His poems have captured the sentiment of a workforce unsettled by years of economic turmoil.

It’s a topic he’s been writing about for more than 60 years. 

When Levine was 14 years old, he began working on assembly lines, including Chevrolet Gear and Axle and Detroit Transmission. The factories were so loud that he could recite poetry while he worked without anyone hearing him. 

Levine has re-created the experience of working in industrial Detroit in his poetry. His work features stark images of life on the shop floor. It tells stories about the toll physical labor takes on the bodies and emotional lives of the country’s working class.

One of his most famous poems, “What Work Is,” begins by depicting the experience of waiting for a job in line outside a factory.

We stand in the rain in a long line

waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work is—if you’re

old enough to read this you know what 

work is, although you may not do it.

Forget you. This is about waiting,

shifting from one foot to another.

Levine read the poem last fall at an AFL-CIO gathering. He said the appearance was one of the highlights of his term because he discovered that “the people who walk through many of my poems also read them.”

“That was enormously encouraging,” he said.

Political issues are at the heart of Levine’s public image. During his stint as the nation’s top poet, he has pulled few punches when it comes to political commentary.

“I’ve spoken out about Congress, the presidency, the failure of the American political machinery to keep up with what one might call American ideals and the enormous failure of the Republican Party” he said, although his time as poet laureate has come while there is a Democratic White House and Senate.

“I think, when I got off at the start [as poet laureate], there was an understanding that I would be me. And I have been,” he said.

 The Forgotten Poets

It’s fitting, then, that at Levine’s final public appearance as poet laureate, he’ll talk about a few of the writers who shaped his distinctive poetic voice.

On May 3, he will give a public lecture in the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. His talk, “The Forgotten Poets of My Youth,” will focus on the lives and works of four poets — Demetrios Capetanakis, Alun Lewis, Keith Douglas and Naomi Replansky — who inspired him as a young writer.

“They’re very different poets,” Levine said, but “there’s a political relevance in all four.” 

All wrote poetry that resonated with the generations that lived through World
War II. They created poetry that expressed what Levine described as the “ugliness of colonialism,” the “folly of war” and the “tyranny of American corporate capitalism.”

Levine acknowledged that the poetry that inspired him as a young writer, with its political themes, has “hardly made a dent in American consciousness.” The four poets he’ll talk about in the lecture have also been largely ignored by the literary canon. 

Levine discovered the writers while attending Wayne State University in the late 1940s. 

“At the time, I knew nothing about any of them,” Levine said, adding that it was his classmates, not his professors, who introduced him to their work.

“We had no classes in poetry writing,” he said. So he and his friends studied the work of contemporary poets — particularly the ones who weren’t in fashion — to learn the craft. “We taught ourselves and talked about the structure we created.” 

The “forgotten poets,” though largely unknown, influenced the work of one of the most celebrated American poets.

Levine, who is 84, said that while he has been “delighted” to serve as poet laureate, he’s looking forward to getting back to life as usual. It has been “a distraction” from his everyday work, he said.

“I’m not really outfitted psychologically for being a public figure,” he said. “I can do it … but I’m so used to isolation and silence. I’ll be glad to get back to it.”

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