In Philip Levine’s long “A Poem with No Ending,” one finds a clue to undersanding not only this collection but also his impressive canon of eleven full-length collections, including most recently SELECTED POEMS. In the last stanza, the speaker--who has been recollecting his life, from childhood to the present--concludes: “I/ see in the ocean of memory/ the shore birds going out and nothing coming back..../ I see beyond/ the dark this distant sky breaking/ into color and each wave taking/ shape and rising landward.”
For more than twenty-five years, Levine’s world has been the “ocean of memory"; again and again he has gone out, looked “beyond/ the dark distant sky” of the human interior, bringing back with him a vision shaped in the language of a poem that is uniquely and distinctly Philip Levine’s. Over and over, he shows us the importance of memory, not of what we make with our lives but what we make of our lives, ordinary and simple though they may be.
No other poet--except for James Wright in his Ohio Valley poems and a relatively unknown poet, Peter Oresick--has written of the American working class with much clarity, dignity, and empathy. Far from being romanticized or idealized, Levine’s workers are drawn in all their anger, frustration, and hopelessness of their dreams. By giving a voice to those who have none, Levine strengthens all our voices. Equivalents of Levine’s poems can be found in the paintings of Jean-Francois Millet and Jules Breton; the portraits from Vincent Van Gogh’s “Dutch period,” including “The Potato Eaters"; and Lewis Hine’s documentary photographs of immigrant laborers. The value of workers and their lives and the accompanying urban melancholy constitute major themes in Levine’s poetry, themes too often neglected in art, and about which no one writes with more conviction.