Although they are rarely linked in anthologies or literary histories, a group of poets—a chronological cluster akin to a generation—who are rarely thought of as having very much in common have flowered at the same time and have been working steadily to create a distinguished, impressive individual oeuvre. What they share is a distinctive personal voice, an individual sense of language and form, a vision of society that permits a moral critique, and a resistance to trends and temporary fashions. Foremost among these attributes is the specificity of voice that each poet has achieved, so that a particular kind of poem is suggested when one thinks of Robert Creeley, James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, or Gary Snyder. This is a formidable array of practicing poets, all born between 1926 and 1930, and the publication of Philip Levine’s What Work Is argues for his inclusion among them.
Levine’s poetry has had a low public profile partly because of the apparently prosaic lives of the laborers he writes about and partly because of the immediate clarity and directness of his work. There has been little for the academic world to dissect, and even when a critic such as Richard Gray attempts to praise Levine by pointing out that “simplicity of speech is not always synonymous with simplification of attitude,” there is an implication that “simple” speech is less likely to generate great (or complex) poetry than some form of literary language. As Charles Molesworth has observed in The Fierce Embrace: A study of Contemporary American Poetry (1979), Levine’s poetry is located in a “world built on unremarkable personal survival,” where the “singing victims” of modern blight—“rootless and condemned to limited living space”—are shown “looking hard at hard facts.” From his first books,On The Edge (1963) and Not This Pig (1968), Levine has taken as his central subject first- generation Americans employed in the great industrial tracts of the Detroit-area auto industry. They have been given direction by the stem of a recent European past, and they are pressed toward the rut of an unremitting future by economic necessity. Levine is able to discover and present surprising sources of strength, instances of unanticipated eloquence, and a resilient reaction to numbing drudgery in the lives of people he has known on the streets and in the factories of an industrial heartland. The poems he has written about them are “more threnody than complaint…more invocation than lament,” as Molesworth contends. Levine begins by looking hard at hard facts and then extends the range of his vision so that a quietly triumphant lyricism emerges amid the often laconic mode of a poetry that is essentially narrative in structure.
Part of the reason for this narrative form, which includes frequent reproductions of snatches of speech, is an inherent distrust on the part of the subjects of the poems for any version of “literary” discourse—the too-glib formulation of the visitor educated outside the working environment whose styles of expression might betray the experience. Because of this concern, Levine does not generally write particularly striking or separately quotable lines (although “not this pig” is almost an epigraph for an epoch). Levine is, however, capable of developing a mood of considerable intensity through the subtle manipulation of modes of speech, and when he wants to use a more rhetorical technique, he can match most of his peers.
In addition to What Work Is, Levine also published New Selected Poemsin 1991, and the retrospect this selection affords emphasizes the two dominant strains in his poetry. One is the accurate rendering of the lives of the local people of his neighborhood and working environment in Michigan. “I try to pay homage to the people who taught me my life was a holy thing,” Levine has said, and in writing about the world of work and about his attempt to find his own place there, Levine has created a strategy for demonstrating the dignity that preserves humanity in dehumanizing situations. The other strain might be traced to his 1974 collection 1933, a volume commemorating the year his father “entered the kingdom of roots.” While Levine has said that he prefers those poems best where “the speaker is clearly not me,” more and more of his most recent poems have been devoted to tracing the origins of consciousness, and in What Work Is, this tendency has reached a kind of fruition in which several long, autobiographical explorations stand among his strongest efforts.
The confident assertion contained in the title is a summary of the focus of his intentions, as well as an interesting echo of Gary Snyder’s “The Real Work.” Levine might be seen as an urban equivalent to Snyder’s role as a practioner of the wild—a laureate of American industrial labor. Like Synder, he is concerned with a larger conception of “work” beyond the waiting and repetition of many crushing jobs. As Richard Tillinghast expresses it, Levine’s task is to redefine work. “Real work involves the effort,” Tillinghast explains, “to become fully human.” This means that an attachment must be made to a larger conception of the universe than one’s own...
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