I was thrilled to read in the NYT a few minutes ago that Philip Levine, the 83-year old Detroit native who held blue collar jobs as a young man, has been chosen by librarian of Congress James Billington as the nation’s next poet laureate. He succeeds W.S. Merwin, who was a pretty lowkey presence in the position as far as I know.
The opening paragraph from Poets.org:
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on January 10, 1928, Philip Levine was formally educated in the Detroit public school system and at Wayne University (now Wayne State University), Michigan’s only urban public research university. After graduation, Levine worked a number of industrial jobs, including the night shift at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory, reading and writing poems in his off hours. In 1953, he studied at the University of Iowa, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, Levine studied with poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman, the latter of which Levine called his “one great mentor.”
And from that same website, an achingly beautiful poem:
by Philip Levine
When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He’s tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.
The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn’t decided
what to become. The traffic light at Linwood
goes from red to green and the trucks start up,
so that when he says, “Would you like to eat?”
she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing,
though spiced with things she cannot believe,
“wooden Jew” and “lucky meat.” He’s been up
late, she thinks, he’s tired of the job, perhaps tired
of their morning meetings, but when he bows
from the waist and holds the door open
for her to enter the diner, and the thick
odor of bacon frying and new potatoes
greets them both, and taking heart she enters
to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke
to the see if “their booth” is available.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no
second acts in America, but he knew neither
this man nor this woman and no one else
like them unless he stayed late at the office
to test his famous one liner, “We keep you clean
Muscatine,” on the woman emptying
his waste basket. Fitzgerald never wrote
with someone present, except for this woman
in a gray uniform whose comings and goings
went unnoticed even on those December evenings
she worked late while the snow fell silently
on the window sills and the new fluorescent lights
blinked on and off. Get back to the two, you say.
Not who ordered poached eggs, who ordered
only toast and coffee, who shared the bacon
with the other, but what became of the two
when this poem ended, whose arms held whom,
who first said “I love you” and truly meant it,
and who misunderstood the words, so longed
for, and yet still so unexpected, and began
suddenly to scream and curse until the waitress
asked them both to leave. The Packard plant closed
years before I left Detroit, the diner was burned
to the ground in ’67, two years before my oldest son
fled to Sweden to escape the American dream.
“And the lovers?” you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?
Why the two are more real than either you or me,
why I never returned to keep them in my life,
how little I now mean to myself or anyone else,
what any of this could mean, where you found
the patience to endure these truths and confessions?