Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Monday, August 15, 2011

Levine gets the Butt of Sack

Philip Levine, dubbed a “proletariat poet,” is the new Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. There is perhaps a subtle political message in his appointment. Perhaps it means that someone, at least, is thinking about the equity in sweat that creates all wealth rather than the equity in credit default swaps that destroys it.

Early laureates Allen Tate (1943) and Robert Penn Warren (1944) both espoused the conservative Western canon and promoted the apolitical New Criticism. Louise Bogan (1945), poetry critic for The New Yorker, broke the gender barrier, but gently. Robert Hayden (1976) broke the color barrier, also gently.

Some appointments have supported free thought, at least in foreign despotisms. Joseph Brodsky, for example, had been expelled from the Soviet Union for alleged “social parasitism” in 1972. He emigrated to the U.S., won the 1987 Nobel Prize, and was appointed in 1991.

Levine’s elevation comes a little late for him; he’s 82. His experience in the Detroit factories goes back to the late ‘30s and Word War II period, and his descriptions of factory life sometimes seem in period-appropriate sepia tones. A while back, I picked up his What Work Is (1991) on a remaindered table for four bucks. Presumably, sales have picked up since the new honor.  

Still, there is an intergenerational bond that makes Levine’s poetry resonate. When I began working at Chrysler, which employed me for three decades, I met folks who had been around for the great sit-down strikes of ’37, three decades before. And check out the overhead chain conveyer in Diego Rivera’s 1933 “Detroit Industry.” You’ll see the same design in today’s auto plants. Plus ça change. More importantly, Levine has a sense of what motivates workers beyond the money. No matter how lousy the job, work gives folks a sense of being.

Take his “Fear and Fame,” the opening poem in said What Work Is. It’s about a man who mixes a metal plating—or “pickling”—solution. We see him suiting up in protective gear, remembering the pedigree of the secret recipe he learned from the former pickling master (now “off to the bars on Vernor Highway/to drink himself to death”), descending into a pit where he mixed hydrochloric acid and other noxious potions, climbing out, undressing, observing his work mates at their jobs, and then suiting up again

. . . for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

The poem puts labor back into its human dimension, rescues it from what Marx called the “fetishism of commodities” behind which human relationships and creative sweat hide when goods are exchanged.

As a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Levine was an early product of what has been called “The Program Era” (See Mark McGurl's book of that name, reflected on by my colleague Steven Leech in “Casualties from the Fast Track”). This era is characterized by MFA programs and writers retreats, generally under the sway, critics claim, of mainstream publishers and academia. Many, if not most of the U. S. Poet Laureates reflect this establishmentarian bias. All the same, some, like Levine’s Iowa Workshop mentor Robert Lowell, were great.

Anyway, I can relate to Levine. For one, I took poetry writing under his classmate, the late W.D. Snodgrass, at the University of Delaware. Even better, Robert Lowell judged an Academy of American Poets Prize I won at UD in 1963. But it’s more than the indirect personal connections; it’s his ambivalence. Elizabeth Lund, in her August 11 article in the Christian Science monitor, quotes Levine reflecting on the relationship between his factory work and his career:

It took me a long time to be able to write about it without snarling or snapping. I had to temper the violence I felt toward those who maimed and cheated me with a tenderness toward those who had touched and blessed me.

Sometimes I feel like I should have waited until time tempered me before I wrote Autoplant: a Poetic Monologue, since I felt more “maimed and cheated” then, while now that Chrysler is shut down, I feel more “touched and blessed.” But, as I said in the in-text fiction disclaimer, “if the shoe fits, it’s your own damn fault.

Still, Levine’s latest honor is an opportunity to build momentum for transformative working class poetry. Hey, everybody, I’m an autoworker poet, look over here! Oh, well.

Next April, I’m hoping to bring poet Jim Daniels to Delaware. Raised in an autoworker family in Warren, Michigan, Daniels worked a short time in the auto plants and now has taught several decades at Carnegie Mellon.  He has never stopped writing about the social, spiritual, political, and economic lives of workers, including, most recently, professors. See his Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry.

A few years back, I saw Philip Levine at the University of Delaware. In the copy of Selected Poems I bought, he wrote, “for Phillip from Philip, with hope for our poems.”

Well, congrats, Philip, with hope for more working class poets.

Note: a “butt of sack” (cask of sherry) was the traditional pay for the British Poet Laureate.