Thursday, August 11, 2011

Philip Levine is the new Poet Laureate: What Does This Mean For Poetry?

So, Philip Levine is the new Poet Laureate of the United States. From "The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in industrial Detroit. As a young boy in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, he was fascinated by the events of the Spanish Civil War. His heroes were not only those individuals who struggled against fascism but also ordinary folks who worked at hopeless jobs simply to stave off poverty Noted for his interest in the grim reality of blue-collar work and workers, Levine resolved 'to find a voice for the voiceless' while working in the auto plants of Detroit during the 1950s."
What does this mean--a poet laureate resolved "to find a voice for the voiceless"--for the state of poetry in the country? Honestly, probably not much. Nobody seems gives two figs about poetry unless it's funny or raunchy, and with the recent closing of Borders across the country, many people are without the immediate access and impulse buy of poetry. Poets are bicycles in an age of automobiles, written letters in an age of e-mails and texting.
I write this partially in jest, but partially because of what Levine's poetry represents. Unlike some of the previous poet laureates, Levine is a politically charged poet, and while every poem he's written is not necessarily politically motivated, politics--especially class politics and all the resulting themes-- certainly permeate his work. In the same way that poets are seen by many to be antiquated, outdated, needless or even "cute" in our current political and economic situation, Levine's work gives voice to and demands respect those people who are equally ignored or marginalized in society.
Levine is known mainly for his blue collar work, his 1991 What Work Is standing out as possibly his most recognized or well known collection. Featuring lyric and dramatic explorations of working class life, from students in art class bored to tears or young boys stealing and drinking bottle of gin to a man standing in line looking for work or climbing down into a tank with a box of toxins to clean it, Levine's work in this collection provides a vision of life from the laboring class. While some critics argue that he sentimentalizes or patronizes the working class in this text, I challenge any reader of this text to read this book and not feel at times angry, disturbed or even possibly ashamed. Levine does not gloss over the struggles of a blue collar life, nor does he glorify it. His portrayals are raw, often angry, and open like bitter wounds. His poetry does, however, demand attention from its readers, insisting that these lives, too, are poetic.
To pigeonhole Levine as only interested in class politics would be misguided at best. Levine also explores themes of racism in his work, especially his collections A Walk With Tom Jefferson and They Feed They Lion. The title poems of both of these collections, while built around industrial and working class imagery, explore the racist undercurrents of working life, especially the ways in which the powers that been attempt to divide workers against themselves by enforcing stereotypes and instilling racism. In many of his poems, Levine challenges his readers beyond their basic assumptions; by scratching beyond the surface of layered stereotypes and by giving voice to the voiceless, Levine attempts to break down walls within his readers, walls which they sometimes don't even realize exist.
Levine also explores images and themes connected to the Spanish Civil War in his books, especially in his early works. Antifacist and extremely liberal, to the point of being almost anarchic in a political sense, poems in collections Not This Pig and The Names of the Lost read as historical monologues for fallen soldiers, elegizing but also defending their politics and political choices in detail rich verse.
Again, what does this all mean for poetry? I hope that it means poetry in the United States is regaining strength, that the people are hungry for more than clever puns and humorous philosophical musings. I hope it means that young men and women struggling through college, or refusing to go to college because it seems to lack promise, are renewed with an inner strength and determination to work towards a more balanced division of wealth in this country, and that poetry will carry them there. I want someone to tell me it means that men and women will recognize that their lives, too, have meaning even if they are out of work, and that their frustrations will be channeled towards defending that meaning and building it up as opposed to seeking revenge on their own bodies, or those of others, and that poetry will serve to illuminate their path. I want someone to tell me that the halls of academia will ring with scholars seeking new knowledge, learning to question and critique the way their world works, ultimately advancing humanity itself to a greater end, as opposed to merely regurgitating stale lectures and bumper sticker rhetoric, and that poetry will beg these questions. Let me go to an open mike and hear, instead of soundbite rants and musings on the theme parks between the poets' navels and knees (including which guests have been there, what they left, who hasn't been there, why they were or weren't invited, etc.), social and political explorations that are not simply emotionally charged, but that charge, sway and swell the emotions of the reader.
Every so often an event happens that I hope will awaken the spirit of poetry in this country, and bring poetry to the people that so desperately need it, even if they don't know it. Levine stands as an inspiration for us, as readers and writers of poetry, to do just that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love Phillip Levine's poetry. He actually writes about real working people and not just the interior life of an academic. Here's a nice link that discusses this


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