Sometimes you get lucky. This was a long time ago. When the 1991 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were about to be announced, an editor assigned me to write an appreciation of the book that won the poetry prize: What Work Is, by Philip Levine. It would also win a National Book Award later that year. Now Levine has been appointed poet laureate by the Library of Congress, and suddenly, as you’d expect, everybody is writing about him.
There’s a profile by Jessica Goldstein in The Washington Post; not one but two stories in The New York Times, one by Charles McGrath and another by Dwight Garner. NPR has taken note, of course, with a report by Bill Chappell. Even that bastion of culture, the Boston Herald, ran with a McClatchy wire story by Donald Munro, which has the distinction of a Fresno, Calif., dateline. (Fresno is Levine’s adopted hometown.)
Although Levine is most closely associated with Detroit, where he was born and raised, the Detroit newspapers apparently didn’t care much about the appointment. For whatever reason, notwithstanding the fact that the city has also served as a major subject of his poetry, neither paper went out of its way for the story. The Detroit News ran Munro’s piece, which originated at The Fresno Bee, and the Detroit Free Press ran a wire-staff story without a byline.
Anyway, this is the appreciation I wrote a lifetime ago.
1991 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZES
POETRY: Of Purgatory, Redemption
November 3, 1991
By JAN HERMAN | Times Staff Writer
Philip Levine, no prodigy, wrote poetry for seven years before his first poem was published in his mid-20s. It took another nine before his first slim volume, On the Edge, appeared in 1963. But by then, at age 35, he’d emerged from his native Detroit with a dark vision unmistakably his own and a tuned-up voice as angry as it was tender:
Stand in the last moments of
The city, no more a child,
Only a man,–one who has
Looked upon his own nakedness
Without shame, and in defeat
Has seen nothing to bless.
(From “The Turning”)
An admiring X. J. Kennedy, in a prescient review, noted that the book’s virtues were “hard to make too much of”–though, in fact, few people did at the time. Even Levine’s devoted small-press publisher lacked the sort of resources to make too much of them. The first edition of On the Edge came to just 220 hand-printed copies.
Things have changed since then. Levine–who moved to Fresno in 1957, where he continues to live–has gained wide notice with about 14 other volumes of poetry to date. His second, Not This Pig, got the ball rolling. By mid-career, The Names of the Lost, Ashes, and 7 Years From Somewhere racked up some of the most coveted prizes around.
And, it turns out, he has found much to bless–not in quiescent benediction but in eloquent requital of society’s throw-aways, the voiceless legion of factory stiffs and others made marginal by various depredations of the 20th century.
Perhaps his friend, critic Edward Hirsch, put it best a couple of years ago when he called Levine “a poet of the night shift, a late ironic Whitman of our industrial heartland, a Romantic anarchist who repeatedly proclaims, ‘Vivas for those who failed…’ ”
The description still applies. Levine’s latest collection, What Work Is, illuminates that elegiac impulse with more vigor than ever in its continuing embrace of the people, places and themes that have always obsessed him. Its 25 poems, though dense with life’s debris, are a passionate affirmation.
While all of Levine’s poems are linked organically in a train of memories from book to book, What Work Is seems to complete a cycle begun in A Walk With Thomas Jefferson, the immediately preceding volume and very much a companion to this one. Work picks up where the long title poem of Walk left off like an unresolved musical chord amid the fiery images of the forge room at Chevy Gear & Axle.
What Work Is begins and ends with two immersions, totally different baptisms, if you will, in mediums that are emblematic of Levine’s experience. The opening poem, “Fear and Fame,” describes how he used to don a suit of armor (protective hip boots, visored helmet and respirator to keep his lungs from searing) at Feinberg and Breslin’s First-Rate Plumbing and Plating:
I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes . . .
. . . A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
By contrast, the concluding poem, “The Seventh Summer,” describes a city boy’s brief glimpse of rural life and the rare pleasure of dunking in the town swimming hole:
I remember best how sweet was the lake water
we swam in, how I could even swallow
little gulps of it and not feel ill . . .
It is between these two polar memories–the purgatory of the factory and the redemption of nature–that the book dives into Levine’s perennial subjects: lost innocence, urban decay, the loyalty of friends, the dignity of survival, life in California’s Central Valley, family relations, definitions of love, humbling death.
All of the poems, written with the spare narrative grace that is a hallmark of his style, possess as much personal warmth as ever. Many are flecked with reminders of the sardonic temperament that has also characterized his writing from the beginning. “I was about to say something final,” he notes of “autumn’s arrival” near Fresno, “something suitable for bronzing.”
He can be cynical even while deep in nostalgia. For instance, recounting a 1947 New Year’s Eve celebration at a Detroit hotel, he mocks his own effort to remember the details. In the meantime, he laments the demise of the city he once loved with a description that fits most if not all the derelict downtowns of rust-belt America. (Spring Street, are you listening?) Only the particulars are different:
The Book Cadillac is still going,
though it smells
like a steam bath, and the rooms
are tiny and gray.
(Down the boulevard the Statler,
boarded over and serene,
did not compromise, the Fox
Theatre around the corner–
a rip-off of the great mosque of
a car park, and even the bus
station got up one morning
and moved to the suburbs.)
(from “Coming of Age in Michigan”)
Unlike Galway Kinnell, one of his favorite poets, Levine does not embroider his poems with voluptuous language. He never has. He comes out of the plain-spoken tradition of William Carlos Williams, with bows to Robert Penn Warren and Kenneth Patchen, Hardy and Yeats, and, of course, to old Walt.
But if you had to pick the one salient feature that makes What Work Is a great read, it is the fact that the poems tell stories. Virtually every one of them–including the long, free-flowing meditation “Burned,” which comprises an entire section of the book–holds your interest with a tale. Levine, who turns 64 in January, is a full-blown master of that deceptively simple art, and because of it he’s a poet bound to be read many years from now.
The poet is now 83, still writing and still being read.
Postscript: Jed Birmingham is having none of it. He messages:
Levine and the poet laureate position is the same old same old. The guy is 83 for Christ’s sake and his poetry comes from a tradition that skews even older. How are you going to get young people interested in poetry like that. Speaking of small press, if Levine didn’t appear in the likes of San Francisco Earthquake I am not interested.
As for Detroit, where is Levine really coming from? It sure isn’t John Sinclair and the Detroit Artists Workshop, Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press, Ken Mikolowski and the Alternative Press, the MC5, the Stooges, Creem, the Fifth Estate, and god help us Ted Nugent of Amboy Dukes fame.
Glad you wrote on him years ago instead of piling on now he is poet laureate, which is like Groundhog’s Day for poets. One day for poets to come out of their hole and see the sunshine of the media spotlight. Levine is a shadow of what poetry can be; another year of winter I guess. It is a shame; poetry is more important than that.
PPS: Aug. 12 — Yes, it’s Groundhog Day for this poet . . .
“To say nothing of the first edition/rare book market,” Jed B. retorts. “Those prices just shot up as well. It really is a racket.” A racket for rare book dealers, that is. Levine gets nada from those sales, unless he has a stash of his own first editions that he wants to dump. Which I doubt. But if he does, more power to him.