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 Poems in 1991, and the retrospect this selection affords emphasizes the two dominant strains in his poetry. One is the accurate rendering...
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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 community, to what Snyder calls the “interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting” aspect of existence. Levine is now in his seventh decade, and the reflective, somewhat philosophic element of his poetry that has always been present in his attempts to understand political evil has became as important as the examination and presentation of the rigors of labor.
Many of his latest poems are cast in a meditative mood, and their evident solidity is both a product of Levine’s fierce concentration on his field, with the consequent refinement of attention through maturity, and a result of the form he has chosen for their presentation. The poems are often from thirty to fifty lines and written in a solid block, with no indentations or stanzaic breaks. Even the lightest ones are tightly constructed, holding attention without (or needing) release. The effect of their formal arrangement is a substantiality that invests them with gravity, a quality reinforced by the double focus developed through an “I” narration that occurs both in the present of the poems and in the reviewing mind of the poet.
In the poems that deal specifically with people at work in conjunction with machines and chemicals, Levine’s powers of description remain at their peak. “Consider the arms as they press the long brass tube against the buffer, they are striated along the triceps, the three heads of which clearly show,” he writes in “Coming Close.” As image after image of the woman at work occurs in a lucid series, Levine pulls the white-collar professional into the realm of the polishing machine (“You must come closer to find out”), attracting the outsider by going beyond the curiosity of difference to make the experience so vivid and personal that empathy is possible. The poem concludes with the woman’s hidden but constant need to understand her life. “Why?” hovers as a question for both worker and reader, and the reader’s consideration has been rewarded by an insight that is permanent, if unsettling.
Poems containing similarly effective descriptive passages are never merely tableaus or records. In “Fear and Fame,” Levine recalls his job in a pickling plant with a mixture of fascination and revulsion, using the metaphor of the master chef or the alchemist to register the psychological effect of the job as an outgrowth of its procedures. The inevitable transition to a mind- set that permits the terrible repetition of assembly-line work is tellingly revealed in “Every Blessed Day,” while the mock-ironic “Gin” sets the trials of a demeaning job alongside the trials of an unfulfilling cultural climate (“Richard Nixon with his wife and dog”) as the condition that makes it a necessity to escape from consciousness into a narcotized stupor.
While Levine has commented that he likes those poems best “in which the speaker is clearly not me,” the accumulation of experience over time has given him compelling reasons to explore the range of his own life. After spending his first three decades in Michigan and on the road, Levine moved to Fresno, California, where he has been teaching and writing since 1958. The contrast between his social milieu in recent times and the country of his youth, as well as that between his European background and the popular culture of the United States, has raised questions that he noted previously but has just begun to examine in depth. His subject has expanded from an incisive account of “men and women I met as an industrial worker and bum in America” to a rendering of their locale and a search for mythic meanings that reveal some larger pattern or purpose in human existence. In poems such as the long, autobiographical “Burned,” a kind of proto- Paterson or modified Maximus seems to be developing in a chain of fragments of recollection. It is as if Levine, in mid-passage, is taking stock of his life, measuring, as Charles Olson did in “Maximus, to Himself,” another poem driven by the fear that one is “testing/ And missing/ some proof.” The units of measure in “My Grave” are those things, physical and metaphysical, that contribute to the formation of the essential self:
My enormous feet that carried me safely
through thirty cities, my tongue
that stroked and restroked your cheek
roughly until you said “Cat.” My poems,
my lies, my few kept promises, my love
for morning sunlight and dusk, my love
for women and the children of women,
my guiding star and the star I wore
for twenty seven years.
This awestruck poem, one of Levine’s finest, enumerates all those things that are not buried in “a filled hole of earth.” In opposition to the totally physical, a reduction of dimension that is the ultimate thief of human value, Levine has compiled a catalog of qualities that transcends earthly boundaries. The subject is the spiritual life of a man, even the nature of the eternal soul, and while Levine rarely makes an explicit statement about his beliefs, poems such as this one, or “Snails,” which envisions small natural signs as all the evidence one has (or needs?) of heaven, are convincing testimony of a poet’s witness to some cosmic plan unclear but palpable. But since Levine has always grounded his poetry in the things of this world, he also cites “The Right Cross,” the classic expression of self-defense and mind-body unity, as another example of a human connection to a larger sphere. In this poem, a physical gesture of perfection enables the poet to reach for the heart of the cosmos and to speak his heart’s truth:
When it lands
you feel the force of your whole body,
even the deeper organs, the dark fluids
that go untapped for decades, the tiny
pale microbes haunting the bone marrow,
the intricate patterns that devised
the bones of the feet, you feel them
finally coming together
Levine’s echo of and homage to Yeats, entitled “Among Children,” is an example of his concerns “finally coming together” in a masterful coalescence of qualities. Placing himself, as Yeats did, in the company of a new generation, Levine sums up his vocation as a man and an artist by declaring his desire to “arm each one/ with a quiver of arrows” so that they, as he before them, can combat the crushing forces of the factory through the strength of the human imagination fired by the power of language. Whereas Yeats’s children were taught “to cipher and to sing,/ To study reading-books and history,/ To cut and sew,” Levine sees children, who are already “sleeping through fourth grade/ so as to be ready for what is ahead,/ the monumental boredom of junior high.” Levine, like Yeats, puts his poetry in the service of the children’s reclamation, wishing to invigorate their tired teacher so that “her gowns streaming/ with light, her foolish words transformed/ into song,” she can share some of the fire that carried him through similar conditions. This, for Levine, is the most worthwhile work he can do. In the poem’s conclusion, he envisions himself “gone into smoke or memory” (like Yeats to Byzantium, perhaps), leaving a legacy that is “all I know, all I will never know.” This strophe parallels Yeats’s conundrum, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” in a stanza that fittingly begins “Labour is blossoming or dancing.…” The wording of the line also recalls John Keats’s contentions about Truth and Beauty. To place oneself in such company is the grandest of ambitions; to belong there is the greatest of accomplishments.
Sources for Further Study
The American Poetry Review. XXI, January, 1992, p. 7.
Booklist. LXXXVII, May 15, 1991, p. 1774.
Boston Globe. September 22, 1991, p. 15.
Library Journal. CXVI, May 1, 1991, p. 79.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 8, 1991, p. 11.
The New Leader. LXXIV, July 15, 1991, p. 17.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, December 8, 1991, p. 7.
San Francisco Chronicle. July 14, 1991, p. REV1.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, July 14, 1991, p. 3.