Friday, October 07, 2011

The New American Poet Laureate

Philip Levine has been named the new Poet Laureate of the United States, and will follow W. S. Merwin in the post for 2011-2012. Levine is now eighty years old, and is one of America’s most honored poets. He has won the National Book Award twice, first for What Work Is (in 1991) and earlier for Ashes: Poems Old and New (which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award). In 1995 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The Simple Truth. The library has copies available of The Mercy, What Work Is, The Simple Truth, and Levine’s New Selected Poems of 1991. Levine was on the faculty of California State University Fresno for 30 years. In addition to his poetry, Levine has written a wonderful memoir, The Bread of Time (he signed a copy for me once, and I asked if he would continue his story in a future memoir. I regret that he has not).

Unlike so many of the poets of his generation, Levine did not come from a patrician ivy- league background, but from a working class upbringing in Detroit. Many of his poems draw on that experience, and he has developed a reputation as the poet of the American proletariat. Perhaps his appointment is especially timely in this time of trouble for the working man, in years when so many families are struggling and so many are looking for work and cannot find it. The title poem from What Work Is, reprinted below, is representative of the familial and social concerns of Levine’s poetry.

What Work Is

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.

Forget you. 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 ten places.

You rub your glasses with your fingers,

and of course it's someone else's brother,

narrower across the shoulders than

yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin

that does not hide the stubbornness,

the sad refusal to give in to

rain, to the hours wasted waiting,

to the knowledge that somewhere ahead

a man is waiting who will say, "No,

we're not hiring today," for any

reason he wants. You love your brother,

now suddenly you can hardly stand

the love flooding you for your brother,

who's not beside you or behind or

ahead because he's home trying to

sleep off a miserable night shift

at Cadillac so he can get up

before noon to study his German.

Works eight hours a night so he can sing

Wagner, the opera you hate most,

the worst music ever invented.

How long has it been since you told him

you loved him, held his wide shoulders,

opened your eyes wide and said those words,

and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never

done something so simple, so obvious,

not because you're too young or too dumb,

not because you're jealous or even mean

or incapable of crying in

the presence of another man, no,

just because you don't know what work is.

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