THE POET OF THE ASSEMBLY LINE
Coming home to a foreign city, the poet flew into Detroit. Invited to read his works, he expected to be picked up at the airport. But the woman in the terminal holding the sign — PHILIP LEVINE — handed him directions for taking the bus.
"You jerks,” Levine thought, “I'm going to get even with you. I'm going to show up exactly at the moment I'm supposed to read. So I took the bus in and began walking around Detroit.”
It had once been his Detroit, “a city choking on the ills of the Great Depression.” His father sold auto parts but died when Phil was five, leaving three sons. His mother, a stenographer, moved the family to “a series of ever-shrinking apartments.”
Short and wiry, Phil started work at 12, delivering laundry. At 14, he took a swing shift in a soap factory — 35 cents an hour. By day, high school, teachers told him, “You write like an angel. Why don’t you think about becoming a writer?" But there were bills to pay. After college he worked in auto factories, “work so heavy and monotonous that after an hour or two I was sure each night that I would never last the shift.”
Finally fleeing the factories, he rose. From grad student to poet, from just one of many poets to one of America’s premiere poets. A Pulitzer. Two National Book Awards. A Guggenheim. Now he walked through his hometown again. That day, Philip Levine took “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.” That day, he remembered, “was a gift.’
We expect poets to describe the soul, the stars, the vitals from birth to death. We do not expect them to describe “what work is.” But Philip Levine was America’s ”pre-eminent poet of the working life.” Like Whitman, he “heard America singing,” but the song was on the graveyard shift, syncopated by “the incredible clanging, the noise, the heat, the cold at your back, the fire in your face in the forge. . .”
By the mid-‘80s when Levine walked through Detroit, the factories were abandoned, empty. His walk took him:
Between the freeway
and the gray conning towers
of the ballpark,
miles of mostly vacant lots, once
a neighborhood of small
two-storey wooden houses. . .
A little world with only
three seasons, or so we said—
one to get tired, one to get
old, one to die.
The words had come quickly, 900 lines in a day once back home. He had honed his craft by then, forging lines as he had once forged metal at Chevy Gear and Axle. Nine hundred lines, cut to 300, but something was missing.
He had first found his voice in talking to the night. As a teenager, he began walking in darkness, speaking out loud. The damp earth is giving birth. . . These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang. He remembered “tasting the words, I immediately liked them and repeated them, and then more words came that also seemed familiar and right.”
After taking the poet’s familiar path — Iowa Writer’s Workshop, teaching gigs, hours alone with a pencil — he put his voice on paper. But all was rage. “I wanted fire and I wanted gunfire. I wanted to burn down Chevrolet.”
Then time, his overseer in factories, served up its wisdom. And he saw what Whitman had seen — “the genius of the United States. . . Is always most in the common people.”
"Stop focusing on the fact that you were miserable and exhausted and underpaid and exploited.” Levine told himself. “And start focusing on the fact that you were in the company of extraordinary people.”
People were what was missing from “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.” Scanning his 300 lines, Levine recalled a cab driver. Hurry, he’d told the cabbie. He was due at —
"You must know this city."
“Yeah, I used to live here.”
"Yeah, you left us, didn't you? All the smart people left."
When Levine told the cabbie he was about meet an old friend, the man asked, "Are you going to make him laugh or are you going to make him cry — your old buddy?"
“I hadn’t thought about it. But now I’m going to try to do both."
“Oh, man,” the cabbie said, “That's biblical."
Just a phrase, that’s all it took. “That’s biblical.” Levine made the phrase the signature of “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.” The title character was not the president but a black man up from Alabama, living hard in Detroit. Tom Jefferson is a believer/you can’t plant winter vegetables if you aren’t. . .
Shortly before his death in 2015, Philip Levine became America’s poet laureate. But no matter how high he rose, he remembered the night shift. “If my people, Cipriano Mera and Tom Jefferson, acquire the significance of saints and heroes, well, that's wonderful. They are my saints and heroes.”
THANKS TO NEIGHBOR, FRIEND, AND POET PAUL MARIANI FOR SHARING HIS “CONVERSATION WITH PHILIP LEVINE”