Della and Tatum, Sweet Pea and Packy, Ida and Cal. You met a lot of unpretentious people in Philip Levine’s spare, ironic poems of the industrial heartland. Levine had toiled in auto plants as a young man.
“I saw that the people that I was working with,” he told Detroit Magazine, “were voiceless in a way.”
Levine, 87, died last Sunday at his home in Fresno, Calif. His death is a serious blow for American poetry, in part because he so vividly evoked the drudgery and hardships of working-class life in America, and in part because this didn’t pull his poetry down into brackishness.
He was a shrewd and very funny man. I’m not sure another major American poet could give advice quite like the following, from a poem called “Facts,” collected in Levine’s classic 1991 book “What Work Is”:
If you take a ‘37 Packard grill and split it down
the center and reduce the angle by 18 degrees and reweld it,
you'll have a perfect grill for a Rolls Royce
just in case you ever need a new grill for yours.
Levine was among those poets, and there are not enough of these, whose words you followed even outside their poetry. His interviews, for example, were feasts for the mind. To get back to Della and Tatum, Sweet Pea and Packy, and Ida and Cal for a moment, here is what he told The Paris Review in 1988 about the unpeopling of American poetry:
“Except for the speaker, no one is there. There’s a lot of snow, a moose walks across the field, the trees darken, the sun begins to set, and a window opens. Maybe from a great distance you can see an old woman in a dark shawl carrying an unrecognizable bundle into the gathering gloom.”
When people do appear in poems, Levine added: “Their greatest terror is that they’ll become like their parents and maybe do something dreadful, like furnish the house in knotty pine.” This man was a thoroughbred moral comedian.
The best person you met in Levine’s poems was always, of course, Levine himself. His frequently short lines became instantly identifiable, and they had a muscular and deceptively simple sense of subterranean rhythm. His poem “The Fox” contains this potent observation:
I think I must have lived
Once before, not as a man or woman
But as a small, quick fox pursued
By ladies and gentlemen on horseback.
Levine was born in Detroit, was educated in public schools and went to college at Wayne State in Detroit. He held, he liked to say, a lot of “stupid jobs.” Those stupid jobs informed his sense of the way so many Americans live.
He won most of the big prizes: a Pulitzer, for “The Simple Truth” (1994); two National Book Awards, for “Ashes: Poems New and Old” (1979) and “What Work Is”; and a National Book Critics Circle Award for “Ashes” and for “7 Years From Somewhere” (1979). He was America’s poet laureate in 2011-12.
But he never shed his outsider sensibility, his awareness of class in American life. “I am now a kind of archive of people, places and things that no longer exist,” he said. “I carry them around with me, and if I get them on paper I give them at least some kind of existence.”
That archive of people, places and things informs his poem “1, 1, 2000,” a vivid Levine performance, which begins this way:
In Joe Priskulnick’s darkened kitchen the face
of Jesus appears on a dish towel, but no one’s awake
to bear witness. Next door to the fenced truck yard
behind my father’s grease shop where all time stopped
there’s a hive of activity. You’re thinking
the rats found a wolverine or the guard dogs
caught another kid strung out on crack. You’re thinking
two thousand years passed in the blink of an eye
and changed nothing, the eaters went on eating,
their crazed teeth clicking with delight.
As it happens, there are many crazed teeth clicking with delight in Levine’s poetry. He paid attention to human appetites for love, for sex, for dignity, for words, and frankly for something delicious to snack on late at night. His poem “Salt and Oils” begins, “In Havana in 1948 I ate fried dog/believing it was Peking duck.”
Levine had a shrewd sense of his readership. “I published a lot of my poems in The New Yorker for many years, and I got the idea that my readers were really suburbanites who maybe on the train pick up the magazine, thinking ‘I wonder what I’m going to get for dinner tonight’ — and then they see this poem,” he told The Atlantic Monthly in 1999. “I recognize that these are the hardest people to get — they’re deeply protected, they’ve survived in the zoo of New York, and they’re not going to let a goddamn poem upset their equanimity.”
Levine had a gift for upsetting people’s equanimity. Yet his matter-of-fact poems pushed past blunt force and pat observation. Loss and regret, in his verse, carry tinctures of wildness and joy and sharp intellect.
Come as you are, this important and emotionally committed poet told us. We’ll figure it out together, Sweet Peas, in something like real time.
The sky tires
and turns away without a word.
The pillow beside hers is cold,
the old odor of soap is there.
Her hands are cold. What time is it?
— A Woman Waking