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Fresh Air Remembers Former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Philip Levine, a former U.S. poet laureate whose work often reflected the hardships and dignity of manual labor, died last Saturday at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 87. Levine worked in Detroit factories as a young man. And a New York Times review once described him as a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland, loyal to his roots in Detroit, determined to remember the exhausted and enraged worker, the unlucky immigrant, the man who gasps for breath and asks, am I going to make it? Terry spoke to Philip Levine in 1991 when he'd published a collection of poems called "What Work Is." She asked him why work had become such an important theme in his poems.


PHILIP LEVINE: I suppose because most of my poetry originates in memory. Coleridge said that really the only thing the imagination has to work on is remembered experience. And I find this is very true in my own case. Also, my working days went from age 14 - that kind of work, heavy manual labor - from age 14 to about 29. And it seems to me that I was more sensitive to the world around me. I was a learner. I was somebody with his eyes open, constantly looking for teachers. And I think as a youngster growing up in these circumstances, I was just more open to sensation, more open to a kind - it's an odd word, but almost an exotic world. It was the work of automobile assembly factories, and that - it's a very exotic place, or it was when I was very young. I mean, there was fire. There was noise. There was - it was like bedlam. Sometimes - I remember going into a foundry once to get a job, and I was about 17; they wouldn't hire me - I was too young - and thinking, really, I'm in hell.



LEVINE: This is like hell. You know, it was so hot, and it was this liquid metal, and I was terrified. I was glad they wouldn't hire me.

GROSS: I want you to read the title poem from your new collection "What Work Is." And is there a story you'd like us to hear about the poem before we hear the poem itself?

LEVINE: Yeah, there is. There's a curious story - I never worked at Ford Highland Park, which I mentioned in the poem. But I went there once for a job during a period in the early '50s in Detroit when there was a kind of slight recession. So a lot of people got laid off, although Detroit was a booming town back then. And I waited in line, and it was raining, and it was a long wait. You know, the newspaper would advertise, you know, assemblers. That's the lowest job you can get. And they would put hours down like 8:00 to 5:00, but you knew you had to be there early if you were going to get a job. And so you got there maybe 7:30. Well, they didn't open the employment office 'til, say, 9:00. So you stood there for an hour and a half before anything even opened, and there were 50 people ahead of you. But that was in a way to - you know, they wanted to test you. You know, how much crap could you take? I mean, were you willing to wait in line that long? If you weren't, they didn't want you. And so as I waited, I grew angrier and angrier at myself for being this humble character. And finally, maybe about 10:30 or so, I got up to the head of the line. And there was a guy sitting down. I was standing. We each went to a different desk. We stood. They sat. And he said, what kind of job would you like? And I don't know where this impulse came from, but I said, I want your job.

GROSS: Oh, gee.

LEVINE: And he said, OK, take off. And that was it. But I was sort of happy that there was this thing in me that was still there that, you know, said, you know, I don't want you and you don't want me. And so I suppose that - I never forgot that moment of standing there all that time and then being, you know, a smart mouth.

GROSS: Did you have the money to afford to mouth off like that and lose the pay for the day?

LEVINE: No, no, I didn't. I remember I went to Chevrolet Gear and Axle, which was an awful place. Later that day I got a job there, which was just as bad. You know, it was just as bad a place. I was married at the time. I had to make a living. I had responsibilities. So I mean, I really couldn't afford to be who I wanted to be, you know?

Let me read the poem "What Work Is." (Reading) 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 10 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.

GROSS: When did you start writing about your experiences in factories? Were you still in factories when you were writing poems?

LEVINE: I was unable to write any poetry about my working life while that was my working life. I tried a few times. And the poems were hysterical. I think they were just - you know, I couldn't control them. My anger was so overwhelming that I couldn't cope with it, just as I couldn't write about my boyhood very effectively until I was 40. It was still too powerful for me. But I'm patient, so I hung in there. And that's probably by chief virtue as a writer is my patience. So I waited, and I kept trying to work about factory work but I kept throwing the poems away. And the first poem I ever published about working in a factory, I was, I think, 31 or 2, but I don't like the poem anymore.

GROSS: Can you give me a sense of what was going wrong in the factory poems when you were still there? Is there anything...



LEVINE: Yes, I can. The language was overblown. You know, I wanted to use the word eternity and - you know. I wanted to use a kind of Latin diction to - almost a Miltonic diction and a great chorus - build up a great chorus of sound and - to dramatize the horror show of some of the places I had worked. And I didn't have any - there was no tenderness in it for the people that I worked with. There was no - and that was a, you know - that was part of the reward that I got for those years was the people I was meeting, even though you didn't talk to them that much because places were often so loud. But you'd meet them afterwards or you'd make friends with them and spend time with them. And they weren't getting in the poems at all. The poems were, you know, my poor soul being hammered out of shape by General Motors. And they were a bit self-indulged.

DAVIES: Philip Levine speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1991. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to Terri's interview with former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, who died last Saturday. Many of his poems were about manual labor.


GROSS: What was your final goodbye to factory work?

LEVINE: My final goodbye - it was - it came when my wife - my first wife left me, which is why I've always loved the word goodbye. And I didn't have to do this. Also, I wasn't in debt. And it just suddenly occurred to me. She's gone. I don't owe anybody anything. I'm going to quit. I'm going to live on my wits or try. And so I started to try to live on my wits. And sure enough, I've done it.

GROSS: So what did the...

LEVINE: Not too well - not too well all the time, but, you know.

GROSS: When you decided to live on your wits, where did you go? What did you do for money?

LEVINE: Well, actually, I took a job with my brother. I don't want to describe it because he'd get mad at me - and for a long summer. And I could live like a little church mouse. And then I went off to the University of Iowa to study poetry writing with Robert Lowell. And I thought there was a fellowship there for me. And when I got there, I was a year late. And the fellowship had been given to somebody else, even though I'd written them and said, hold it for me. And so I never registered. I just took courses without paying for them and kept saying, oh, that information will get to you soon. And I studied with Robert Lowell and then John Berryman. And John Berryman was a great teacher - just a great teacher. And I never needed another teacher after that. So I had a year of studying with two terrific poets and not living particularly well.

Then I met my second wife. She wasn't my wife when I met her. She was just a lucky single woman. And we got married, and my wife worked for a while. And when our second child came, I started teaching then. And by this time, I'd published enough poetry to get a job teaching. And I'd finished a master's degree through the mail from Wayne University. So I lucked in there. I got this terrific woman - not just that she supported me. She's also a marvelous woman. I'm still married to her, thank God. She hasn't abandoned me.

GROSS: You've written a lot of poems that - where your brother figures into the poem.


GROSS: Is - do you see your brother as, like, the alternate version of your life or something? You know, like, somebody who you could've been, and you're not, or? And, like, what function do you see your brother serving almost as metaphor or something within your poems?

LEVINE: Yeah, you know, first thing - I'm an identical twin.


LEVINE: And I didn't realize how significant this was in my poetry. I have a great many poems in which men have these encounters with each other and a couple of poems which they embrace very deeply. They hold each other. And I think that a lot of that - I remember a guy writing - wonderful man named David Kalstone, who's dead now - writing a review of on one of my books and talking about these encounters and how powerful they were or how powerful he felt they were.

And it was that review that opened my eyes to the fact that, of course, the roots of that are are that the terrible wrenching away from my twin brother. This - you know, I grew up half believing I was half a person. It's very curious to grow up as an identical twin. Not sure that I was the whole person, and maybe I was me and him both, or - you know, it's very difficult to describe. But I don't think since I was 5, I've ever felt, you know, that - anything as close as I'd felt up to that time, maybe 6 or 7, when we began to drift apart.

And I remember when I first started writing poetry, it was enormously - I was about - oh, I don't know. Well, actually, I didn't show my brother the first poems I wrote. I didn't show him poems until I was about 17 or so. And he loved them. He just loved them. And he would take - he's a bigger guy than I, and he's more aggressive, physically and in every other way - and he would take these poems and show them to people and say, what you think? Isn't this great? That's what he would say. Isn't this great?

And, of course, they'd say, yeah because he was kind of an intimidating guy. My brother's a great poet (laughter). And in some ways, it was the high point of my writing career. I mean, I had one reader, and he was absolutely mad for what I was doing. Now I have many more readers, but I don't know if any of them, you know, are so totally, totally taken with what I write. I was really writing totally for two people - myself and my brother. Since then, I've discovered others, and - but it was quite amazing.

GROSS: You said that you were wrenched away from your twin brother. When were you wrenched away?

LEVINE: I was afraid you'd ask that (laughter). I just felt, at a certain point in my life, that - when I was quite young - that I had to be myself. I began to make discoveries about him - that he wasn't me. There were ways in which he reacted to experiences. I could see that, you know, they just weren't my reactions. And so a time came when I said, you know, I can't go on with this. I have to find out my own identity and live it. And so I suppose the wrenching was something I imposed upon myself. My guess is he probably felt something similar. I do think there were times when our inmost thoughts were communicated to each other without our speaking. We were that close.

GROSS: I want to get back to something you said early in the interview.


GROSS: You said that - and this is when you were, you know, waiting on line for factory jobs and knowing you might get turned down. You said you couldn't afford to be who you wanted to be. And I think within that sentence is a pretty interesting class analysis about identity. You know what I mean? - that it takes a certain amount of money, in a way, to live - not only to live the life you want, but to be who you want to be.

LEVINE: That's right. That's right. I mean, for example, I was politically very conscious. I was aware of exploitation. I remember my brother and I at about age 10 swearing we would never exploit other people. We would never live off the labor of other people in a way in which they were abused, and we were given an advantage on their hard work. And I remember when I worked at - for a General Motors factory once, you had to take these IQ tests before you started working. And they said, you know, you ought to - we'd like to put you into our management program. You've done very well in this IQ test.

I lied and said I'd never gone to college, or they'd never hire me. And they said, gee, these scores are wonderful. I said, no. And they said, we would send you to Flint, Mich. You can go to a school there. You know, we have a slavery school there. You know, you'll be taught, really, how torture people effectively and subtly. And we'll pay you pay twice as much. And when you're done, we'll give you a suit and a tie. Would you like to do that? And I said, no. I'd just like to be a slave myself (laughter).

I mean, I didn't like being a slave, but I had taken an oath that I wasn't going to exploit people. And my brother was watching me. I couldn't break it. He's a very stubborn guy. And so it was a determination we made. It would be nice to be able to afford it. Of course, then what do you have to do? You have to change the world so that lots of people can take that oath and live it, right? And how did I choose to change the world so that was more possible? I wrote poetry. And I actually thought - this will strike you, Terry, as idiotic.

GROSS: Try me, yeah.

LEVINE: I actually thought that writing poetry would be a means of changing the world because what I was reading was changing me so radically. Nothing in my life had as much power over me as what I read - both poetry and fiction. And when I began, too, I wanted to be a novelist as well as a poet. Then, of course, when I published my first book and an additional 220, I said to myself, gee-whiz, this is a big country for 220 books.

GROSS: Did you feel that, in some ways, poetry is obsolete for a lot of people because they have movies and TV and songs to tell their stories?

LEVINE: Well, I tell you the truth. By this time, I didn't care because by this time, I had fallen in love with the poem. And I loved writing it, and I didn't care. I mean, it was what I had to do, and whether it changes people or whether a doesn't, it's what I have to do.

GROSS: Philip Levine, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

LEVINE: Well, thank you, Terry. It's nice. It was a pleasure.

DAVIES: Former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Levine died last Saturday. He was 87. After a break, we'll remember singer Lesley Gore, who died Monday. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Ornette Coleman's new album "New Vocabulary," which Kevin says has a lightning-in-a-bottle quality. And David Edelstein reviews the Argentinian film "Wild Tales." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 20, 2015 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Philip Levine as James Levine.