Philip Levine’s Populist Poetics

Philip Levine died on 14 February 2015. Born in Detroit in 1928, he worked in the auto plants by the time he was fourteen. Advanced education altered his life’s course. He graduated from Wayne State, then earned an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1957. He worked a different kind of line after that, teaching writing at CSU-Fresno. As his Poetry Foundation biography states, “Though Levine did not return to live in Detroit, its people and economy would remain central concerns of his poetry.” His focus on Motor City sentiments caused him to be received, in the words of Ed Hirsch, as an “ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.”

In an “appraisal” to accompany Levine’s obituary in the New York Times, Dwight Garner identifies the poetics that contribute to Hirsch’s summation. According to Garner, Levine’s contribution to his craft lay in his ability to write “short lines” that are “instantly identifiable” and posses “a muscular and deceptively simple sense of subterranean rhythm.” Put these observations together, you get the Levine we now remember: the writer of a democratic (Whitmanian) poetry for the Fordist Era. He conveyed the “people and economy” of Fordism in a style that was easy to understand: a rugged, working-class style, undermined (“subterranean”) or ironized by its rhythms.

So phrased, this view of Levine’s poetry misses its target somewhat. Garner’s essay, the Times obituary, and similar reminiscences mis-characterize some aspects of Levine’s work. Wordsworth and Williams, not Whitman, provide better models for his poetry. Its true that Levine’s rhythms are subtle and effective, but not because they undermine his proletarian machismo. His best moments are hardly ironic. On the contrary, Levine was often earnest to a fault. Much of his verse is hobbled by a too-sly humility. But just as frequently, his fidelity to traditional rhythms and the American idiom contributes to a welcome sincerity. I think it would be better to remember Levine as a kind of Motor City Romantic; a postmodern (post Williams) Wordsworth. He used modernist poetic techniques well, but his is more a Romantic than a Modernist in his efforts to sublimate (rather than objectify) the world he observed. It’s a mistake to think of him as an ironic writer or a realist; I think this view emerges as a kind of shorthand only because his subject matter was industrial. His actual approach is more like Wordsworth’s than Whitman’s. His sincerity does not tend toward an erotic dissolution of bodies, but a sublimation constructed out of objective details, recollected in tranquility.

In a blurb on the back of Levine’s New Selected Poems (1994), Peter Stitt (originally writing in The Georgia Review) gets it more right. He puts Levine in the “tradition of William Carlos Williams–eschewing opera in favor of jazz, the drawing room in favor of the kitchen, the silk-covered cushion in favor of the bus-station bench.” Stitt focuses on Levine’s modernism–his improvisations in the American idiom, his focus on ordinary, working-class settings. I situate this modernist impulse within a larger Romantic tradition; the result is a kind of populist proto-postmodernism.

Levine learned what poetry might be during the late 1940s and 1950s. During these decades, the New Critics stressed innovation within national traditions. They placed modern poems (Eliot, Frost, the Imagists) in the context of the English lyric tradition (Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, etc.). This approach was politicized in the 1950s, when it collided with an anti-modernist, anti-communist backlash perpetuated by some of the nation’s editors. (See Al Filreis’s Counter-revolution of the Word). Cold-War nationalism emerging to smash the modern aesthetics that had been by then appropriated by the Popular Front. In this context, Levine tilted left. As his Poetry Foundation biography has it, “he was fascinated by the events of the Spanish Civil War. . . Levine resolved ‘to find a voice for the voiceless.’”

It’s here that his Romanticism first surfaces. Numerous poems in Lyrical Ballads (1798) attempt to find such a voice. For example, in “The Female Vagrant” Wordsworth lends classical form to the most voiceless of his contemporaries. The woman’s story is her own but revised to accommodate the aesthetic framework dictated by traditional rhyme & meter:

By Derwent’s side my Father’s cottage stood,
(The Woman thus her artless story told)
One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood
Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.
Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:
With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore
My father’s nets, or watched, when from the fold
High o’er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,
A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar. (Lyrical Ballads)

After noting the woman’s artlessness, Wordsworth lends her his own sensibility. He contributes not only his formal sensibility (his rhythms and diction), but his attention and emphasis. What is the rest of this opening stanza but an abbreviation of the first several books of The Prelude? Here are “days in transport roll’d,” “thoughtless joy,” and even a sublime encounter enacted by boat & cliff. There is clearly a democratic politics at work here, but its primarily organized through the choice of subject matter, rather than the text’s formal performance. A similar gesture often opens Levine’s poems, for similar reasons. For example, “These Streets,” in which the story of Ida Bellow is told to the poet by her daughter, conveyed via elegantly crafted tetrameter:

If I told you that the old woman

named Ida Bellow was shot to death

for no more than $5 and that a baby

of eighteen months saw it all from

where she wakened on the same bed

but can’t tell because she can’t speak,

you’d say I was making it up.

Like Wordsworth, he adapts his recollections of intense conversations with politically invisible subjects to his own formal, ‘poetic’ imperatives. Formally, his verse is a little looser; he eschews rhyme & allows numerous substitutions in the meter; but this is metrical verse, not Williams’ free verse or “variable foot.” Nor should it recall Whitman. Here the breath is constrained, not expanded. It is channeled into rhythms more classically exacting than Whitman’s–or Williams’.

Levine’s Romanticism is leavened by two modernist techniques, both of which clearly derive from Williams’ version of imagism. First, whereas Wordsworth immediately summarizes biographical details, Levine, like Williams, tends to focus upon descriptions of the immediate, ordinary material conditions. “These Streets” continues,

If I

took you by the hand and led you down

street after street until we arrived

at a door that seemed no different

from the rest and entered to behold

the flowered coverlet not yet washed

on the single iron bed, the calendar

stopped on the second Sunday in February,

the cluttered three-burner stove, the sink

of cracked dishes, the old wheelchair

Ida used to get around,

In these lines, the Romantic imperative to find a voice for the voiceless is sustained by describing the objective environment. We are presented not with a Whitman-like list of occupations, but an atmosphere grounded in situated particulars, such as one finds in many of the poems Williams wrote in the 1930s. For example, these lines from “View of a Lake”:

Where a

waste of cinders

slopes down to

the railroad and

the lake

stand three children

beside the weed-grown


of a wrecked car

(An Early Martyr and Other Poems, 1935)

Williams’ attention to ordinary materiality helped to guarantee a more general attitude of objectivity. Objective poetry does not eschew sentiment, but insists upon a stronger sense of boundaries between the lyrical subject and the objects of attention. Levine was just sixteen when Williams published The Wedge in 1944. Most of Williams’ introduction to the book concerns making poetry relevant in the face of “The war,” which he regarded as “the first and only thing in the world today.” He aligns himself with the disposed: “Up from the gutter, so to speak. Of necessity.” In this context he defines the poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words.” In a democratic society, poetry would be produced en masse. With a little training, anybody might make one. Williams cast this poetics in an industrial mold:

When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them–without distortion that would mar their exact significances–into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses.

Levine’s best poetry occurs when he understood this; his worst when he cuts too rapidly to the sublime “revelation,” a kind of short-circuit similar to that which Wordsworth performs in the opening lines of “The Female Vagrant.” One of the poems most frequently cited in various obituaries, biographies and reminiscences, “The Fox,” demonstrates Levine at his most Romantic. The poem begins with a baldly stated conceit:

I think I must have lived

once before, not as a man or woman

but as a small, quick fox pursued

through fields of grass & grain

by ladies & gentlemen on horseback.

This is Levine’s (post) anti-modernism; the poem is an idyll, a dream. The fantasy unfolds along elegantly executed trimeter and tetrameter lines. Levine “industrialized” this approach by putting it into a Fordist framework. The fox as Romantic genius easily morphs into a CIO-style celebration of working-class machismo:

My anger is sudden and total,

for I am a man to whom anger

usually comes slowly, spreading

like a fever along my shoulders

and back and turning my stomach

to a stone, but this fox anger

is lyrical and complete, as I stand […]

This is Levine’s populism. It animates the Fordist macho body in a manner similar to Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront (1954). It is not at all ironic; its sincerity is saturated by the fantasy of a coherent self, “lyrical and complete.” The body comes apart in anger, but completes itself in the metaphor; the whole thing is carefully orchestrated, like an opera.

I much prefer the improvisatory, idiomatic, exploratory, objective Levine; the poet who, like Williams or his contemporary Edward Dorn, “knows his place” in relation to the object of his attentions. The best passages of one of Levine’s most consciously imagist poems, “Make It New,” maintain a modernist balance between subjects. The poet and an African-American laborer named Cal spend several days breaking up the curbing along US 24.

“Go slow, man!” but I

was into it. Now, at noon,

we sit under a tree

sharing my lunch.

The poem ends with genuine irony when the poet recollects his young self’s nationalism, here embodied in the gusto with which he applies himself to his task. He works while Cal sleeps; eventually,

a car hisses down the road;

it’s Teddy, the Captain, come

to tell us it’s raining

[. . .]

–we aren’t

ever gonna make Monroe.

The full realization of his embodiment of white supremacy ends the poem (which is also marred by sentimental descriptions of Cal): a fully realized example of white macho New Left countercultural expression. Whitman’s an inevitable predecessor in this context, but only as short-hand. Whitman was optimistic about capitalism’s democratic leveling. He celebrated the arrival of generic man, man in the abstract. Whitman was not wrong; the abstract man could & would produce more abolitionist subjects, queerer subjects. But you won’t understand Levine by reading Whitman.

Of all of Levine’s poems, the best is probably the last one in his New Selected Poems: “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.” His approach to his subject and his idiomatic rhythms recall Williams’ later meditations, such as “To Daphne and Virginia” and “The Host” in The Desert Music (1954). The poem begins with a description of the post-Fordist city:

 Between the freeway

and the gray conning towers

of the ballpark, miles

of mostly vacant lots, once

a neighborhood of small

two-storey wooden houses–

Over sixteen pages, Levine recounts a tour of post-industrial Detroit provided by Tom Jefferson, who he discovers farming among the ruins. They reminisce and ruminate upon a past that somehow led to the present. Strikes and riots are discussed. Tom’s theology is discussed at length; it is grounded in a practical self-reliance. “Making do” is Jefferson’s signature phrase. After the poet walks Tom home, he continues wandering, reflecting on the ignorance he discovers in his own recollections:

We were not

idle hands. Still a kid

when I worked nights

on the milling machines

at Cadillac transmission,

another kid just up

from West Virginia asked me

what was we making,

and I answered, I’m making

2.25 an hour,

don’t know what you’re

making, and he had

to correct me, gently, what was

we making out of

this here metal, and I didn’t know.

The more vulnerable Levine is more interesting. In this poem and several others he receives voicelessness rather than (or while also) giving a voice to his others.

A similar aesthetics can be found in many of Levine’s Black contemporaries. His work should be read in relation to poems by Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki Madhubuti. The mixture of romanticism and modernism, of sentiment and objectivity, is often quite similar. But that will have to wait for a future post.

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