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Philip Levine began writing poetry between shifts as an auto worker in Detroit, and his work has been praised as giving voices to the voiceless.
In 2011, he was named the 18th Poet Laureate of the United States. Now, the Academy of American Poets has awarded Levine the Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement, which comes with a $100,000 prize.
Here & Now spoke with Levine shortly after he was named U.S. Poet Laureate. Today we play an excerpt of that conversation.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
The Academy of American Poets just bestowed its Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement on Detroit-born poet Philip Levine. The $100,000 prize is just the latest honor for the 85-year-old Levine. He is a former poet laureate and the winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. And he's known as the poet of the working class.
Born in Detroit to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1928, he worked in various Detroit auto factories after college and began writing poetry in between shifts on the assembly line. One of his most famous poems, "What Work Is," took place outside an auto plant. Here he reads the opening.
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.
YOUNG: Former poet laureate Philip Levine reading from "What Work Is" when we spoke with him, appropriately enough, on Labor Day 2011. In honor of his new award, we share an excerpt today. It begins with a question: How much did auto work feed into the poetry?
LEVINE: In the early years when I was writing and working, I wrote nothing about the factory, nothing. I'd come home - and I usually worked nights, so I had a - I'd sleep and I'd get up, and I'd have a lot of daytime light to work in, to do what I wanted. But I was writing all kinds of poems, but I was not writing that. You know, a doctor wouldn't write poems about his patients. I mean he'd say, oh God, that's shop. What the hell do I want to do that for?
I mean, you look at William Carlos Williams' poetry, you know, most of his life he was a doctor. And there are not that many poems about doctoring. I mean, I have many more poems about that life. But the irony is, of course, that I left that life at age 26 and shifted slowly into academia, which left me a lot more time for writing.
YOUNG: Dwight Garner, writing in The New York Times, says your 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's a plain-spoken poetry ready made. I praise. On the other hand, there are some critics who ask, is it poetry or almost a form of journalism?
You know, one wrote - I think in the LA Times wrote, it's sort of the poetry of this is who I am and this is what happened to me. I'm looking at one, "A Woman Waking." It's a story about a woman remembering her father who used to light the stove and then measure the coffee and then he would come and shake her awake, smelling of gasoline and whispering, then he left. That idea of telling a story, having me picture that...
LEVINE: No. That's not what's it about for everybody. It happens to be about that for me, but not only just that. We bring our own lives to poetry, and that's part of my life. And you know, when I was about, I don't know, 19 or 20, at the time I was working at Detroit Transmission, I remember. And one day I'm walking out with a buddy I met on the line - he knows I write poetry - and I said to him, little did that inconspicuous assembly worker realize that someday he would place this magic into poetry that the world would love.
I made up this BS, you know, and the guy said, are you serious about that, Phil? And I thought for a second and I said, yeah. It may not work out, I may not do it, but it's what I want to do. And here were these people, they were very different from me, many of them very different. But they extended themselves to me. They embraced me. And I embraced them.
And I remember a line from Whitman, there is that lot of me...all so luscious. And I remember when I read that and I said, could that be true about me? And I thought, why the hell not? And as I began to see myself in those terms, I began to see these people in those terms with their stories. And you know. I mean you look at the history of English poetry.
Are there stories in Keats? Yes. Are there stories in Shelley? Yes. In Byron? Yes. In Shakespeare? God, yes. Some of my favorite poems are story - have stories. Some of them don't. Why give up stories? At one time, that's what poetry was about. When Homer wrote his poems, it was about stories.
YOUNG: And Philip Levine, so that idea that you had as an assembly worker, that worked up pretty well, as it turns out.
LEVINE: Yeah, it was a long process, you know...
LEVINE: When I said, I was 20, so it's 63 years ago.
LEVINE: But you know, one of the great things about poetry is that it's not an easy undertaking. You give your life to it, and it's a worthy enterprise for a life. That's how it has struck me. And poetry has been incredibly generous to me. So many of my good friends I've met through poetry, partly from teaching but also reading people, my generation who wrote me or - and I wrote them and we met and we became dear friends, and they've enriched my life enormously. So I owe an enormous amount to poetry. And I can never really repay it, but I can do my best.
YOUNG: That's Philip Levine, speaking to us from the Argot Studios in New York. Phil, thanks so much and best to you.
LEVINE: Thank you, Robin. Nice talking to you. Be well.
YOUNG: Philip Levine in 2011. He just won the Academy of American Poets award for lifetime achievement. We'll have our full conversation at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.