Philip Levine Was a Poet of the Working Class

The late poet laureate Philip Levine gave us a unique and loving set of portraits of the American working class. Six years after his death on Valentine’s Day, let’s mourn his absence and celebrate his work.

Philip Levine was an American poet best known for his poems about working-class Detroit. (Photo by Frances Levine)

On Valentine’s Day 2015, Philip Levine, former poet laureate of the United States and longtime English professor at California State University, Fresno, passed away from pancreatic cancer. The New York Times obituary characterized his work as “vibrantly, angrily and often painfully alive with the sound, smell and sinew of heavy manual labor.”

Levine told Bill Moyers in 2013 that he was cautious about writing from a place of anger, but that the emotion nevertheless informed some of his writing. When Moyers asked Levine what made him most angry, Levine answered plainly: “American capitalism. Its heartlessness. And American racism. The conditions that are imposed upon the poor by the rich . . . you never get over it.”

Moyers asked him if he thought there was “a class war fought against working people” in the United States. “Of course!” came the reply. And the people waging it were “those who live off the labors of those who work.”

Working With Words

Levine’s career lasted for nearly sixty years and produced more than twenty collections of poetry. His work won some of the top accolades in the United States: a Pulitzer Prize (The Simple Truth), a couple of National Book Awards (What Work Is; Ashes: Poems New and Old), and a designation as the nation’s top poet. As a professor, he opened his classes to nonpaying students. His final collection, The Last Shift, came out posthumously in 2016.

Over the expanse of Levine’s life, his choice of subjects and the style with which he treated them was largely unwavering. He focused primarily on the American working class, often in the postwar Midwest. His work was imbued with autobiographical aspects, and on one or more occasions, he made reference to his “gritty Detroit childhood; the soul-numbing factory jobs he held as a youth; Spain, where he lived for some time as an adult; and the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s, a personal passion since he was a boy.”

And yet his politics rarely resulted in didactic or moralizing work. Though poems like “Our Reds” express Marxist ideas, and later essays like Class With No Class display a clear hostility toward the rich, his poetic mode was, generally, journalistic. He recorded the voices and lives of American workers. And in doing so, he afforded them dignity, often connecting their feelings and experiences with the conditions of their labor.

Levine lamented that poetry had become “unpeopled,” and he sought out to correct its course by populating his poems with a tapestry of characters drawn from everyday life. These characters were often, though not always, of working-class background and disposition. Levine gave them a voice.

His focus on regular Americans, however, did not lead to partial portraits or aggrandizement, but instead managed to illustrate “the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit.” His style was often free-form, plain and unadorned.

Its simplicity worked to puncture the heart and throw the injustices of American capitalism into sharp relief. In its ability to capture working-class life, Levine’s poetry — no matter how fixed in time and place it might appear — remains a singular and powerful body of work.

Life in Detroit

Levine himself belonged to the US working class, born in Detroit to Jewish immigrants in 1928. His father passed away when he was five, and by the age of fourteen, he was working in factories to help out at home.

Encouraged by his teachers, he began writing in his teens, although he continued cycling through manual labor jobs, mostly in factories, well into his twenties. He studied at Wayne State University and the University of Iowa — eventually teaching at the latter. Later in life, he took a position at California State in Fresno.

But his early life, in — or maybe against — the workplaces of America, is where most of his poems are situated. In “Sweet Will,” he writes of a man who fell to the

concrete, oily floor
of Detroit Transmission, and we
stepped carefully over him until
he wakened and went back to his press.

Elsewhere, in “By Bus to Fresno,” Levine speaks of

the silent offices
ahead, in the back lots of feed stores,
on the greased floors of emergency
rooms and used tire shops.

And again, from “Burned”:

I have to go back into the forge room
at Chevy where Lonnie still calls
out his commands to Sweet Pea and Packy
and stare into the fire
until my eyes are also fire

Of course, to discuss work thoroughly means also to address the flip side of the coin — unemployment and its corresponding hardships. Levine’s register does not deal in romanticized or idealized portraits of the noble working poor, whose luck may fail once in a while, but who will bounce back with plucky can-do-ism. Unemployment has real consequences: “The drugstore fired your mother /,” he writes in “Letters for the Dead,”

she dried and hardened
the butcher never returned
to beat his soft palms
against the door.

But Levine did not shy away from joy. In the final portion of the sprawling “Winter Words,” Levine describes a “Friday night, after swing shift” at Lake Erie, where “wrapped in rough blankets, barefoot” the poem’s characters watch stars disappear. In a toast to life’s small pleasures, the figures raise their beer cans to the “long seasons to come,” defiantly proclaiming that they “will never die.”

The moment is recognizable — it reads as authentic because the speakers are not removed from the matrix of a life of labor. The beer can salute is a testament to life’s possibilities in spite of the swing shift.

Poetry of Work and Resistance

Not all of Levine’s poems were rooted in his own experiences. He very often would use the raw material of his life to create looser, fictionalized explorations of the travails and triumphs of working people. But “What Work Is,” the eponymous poem in Levine’s award-winning 1991 collection, had a direct source in the poet’s life: a degrading morning spent waiting in a Ford job line. In it, he writes:

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.

In an interview about the poem, Levine told the story of the real-life Ford employment office, where applicants were told to show up around eight in the morning. He arrived on time to find twenty to thirty people already queueing ahead of him.

And we stood there, and stood there, and stood there, and it didn’t open ‘til 10 . . . I thought about it, though — and I thought, this isn’t an accident. They want people who are willing to stand in the rain for two hours to get a job. You’re passing the serf test.

When Levine finally got to the front of the line, the recruiter asked, “What kind of position are you looking for?” The future poet, indignant, hot under the collar with his epiphany, and wet with rain, told him: “I want a job like yours. I’d like to be able to sit behind a desk, and have people come in and say “sir” to me and be nice to me.”

He then walked off to find a job elsewhere.

Levine turned his experience in the job line into a meditation on his love for his brother, who was not in the queue with him because he was

home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.

Levine began working on What Work Is in 1985. The impetus for the collection was a news report about Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man who had been murdered by Ronald Ebens, a plant supervisor at Chrysler, and Michael Nitz, his stepson, an autoworker who had been laid off. The pair had wrongly identified Chin — who was celebrating his bachelor party in Highland Park — as Japanese and beat him to death. At the time, anti-Japanese racism was high among autoworkers due to Japanese automobile imports and the fall in US market share.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Levine said to Moyers. “I mean, I was just so shocked. And I sat down and started writing. And I said something [about Detroit] at the top of the page that I can’t repeat on television.”

Racial tension was not a new topic for Levine, who had written on the subject twenty years earlier — against the backdrop of the 1967 Detroit riots and the Vietnam War — in the poem “They Feed They Lion.” As he told PBS News:

It is the most potent expression of rage I have written, rage at my government for the two racial wars we were then fighting, one in the heart of our cities against our urban poor, the other in Asia against a people determined to decide their own fate.

With each stanza slowly intensifying, the poem argues for the inevitability of a successful black resistance to American racism. Levine felt that black Americans, having survived all that had been thrown at them, wielded an “awesome” power that would secure racism’s defeat.

From “Bow Down” come “Rise Up,”
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They lion grow.

Finding Levine Today

As poet laureate, Levine once read for the AFL-CIO, commenting beforehand that, while his life in factories was tough, when he “became a union worker, things were a hell of a lot better.” Sadly, Levine passed in 2015, two months before Bernie Sanders officially announced his candidacy to lead the Democratic Party, as a democratic socialist, in the 2016 election.

The Sanders campaign and the movement behind him — both in 2016 and in 2020— undoubtedly reshaped the US political terrain. In the United States and beyond, the Left has been reenergized. It is a shame that Levine isn’t here to experience and interpret the present moment.

But his work contributed, in its way, to building the road that brought us here. In his insistent storytelling of the day-to-day brutalities of labor and the lives of US workers, he ensured their voices appeared in the poetic record for almost fifty years.

Philip Levine lives on in his poems. And they will remain a store of energy and meaning from which people can draw. Work, as Levine once described it, is what work still is for so many: the recruiter, seated at their desk, seeing how long you’ll wait in the rain; the worker collapsed on the floor as coworkers walk around them; the swing shift; the bus home.