Remembering Philip Levine, writer of poetic odes to honest work

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: remembering the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former poet laureate PhilipLevine.

He died this weekend from pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. Levine, who worked as an autoworker in Detroit, wrote with distinction about working-class life in the industrial heartland. He eventually published more than 20 volumes of verse and earned a place as one of the country's honored poets.

Jeffrey Brown profiled him in 2010. Here's a look.

It starts with Levine reading one of his poems about waiting in line for factory work.

PHILIP LEVINE, Poet: "We stand in the rain in 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. 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."

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.

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.

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.

JEFFREY BROWN: 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.

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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can watch the full profile online, plus find more videos of Levine discussing and reading his work. That's at PBS.org/NewsHour.