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Monday, September 5, 2011

Poet Laureate Philip Levine Gives A Voice To Workers

Poet Laureate Philip Levine (Geoffrey Berliner).

Poet Laureate Philip Levine (Geoffrey Berliner).

At 83, Philip Levine has been writing poetry to the voiceless since he worked in Detroit’s auto factories when he was a young man. Last month, the Library of Congress honored his work, by naming Levine as the 18th U.S. poet laureate.

Dwight Garner of the New York Times writes that Levine’s work “radiates a heat of a sort not often felt in today’s poetry, that transmitted by grease, soil, factory light, cheap and honest food, sweat, low pay, cigarettes and second shifts. It is a plainspoken poetry ready-made, it seems, for a time of S&P downgrades, a double-dip recession and debts left unpaid.”

Some have faulted Levine’s work for relying too much on narrative descriptions that seem more journalistic than poetic.

Clayton Eshleman wrote in a Los Angeles Times review that “the literal perspective admits only a single actor in a single life scene,” and that Levine’s writing “boils down to: This is what happened to me and this is what I am.”


  • Philip Levine, poet laureate

What Work Is
By Philip Levine

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.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

— From “What Work Is,” by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).

Our Valley
By Philip Levine

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

-From “News of the World,” by Philip Levine, (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011).

On 52nd Street
By Philip Levine

Down sat Bud, raised his hands,
the Deuces silenced, the lights
lowered, and breath gathered
for the coming storm. Then nothing,
not a single note. Outside starlight
from heaven fell unseen, a quarter-
moon, promised, was no show,
ditto the rain. Late August of ’50,
NYC, the long summer of abundance
and our new war. In the mirror behind
the bar, the spirits—imitating you—
stared at themselves. At the bar
the tenor player up from Philly, shut
his eyes and whispered to no one,
“Same thing last night.” Everyone
been coming all week long
to hear this. The big brown bass
sighed and slumped against
the piano, the cymbals held
their dry cheeks and stopped
chicking and chucking. You went
back to drinking and ignored
the unignorable. When the door
swung open it was Pettiford
in work clothes, midnight suit,
starched shirt, narrow black tie,
spit shined shoes, as ready
as he’d ever be. Eyebrows
raised, the Irish bartender
shook his head, so Pettiford eased
himself down at an empty table,
closed up his Herald Tribune,
and shook his head. Did the TV
come on, did the jukebox bring us
Dinah Washington, did the stars
keep their appointments, did the moon
show, quartered or full, sprinkling
its soft light down? The night’s
still there, just where it was, just
where it’ll always be without
its music. You’re still there too
holding your breath. Bud walked out.

-From “Breath,”by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf in 2004).


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  • Lilya Lopekha


    About the show that you did about 9/11 Truth Movement and allowed Jonathan Kay (who was hired to spread garbage about the movement)…. you brought shame to NPR and WBUR.

    Please Fire Yourself.  You are not a Journalist.  You don’t deserve the microphone.

    Fire Yourself Today!!!

    • J Frog

      Firing herself is too harsh…3 days off with no pay is sufficient! LOL …just kidding. Some of us think she does a great job!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1202761308 Leslie Witherspoon

    I just wanted to thank you for your interview of Phillip Levine.  His poem “Work” always brings tears to my eyes.  My favorite poem(s) about work are by two hip hop artists: Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif.

    9-5ers anthem by Aesop Rock(can’t post the whole thing, profanity you know, but the chorus goes like this)
    We the American working population
    Hate the fact that eight hours a day
    Is wasted on chasing the dream of someone that isn’t us
    And we may not hate our jobs,
    But we hate jobs in general 
    That don’t have to do with fighting our own causes.
    We the American working population
    Hate the nine-to-five day-in/day-out
    When we’d rather be supporting ourselves
    By being paid to perfect the pasttimes 
    That we have harbored based solely on the fact
    That it makes us smile if it sounds dope…
    Fumble out of bed and I stumble to the kitchen
    Pour myself a cup of ambition
    And yawn and stretch, and my life is a mess
    And if I never make it home today, God Bless

    Success by Mr. Lif featuring Aesop Rock (excerpt, again profanity)
    And after a 12 hour day, I had too little energy to say ‘I love you’ to my baby
    Or play daddy to J,
    and I thought this was the wayto be a husband and a father
    I guess I could’ve looked in her eyes, and seen I lost her
    But it wasn’t my fault, I’m workin’ hard, it couldn’t be
    I’ve been successfully existing as a member of this family
    I was so convinced the household had to always be complete
    I didn’t realize the only thing that’s missing is me

    Daddy had a name tag that said, “Busy Working”
    Mommy had a milk carton that said, “Missing Person”
    John had a new baseball glove, with nobody to learn with
    That’s oil and water trying to mix on the same surface

    So, I don’t think much of “work”

    • Hoktoooey

      I’m sory , Phil , but you stink as a poet . Who picked you for such a prestigious award ! Once again someone is picked without thorough research of American pure talent that lies deep within our shores , yet I read again and again prose of people like you and the last ” talent ” poet lousiest as if Im agog and feeling Poemy !, Sorry , I’m not attacking you personally , it’ not about that , but you tell a story in your works , and you are not a true poet , like the ones who have graced this country in the past . I guess I’m a sentamentalist and love the ancients . Thanks , Daniel Hall Kleinmeier

  • Barbara Ruiz

    A great story.  I will be reading Poet Laureate Philip Levine works..thanks to your program.

  • Steven Jay Griffel

    I’m not a huge fan of Levine’s work. In fact, aside from his line breaks that give his poems the “look of poetry,” that don’t seem particularly poetic. They do not have the diamond hardness, the clarity, the miracle of language I expect to find in great poetry. See for yourself. Take any of the poems in this link–copy and paste–and then remove all the line breaks so that all that remains is a paragraph. It’s not even a particularly descriptive prose paragraph–Levine seems to eschew figurative language almost as much as Hemingway did. Levine’s a talented writer. I just don’t think he’s an outstanding poet.

  • Mollyaquarian

    what a wonderful interview, thank you!!!

  • Pthomas51_99

    Some years ago I was organizing homecare workers in Michigan with a group of Los Angeles homecare union members who had never been to Detroit.  This was a group of African American and Russian American middle aged women for the most part. I wanted to find some things that were culturally Detroit and found Levine’s poem–What is Work–and gave them copies. I’ll never forget how beautifully one of the women read that poem to the group as it truly moved her and inspired all of us to work that much harder.  (We won the union election and are proud to represent Michigan’s homecare workers)

  • TJPhoto40

    I thoroughly enjoy listening to Philip Levine, who has this charming way of talking that combines the grounded with the transcendent, the everyday reality with the thoughtfully literate being. He’s one of the literary figures who could easily sit down with anyone and have a great conversation over a meal or a beer. I’ve enjoyed his poetry over the years, and still do. Sure, it’s not always as carefully crafted or highly-charged as we want in the greatest poetry. But it’s often resonant and moving. It seems conversational and almost casual, but at the same time it’s concentrated and evocative in many ways. It has the quality of being deceptively simple and plain-spoken, almost prose, yet it rings with subtle sounds and profound observations. What’s more, Levine’s poetry has a kind of signature style. Others preceded him as an influence, and others follow with him as an influence on their work. But he’s still richly his own.

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