I first read Philip Levine’s poetry in a creative writing workshop I took as a community college student in the fall of 1992. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to write a generation-defining book, something like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises meets Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I had no idea how to write poetry, and I cared little for it. In the creative writing class, we had to write poems, and my first effort is laughably forgettable. I don’t have a copy of the piece (thank God), but I do remember that it was about a rainstorm caused by Odin working at his forge (I don’t think Odin even has a forge). I had a vague idea that poetry was supposed to be about big, epic things like gods and storms and mythology.
My teacher, Lynn Wallace (a Gulf Coast writer whose work I still admire) passed out copy of Philip Levine’s “What Work Is” one night in class. I didn’t know anything about Levine, and I had no real idea about how to respond to poetry. Growing up in the bayous of North Florida, I didn’t read much poetry, save what was taught in school: Beowulf, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the occasional piece by Poe. We read the poem aloud, talked about it, a bit, and moved on. I spent the next few years in college, trying to learn how to write and trying to write a novel.
I encountered Levine’s poetry again in graduate school. I’d taken a few poetry workshops along the way, and I had begun to think of myself as a poet. I was drawn to the Beats, to Arthur Rimbaud, to T.S. Eliot, and a host of other writers whose work I considered “nonconformist” (a word I treated like a mantra back then). My graduate thesis was going to be a book of poems, but I didn’t read a lot of contemporary poetry. My thesis adviser, Laurie O’Brien, regularly berated me for my lack of knowledge about contemporary poetry, telling me rightly that if I didn’t read any contemporary poetry, I didn’t have a heck of a lot business writing it. How could I expect readers if I didn’t read anyone else’s work? So, one night, while my then-girlfriend and now wife, Heather, were browsing at the Pensacola Barnes and Noble, I picked up a copy of Philip Levine’s New Selected Poems, a book I took from the shelf only because I remembered Lynn Wallace’s workshop.
I distinctly remember being simultaneously entranced and excited by Levine’s work. It wasn’t his diction (a plain-spoken line I’d never seen) nor his images (beautifully drawn and accurate) that drew me in. Instead, I was taken with his subject matter: working-class people in the factories of Detroit, where Levine came of age and later worked. The realization that I could write about my life, too, now seems facile. Of course poets write about their lives. But I’d never encountered a poetry so honest about defeat and regret. Only later did I read Whitman and discover where Levine drew his epigraphy for “Silent in America”: “Vivas for those who have failed.” I’d never written a poem about bagging groceries at the Piggly Wiggly, where I worked throughout high school. I’d never written about unloading a produce truck at 6:00 a.m., the work I did in junior college. I’d never written about working the midnight shift at a coastal convenience store. I’d never written about flipping burgers at Hardee’s (my first job). In a very real way, Philip Levine’s poetry gave me permission to write about those things. Gone were my Beatnik fantasies. I didn’t need to live some life on the road to write poems. I had a life worthy of poetry. Or, in another way, maybe I began to write poetry that made me see that life as worthy.
I began writing poems that imitated his plain-spoke, narrative style. I tracked down most of his books, going so far as to order copies from Subterranean Books, a local Pensacola used book store. I even wrote Levine a letter and enclosed some of my own work. Graciously, he responded and gave me some advice about my writing. He invited me to write back, and I regret that I never did. I was too much in awe of my poetic idol; I didn’t know what I’d say. But, now, I continue to write poems filled with the images of my coming-of-age on Florida’s Gulf Coast: the dead-end mill towns, the shrimp trawlers, the limestone church parking lots, the boys with mosquito bites scarring their legs, the gray-faced men and women who pull 12-hours shifts working demeaning jobs. All of these images are now politically-charged, but when I first began writing these poems, I wasn’t trying to make any statements about the working class. I merely wanted to explore what I knew. I discovered that what I thought I knew opened the door to the unknown, a lyrical terrain that still sustains me.
All of which is to say I couldn’t be more happy that Philip Levine has been named our nation’s poet laureate. His is a gritty, honest poetry, accessible and true-to-life, all traits that has caused some to dismiss him. Others like me, however, find a home in Levine’s work. His voice is the voice of my father, telling me that it’s time to get up and go throw papers at 1:00 a.m.; his voice is the paper mill whistle sounding at 11:00 p.m.; his voices is the south breeze off the Gulf of Mexico, a salted wind that cuts and soothes.
O for a muse of fire,