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Poet Philip Levine Recalls Life at the Factory

January 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown profiles Philip Levine, a former auto worker who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now a very different auto story, through poetry.

PHILIP LEVINE, poet: We stand in the rain and a long line waiting at Ford Highland Park for work. You know what work is. If you’re old enough to read this, you know what work is, although you may not do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 82, Philip Levine is author of some 20 volumes of verse and one of the nation’s most honored poets, with a Pulitzer and numerous other prizes. But he started life in Detroit working in auto plants, sometimes waiting in line for a job, as he describes in his poem “What Work Is.”

PHILIP LEVINE: This is about waiting, shifting from one foot to another, feeling the light rain falling like mist into your hair, blurring your vision, until you think you see your own brother ahead of you, maybe 10 places.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, these feel familiar to you?

Levine recently joined me at the Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York. He had written an essay for an exhibition of photographs by Andrew Moore that capture a lost world of Detroit: an old school, homes, and factories including Ford’s River Rouge plant, where Levine himself once worked.

PHILIP LEVINE: When I was a young guy working in these places and didn’t see a way out as yet — and I certainly didn’t think the way out would be poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: What were you doing?

PHILIP LEVINE: Usually, five people would take an enormous piece of hot steel, which four of us would hold with tongs, and put it into a huge press. What it was, I didn’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

PHILIP LEVINE: No, I didn’t know. I remember a young guy from West Virginia, a young kid. And he said to me, what are we making? That’s what he said to me. What are we making? And I said, I’m making $2.15 an hour. I have no idea what you’re making.

PHILIP LEVINE: He said, no, no, what are we making out of this here metal? And I said to him, I don’t know. I never asked.

And I called the foreman over, whose name was Lonnie. I have such strong memories of these things. Lonnie, what are we making with this here metal? You know, he said something like, stop screwing off and get back to work.

PHILIP LEVINE: And I wondered…

JEFFREY BROWN: Don’t ask questions, yes.

PHILIP LEVINE: I wondered if he knew.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what was poetry, then? I mean, where did the poetry come from?

PHILIP LEVINE: No one knows where poetry comes from. I had been writing poetry from the age of 14. It was just something I loved doing. I loved language. I — I recognized that I had a facility for it. My teachers praised me to the skies, which was wonderful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Levine graduated from Wayne State University and left the auto plants behind. He taught at Fresno State in California for many years, and he and his wife, Franny (ph), now divide their time between Fresno and New York.

You have kept writing about Detroit to this day. You have kept writing about work. Did — did that become a kind of mission, almost, if that’s the right word?

PHILIP LEVINE: Well, one thing I was struck by very young, in my middle 20s, very young, was that I didn’t see any work, written work, about this experience — as far as poetry, zero. So, I actually did at one time say to myself, hey, there’s a whole world here no one has touched.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this should be a subject for poetry?

PHILIP LEVINE: It should be there. Yes, it should be there. My attitude toward the work changed enormously over the years. At the time, I hated it. When, I would say, in my late 30s and early 40s, I realized that this world I thought was going to stop me from writing a — writing a decent body of poetry had in fact become central to my writing poetry.

And I began to feel that I was really, in some ways, very fortunate, especially meeting the people that I met.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of your poems tell stories about people from the past and work. There’s one even in the current collection, “An Extraordinary Morning.”

Would you read the beginning of that?

PHILIP LEVINE: Sure.

“An Extraordinary Morning.”

Two young men, you just might call them boys, waiting for the Woodward streetcar to get them downtown, yes, they’re tired. They’re also dirty and happy, happy because they have finished a short workweek. And, if they’re not rich, they’re as close to rich as they will ever be in this town.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the decades, Philip Levine has written about many subjects and places. Engaged with politics and events around him, he writes, as he titled his most recent book, the news of the world.

We started out talking about your life in the factories. Many years later, you have made a life as a poet. Does that surprise you?

PHILIP LEVINE: Oh, God, yes. Oh, I mean, I’m stunned.

One of the things that made it happen was pure luck. On my 26th birthday, I met my present wife. And how many women could stay with a guy who has no prospects and wants to write poetry and stay with him now 55 years?

Sometimes, she worked, so that I can sit home and scribble. And she honors what I’m doing. And I think that is the most crucial thing, to be honored, as a poet, even if it — not by a nation, because a nation is an abstraction, but just to be honored by this person, or that person, or especially by your wife, or your brothers, or your mother, father, I mean, it’s just fantastic. It keeps you going in a way that nothing else could keep you going.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Philip Levine, nice to talk to you.

PHILIP LEVINE: Thank you.