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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Philip Levine, 1928–2015

 The Paris Review on Phillip Levine


Philip Levine, 1928–2015

February 15, 2015 | by
We were saddened to learn that Philip Levine died yesterday at eighty-seven. The U.S. poet laureate from 2011 to 2012, he composed poems that were, as Margalit Fox writes in the New York Times, “vibrantly, angrily, and often painfully alive with the sound, smell, and sinew of heavy manual labor.”
Levine grew up in industrial Detroit during the Depression; the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he worked factory jobs for Cadillac and for Chevrolet. “You could recite poems aloud in there,” he told The Paris Review in 1988 of his time on the assembly line. “The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear.”
His time in those jobs would later inform one of his most enduring poems, “They Feed They Lion,” from the late sixties—you can hear him read it above. Levine explained the title in a 1999 interview with The Atlantic:
I was working alongside a guy in Detroit—a black guy named Eugene—when I was probably about twenty-four. He was a somewhat older guy, and we were sorting universal joints, which are part of the drive shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who’d then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in—burlap sacks—and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words “Detroit Municipal Zoo.” And he laughed, and said, “They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.” That’s exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy’s a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn’t speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit—I’d gone back to the city to see what had happened—somehow I thought of that line. “There’s a poem there,” I said. “But I don’t know what it is. And I’m just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=A3dG1Ewr9XI

In Levine’s best work, the political, the personal, and the poetical seem less intertwined than indivisible: his great subject may have been, as he put it, “the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit.”

American poetry needs this kind of advocacy more than ever—with Levine’s death, it’s lost one of its most intense, elegantly strident voices.

 

 

Cited...

The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau