Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
Philip Levine (luh-VEEN) is a poet of the city, in particular of one city, the blue-collar workers’ city of Detroit. Levine himself was born, raised, and educated in Detroit, and he worked “a succession of stupid jobs” in a variety of factories, side by side with the voiceless men and women whose lives he later celebrated so eloquently and elegiacally through the poetry of song. In “Silent in America,” a poem from Levine’s first collection, On the Edge, the Walt Whitman line “Vivas for those who have failed” serves as an epigraph not only for that poem but for the bulk of Levine’s body of work.
Much of Levine’s poetry serves as a medium through which he memorializes “those who have failed.” Levine recalled that “While I was working in factories and trying to write . . . I said to myself, ‘Nobody is writing the poetry of this world here . . .’ And I sort of took a vow to myself . . . I was going to do it . . . I was going to write the poetry of these people.” As he writes in “A Walk with Tom Jefferson” Levine takes the reader into a “world with only/ three seasons. . ./ one to get tired, one to get/ old, one to die.” Levine is a tour guide into the nightshift of human suffering, where, as he writes in “Sweet Will,” the body is broken down and beaten, “sad tales of men/ who let the earth break them back,/ each one, to dirty blood and bloody dirt.” It would be reductive and misleading to define Levine’s work as the poetry of anger and decay, but it is true that his best work is born out of frustration and rage. In his poetry, however, Levine transforms and ultimately enriches the failed lives he is writing about, giving them a power and dignity and grace they may not inherently possess. This is especially true of poems written after the publication of They Feed They Lion, a book whose title poem is an incantation of “the acids of rage” that spawned the Detroit riot of 1967. In this poem he celebrates the anger of uprising, and for Levine the act of such celebration ultimately becomes an act of burning devotion, a gesture of joy and love. Out of the ashes of such a book, in the books that followed, Levine’s impulse began to shift toward a lyrical tenderness, a narrative merging of memory and personal myth, in which themes of death, regeneration, and rebirth take deep root.
The death of Levine’s father, in 1933, when Levine was five, marked a noticeable turning point in Levine’s growth as a poet. In 1933, which succeeded They Feed They Lion, he appears as a poet who, instead of being obsessed with failed lives, now has turned his eye to “a black man whose/ name I have forgotten who danced/ all night at Chevy/ Gear & Axle.” Such poems reflect the shift toward an inner landscape in which Levine can include, embrace, remember those who gave him his name. Here, too, however, Levine’s poems speak of the eternal and of the universal. In poems like “1933” and “Letters to the Dead” Levine’s eye and voice is bold and wide-sweeping, as seen in the line “all the dead fathers fall out of heaven/ and begin again. . . .” Here, too, Levine remains true to his aim, as he defines it in “Silent in America,” to speak and give voice to the “ugly/ who had no chance,/ the beautiful in/ body, the used and the unused,/ those who had courage/ and those who quit—.” Levine’s is a sensibility and a vision born out of a particular time and place: Detroit just before mid-century. It is this world that Levine inherited from his parents and continues to pass down to those willing to bear his lyrical gifts.
Philip Levine left Detroit in 1953, but, like a contemporary Orpheus, he cannot keep himself from looking back to the landscape that shaped his sensibility and to the city that put its stamp on all his poetry. In What Work Is, which won the 1992 National Book Award, and The Simple Truth, which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize, and The Mercy, Levine continues to celebrate lives that have been boxed in by work and to make poetry out of the daily bread of everyday working people, giving voice to those who are too often silenced by the day-to-day. In his poetry he rescues their own words—all the poems waiting to be told—from being swallowed by the sound of the “great presses slamming/ home, the roar of earth/ striking the fired earth.”
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