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July 28, 2010

Poet Reflects on Working in Detroit’s Factories

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Pulitzer prize-winning poet Philip Levine didn’t always make a living writing verse; as a young man, he worked in Detroit’s then-booming auto factories. Today, he writes about life in Detroit during his boyhood, and about what it means to work.

Levine left Detroit to study and eventually teach, but he never forgot about his life in the factories. He says that although he’s surprised he made it as a poet, he couldn’t have succeeded without the support of his wife and family, who honored his work.

Levine’s most recent project is an essay he wrote about photographer Andrew Moore’s pictures of Detroit’s lost world: an old school, homes, and factories including Ford’s River Rouge plant, where Levine himself once worked.


“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 recognized that I had a facility for it.” – Poet Philip Levine

“I think that is the most crucial thing, to be honored, as a poet — 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.” – Poet Philip Levine

Warm Up Questions

1. What is poetry?

2. What type of industry is Detroit best known for?

3. What is Detroit like today?

Discussion Questions

1. Levine says it’s crucial to be “honored” for the work that you do. Do you feel that’s important? Why or why not?

2. If you were to pick something in your hometown to write poetry about, what would it be? Why?

3. How do you define “work”? What does it mean to work, in your opinion?

Additional Resources

Video Transcript

NewsHour Poetry Series

A Tough Road Ahead for Detroit, Other Industrial Metropolises

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