When 83-year-old Detroit-born poet Philip Levine spoke in Gaston Hall yesterday evening, the event was part of a the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor’s “Labor Lab” series. Levine, who is currently serving as the United States’s Poet Laureate for 2011-2012, was chosen for this series because of the famous and compelling poetry he has written about his years spent working at various industrial jobs in Detroit. However, Levine, who left industrial work for academia over five decades ago, made it clear that he is not the poetic mouthpiece of the American worker.
“I’m nobody’s voice,” he said. “I’m me.”
This kind of attitude about poetry and his success at it, whereby writing a good poem is more akin to getting struck by lightning than to consciously trying to make a political statement, characterized Levine’s entire speech, which was also, despite his sometimes heavy subject matter, punctuated with multiple moments of humor (hearing an octogenarian say “bullshit” into a microphone is always good for a laugh or two). Levine’s talk, which also included a discussion with NPR book critic and Georgetown critic-in-residence and lecturer Dr. Maureen Corrigan, left the audience with the idea that our Poet Laureate is not only an immeasurably gifted writer, but also a pretty cool guy.
Levine alternated speaking about his life, family, work, and inspiration with readings of selected poems from his collections. The first three of these poems—entitled “Fear and Fame,” “Coming Close,” and “What Work Is”—all chronicle different experiences of the Detroit industrial worker. “What Work Is” proves particularly effective, as it delivers images of men waiting in line for work, their isolation from their families, and the devastation they feel when the man in charge decides not to take any workers “for any reason he wants.” Reading his own poetry aloud, Levine’s vocal inflection was chillingly effective, and further demonstrated why his works about labor are so highly regarded.
The poet also chronicled his transformation from factory worker to academic, which he decided to do when an uncle told him to “live on [his] wits.” He was a professor of English at California State University, Fresno, and said of the experience that “teaching was not like working.”
“You sat there and lied to people,” he continued with a laugh. “It was a gas!”
He added that, although he stopped doing manual labor at 27 and did not write a satisfactory poem about it until he was at least 35, he considers his years in factory work as a gift (“not a from General Motors, they don’t give anything away”), as they brought him a sense of community, love for his fellow workers, and character that he always felt was lacking in academia. These points felt most on par with the ideas that the Kalmanovitz Initiative, which aims at “[developing] creative ideas and practical solutions for working people that are grounded in a commitment to justice, democracy, and the common good.”
The Kalmanovitz Initiative’s next event is an “Occupy DC Learn-In” next Monday, November 14, in McPherson Square. During the discussion period of yesterday’s event, Dr. Corrigan asked Levine if he had been to any of the Occupy movement’s branches, and how he used his position as Poet Laureate to inspire or help the occupiers. Levine explained that he did pay a visit to Occupy Wall Street, but did not get the glorious welcome that many would expect.
“I told one guy,” he said of his job as Poet Laureate. “He said ‘yeah, right.’”
Photo from the Kalmanovitz Initiative.