The Courage of Philip Levine
In some countries a newly honored poet laureate would make the news. The United States is not one of those countries. Maybe this is the fault of US poets themselves. Are they simply content to cultivate their coteries, as if establishing their mutual admiration societies comprises the extent of their ambition? Or maybe they fear celebrity as tacky and a sign of their aesthetic delinquency?
Philip Levine has just been named US Poet Laureate, a post he will hold for a year. [i] As poets go, he is well known. His twenty-odd books, his Pulitzer and his other awards, over the 83 years of his life, have earned him about as much recognition as any living US poet. Furthermore, he has been characterized as a “working-class poet,” because his most famous poems evoke the life of the industrial proletariat and that certainly sets him apart with a unique voice.
Levine’s poems of working life in his hometown Detroit, where he lived until his late 20’s appear nostalgic, for those who listen with half an ear. The industrial proletariat Levine knew in his youth, of course vanished when automation and off-shoring took hold in the 60s. And his poems recall the age of cathedral-sized factories with an army of drones toiling amidst giant machines that drowned them in noise, and boredom. But there is no nostalgia here; Levine would be the last to mourn the departure of these awful workhouses. His authentic proletarian voice registers disgust with factory work, while depicting the workers as noble precisely for their resilience to their daily drudgery.
The subtlety of this perspective may escape those who don’t recognize the modern industrial system as another enclosure, an enslavement of the producers and a debilitation of their creativity. These may be “the good paying union jobs” some dream will return, if only the correct federal policy could be enacted to “bring back industry to our shores,” but they forget that while these were good paying jobs they were also lousy jobs. The workers’ solidarity made it possible for them to extract a high wage for their submission to bosses and union bureaucrats.
It need not have been the bargain. The advances in technology that automated the auto plants beginning in the 50s and that exploded worker productivity out the roof never really benefitted the workers. Instead of making their lives more tolerable by reducing their hours, with the same pay, to take advantage of their increased productivity, the assembly line workers experienced speed-ups to generate even more profits for the corporate bosses.
Detroit’s massive industrial machine built the fourth largest city in the US during WWII. By the middle of the century two million people lived in Detroit and it had America’s largest number of unionized industrial workers. Today, Detroit with one-third of that population is the world’s model of a de-industrialized urban wilderness.
Philip Levine recently wrote an essay to accompany Andrew Moore’s amazing oversized photo album, Detroit Disassembled [ii] that documents abandoned buildings, empty neighborhoods and the prairie’s reclamation of the environment. In that essay he tells a tale of survival as recounts a meeting, almost thirty years ago, with Tom, a former autoworker who now in his old age gardens the empty lot across from his home. Levine memorialized this meeting in a poem titled A Walk with Tom Jefferson.[iii]
Tom displays a quiet pride in his large garden though Levine depicts a man deeply saddened, as is Levine, with the slow motion collapse of his neighborhood and the city at large. Tom talks about the feral dog packs, the wasted homes and of all those who left for a better life elsewhere. “Nothing lasts forever,” says Levine. “Nothing lasts,” says Tom.
Levine’s vignette complements Moore’s outstanding photos of urban decomposition and wildness, by both humans, in stripping valuable metals from buildings to reveal their structural skeletons, and by nature – a resurgent, if not revengeful, flora carpets a room with moss, raises a tree out of a molding pile of books and generally reconstitutes the prairie everywhere.
Andrew Moore writes:
Formerly manicured courtyards have become impassable forests, trees sprout from cornices of office buildings, and former living rooms lie suspended in the rising undergrowth. Perhaps this re-ruralization is a sign of hope. Detroit has become an open city repopulated by trees, grasses, moss, and pheasants. Its emptiness is an invitation to wander and reflect upon new and radical solutions for the Detroit of the future.
The Motto of Detroit coming out of its destructive fire of 1805 is Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus – “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”
Some might take this motto as a sardonic epitaph, if they didn’t know that Detroit has a vibrant group of community organizers like the legendary Grace Lee Boggs [iv]who are, among other things, actively incorporating gardeners like Tom into a cross generational project. These African-American elders of the land are called the “Gardening Angels” and they have been role models for Detroit’s youth for decades. The obstacles they and others face in Detroit – to create change – are enormous, but they fight on by holding to a vision that Levine, in some other poems, not so well received, understands and expresses.
These poems of vision, that fewer wish to discuss, speak to Levine’s deep admiration for the Spanish anarchists, especially those who fought in Catalonia, where Barcelona is located. It may seem odd that a Jewish Detroit ex-auto worker has an affection for the defenders of a city in a Catholic country one-third of the way across the world. It is not so strange when you learn that Levine knew young men (some ten years older than himself) in the 30s who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
The Names of the Lost is dedicated to Buenaventura Durruti,[v] the anarchist fighter who was renowned for liberating Spanish villages of their overlords, and besides the several poems that eulogize the anarchists who died for their beliefs, there is a poem in honor of Chilean poets, including the singer/songwriter Victor Jara, killed by Pinochet.
Focusing on this side of Levine’s work may seem like raising the charge of nostalgia all over again, with even more relevance for how can we not imagine the Spanish anarchists as anything other but heroes, if not terrorists, of another long gone age. For Levine though, it is not nostalgic to recognize and contemplate those who put into practice their visions of a better society; after all those who fought Franco, especially in Catalonia,[vi] were not simply anti-fascists, they where revolutionaries who were running all aspects of life in Barcelona.
Vision can sink into nostalgic reverie when one believes that it has no meaning for us today. I have no idea what Levine thinks of the latest eruption of vision across the world. But what else motivates the unbelievable uprisings we see across North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe? [vii]
And what in the consumerist West do we have with the latest insurrectionary eruptions in England but vision denied? Vision is not another name for hope, it is another name for what follows from hope in action. Or vision in its passive form is hope but in its active form is courage.
This article is one of the best on Levine, written by Lee Siegel.
A good video about the whole project with Moore.
The best online source for both biography and links to poems.
“Durruti . . . symbolised in his person the struggle of the revolutionary workers and peasants of Spain.”
[vi] Orwell wrote about the Civil War in his Homage to Catalonia. Here’s a review: http://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/reviews/books/0-15-642117-8.html
And for the movie version see this:
[vii] I like Mohammed Bamyeh’s comments and analysis. Here is his latest and his earlier comments are linked at the end of this article: